Thursday, February 26, 2015

Marlene Dumas: The Image as Burden @ Tate Modern


Marlene Dumas, The Widow, 2013
I didn’t know Marlene Dumas’ fascinating body of work at all. Tate Modern (together with the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Foundation Beyeler, Basel) have staged a wonderful exhibition of her work to bring it to long overdue prominence in Europe. The work is politically challenging, disturbing even, and aesthetically unusual.

The superb exhibition of the works is exemplified by the space given them – their exhibition in the level four galleries makes their discovery over time and through reflection possible. To give one example of why the hanging seems very important to Dumas’ works, the pause between the diptych in room 14 of two versions of The Widow, 2013 both reveals the narrative of Pauline Lumumba as she is led, bare breasted through the streets of Léopoldville, surrounded by clothed men, their faces whited out, following the assassination of her husband by the Katangan authorities. Simultaneously, the two images are hung side by side to demonstrate the repetition of a single event: the leading of Pauline Lumumba through the streets of Léopoldville. And because the second painting is a closeup of the first, it works as a cut that emphasizes the cinematic form of the narrative Dumas represents. Across the cut we see an accompanying shift between public and private experience of Lumumba the wife of the assassinated Prime Minister, and Lumumba the woman grieving her husband’s death. Such a narrative is confronting on so many levels: personally, politically, aesthetically.
Marlene Dumas, For Whom the Bell Tolls, 2008
Dumas’ work is so unique, that it’s difficult to know how to approach it. Paintings, poetry, texts, photographs filled with death, birth, life, violence, advertising and the movies, it doesn’t look like anything I have in my image memory bank. That said I found myself wanting to compare Dumas’ work to that of Luc Tuymans. Compositionally, like Tuymans, Dumas crops faces and bodies, removes the location as context as well as the mass cultural narrative from which the images are usually drawn. Her painting like his, comes as a subtle use of cinematic repetitions, edits, closeups, and spatial configurations. There is no depth to her images, the painting is fast, superficial. This is what makes them of their time, like his, recognizeably drawn from mass culture of the photographic age.

Marlene Dumas, The Painter, 1994
Unlike Tuymans however, her images are all about women, and they are about the woman as an emotional, intimate individual with an interior life. Access to that inner life may be denied, but we recognize the representation of an individual subject, well before we understand the public political face she wears. Tuymans’ figures on the other hand are emotionally distant and placed first in the service of a cultural/political narrative. Even in the paintings of a series such as the Magdelena we recognize Naomi Campbell, Princess Diana and Venus, their representation as a discourse on race, class, fame and fortune, each is more than the painted portrait on which Dumas draws for inspiration. They are vulnerable, exposed, eroticized, and actively confronting the desire of their image.
Marlene Dumas, The White Disease, 1985
Dumas’ vision of the body is fundamentally a woman’s vision of the body: women’s bodies are seen, women are violated, exposed, manipulated, and women confront the eye of the camera. A man could not have painted these images without being accused of pornographic violation. But a man would not want to paint these images because they are always in search of an identity for women, women’s bodies. Even when she paints men's bodies. In the characteristic oscillation between public and private, the women range from the most highly charged of all—film stars and porn stars—through the most famous women in the history of art, to those who should never be seen naked in public: her own daughter.  And on her search for the identity of the woman, Dumas finds death crisis, identity, oppression, the effect of injustice as it has scarred the human body, the body as painting, the painting as body. These recurring concerns make Dumas’ body of work frightening. And I kept thinking that even though she moves to Amsterdam early enough in her life, every time we turn and look at these women’s bodies, we see the racial injustice and violence to the men and women of Dumas’ native South Africa.

