Monday, September 16, 2019

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time @ Guggenheim Bilbao

Richard Serra, The Matter of Time, 1994-2005
In one of the most extraordinary museum displays of sculpture, the Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao permanently houses Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time. The eight monumental torqued spirals span the range of Serra’s steel sculptures as they developed between 1994 and 2005. Walking the sculptural field on the museum’s ground floor, we move through self-standing Corten steel torqued ellipses, highly complex snaking ribbons, ending up inside the torqued toruses. The terracotta patina of the earlier pieces makes their skin warm and inviting from a distance, but often visually unremarkable up close. By the end of our journey through the sculptures we are surrounded by the impressed steel toruses that have not weathered. But it is not their visual appearance that makes these sculptures magnificent. It is true that they deliberately challenge our notions of art and sculpture, of the possibilities of steel as a medium, as well as our preconceptions of how both function in space. But they are not only sculptures to look at; their real challenge comes to our corporeal identities, our sense of stability, and thus, our very notion of ourselves as human beings.
Richard Serra, Torqued Spiral Closed Open Closed Open Closed, 2003-2004
Ironically, however, the museum has an aggressive, visitor un-friendly surveillance policy that, if it were consistently obeyed, would prohibit visitors from experiencing the full effects of the sculptures. If the museum had its way, the sculptures are not to be touched, photographed or interacted with in any way. Potentially, well-behaved visitors would then be left wondering what these steel slabs are meant to be about. Contrary to the Guggenheim’s instructions, Serra’s are works to be touched, caressed, leant on and tantalized with our fingers and toes. The weathering Corten steel is at its most awe-inspiring only when we interact with it, physically, intellectually, and emotionally, all at once.
Richard Serra, Snake, 1994-1997
From the outset, I have to say that everyone’s experience of Richard Serra’s sculptures is unique. Because meaning comes from an ongoing relationship with them, over time,  interpretation depends on how we interact, in what time, at what pace, and how we are feeling on any given day. That said, there is something pure and intense about everyone’s experience of The Matter of Time because it  is in the museum as opposed to out in public space. Thus, there are less variables. If we break the museum’s rules, we will go through a series of unsettling and perhaps disorienting experiences. Walking around the base of the torqued ellipses, as they move from falling in on us to away from us, as we move from being on their inside to being on their outside, we start to feel dizzy and nauseous. Lost inside the spiral, I felt a complete loss of balance and had to steady myself by reaching out to touch the side of the sculpture. And then, ready to start walking again, I felt protected by its steel walls. That is, until they changed direction, as in bent away rather than in on me. And then, shortly after regaining my balance, I felt vulnerable and challenged by their unpredictability. I became insecure thanks to their inability to sit still, to be reliable as a wall to lean on, the limit of a path to guide, or a dead end to stop my motion. And so, already, inside the first piece, I found myself in a tussle with it, seduced into a game of cat and mouse; moving, following, I got comfortable and the steel spirals de-stabilized me, threw me into disorientation.

I had never experienced the ribbons before—in fact, I am not sure that Serra has ever made other ribbons—and was skeptical that they would produce any effect. Nevertheless, I dutifully followed the passageway given me by the first ribbon, slowly bending with its curves. It wasn’t until I came out the other end that I realized its power. I thought I was going to vomit. I was nauseous and dizzy and had no desire whatsoever to go back through the second corridor of steel. I stumbled on to the next sculpture, another torqued ellipsis, and I became in turns afraid and convinced that the steel wall was going to fall in on me. I know very well that Serra’s monumental – or anti-monumental – steel structures are self-standing, single pieces of metal. And yet, the degree of the lean was so acute that I could became obsessed with the possibility of being flattened like the road runner. I lost all sense of security inside.
Richard Serra, Blind Spot Reversed, 2003-2005
These works refer to nothing other than themselves, and even then, they deflect all attention onto our bodies. This is their challenge to our concept of art: they ultimately offer an experience of ourselves, in motion, and time, confronting us with our reliance on gravity, on the order of things as we know them. Similarly, they challenge our assumptions about being in the world, about what we know of the materials of construction in our world. Steel of that width is not meant to be torqued, Corten steel is not meant to be malleable, let alone lean inwards and then outwards without falling to the ground. Serra talks of the challenge to assumptions about steel, and about the propensity for the steel to be milled as he desires it. In interview he has related the early skepticism of engineers and the construction team for the sculptures to be made to his specifications. What they do with steel goes against all possibility—and therefore extends what is possible in steel.
Richard Serra, Between the Torus and the Sphere, 2003-2005
I came away from The Matter of Time thinking of the buildings inside which we hide, inside which we order our lives, the offices, department stores, contemporary high rise apartment blocks, all of which are made of the same steel as Serra’s sculptures. We don’t ever think they will fall in on us, but why not? Surely the experience of the torqued sculptures is telling us something?

