Monday, June 28, 2010

I am Innocent, Mark Wallinger, Anthony Reynolds Gallery

Mark Wallinger,
I am Innocent, 2010

Many of the Young British Artists are concerned first and foremost with either disrupting the status quo of the British art establishment, or their own overblown self-importance. Neither concern is, in and of itself, to be scoffed at, but when there is nothing else going on, I have little patience for yet another episode of the ego vs the colonizing (in every sense of the word) super ego. Mark Wallinger engages both these familiar preoccupations in his latest installation at Anthony Reynolds in Great Marlborough Street. But unlike his now not so young British compatriots, Wallinger characteristically engages both us and the art object at deeper and more complex levels.

I am Innocent (2010) suspends two oversized reproductions of Velasquez’ superb Portrait of Pope Innocent X (1650), back to back on a rotating wire. The original Velasquez portrait now hangs in the Doria Pamphilj Gallery in the Palazzo Doria Pamphilj in Rome. Wallinger’s decision to copy the great Spanish painter runs much deeper than an admiration for this, one of the world’s most celebrated portraits. Significantly for Wallinger, whose work takes up the discourse on the reproduction of images, Velasquez himself copied the Portrait of Pope Innocent X on a number of occasions, most notably at the request of King Philip. And so, immediately, we are on guard against the use of reproduced images for the purposes of stroking the ego and filling the wallets of those in power. The fact that Wallinger’s piece comprises two reproductions of Velasquez’s portrait, and these in an infinite rotation that ensures their unrelenting display, brings us “face to face” with the marriage of convenience between art, the institution and the demands of a political economy.

Even without this history, even without knowing of Pope Innocent X’s shrewd economic and political exploits, we know enough about the corruption of the Catholic Church, and we are adequately skeptical of the “innocence” of any papal figure, of any generation, to be alerted to the irony of Wallinger’s claims in I am Innocent. And so, we meet the pope, even though he is removed via repeated reproductions of Velasquez’ representation, with skepticism and mistrust of the eyes that follow us as the double sided portrait spins on its suspended wire.

Things only got worse as I sat before the piece, patiently attempting to grasp the ever-evasive images. As I sat watching his figure go around and around, at some point, Innocent came to be watching me. Just as the eyes of one side of the portrait went out of view, so the next set appeared, taking up the surveillance of me as I became the subject of his suspicion. In keeping with Velasquez’ skill at having his figures watch our every move, the beady, unrelenting eyes of Pope Innocent X survey me without pause, no matter how much I start to shirk his look.

Thus, in direct distinction to what might be our expectation of looking at art in a gallery, Wallinger completely disrupts the viewing economy and we realize that we are the ones who are always watched and surveyed, we are the pawn in the economy of looks, and presumably in the political economy as well. Determined to get the better of Innocent, determined that he not have the last look, I masochistically kept watching him go around and around. Until, in time, I could no longer look at him, no longer see him. My look become completely denied as I began to feel dizzy, nauseous, and eventually, had to leave the gallery.

Images (c) the artist, courtesy Anthony Reynolds Gallery

I am Innocent_2010_Digital archival prints on standard fine art paper_mounted on aluminium_laminated with ultrathin semi matte laminate_electric motor_139.1x116.9x2.5cm.jpg

Monday, June 21, 2010

Bochum Attractions: Platz des Europäischen Versprechens

One of the most interesting sights on my Ruhrgebiet tour last week was Germans hurtling down the Autobahn with custom made flags attached to every part of their cars, despite the fact that Germany lost to Serbia. Gone are the days when Germans were required - as if by law - to suppress their nationalist enthusiasm. Though there was never a whisper of "Deutschland, Deutschland über alles" the boisterous cheering and flag waving had it playing a lot in my mind.

Old habits die hard, but sadly, so many of the things for which Germany was renowned in its better days, have disappeared from the landscape. Florian and I were on tour to see what has become of the Ruhrgebiet, and in particular, of its industrially defined landscape. In Bochum, before our Ruhrgebiet Rundführung began, I wandered down to the Christuskirche to the Jochen Gerz inspired, or perhaps it is more accurate to say, conceived, Platz des Europäischen Versprechens or Square of the European Promise. In front of one of Bochum’s only structures to survive the Allied bombing, this square is supposedly going to be filled with the names of the citizens of the Ruhrgebiet who have, for the past two years, submitted their names for this purpose.

