Friday, February 17, 2017

Michelangelo's Moses, Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli

As I wandered around the San Pietro in Vincoli, one of the few churches built by Michelangelo’s benefactor, Pope Julius II, I wondered what the great Renaissance artist would have thought of the current leaders of the free world. Julius was, afterall, a man to inspire fear and rage in all in his midst. And Julius was obsessed with his own self-importance, making most decisions based on the benefits to his ego. A pope who took more than his name from Julius Ceasar could not have been an easy man to work for. But Julius was also a benefactor of the arts. Whether his investments were motivated by an appreciation of culture or an assuredness in the longevity of his own legacy, it seems of little importance today. Irrespective of wrath, his unethical behavior, financial greed and megalomania, at least Julius gave us some extraordinary works of art.
Julius II
For me, Michelangelo’s Moses who sits at the centre of a very reduced version of what was to be Julius’ tomb in the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli, is one of the great wonders of the western world. Like most great artistic treasures on display in Rome, Moses sits safely behind barriers, in the artificial illumination produced by a tourist euro in the meter. At the end of the day, when the tourists are gone home, and the light comes through the window above and behind him, Moses takes on a steely grey clarity, that has his skin sing in the late afternoon sun for which he was made. Julius lies above him, propped up on an elbow. Even though his figure is somewhat contemplative, it’s as though he had a sudden thought and raised himself up from the dead to deliver one final order. Of course, Michelangelo found him inside the marble alive. As was the custom, in death the pope is given eternal life and salvation on his tomb.
A reproduction of
Domenico Zampieri's The Liberation of St Peter, 
which was destroyed in 1944
However we interpret the image of Julius, it’s Moses beneath him that captures every aspect of our beings. Moses is perfect. Many before me have said this, but it’s true. Standing before him it’s impossible not to be seduced by his beard, the extraordinary detail and clarity of his robes, his arms, and the veins on his arms. This is no ordinary sculpture. Made with the same sweeping beauty as the prophets on the Sistine ceiling, the power of David and the tenderness of the Madonna in the Basilica San Pietro, Moses is heavenly and sensual in the same breath. I know everyone says this, but being with Moses in the flesh, it was as though I was the first to wonder that this perfect being could have emerged from a single rough piece of marble.

Angel of Death

Others have claimed that Moses is a self-portrait, the great artist imbued with heavenly perfection in marble. This claim has been dismissed as often as it is asserted. However, it’s true that Michelangelo’s famous figures always reflect the age that he was when he made them. Certainly, Moses could easily be around 40 years, Michelangelo’s age when he came back to Rome to finish the tomb. Given his own self-aggrandizement, and the placement of Moses emanating and reflecting the light of God in the centre of Julius II’s tomb, Michelangelo wouldn’t appear to acquiesce to the Pope’s rule. That is, if we read these details of the tomb as saying anything about the relationship between the ruler and the ruled. And so, while Julius might be protesting his placement on the tier above in relatively diminished form, Michelangelo’s creation lives on as a force in the imagination long after the one who had authority over the land.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Kader Attia, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016 @ Centre Pompidou

Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
The winner of the 2016 Prix Marcel Duchamp, the most prestigious award for a French or living-in-France artist, Kader Attia, is someone to watch. His multi-media installation Reflecting Memory is on display in the newly expanded Gallery 3, together with work by the other three finalists. The French-Algerian Attia's work stands out from the rest for its provocation, empathy and reach between the languages of art, science, history and politics.
Kader Attia, Installation View, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016

At the centre of the installation is a documentary film, Reflecting on Memory (2016) in which doctors, psychotherapists, a prosthesis engineer, cultural workers, an art historian and a range of other people are interviewed. The interviewees are located across continents, from Lithuania to Paris, to Chicago, each relating their experience and encounter with Phantom Limbs. One health worker tells the story of a patient who complained bitterly of acute pain in his big toe. However, she then asks the off-screen interviewer, what can you say to that when the man's leg has been amputated above the knee? The interviewees discuss the presence and reality of physical sensations that are, in fact, memories of lost limbs. Another therapist tells of a patient who was silent, always. He explains that silence causes anxiety for those who live in its midst, and if the trauma is not worked through and healed, it will be passed on to the next generation: silence means that the children must deal with the "phantom limb," which in this case is a traumatic historical experience they themselves never had.

Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
An African-American professor of theatre from Northwestern University talks of the absence of mourning for slavery in a culture in which slavery still exists. Even if it looks different from pre-Civil War slave labor on cotton farms and Sunday lynchings in town, indeed, even if it is not visible, exploitation and victimization is carried within the contemporary African American body and heart as a memory of their people's treatment by institutions and authorities. All of these different "phantom limbs," serve to create connections between people who might otherwise appear to have nothing in common, people who might not understand the burden of others' trauma. Reflecting on Memory demonstrates that as people we are all in this together and our traumas, whether with individuals or carried by a community, are shared.

Kader Attia, Installation View, Prix Marcel Duchamp 2016

In one of the most powerful interviews, a strikingly beautiful young man talks about his upbringing in France by an Algerian mother. The man tells of his practice as a choir boy, his baptisim, confirmation and so on, as she insisted on his education within the catholic church. For him there was no arabic spoken as a child, clearly as his mother made sure her trauma was not passed onto her son. However, as we know by this point in the film, it's not that simple. As he goes on to explain, the silence of the past must be unearthed and addressed if healing is to happen.

