Saturday, January 31, 2009
Friday, January 30, 2009
There are many delights in the group show "On Paper," currently on exhibition at Galerie Karsten Greve in the Marais, and this small oil on cardboard by Josef Albers is among them. (See also my review of Norbert Prangenberg's paintings). I have seen it and others like it in reproduction, both in his own book, Interaction of Color and in books that discuss the optical interactions of color and chromatic effects on which Albers is the authority. But up close, in person, Study for Homage to the Square is precious and intimate in a way that never is when captured in reproductions. The object itself is delicate and, in close up, carefully, but not flawlessly executed. Just to experience the edges of grey where they bleed into the green of the background, and the moments where the green seeps over onto the white of the cardboard makes standing before the square a delight. Because these moments tell of the presence and influence of the hand in works that are always touted as evenly painted, focussed on the form of the square, the choice of the colors, and the optical interaction between them. It is only when we have the privilege of seeing the square in person that we begin to appreciate paint, color, light are inseparable, all permeating the substance of the others, all lending their luminosity to provide definition and identity to the others. This may not be what Albers intends to teach in his lessons on color, but it is what I learnt as I examined this delicious green and grey square this afternoon.
My friend Georgia was fascinated by the placement of the square on the white paper background. The right edge of the green square doubles as the edge of the paper, while the left, top and bottom edges are constituted by the three-sided white frame of the same paper. Why did he do that? The placement of the square on the paper does not introduce imbalance to the composition, but in a work that is focussed on the relationship between the adjacent colors and the effect of these on the human eye, it cannot be a random choice on the part of Albers. To be sure, in spite of conventional wisdom on Albers, there is nothing neutral, homogeneous or symmetrical in this or any other of his squares. They are replete with intimacy, asymmetricality, unevenness, varying intensity of colors, and other traces of the interaction between the hand and eye that paints them.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Revolutionary Road, dir. Sam Mendes, 2008
Friday, January 23, 2009
My favorite room in the K21 Kunstsammlung, Düsseldorf: Christian Boltanski’s haunting El Caso (1988). Three walls are filled with portrait photographs of people reported in the Madrid newspaper of the same name to have been murdered. Each photographed face is blown up to a blurred portrait in characteristic Boltanski style. A desk light, complete with leads shines directly onto the image making it even more difficult to look at, and even more impossible to identify the face. As is often the case with Bolantski’s photographs, not seeing is tbeir power. It is not the identity of the person photographed that is important, what matters is that they have been murdered. The obscurity of each individual’s features is the photograph’s reach for generality. In a biscuit tin beneath each photograph Boltanski has apparently placed an image of the murdered corpse or the scene of the crime. [These photographs have, in turn, been collected into an artist’s book of limited edition]. The blurb at the entrance to the room informs us that the photographs we cannot see are taken by police at the scene of the crime. Not seeing is, once again, the force of these images: because we cannot see the corpse in the box, our imaginations run wild and there is never a doubt that it is hidden because the body is too mutilated, too deformed to bear. And yet, we don’t need to see, because we are certain that the photograph above the tin is the face of the one who the body belongs to. Thus, the face we cannot fully recognize is all we need to see. This refusal on Boltanski’s part to reveal the identity of the person in the blurred photograph, under the desk light, in the tin box is what make each “memorial” disturbing. Each face is like a spectre come back to life – having exceeded the limits of the tin in which it supposedly belongs. They are spirits that won’t die or disappear, they won’t be shut up in the tin, that persist in coming back to haunt the museum spectator. This imagined presence on the walls of the K21 gives these faces a relevance to our own indulgent lives, it forces us to confront ourselves and our need to mourn the dead we never knew. Connected to each other by the leads of the lights that obscure them, the faces demand we too pick up the thread and become involved in their stories.
One wall of the room is filled with linen sheets, neatly packed, cleaned but not ironed and placed on a shelf. With the absence of a visible human connection to the sheets, we immediately begin to imagine the people who they once covered. And of course we connect them to the faces in the photographs. Were they the sheets that covered the corpse in the morgue? Or perhaps the sheets that were used as shrouds for burial? It’s unclear, but we are struck by the fact that the people who once used these sheets no longer need them. And we assume, they are no longer with us. Again, the tactile presence of the absence of the murdered enfolds us in their cry for remembrance and recognition.
Counterposed with the trauma and truth that we experience in the midst of the installation, is another familiar Boltanski concern: that of the archive. In El Caso the exhibition of the photographs and what we assume to be the photographed remains of their corpses communicates the filing away of information as is the wont of police in murder investigations. It’s material to which we, the public, ordinarily have no access. Thus, through the complex interaction of portraits we cannot see, lights, leads, tin boxes and mysterious sheets, Boltanski offers us an imaginative access that potentially undoes the rationalization of the authorities’ archive. We may not see clearly what the authorities hide, and the press sensationalizes, but Boltanski invites us to animate and envision through imagination. In turn, our vision creates our responsibility for the memory of those who have been murdered. Because the images are made public for us: the police, the newspaper, the morticians, even Boltanski the artist, have left the installation. In their wake they have left an environment into which we step, an environment that surrounds us with, makes us responsible for the past, its injustice, for murder, and its motives, and the memory of each.