Marlene Dumas, Magdalena (Out of Eggs, Out of Business), 1995
What makes Dumas’ work complex is that it is always simultaneously about the identity of painting as well as the identity of women. Dumas questions the status of the female body and at the same time questions the status of the image. Throughout her body of work she consistently makes this parallel enquiry but not through easy equation. She achieves the parallel enquiry through her artistic vocabulary, as well as through the use of the body in many different kinds of images, by male painters, porn stars, stripper,s polaroids of her family, highly political imagery. The body is deformed in and through the use of the watercolour or the paint, use of spray paint that confuses boundaries, the blackened out eyes that continually confront the viewer. There is something grotesque in the portrait images of certain women, there is something grotesque in the repeated desire to represent the bodies of women in images.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

American Sniper, dir. Clint Eastwood, 2015




American Sniper is a nation building piece of propaganda that gives no identity to the Iraqis and has all eyes on a not very well-rounded or even convincing drawn American soldier. This goes without saying. Eastwood has neither the directorial dexterity nor the depth to create convincing complex narratives. Similarly, he does not have enough emotional range to draw a convincingly complex character. Everything I have to say takes the film’s all-too-obvious conservatism as a given. Put another way, what I say about American Sniper should not be read as applause for the film.

If its dodgy politics are obvious, what is less clear to me is whether American Sniper consciously creates potholes that open up to thought provoking arguments, or whether the spaces come as a result of the film’s internal inconsistencies and negligence. Whether consciously or unconsciously, somewhere in its confusion over what it is doing, as a narrative, or perhaps in its attempts to be liberal, American Sniper created the conceptual space for me to reflect on the conviction of America’s involvement in Iraq. I left the theater incredulous about the complete and utter waste of the lives of a whole generation of American men. Whether they come back from war physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically traumatized, or all of the above, these men are maimed for life. It’s not simply that the processes of recovery and integration are not supported in the US. American Sniper reminded me of the inanity of war, and the tragedy of this war in particular.

As the rifles are fired and the bugles sound to mark the military death at the end of the film, I assume I was meant to be moved to allegiance to the flag that covered the coffin. However, instead, I was struck by what makes the war in Iraq worse than that in Vietnam, if that could possibly be. Namely, the propaganda fed the young men, a barely disguised brainwashing, to enlist. American Sniper explains Chris Kyle’s fanaticism on a crazy family that raises him to believe in the difference between foxes, sheep and sheep dogs. Kyle is trained by the family to be the dog who compulsively looks out for the sheep. But we all know that his fanaticism is implanted in him by the United States Army. I have heard other soldiers utter the exact language and lines spoken by Kyle in his zeal to realize the imperative to save America from its enemy. Kyle is indoctrinated to fight the US war in Iraq, for Nation, God and Family, “in that order” as he reminds his wife.

But the most egregious thing about the film is the fact that a whole generation of American men have basically given their lives to the unworked through psychological immaturity of another American: George W Bush. The reason they all ended up there is because young Bush decided he needed to impress his father of his power as a president. George Bush never understood the real weight of power: he didn’t understand that power at its most forceful is having the ability to manipulate and destroy other people’s lives but choosing not to. Instead, he took America to war and effectively killed a generation of American men.


While I am over the moon that American Sniper came nowhere near any Academy Awards—as if this speaks some kind of affirmation of its faults—the question which any thinking viewer of American Sniper will come away asking is: how is this brainwashing, for the appeasement of a single man’s desperate attempt to prove to daddy that he is worth something in this world, different from the culture of the terrorist enemies that are being struck dead all over the West? While it probably tries to represent a very different story, watching American Sniper what I saw was a film about the equation between the war in Iraq and the Islamic fundamentalist retaliation. This won’t be news to anyone, but it might be news to Clint Eastwood.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Jeff Koons. La Rétrospective @ Centre Pompidou, Paris


Jeff Koons Centre Pompidou
Jeff Koons, Gazing ball (Ariadne), 2014
When I met my friend Loren at the entrance to the Koons exhibition last night I promised that I would leave all my preconceptions and judgments at the door. I have never liked Koons’ work. I have always thought of it as predictable, superficial, riding on the wave of the moment and destined for tomorrow’s dustbin. Lucky then that I decided to go with no preconceptions, because I was not only pleasantly surprised, I was delighted. I was thoroughly fascinated from beginning to end of the exhibition, and I think the last time I laughed as much at an exhibition was the JimmyDurham extravaganza a few years ago.

Selfie with Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (magenta), 1994-2000

While I admit that my preconceptions and ignorance about Koons’ work were ill-founded, I do think that seeing it in a single artist retrospective gives the work a depth and a brilliance that a solo piece vying for attention in among works by other artists just doesn’t have. Beginning with plastic flowers and bunnies, hoovers in Perspex boxes, the exhibition goes on to develop through Koons’ extraordinarily varied and increasingly complex oeuvre. It seemed as though with each advance in his career, Koons added layer upon layer to the aesthetic and intellectual resonance of the works.