And so, I wonder at the Guggenheim Bilbao with its rigid viewing parameters. The museum as institution is intent on curtailing the experience in a way that defeats the purpose of these magnificent sculptures. They are everything that art is not – the experience is not only about looking, revering an art object. It’s about privileging the viewer, and letting the viewer’s experience unfold. Allowing us to explore the limits of who we are, and how we define ourselves in relationship to an unstable world. It’s difficult not to have a giggle at the Guggenheim with its assiduous need to control our experience of a series of sculptures that are, ultimately, all about the inherent inability of human beings to control their environment.

All images copyright Guggenheim Bilbao

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Michael Craig-Martin @ Gagosian Britannia Street, London

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Michael Craig-Martin
Installation View @ Gagosian Gallery London
This exhibition sees Michael Craig-Martin's oversized steel object outlines indoors for the first time. The multi-colored works gleam brightly in Gagosian's King's Cross spare white warehouse space. Reviewers of the exhibition were disappointed that Craig-Martin did very little new. However, as I was previously only familiar with his paintings, I found the sculptures intriguing. It's difficult to describe them. The gallery blurb calls them monumental, but that doesn't capture their delicacy and technical precision. I prefer to call them outlines in steel of household objects. They embody none of the complex meanings of monumentality as a term, and indeed, are doing something different from sculpture as we know it in the public realm.

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Michael Craig-Martin 
Installation View @ Gagosian Gallery London
I was fascinated by the fact that the objects made of steel stood without other support on their almost razor thin edges. My first thought on entering the space was that the works must be about balance. Then, the fact that they are made of steel, one of the most hardy and stalwart materials of the twentieth century gave them a nice irony. And, my next question was, why did the artist use steel? What does steel enable the objects to do that other materials wouldn't?  These are hard edged, potentially gaudy, not quite replicas of household objects.  When we look at them they are two dimensional, like coloured drawings. Then as we approach, we find we can also walk through them, suggesting that they create multi-dimensional space. They themselves may not have dimensionality, but they are representations of three-dimensional objects that mark out three-dimensional spaces we inhabit. Thus, their illusory quality adds another level of irony. Lastly, and perhaps their most intriguing quality: the works are sculptures as oversized representations of something else (household objects), taking them into discourses of monuments. And yet, they completely undo all references to monumentality thanks to their hollowness and their two-dimensionality. Effecrtively, the works are both representations and not representations.
Michael Craig-Martin: Sculpture review
Michael Craig-Martin, Safety-Pin, 2019
The sculptures speak about the uselessness of art, and though we desire to do something with them - walk through them, look at them and make sense of them, the objects are also useless. They could not be used as a safety-pin, an umbrella, a corkscrew and so on. As works of art, for all these reasons, they are simultaneously sculptural representations and abstract. In addition, the pretty colours make them delicious to look at, creating or perhaps speaking about the desire for the object to be consumed.
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Michael Craig-Martin, Installation view @ Gagosian
Apparently, the same kind of works have been installed outdoors on the grounds of gentry estate complexes. They have been placed in the gardens such that they become extremely disruptive because, first, they are oversized and these stately gardens are always made in an era when everything is designed to be the size of the human. And second, Craig-Martin's sculptures are exaggerated contemporary where all the other additions to such gardens are always old and weathered. The colours, the size, the steel material, everything about them is wrong for the environment. By comparison, in the gallery space they don't necessarily dialogue with their environment or each other, but rather, speak more to concepts of sculpture, painting and drawing. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Cindy Sherman @ National Portrait Gallery, London

