Friday, October 19, 2018

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Pittsburgh's Perfect for Runners
My first ever visit to Pittsburgh offered insights into an America that I rarely encounter, and yet, one that we are all too aware lurks around every corner. I was in Pittsburgh the week following the senate hearings for the new Supreme Court Justice. And yet, I found people whose lives could not have been less connected to the drama of their politicians in Washington if they had tried. As a gritty, one time thriving industrial center, Pittsburgh is a city in transition, and with that, displays a growing emphasis of the divisions between rich and poor.
Carrie Furnace from the Homestead
I ventured out to Carrie furnaces and what is left of Homestead where the steel strikes took place in 1892. As is often the case with old blast furnaces and steel mills, they were located outside of the city and weren’t easy to get to. The journey to Rankin on buses and walking through the surrounding areas gave me plenty of opportunity to observe the social results of industrial decline. The American economy may be booming, but for many of the people I encountered, there was no sign of prosperity on the horizon. I asked people sitting on their porches with broken glass in the windows and overgrown gardens for directions to the furnace that it turned out was less than a mile away. They had no idea of what I was talking about. Once there, it was wonderful to see the great things that Rivers of Steel are doing with the mines. Their activities and tours tick the obligatory boxes of both reaching out to the community as well as educating visitors on the history of mining and milling. They run art classes using the materials of Pittsburgh industry – keeping the culture and history of industry alive in the region—have open days, stage concerts, talks, and guided tours. But getting there meant confrontation with the heartbreaking reality of America.

On the other end of the economic scale, Pittsburgh is still dominated by the Titans of Steel and Industry. There’s no mistaking who built the city: Carnegie, Mellon, Heinz, and families such as Rooney and Frick. Their wealth dominates the very skyline of the city, with their names displayed on the buildings, and when they weren’t, it’s clear their success defines them. The magnificent US Steel Tower in Grant Street with its 840 ft of exposed corten steel made at the Homestead works being a case in point. It stands tall and proud, the icon of Pittsburgh’s success. I understand that the family businesses all adhere to a philanthropic mission, but one can’t help noticing their dramatic contrast with the world surrounding the manufacturing plants.
Warhol - in the space between abstract and figurative
I was disappointed by the Warhol museum, perhaps because I have been spoiled by recent exhibitions at the Musée d’art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. I appreciated the crowds on a Sunday afternoon, telling me that the museum was alive and well. But presumably for the interest of the crowds, the exhibition installation was of a certain genre.  It was possible to appreciate his enormous creativity and his neverending curiosity, always ready to experiment in a new medium, to discover new ways of making his point. One thing that I love most about Warhol is how he was a fine artist – some of his photographs and even the paintings have a passion and ethereality that is otherwise antithetical to his renown as the don of mass cultural vision. This side of Warhol’s art is more difficult to identify in what is effectively the fun house atmosphere at the Warhol museum. The emphasis is on Warhol’s work as entertainment with interactive displays, crayons and paper for kids, an opportunity to sit before a camera and enjoy 15 minutes of fame, sit back and watch Empire and Sleep as if they are images on a museum wall, and other such activities. I missed the side of Warhol the artist that is necessarily omitted by the museum’s display.
Otherwise, I loved running along the Allegheney River. The views were amazing and the blue skies always a reminder of what they are not, that is, filled with the fires of the steel mills. Many of the local people I met were delightful, showing what I deemed a nearly mid-western friendliness mixed with east coast open mindedness and worldliness. There were also interesting, experimental art exhibitions with works by young and emerging artists, indicating that Pittsburgh is a city on the move. The cost of living and the available spaces would surely make it an attractive option to the more economically prohibitive New York. That said, Pittsburgh still has a way to go before becoming a cultural capital or artistic mecca. Though it definitely warrants a “watch this space” sticker, I hope that it also strives to grow in the social equality and justice espoused but not always practiced by the most esteemed of its industrialist ancestors.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Kate MccGwire & Mathieu Dufois, Ce monde-ce et l'autre @ la galerie particulière