Jeff Koons Centre Pompidou
Jeff Koons, Inflatable Floewrs, Tall Purple, tall Orange," 1979
That said, even from the beginning, there is a depth and a seriousness to the works: the vacuum cleaners in Perspex boxes, sitting on fluourescent white lights, repeated one after another with obvious reference to Dan Flavin and Donald Judd’s work, had a sophistication to them that I hadn’t previously recognized. The influences of and reference to high art in Koons’ midst are seamlessly merged with an “in your face” discourse on American consumerism and the desire and erotics of the consumable object to make dense, impenetrable, and yet, searingly critical sculptural works. Effectively, high art is just another object to be displayed, salivated over and bought. From the beginning, the many languages of Koons’ art function to throw the work into a dialogue between pop culture, consumerism, advertising, Minimalism, modernism, postmodernism, and the list goes on. The references are never subtle— repeated representations of air, light, display and commodification reach back to Duchamp—but they are always part of a dense layers of intellectual and sensuous significances.
Jeff Koons, Play Doh, 1995-2008
Koons’ understanding of many languages is staggering: American culture, the history of art, kitsch, pornography, the changing role of the artist as celebrity in the 20th century, consumerism, children’s games. Koons is the Renaissance man of postmodernism. Koons works these concerns into an extraordinarily dexterous use of a vast array of media: photography, painting, neon, wood, casting bronze, glass, mirrors, light, chrome, stainless steel, found objects, wood, computer generated images, porcelain – and I am sure I will have forgotten some. And perhaps most surprising is that each material and medium is given a thought provoking treatment. There is nothing trite about this art. Indicative of the complexity of what might otherwise appear superficial, is the equally extraordinary emotional range solicited by the works: we are moved through anger, laughter, shock, sometimes in the same piece. The art is full of surprises. And although there are themes that come up again and again across the oeuvre, the layer upon layer of mirrors and meanings, results in concerns always being seen from a different and a new perspective.

Jeff Koons, Popeye, 2009-2011

We have all seen the balloon dog made of stainless steel. At least, all of us in Paris have because it was on the publicity material for the controversial exhibition in the Palais de Versailles. Up close the dog, and indeed, all the mirrored sculptures of this vein are fascinating. They bring together the incompatible media of balloons and stainless steel. The two could not be more different: the one ephemeral, the other intransigent, the balloon inflatable, the steel so highly polished it becomes a mirrored surface that throws everything back on the spectator through reflection.  Thanks to the curvature and number of the surfaces, the reflections are multiple, evasive, distorted, apparently commenting on the perversions of desire and consumerism.


Jeff Koons, Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988
Stainless steel with all its connotations is made gorgeous, sumptuous, erotic in sculptures that are made of it, paintings that represent it and objects that use it. Like all of Koons works, through such contradictions the objects are made strange, unrecognizeable. A lifeboat made of cast iron, a middle class black family, bigger than life mantelpiece statuettes of Michael Jackson. The contradictions create tensions and neverending questions. At the same time that these figures, or an exquisite glass sculpture that is one of a number of reproductions of the artist having sex with his pornstar wife, make us laugh and ogle and desire, I kept sensing that I was the butt of the joke. There is something about Koons’ sculpture that reminds me of Dame Edna Everage’s wont to make us laugh at the expense of the ordinary men and women, who are in effect, us. Oversized porcelain kitsch sculptures, of the kind that grandma had on her mantelpiece might be funny on display at the Centre Pompidou, but they were held very dear in their original form and size.

Jeff Koons, Rabbit, 1986


In the ultimate layer of irony, Koons himself as an artist, porn star, actor, lover, is the target of the strongest satire. I remember studying Koons in an undergraduate class on postmodernism and I didn’t get it. I guess I needed to be immersed in the world of the satirization of the artist-as-self in order to fully understand the critique of not only self, but the art gallery, the art world, and everyone who enters these social realms. I am not sure that this response is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the laugh Koons has at the world’s expense, but because there’s always another layer behind the obvious and the not so obvious, he doesn’t have all the say in how we interpret his art. And this of course, is what makes it exciting and gives it longevity.


All photographs copyright Frances Guerin