Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Dau

Dau Visa Centre on the Place
I had absolutely no idea of what awaited me in Dau. Having visited the website multiple times, I knew that it was a multi-media installation, involving a number of fiction films, video installations, documentaries, art work and so on. I knew that it was “an experiment” in which people from various walks of life participated over a number of years. I knew that the set was built in Kharkov in the Ukraine, and that whatever awaited me was going to be something like a psychological study of isolation and what happens when people are thrust together in a small living space for a period of time. I knew that the première in Berlin at the Film Festival was cancelled when the organizers realized the enormity of the project. I had also seen a few clips of some of the films, but how and where they fit into the larger project, I had no idea. I knew that Paris was the first lucky city to house the event after years of anticipation. Lastly, I knew Dau was going to be monumental—in every sense of the word—because it had overtaken the two theatres either side of the Place du Châtelet. Given all this, plus the ambiguity of the publicity around Dau, I knew I had to go. It turned out that nothing could have prepared me for Dau, least of all, time in the Soviet Union. 
Dau poster at Théâtre de la Ville
Rather than buying a ticket, visitors are required to buy a visa on line at least two hours in advance. Why? It wasn’t clear until I arrived at Place du Châtelet, as instructed, 30 minutes prior to my chosen entry time. I picked up a visa that looked almost identical to my carte de séjour. I then headed to the under renovation Théâtre de la Ville for two rounds of security at the entrance. Both the Théâtre de la Ville and Théâtre Châtelet have been taken over by Dau for three weeks of their renovation period. While neither space bore much resemblance to my memories of Soviet Russia, they had been refitted to something unlike any other spaces on the contemporary Paris cultural landscape. The easiest reference for both is Berlin’s Tacheles with a 21st century Paris twist. The spaces on each floor, the stairways, and the theatres have been transformed to have an “under construction” appearance. Each space within both buildings has been given a name that in some way reflects the work on display there—Communism, Animal, Body, Intimacy, Addiction, Ambition, Orgasm, Compliance, Ideology, and the list goes on. To be sure, nothing resembled the Soviet Union.
 
Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Dau, 2019
I settled on buying a six hour visa and stayed for eight hours. Despite the intensity and confrontation of the images, and the serious challenge of being immersed in the fabricated environment of Soviet Russia, the eight hours slipped by without me noticing the time. Indeed, because no electronic devices, including telephones, were allowed into the buildings, time took on a wholly different character. Mostly, it became incidental.

Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Dau, 2019
On arrival at the Théâtre de la Ville, I headed straight upstairs to ANIMAL where a film was about to start. I noticed lines to get into various other spaces, but the cinema was nearly empty. People filtered in once the film began and, to my surprise, got up and left pretty soon afterwards. My first film was Dau 11, set for much of the time in the Institute Cafeteria. It’s true that it was slow and, in the beginning, reminded me of watching Jeanne Dielman. But as the film wore on, I realized it was a very carefully constructed, unfolding narrative, moving towards a violent and extremely difficult to watch ending. In this and the other two films I saw, there was a prominence of excruciating violence—think of a man taking a sledge hammer to his fellows and lovers—excessive drinking, painful psychological manipulation, unredacted sex, including rape. Dau 11 builds up to a scene in which a KGB officer (or lackey, it’s difficult to know which) forces a woman to put a cognac bottle in her vagina. In another film, a young woman in a glass cage begins to imitate the distress of a monkey captured in an adjacent glass cage, and in another, a man butchers his lover among others. In one of the daily rushes there is a scene in which Dau, the physicist after whose biography the whole project is named, forces two women to have sex while he watches and teases in something like a sado-masochistic torture. When I say sex, violence and manipulation, I am not talking about shots of someone’s upper body performing sexual intercourse. No detail is spared. Yes, for example, after watching her painful undressing, we see the woman put the cognac bottle into her vagina and the officer subsequently pushing it in and out. Each of the films I watched contained similarly disturbing and confrontational images that I have not yet forgotten.
 
Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Dau, 2019
The placing of the body under extreme stress, whether it be naked women being physically and psychologically tortured, or men being pushed to limits through physical exercise, was the films’ representation of the misogyny and sadism of the communist regime. I’m pretty sure that walking into the film, staying for 30 minutes, and leaving to enjoy a vodka at the bar, would not have produced the harrowing experience that I had. So, (un)like life in the USSR, Dau offers different opportunities to different visitors.
 
A room in COMMUNISM
The spaces I enjoyed the most (given that I didn't exactly "enjoy" the films) were those in Théâtre de la Ville identified as COMMUNISM. A series of small rooms underneath the cuppola were staged as those of ordinary people in the Soviet regime. There was an abacus in every room, period clothes and shoes, photographs, newspapers from back in the day, sewing machines, tablecloths and ornaments. I wandered through these rooms around 1am and they were filled with people, young and old, sitting around talking, arguing, playing chess and smoking. These were the only spaces in the whole complex that reminded me of the Soviet Union. There was also the odd person asleep on the mattresses, others washing clothes and stringing them up on lines across the rooms, and many drinking vodka. Who knew life without cell phones could be so engaging!

Daily rushes from the five years of filming can be seen on monitors in HISTORY
Another thing I loved about the absence of cell phones was that in the breaks between films, as well as when looking at video installations on the stairs, or simply wandering around, there was always a feeling of community. Sitting in the screening space waiting for the next film to begin, people started up conversations, wanting to discuss the film we had just seen, talking about the difficulty of watching the daily rushes (on monitors in single occupancy cabins downstairs in HISTORY), engaging in general chit chat like we used to in our pre-Apple lives.
 
Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Dau, 2019
For people not interested in the films—though I do think that the event is going to be of most interest to film people—there were concerts and performances in other spaces. In the FUTURE, I saw a technical music concert with synthesizers. People lay on a sunken sand-covered ground with their heads under a strobe lights, flickering to the beat of the music. It was something that I imagine would be best experienced stoned. For the audience, a giant mirror began at the back of the “staged area” and tilted upwards to the front, high above. We sat on raked concrete stairs in the round, feeling the beat of the music and watching the people, the flashing lights and the lights of the synthesizer in mirrored reflection.  
 
Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Dau, 2019
In the cafeteria
Other than the films, videos in unlikely nooks and crannies, period Soviet artworks from the Pompidou, and a sound design, extended from the films, reverberating throughout the whole building, it was also possible to go shopping. Dau merchandise, such as postcards, note pads, unmarked tinned food, industrial gloves and jackets—none of which I ever saw on the shelves in the Soviet Union—could be purchased at Paris 2019 prices. And of course, food and drinks were on sale at the bar, both of which were more authentically Soviet than the merchandise: goulash-looking stews for 2€ and cheap vodka in tin mugs for the Paris proletariat.

All in all, it was an intense and fascinating 8 hours. However, as a film watcher and lover, I admit, Dau was challenging on many different levels. Will I go back? Probably not, but only because I don’t have the time. For all the confrontation of the experience, even though the films were chilling, they also have an authenticity that makes them compelling and, as films, they were at times very beautiful. In fact, I am very much looking forward to their full theatrical release.

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Les Nadars - Un siècle de photographie @ Biblithèque nationale de France

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Félix Nadar, Self-Portrait, 1865

Les Nadars exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale Mittérand is wonderful for its evocation of an era. I am slightly—okay, very—fascinated by this period of French history in particular thanks to its inventions and changes that led to the birth of cinema. Understandably, then for me it was a treat, not only to see the development of the medium of photography from the 1850s through to the 20th century, but to see the cultural who’s who and their haunts of the late nineteenth century in Nadar’s images. Like all the inventors of still and moving photographic images, Felix Nadar didn’t just take photographs, he built a whole world around him. Our contemporary idea of the photographer who goes out into the world and takes photos could not be further from the métier of early inventors such as Nadar. He was an entrepreneur, an engineer, a performer, a salesman, a caricaturist, and he managed to pull everyone in his life into the business. Nadar’s wife, brother, friends and eventually his son, were all central to the development of the Nadar name.
Félix Nadar, Charles Baudelaire, 1855
There is a danger that we might look at Nadar’s photographs and see them as conservative portraits of the cultural radicals of the period. His photographs of Baudelaire, Sarah Bernhardt, Mallarmé and others are well known and their reproductions are still in circulation today as most quoted portraits. But a closer look at the portraits in exhibition reveals how involved Nadar was in the use of the photographic image for the creation of star culture. The display text quotes Félix Nadar claiming that there is an intimacy in the images. However, I wouldn’t call it intimacy so much as an immediacy that results from the photographic process. Indeed, there is an immediacy that would have been totally unimaginable before this moment, an immediacy interpreted as intimacy in the portraits’ capture of a fleeting moment in time. For example, a portrait of Alexandre Dumas shows him laughing, caught in an instant, in a posture that would never have been reproduced in a painting. But this doesn’t make it intimate, especially given the emphasis on performance that is clearly alive in this and other images.
Nadar, Victor Hugo on his deathbed, 1875
Others show the sitter posing and performing for the camera, and still other photographs are very carefully staged. For example, Eugène Delacroix sits still and has a very stiff posture in an image that does the very opposite of give away anything of the man’s inner life.  Perhaps in the mid-nineteenth century the portraits expressed intimacy, but through today’s eyes, they are all about a nineteenth-century realism that was the basis of the developing medium. It is a realism that finds its fullest articulation in Nadar’s photographs.

Félix Nadar, Marie Laurent de dos, c. 1856

As the century wears on, and as we move around the exhibition, the photographs show Nadar’s increasing expertise with the manipulation of light. Until the point where Victor Hugo on his deathbed is the most exquisite example of an image crafted through light. Every hair on the corpse’s beard is shot with a clarity given it by the refined and skillful use of a fill light. It is as though the old man is brought back to life by the medium of photography. That said, his use of the medium as an artform begins early on. For example, we think of the radicality of a portrait shot of the sitter from behind, and here in 1856, in the photograph of Marie Laurent de dos, Nadar shoots the most exquisite portrait showing the woman’s bare upper back and neck. It is erotic, suggestive and beautiful.

Nadar Studio @ 35 Boulevard des Capucines, 

Also, on exhibition are the photographs of Nadar’s studios on the Boulevard des Capucines and in the rue d’Anjou, locations that are in the centre of the literary and artistic world of nineteenth-century Paris. The multi-storey atelier at 35 boulevard des Capucines shot from both inside and out is a whole world of discovery and possibility, filled with exotic plants, props, people and stages. Similarly, his early hot air balloons enabling previously unimaginable bird’s eye views over Paris are a discovery for anyone interested in the period. We see his fascination for science, medicine, hot air balloons and railways—Nadar using the camera to engage with all the miracles of his time.
 
Félix Nadar, Paris, Champ-de-Mars, 1863
Lastly, there are works on display that are treasures in the history of photography in their own way, by his brother and son. Félix Nadar’s son, Paul, in particular, contributed to the developments of the instruments of photography, by producing the apparatus needed to democratize the medium. He designed lighter cameras and less cumbersome processing methods to enable the camera to move outside of the studio and document modern life. But it is Félix Nadar with all his energy, and obvious sense of the importance of his discoveries that steals the show at the BnF.