As I approached the square with the inspiring restored tower of 1879 beckoning me, a couple of homeless men sat on the steps and watched my every move. Determined to find the entrance to the church and then the information center where I would leave my name for inscription I walked from door to door. I peered through the glass doors of the tower to see the names of the Bochumers who lost their lives in World War I inscribed on the floor. These names will supposedly be joined by the living when the promise of the future in the form of this Platz des Europäischen Versprechens is handed back to the city of Bochum on December 31, 2010. I kept trying the doors, convinced I was at the wrong entrance. But no, there was no way in despite the fact that closing time was still an hour away.

Still hopeful, I found the office for the project, only to be disappointed – again - when there was no answer to the doorbell. An empty storefront on the Nordring has an information board on the project, it takes pride of place on Gerz website, and indeed, has its own website, so why could I not stir a sound from the doorbell, and all the doors were locked. Apparently, like so many of the Ruhr 2010 initiatives, of which this is one, the project has been stymied by lack of funds. The Platz des Europäischen Versprechens is temporarily “out of order” due to financial crisis.

Something about the desolation of this square, just behind the town hall at the very heart of Bochum, the doors all locked, the clochards on the steps, speaks the “promise” of Bochum’s present, and accurately reflects a “memorial” to an empty future. In a location where other European cities might be strained with the intensity of people, at its center Bochum is a shell, just like the Christuskirche itself was after World War II. As Florian and I were to discover over the following three days, inspite of the cutting edge ideas for artistic regeneration, the Ruhrgebiet is dead, shut down to culture and artistic innovation, pervaded by a sense of emptiness and the depressing air of a nevertheless one time thriving industrial mecca. No wonder there was so much excitement over the football: as the local paper announced the government plan to withdraw financing to the local Opel factory which is the main source of employment in the Bochum area, there is little else to celebrate in these parts.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Chantier paysage, Mark Lewis at the Louvre

As always, I came away from last Friday night at the Louvre filled with ideas and inspiration. However, rather than being mesmerized by old master paintings, it was the complex and intriguing films of contemporary artist Mark Lewis that were the topic of the “face à face” series in the Auditorium.

The woman who chaired the discussions apologized for the fact that Lewis’ films were being projected in a cinema, rather than looped on monitors in a gallery space. However, their mode of projection took nothing away from these images: they were mesmerizing, unsettling, slow but deeply revelatory, simultaneously unique and filled with references to the past, present and future of picture making.

Lewis’ films are as much “about” the places that appear to the camera as onlooker as they are about the camera that sees them, the movements it makes, and the visceral effect these movements have on us, as onlookers en abîme. For example, in Forte, 2010 [above]. the camera approaches an old fort in Italy from high above snow-covered mountaintops. We are first surprised to find the aerial view of the fort appear on the other side of the mountain, and then when people start to stream out of the fort and run down the winding pathway, like ants whose habitat has been destroyed, we are looking for more, a reason, a narrative that will help us make sense of this disruptive human motion. At the very same time, the movement of the camera as it has been attached to the underside of the plane from which Lewis films the scene made me feel more and more nauseous. While avant-garde filmmakers have repeatedly played with the disorientation caused by the absence of an establishing shot, Lewis confounds his spectator, and sets the stomach churning when the image is nothing but an establishing shot in slow motion, an absent “narrative” that is an establishing shot empty of purpose.

In another film, Northumberland, 2005,[above] a camera moves laterally across a typical English stone wall in a seemingly endless tracking shot. In the background, tree trunks in winter remain vertically static, thus creating a friction between the movement of the camera across the wall in the foreground and the stasis of the trees in the background, albeit a background that is flattened out by the removal of all perspectival markers. Whether the tension or discordance is between foreground and background, stasis and movement, the appearance of color where the film articulates itself as definitively black and white (5262 Washington Boulevard, 2008) or in the appearance of unanticipated, “unwanted” disruptions to the mise-en-scène, Algonquin Park, September (2001), we are left grasping for something to hold onto in these worlds where our powers of rationality fail us.

There is much more to say about these intriguing four-minute gems, but for now, I want to briefly mention the panel of speakers. What made the films more powerful was their screening across the evening before, during and around the presentations of Philippe-Alain Michaud (curator of film at the Centre Pompidou), art historian Stephen Bann and Laura Mulvey. This strategy meant that as the evening went on, like the individual films’ revelation of the illusions of what they see and of the filmmaking process itself, the seemingly infinite layers of complexity in their construction were gradually peeled away. Somehow, the more films I saw, the more disturbing they became. At the same time, they became less and less graspable, more and more elusive and challenging in their construction.

