Friday, November 14, 2014

Pierre Huyghe, In. Border. Deep @ Hauser and Wirth, Saville Row

Installation View of In. Border. Deep @ Hauser and Wirth
The Pierre Huyghe exhibition at Hauser and Wirth’s London galleries, In.Border.Deep, was fascinating. The gallery which feels enormous thanks to very high ceilings was blackened out, and on entering, I was overwhelmed by a sense of foreboding. The sounds of what could have been a broken machine, or a madman intermittently hitting a steel post, infused the air with an ominous mood. As often happens in such exhibitions where there is a saturation of visual, or in this case, the erasure of the visual, and aural stimulation, I didn’t know where to begin. I was also captivated by one of the gallery attendants watering a huge sculpture, or cast, which had grown moss over its body. Standing there, watching her, looking for orientation, I wondered what I had entered.

Pierre Huyghe, La dérasion, 2014
There was something very human about the care being taken to feed the headless statue, in this otherwise cold, dark environment in which intermittent industrial sounds cut through the air. Apparently (and I missed this) the sculpture contains an internal heating system that mirrors the human circulatory system, enabling it to grow moss. Similarly, I read later that the sculpture’s body temperature can be felt by the visitor. I was so taken by the care with which the moss was being nurtured that I didn’t spend much time with the statue itself.

Pierre Huyghe, La déraison, 2014
Pierre Huyghe, Nymphéas Trasnsplant, Live pond ecosystem, 2014
This fascination for living bodies, and creatures pervades the whole exhibition. The living habitats of Monet’s geo-engineered ponds in Giverny from 1893 and the subject matter of his famous Nymphéas paintings, had been transplanted into three fishtanks. Apparently, the lighting system for the tanks was determined by the weather at Giverny in the years when Monet painted the Nymphéas. These pieces represent an extremely complex ecosystem that pushed the tanks into the realm of conceptual art. Because they were covered in switchable glass, the water looked murky, and coloured, as though the grime had built up in the tank over months of not being cleaned, but lived in. It was as though each tank contained a science-fiction experiment gone wrong. And yet, it was quite the opposite: independent living organisms from the past, continually reminding us of the uncertain future arising out of the clash between nature and technology.

Pierre Huyghe, Human Mask, 2014.
Pierre Huyghe, Human Mask, 2014
Behind a partition was another apocalyptic piece: a film titled Human Mask in which a monkey wears a mask and clothes to assume the persona of a young girl working as a waitress in a restaurant. The film opens with footage of a deserted Fukushima in 2011, so from the beginning we know this will not end well.  It’s an experimental film that never lets us look for long at the monkey, but as the monkey starts to show repetitive behaviors, solitary circuits of the enclosed space of the kitchen, serving guests that are not there, picks at her hands, we start to empathize with her. I found myself becoming angry at whoever had put her in this environment. The sound of a tap dripping onto a plastic container is isolated and magnified to sound mechanical. Maggots are found inside the container, and the monkey’s world becomes frightening, enclosed, and we see her as a victim. At one point she sits before a wall with a painted scene, curtained windows behind her which seem to cover an artificial light. Like the fishtanks, the space that should be nourishing (the restaurant) and life-giving reeks of death, disease, apocalypse.

Pierre Huyghe, Human Mask, 2014
 Framed by Huyghe’s clean aesthetic images and sculptures, these creatures inhabit worlds that turn into horror movies. Like the mixing of sounds to make them abstract, the spaces are no more real than those we imagine. He is creating individual works, that straddle interesting fences and break many rules, both those art is expected to follow, and the moral an ethical rules of the world we inhabit. My only disappointment was that I hadn’t seen his exhibition at the Pompidou Centre last winter. 

Images Copyright the artist/Hauser and Wirth

Monday, November 10, 2014

Gerhard Richter in Marian Goodman's Gallery. On Golden Square, London

Strip, 2013
Gerhard Richter, Strip 930-1, 2013

Marian Goodman has finally opened an exhibition space in London. It is stunning. In an old industrial space on Golden Square in Soho, it’s grand, spacious and on the evening I visited, was filled with London’s misty late autumn light. Anyone who thinks they have seen enough Gerhard Richter paintings, will still want to visit gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Gerhard Richter, if for no other reason than to be inside this inspiring new space. And anyone – like me – who thinks they have already seen the Richter works needs to see them here on display at Marian Goodman. Because their inhabitation of the superb new space makes it like seeing them for the first time.
7 Panes of Glass (House of Cards), 2013
Gerhard Richter, 7 Panes of Glass (House of Cards), 2013
House of Cards is perhaps Richter’s most baroque, and simultaneously, futuristic piece of art. It is filled with distortions, reflections, fragility and a monumentality that dissolves as soon as we are absorbed into the piece through our reflection on the glass faces. In typical Richter contradiction, the glass sheets remind us both of Richard Serra’s precariously placed steel plates and, of Richter’s own accord, the ice flows of Casper David Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (1823-24). They are both fragile and intransigent, continually shifting and incomprehensible. Filled with the reflection of neon lights, other paintings, and the visitors who try to make sense of the House of Cards, the glass sheets are mesmerizing.

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Gerhard Richter, Doppelgrau, 2014
A series of four Doppelgrau, 2014 works are Richter’s most recent pieces in the exhibition. Paint and glass come to belong together to create diptychs. While Richter has fused paint and glass together for years, Doppelgrau introduce something new to his oeuvre. They go back to grey, an intensity of and serious focus on grey that has not been seen since the Eight Grey were presented at the Deutsche Guggenheim in 2002. And like those works, we question the status of Doppelgrau. Are they sculpture? Paintings? Architectural? Is it important to distinguish the two different greys? Or even, what shade of grey is actually used? And what is the reference to art history? They are diptychs afterall. Unlike painting as we know it, the Doppelgrau works encourage us not to look. We are distracted by the reflection of other paintings, and beyond their existence on the wall of the gallery, there is nothing to look at. I was left with more questions than answers for Doppelgrau.