Kate Mccgwire, Squall, 2017
I was very happy to kick start the season’s gallery visits with this exhibition at my local gallery, la galerie particulière, a joint show of Kate Mccgwire and Mathieu Dufois, Ce monde-ci et l’autre. The juxtaposition of two artists whose work is not obviously connected produces fascinating results, emphasizing the other worldliness in each suggested by the title Ce monde-ci et l’autre. Mathieu Dufois’s work, which I didn’t previously know, is conceptually and visually compelling. Dufois produced the works on view in this exhibition while at a residency in the Vallée Vézère, in the prehistoric world of the Dordogne. Many will know the ancient cave drawings of bison and other bovine animals from Werner Herzog’s 2010 film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams documentary on the miraculously preserved images.
Mathieu Dufois, The Herd 2, 2017
Dufois transfers archival photographic images, usually taken at night, of animals to drawings, and in that transference he claims to be bringing the past to life. While the animals in his images are not the same cave drawings, they do look like ghosts are racing away from lights under which they are visually trapped. The animal forms are like apparitions not meant to be discovered, not meant to be visible, who have accidently stumbled into the light. In other of Dufois’s images, the light looks to be a spotlight that effectively puts them on a stage, and consequently, the animals begin to perform for the camera. The images play with time, representation and the ancient world of the lost, hidden animals. It’s just that they happen to come out at night, happen to be caught by the camera. Dufois talks a lot about questions of memory being triggered by the old images, but if it’s another world at stake here, it is something and somewhere more mysterious and more unreachable than the historical past.
Kate Mccgwire, Swarm, 2018
In contrast, Kate Mccgwire makes sculptures that are so present they are unnerving to the point where they become frightening. That said, I must say, since I was familiar with her feathered forms in glass cabinets, I wasn’t as creeped out as I was the first time I saw them. The titles of her work have the sense of something crawling and shaking on the skin. Swarm, 2018, Squall, 2017, Tremor, 2018 on display here are her familiar feathered compositions and creations that on one level we want to resemble birds, but on another, have no relation to the living flying creatures. The sculptures draw us up close and we admire the pretty patterns of the feathers and then we recoil as, over time, they take on characteristics of being alive. Mccgwire’s works are otherworldly in that they sit somewhere between the sinister and the beautiful, the natural and the man made, the living and the dead. If we look at them for too long, we start to fear they might suddenly burst out of their cabinets and attack us. On a more serious note, her work challenges the way we look, where we stand in relation to a piece of art, and draws attention to our desire to make the unknown knowable.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Laurent Grasso, OttO @ Galerie Perrotin

Laurent Grasso, OttO, 2018

Laurent Grasso’s OttO is a complex and fascinating exhibition that ticks so many of my personal “not to be missed” boxes. The experimental film that gives its title to the exhibition, OttO was filmed in the Australian outback in the region of Ayers Rock and the Olgas on the territory of the Yuendumu aboriginal community. Grasso sent drones and hyperspectral cameras into the air to video the otherwise invisible energy and activities of the earth and its atmosphere. As an Australian, I grew up knowing all about the Aboriginal Songlines that were brought to international renown by Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 novel with that same title. The Songlines are the dream paths that follow the spirits of the earth that, in turn, give life and meaning to Australia's indigenous cultures. Each of these paths has a song that is the language of the Dreamtime, which, when sung brings the aborigines together with the earth, rocks, and vegetation as they wander nomadically across their ancient land. Grasso’s cameras find their own different paths, but still in the spirit of the Songlines.
Laurent Grasso, OttO, 2018
It’s striking to see the desert through Grasso’s drones, to wonder at the energies that are made visible and to think of the 65,000 years of history that are contained in the lines they trace. And perhaps most profound of all is that while we might have wrought havoc on much of the earth’s atmosphere, polluted the seas and built structures that cover over the tens of thousands of years of history secreted by the land, the Australian desert is largely untouched by human manipulation. It is uninhabitable. Deserts like this area of Northern Australia have the last laugh; together with the sea, they are perhaps the only places left where we can still connect to the prehistoric, to the history of time. Give or take the erosion and other time related changes, the desert is surely one of the last places that looks like it did 65,000 years ago. It is also one of the last places on earth where the spirit of the earth can still enter into our beings.

Laurent Grasso, OttO, 2018
Grasso’s film underlines our diminished importance in the face of this land. The activities of the atmosphere and the land, the weather and the skies are unceasing and frenetic; we see flames bursting out of rock crevices, water veins suddenly appearing, and a vast, incomprehensible salt lake (presumably Swanson Lake) appear in the middle of nowhere. This landscape is a phenomenon that undoes any ideas we might have that we will ever fully understood and conquer this world. It is an infinite mystery.
Laurent Grasso, OttO, 2018
The images recorded through the drone show rocks, red earth, and the wild growth of the desert floor. And then in images from the hyperspectral cameras, we see a world in brilliant, glaring colours, filled with spectres and shadows, the secrets of a magnificent landscape revealed for their vibrant and unceasing energy. In among the shapes in gaudy yellows, purples and reds, we see the form of a man in an Akubra hat. He is apparently Otto Jungarrayi, a Waripiri Elder who guided Grasso across the terrain. Otto's figure is fused together with the land and its energy, making visible his place across generations in the weaving of Songlines in the Dreamtime. The booklet given out at the exhibition tells us that Otto has a counterpart: Winfried Otto Schumann (1888-1974) a German physicist who discovered “the low frequency reflecting in between the earth’s surface and the ionosphere and its wavelength coincided with one over the integer of the circumference of the Earth.” In other words, Otto Schumann made a scientific discovery that would eventually lead to Grasso’s visualization of the invisible mysteries that have given substance and meaning to indigenous Australians for thousands of years.

Laurent Grasso, OttO, 2018
Exhibition Installation
Galerie Perrotin
The remainder of the exhibition includes images and objects that support the theme of making visible the invisible energies that surround us in a world we otherwise think we know and command. The physics, electronics and technology that Grasso uses to make his art are sophisticated, and he includes multiple historical, philosophical and artistic references to elevate his works into conceptual sculptures that, nevertheless, can be aesthetically exquisite. His materials of glass, steel, ether, copper, light, wood, stone and even screens, are sumptuous, and they remind us of the textures and reflections, the unseen turns that we overlook in the objects and images on the paths of our daily lives. Grasso’s work is riveting and not to be missed—even for those who are not tied to the Australian outback as a spiritual home.

All images courtesy Galerie Perrotin