While I appreciate that the Louvre invited three scholars who have published on Lewis, the choice of two art historians was somewhat disappointing. Of course, it’s always a pleasure to listen to Stephen Bann and to witness art history at its most eloquent in his presentation. But really, it was only Mulvey whose discussion of the films were gratifying. Michaud was preoccupied with Lewis’ references to Breughel and Chardin, Poussin and others, but his observations gave little insight into Lewis’ films. Mulvey was, as I say, insightful, eloquent and accessible, and I cannot remember the last time I was so convinced by her observations. In fact, her comments on the splitting of time and space in Lewis’ films, the resultant disturbance to the viewing process, and how these are concerns that can be traced back to Hitchcock, demonstrated film studies at its best.

Rather than listening to art historians, I wanted more discussion of Lewis’ relationship to film, for example, to the American Avant-garde. The films of Michael Snow, especially films such as Back and Forth in which vision becomes corporealized through the back and forth of the camera, seem instructive to understanding Lewis’ films. Or, for example, la Région Centrale where we become mesmerized by the movement of the camera across time, and Snow creates a landscape with a life of its own, a life wholly separate from the presence of the camera, a technology that nevertheless becomes integral to our journey into this landscape. Snow sets up very different relationships between landscape, camera and viewer, but surely access to Lewis’ films would become easier if approached via film, rather than painted history?

As illustration of the need for a more precise language with which to discuss Lewis’ films, a more precise language than that offered by art history, Stephen Bann referred to the lateral motion of Lewis’ camera in Algonquin Park, September (2001)[above] as “a track or maybe a pan.” When he said this, I thought “well, it has to be one or the other, which is it?” But in fact, this is the very complexity and challenge of Lewis’ films. Because he creates these camera movements for which we have no language. Nevertheless, they are wholly unique to the cinema, because they are integral to the moving, not that static image. Any film student would immediately,be reminded of that terrifying moment at the beginning of Vertigo when Scotty looks down from a height, his fingertips slowly losing their grip on the ledge from which he imagines he will fall. Hitchcock’s simultaneous movement of the lens and the camera to envision Scotty’s vertigo and to ensure our nausea would surely be a logical place to begin understanding Lewis’ complicated production and post-production techniques?

All of Lewis' films can be seen in their entirety on his website

Monday, June 7, 2010

On view at the Musée d'Orsay

Georgia and I met for a much needed art afternoon on Friday. We decided on Crime and Punishment at the Musée d’Orsay as it seemed to be the talk of the town. Like all the big exhibitions at major museums in Paris, there were some extraordinary single pieces that blew me away — the Géricault “etude” on the exhibition’s publicity (below), Victor Hugo drawings and charcoals (above), a handful of rare Goyas and more. But also consistent with these major shows, it was difficult, if not impossible to get an overall sense of what the exhibition was about. Crime and Punishment, yes, but everything from David’s “La Mort de Marat” through Goya to surrealism, Andy Warhol, illustrations of Bentham’s panopticon, even an old guillotine? There was little to no cohesion to this fest of violence and its arraignment, primarily, but not solely, focussed on France in the wake of the Revolution. Needless to say, there was no mention of the "crime" and punishment of more recent times: the Algerian war and other colonial exploits were conveniently absent from this history — if indeed, that is what it was — as were the not so distant events in the banlieu.

By contrast, a small exhibition of early photography "Photography Not Art"
Naturalism according to P.H. Emerson (1886-1895) was tucked away in the wings of the Museum’s tourist filled halls. Seeking refuge from the crowds, we found peace and quiet in this little-publicized, extraordinarily rich exhibition of Emerson’s photos.

Emerson was apparently a radical because he resisted the aestheticization techniques of photography. Labelled a naturalist, in his photographs we see rural life stripped bare of all glamour and illusion. And this makes these quite beautiful photographs eerily unsettling. There is no Romanticized landscape in images such as Poling the Marsh Hay (1886), but rather, we see the world “as it is.” What makes a photograph such as this one disturbing is also the apparent disregard for the finesse of composition. And so the woman in the foreground seems to big, as though she is about to walk out of the photograph. Emerson presents ordinary people doing ordinary things – like catching eel, poling hay, looking for driftwood. These worlds always appear somehow timeless, cut off from anything beyond their frame, as though time has stood still, as though we would find the same people today in the same landscape if we journeyed to Northumberland waterlands. All this,at a time when photography and its involvement with technological progress, modernity and industrialization is supposedly thriving. If technology appears in Emerson’s photographs, it comes in the form of a broken down water mill, overtaken by weeds, boggy marshes and its own ineffectivity. That said, we are always aware of the presence of the technology of the camera because Emerson does nothing to hide its presence. Many of the images are off center, the awkward placement of the human figures, the traces of a lack of focus around the edges, make us aware that we are looking at photography in contrast with a timeless, bucolic existence. This apparent invasion of the photograph is yet another thing that makes the world in the image appear strange and the photograph itself eerie and unsettling.