Installation view Image
Gerhard Richter, Installation View at Marian Goodman on Golden Square
Upstairs, under the iron and glass windows of the old factory ceiling, a series of Strip paintings from 2012 and 2013 fill the walls. Here, Richter’s painting has become clean, cold, and finite – but then, of course, as usual, these examples are simultaneously, none of these. The lines extend forever off the side of the image. I was enthralled to find – especially with the ten metre long versions – the velocity of the works. Up close, there is nothing to see, nothing to contemplate, and so, I walked the length of the painting, to find it had me racing, moving at a high and intense speed. There was nothing finite or cold about it. I can’t describe the logic behind the speed of physical movement they encourage, even demand. I just noticed that they had this effect. And yet, in the middle of the room, away from their influence, I felt as though I was standing in a cathedral built for the Strip paintings. Light pours through the windows, and without me up close, the paintings are left with each other, creating a perfection that makes them holy. They sit there in this magnificent space, together in complete silence.

Installation view Image
Gerhard Richter, Strip 930-2, 2013
Installation View
The Strip paintings are like landscapes, horizontal, and infused with the familiar Richter elusiveness. I wonder if they are so different from the fifty years of paintings that precede them. They may have lost the luscious, tactile oil paint of the overpainted photographs, but the sensuousness has only been transformed, it is not erased. It is no longer found on the surface, in the paint, but it can be found in the unpredictability of the interaction, between the movement, placement of the viewer and the paintings themselves. As Richter gets older, his work becomes increasingly conceptual. There is nothing to do but walk along the length of the Strip paintings, because they are all but impossible to look at. Their movement, their psychedelic colours hurt the eye with optical illusions. Here the image has all but disappeared. So we have reached this place where not only is there nothing to see, but like the cinema, Richter's image no longer exists an object. Painting has become transparent, translucent and not even a surface. Or at least, when it is a surface, it is simultaneously violated as a surface. 

Installation view Image
Gerhard Richter, Flow 933-4, 2013 and Flow 933-3, 2013
Installation View
The paintings I find least appealing are also those that seem to capture all that Richter's work is about: the Flow paintings are about being in process. In these paintings, the unexpected here arises out of and in the narrative unfolding – Flow captures that invisible moment that can’t be touched. It is the randomness of the moment that Richter decides to stop. And this is the moment that he gives to us in a painting, a moment that is always elusive, always in the process of becoming something that we can never touch, and in his most recent works, can no longer see. 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Niki de Saint Phalle, Grand Palais

Niki de Saint Phalle, Exhibition View @ Grand Palais
All I really knew of Niki de Saint Phalle’s work before going to the Grand Palais last night was the fountain installation on the south plaza of the Pompidou Centre. Given the apparent frivolity of the fountain, I was surprised by the complexity and boldness that I discovered in her work on exhibition, especially given that it was made prior to the waves of 1970s feminism. Similarly, I was surprised by the fact that the work still holds its conceptual challenges all these years later. In many ways, I discovered a conceptual artist as opposed to the visual artist I was expecting.

niki3 2
Niki de Saint Phalle, Une Nana
At the same time however, and this is her innovation, there was much joy and celebration in the sculptures especially. So much of the feminist art of this first generation is angry (and there’s good reason why) confrontational, loud and vociferous. Niki de Saint Phalle’s work is all of that, but it has another layer which she very consciously crafts: the beautiful. The Tir works are exemplary and extraordinary in this sense. Carefully sculpted pieces, adorned with, among other objects, bags of coloured paint, then covered by plaster surface are fired at from a distance. Saint Phalle aims where she knows the bags of coloured paint to be and what results are works most striking for their coloured tears of paint. The many layers of each piece create a complex narrative of violence, creativity, anger and grief. What is fired at is always as important as Saint Phalle’s performance of shooting. Her targets are the art world, centuries of art, culture, history, the United States government, her father, Kennedy and Khruschev. Just the apparently simple act of this petite, former model holding a gun cocked to fire speaks the empowerment of women to take a stance against the injustices in a world created by men, the same world that lies within the frame of her target.

Nike de Saint Phalle, Tir
I also loved seeing all the men going around, equally delighted by the joy and celebration of woman and women in Saint Phalle’s sculptures, clearly moved by her power as a woman with a voice. As babies are born and brides left faceless and abandoned, women strangled and suffocated, their bodies distorted, their clothes covered in hatchets and meat cleavers, toy guns and limbs of baby dolls, the men visiting the exhibition seemed to be as held by the sculptures as their girlfriends. However, I did wonder if they were equally confronted and outraged as I was by these disturbing sculptures of oversized women defined by marriage and childbirth gone wrong. Even as the oversized nanas, all bosoms and butts, danced and stood in their power, I wondered if all the visitors were as enraged and excited by a grotesquerie that also defines their power as I was? Black women and white, small and large, all of them distorted were refreshing and inspiring as I remember how many artists in this wave of feminism still to come, fought patriarchy with their perfect bodies. It is indeed, the contradictions of Saint Phalle’s women that make them both accessible and enjoyable as well as frightening and critically outspoken.

Sadly, I am not so convinced that the story has changed so much today, and I kept thinking how relevant everything Saint Phalle says is for today’s audience. I wish we had such an artist in our generation encouraging women to take ownership of the public sphere like she did. If there are strains of Saint Phalle’s ideas that are now old, it’s only because today the issues have migrated and a different language is used to articulate them. It’s these commonalities between then and now, I believe, that ensures the sculptures retain their force.