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Saturday, January 10, 2009
James Elkins can't quite put his finger on why we cry before Mark Rothko's paintings (James Elkins, Pictures and Tears, Routledge, 2004). Elkins gathers responses to the 15 foot high black on black paintings commissioned for the Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas. The comments were left in the visitors' book to the chapel. Elkins uses these responses as the bases of his speculations on why we cry. Is it the deep emptiness of the monochromatic squares that disturbs? Or is it that the viewer is brought before God in the face of these works? Perhaps those people whose souls are touched "see" the profundity of Rothko's own dark experience that he had when executing the untitled works. The idea of this connection between artist and viewer in the moment of perception would be Rothko's hopes for the paintings.
Monday, January 5, 2009
I swear I didn't know, but admit I should have known, when I wrote my reflections on the Audience series in Düsseldorf, that Struth actually photographed the swarm of crowds before Velasquez' masterpiece, Las Meninas, in the Prado. The series is another of his museum series now on display in the Objectivités. La photographie à Düsseldorf at the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.
When I saw these yesterday, I once again found the series compelling, as compelling, maybe more so then in Düsseldorf because it was more comfortably hung. However, I was struck by the fact that all the same questions and issues came up for me as I pondered the Museo del Prado series. Looking at the boy in the front who is way more interested in Struth's camera than he is in Velasquez' painting, or the waving hand of the tour guide that alerts the group to what's necessary to see in las Meninas, the young men in the foreground who use the opportunity to talk amongst themselves, even the tourists who prefer to see this extraordinary work through their own digital camera lens, I am again reminded of the practices of looking and not looking that are handed out to us by the museum and the culture industry alike. The same contradictory, unfathomable behaviors, poses and gazes are in operation before Las Meninas as they are in the presence of the absent David in the Audience series.
And so, I began to wonder whether or not Struth's practice was somewhat limited, at least as it relates to these museum photographs. Does the identity of the painting or even the museum for that matter change the dynamics of Struth's photographs? My companion to the Musée d'Art Moderne wanted each Struth image to raise new questions and explore new ground determined by the differing relationships between audience and individual art works. However, I am not so convinced. Surely the point of Struth's photographs is the very ignorance of the painting, or at best, the highly codified ways of looking (and not looking) when we are in an art gallery, especially before such revered works as Las Meninas? Ultimately then, Struth's photographs may look good and have a certain fascination for us as viewers in times and spaces removed from our counterparts in the image (and here, the audience in the painting before them). However, do we need to look over and over again, at different audiences in different museums? Or do we get the point from a single viewing of a single series?
Friday, January 2, 2009
We all know Roman Polanski was charged with rape, unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and various other offenses, and we all know he fled the US a year later never to return. But what this film uncovers are the intricate details of the case in the California courts, and the manipulation of justice that plagued the case. In particular, the film focusses on the media conscious Judge Laurence Rittenband whose decision to convict was driven by pride and arrogance to save his face in the media.
The film is not particularly special or noteworthy as a documentary, ie. for its form, using interviews, archival footage and new footage, text and voiceover intermixed throughout. But it does present as a nuanced and sensitive account of Polanski's ordeal. Most impressive is the filmmaker's ability to not pass judgement on Polanski's actions, and simultaneously to indict a legal system that was clearly not working in the interests of justice. It's interesting that the film's most severe criticism is of those figures entrusted with the law who are led astray by an overwhelming preoccupation with their representation in the press. And this at a time (late 70s/early 80s) when cameras were not yet allowed in the court room. One wonders how different it would be if the case were tried today. The epilogue to the film tells us that the case was in fact retried in 1997 following the victim's public announcement of forgiveness. And the LA judge ruled that if Polanski were to return to the US he would serve no further sentence, but only on the condition that further legal proceedings would be televised. In effect, then, nothing has changed in the thirty years since. At least where the relationship between the law and the press are concerned, the two are as influence by and dependent on one another as ever.
What has changed surely though, is the cast of characters - from friends and associates, to lawyers and judges, not a single woman is involved in these proceedings. With all these middle- (now late-) aged white men writing and performing the law in a case of rape, sexual misconduct and potential abuse of minors, one wonders how different the ethical stakes and the outcomes of such an investigation would be if played out in a more representative courtroom today?
The film is worth it just for the archival footage, but also, it's an intelligent account of (yet again) the corruption of the US legal system.