Cindy Sherman, Untitled Film Still, #54, 1980
As an art history student in the early1990s, I thought Cindy Sherman’s Film Stills were brilliant in their conceit and their critique of the movie star images of women that we were still unconsciously devouring. Their unsettling confrontation of our gaze, the framing and composition that makes everything not quite right, and the ambiguous narratives they incite in our minds, underly endlessly fascinating photographs. And no one else was doing quite the same thing in the 1970s and 1980s. Wandering through the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, I couldn’t help thinking that the Untitled Film Stills were still, all these years later, among Sherman’s most astute and provocative images.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #479, 1975
It’s a lot to ask an artist who had so much success early in her career to keep producing work at the cutting edge of her chosen medium. Sherman has done this to varying degrees of success. Of course, all her work has been celebrated, but I am not convinced that it all warrants the same levels of applause. What makes the early film stills so brilliant is their multiple meanings and multiple suggestions. It’s not simply that the figure becomes androgynous, or the woman looks back, or the body has been cut off by the side of the frame. For us as viewers, their challenge is often that they are playful and funny and critical and compassionate all at the same time. The end result is that we don’t quite know how we are being asked to respond, and indeed, if our instinctive response is appropriate. This level of density is difficult to sustain, and as I say, she doesn’t always achieve it.
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Cindy Sherman, Untitled, #122, 1983
That said, in a disturbing series where she does succeed, Sherman was commissioned to produce centerfolds for fashion magazines. Her way of critiquing the glamour and false notions of beauty propagated by the industry—and happily consumed by us—was to masquerade as angry, down and out, face-lifted and depressed women. Thus, the very companies that commissioned her work come under fire for their absurdist notions of beauty, elegance and the desirability of women. We see figures displaying unseemly emotions in oversized, confrontational images, leaving us no choice but to question our own desire to look. Ironically, we admire the clothes of these same figures who are dressed in a fine Comme des Garçons suit, or an exquisite Balenciaga dress. Unnervingly, with their slick photographic surfaces, rich colors, and desirable clothes, the images are sumptuous and it's difficult not to keep looking. Until, of course, we recognize that we are also the very problem Sherman is critiquing in the negative performance of the fashion industry.

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #250, 1992
In some of the most powerful works on display, Sherman makes a series of macabre sex scenes that verge into pornography. In a clear reference to the surrealist works of Hans Bellmer, Sherman uses dolls, masks and medical prostheses to create disturbing, impossible figures in poses that make us recoil. Even though they are dolls, I found myself responding to the figures as though they were people. They had the same effect as cartoons – we give them emotions, and human qualities, even when they comprise horrific details such as sausages coming out of a man’s vagina. It’s this ability to shift her viewer between laughter and horror, squeamishness and intellectual curiosity that makes Sherman’s work powerful.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled #92, 1981
If the genre of portraiture has conventionally been used to represent identity, to flaunt the wealth and social status of the sitter, to record and pay homage to the powerful—I think here of Popes and Kings—Sherman turns the genre inside out. Like mirrors to our own desire for identity, or admiration of power and status, Sherman exploits the portrait to expose our subconscious role in posing and looking at portraits. We see women in distress, anxiety ridden heroines, performing for their audience, but yet, deeply uncomfortable at being looked at. Effectively, Sherman uses her own face and body in photographs to show women in all different states of social grooming, to represent a portrait of the way that we see and represent women. Thus, her work is not just about the world we live in, but the way we imagine that world to be, as it is envisioned through the material and mental images of women.
Cindy Sherman, Untitled, #574, 2016
Lastly, seeing the work in this retrospective format gives insight into how Sherman continues to re-invent her work. So much of her ability to do this grows from her full embrace of the technology of photography. In the early works, the medium and her process is often present in the image – in the student works we see the lead presumably from the camera to her foot where she must have stood on a switch to trigger the shutter. In her most recent works, the overt foregrounding of the use of digital manipulation through separation of back projection and figure—to the point where in images such as Untitled, #574, the figure could be a cardboard cut out. This exploitation of the technology of photography to produce multiple Cindy Sherman’s in a single shot, of for example, to create self-conscious illusion, both critiques the medium that is her vehicle and successfully pushes her work into new and ever more provocative areas.