See original image
Kader Attia, Réfléchir la Mémoire, 2016
Perhaps the most powerful few minutes of the film come at the end—because the film is shown on a loop, the revelations may come at the beginning—when we learn that a number of the interviewees are in fact missing a limb. Though the discussion throughout has been about the use of mirrors for the rehabilitation of pain caused by a phantom limb, it came as a complete surprise to me that the people appear to have both legs or arms thanks only to the use of mirrors. In the end when the mirror is removed, and the figures are shown with missing limbs, of course, we look at them differently. But not in the same way that we would if we had not just spent the past 30 minutes learning of the stigmatization and pain endured by the phantom limb. The film shows these are brave and extraordinary warriors against so much more than their physical ghosts: their absent limbs come to symbolize the injuries of slavery, genocide, terrorism and the collective and individual injuries that befall us all. Thus Attia's film dismisses all notions of difference between "us" and the abstract "them" when it comes to suffering and loss. And for that reason alone, Reflecting on Memory makes a powerful statement in a contemporary political climate that would have us believe the very opposite.  

Images from Réfléchir la Mémoire courtesy Lehmann Maupin, and Galerie Krinzinger. Photo Credit Kader Attia @Adago, Paris 2016. 
Installation View images courtesy Centre Pompidou

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Gordon Matta-Clark @ Marian Goodman, 79 rue du Temple

Graffiti Photoglyph
Gordon Matta-Clark, Subway Graffiti
The press release for the Gordon Matta-Clark exhibition at Marian Goodman’s Marais gallery places architecture at the centre of the installations, photos, films and drawings. This conception of his work draws on his education as an architect. However, it’s not the first thought or connection that came to mind as I wandered through this lovely exhibition. I would rather describe them as being about the creativity and energy of destruction, decay, and demolition. Architecture is too rational a categorization for the multi-form, shifting experimental work of Matta-Clark.

Conical Intersect
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975
Seeing the work as it is presented here—clustered around two New York films (Day’s End, 1975 & City Slivers, 1976) and two Paris films (Conical Intersect, 1975, and Sous-Sols de Paris, 1977)— it might better be described as being about transition. In all the work, not just the films, but photographs, drawings, and collages, he is preoccupied with movement and the energy of the ephemeral, the ineffability of process and that which is otherwise not seen. A series of drawings downstairs each have arrows in the middle of the page, as if the general thrust is to keep moving towards the next one, until eventually, we are in another space. In the films we see the emergence of the light, water and life through holes gouged out of walls, floors, structures that are already in a state of demolition and decay.  Matta-Clark makes demolition to be a beautiful thing. In Day’s End, 1975 for example, he intervenes in the remnants of 19th century industrial architecture built on a pier over the Hudson River along Manhattan’s West Side. This project involved both cutting the corrugated metal exterior and carving the ground until eventually sunlight penetrate and flow through the barriers.
See original image
Gordon Matta-Clark, City Slivers, 1976
The works also focus on historical transitions. In a film that witnesses today seems quite devastating but at the time was acceptable enough to be carried through, Matta-Clark’s team hollows out a hole in a wall of the 17th century buildings being demolished to make way for the Centre Pompidou. Through the hole, the construction of the Pompidou is the focus of Conical Intersect, 1975. And once again, this simultaneous destruction and construction comes together with film, sun and light to create a somewhat romantic vision of a modern demolition. This is what would be considered the form of architectural fascination, but to me, it’s more a construction of something hopeful in the wall of a building whose destruction seems like a tragedy today.

Gordon Matta-Clark, Day's End, 1975
Matta-Clark has been quoted to assert that his art is about the absences and interstices, a concept that is captured in City Slivers, a film made to be projected onto the side wall of a building. In it we see the world of New York City pass by in the spaces that have been left by walls that do not meet, the gap made by the avenues carved between skyscrapers as the camera looks up into the light, the view from a window left open. There are also plenty of mirrors, reflections from windows, water, and the masking of the frame by walls, poles and shadows to create slivers of absence. Once again, even as the film is about the non-spaces that can be found and created by film, the magic of reflection on the surface of the film becomes a glorious abstraction that brings presence.
GORDON MATTA-CLARK, CONICAL INTERSECT 1975: incision through two adjacent 17th-century buildings.:
Gordon Matta-Clark, Conical Intersect, 1975
The films are magnificent, and there’s no doubt, Matta-Clark is using film at a time when film is at its most exciting. In the 1970s American film is interacting with the world and the New York City and the camera come together to discover things that neither would know on their own. In particular, here in Matta-Clark’s work we find movement, energy and ephemerality at a time when New York City is also changing and being challenged by the end of industrialization and economic disaster. Along these same lines, though made in a different medium, Marian Goodman also displays some of the subway photographs. Matta-Clark photographs the subway car in black and white and then hand colors his own graffiti, making a historical trajectory between now and then, across the length of a subway car in a series of images that are mounted as a frieze on the wall. And towards the tail end of the subway car, as it moves downtown along the rails, the image becomes blurred, just as it would if it were moving along rails, or in a film. Again, we see movement and energy and a world that never sits still.

Matta Clark’s is compelling work at an historical moment when everything is in flux and we struggle to come to terms with the post-industrial malaise of a post-capitalist world.