Sunday, March 27, 2011

François Morellet, "Réinstallations" au Centre Pompidou

François Morellet, "L'Avalanche," 1996
I really wanted to love the new “re-installation” of François Morellet’s work at the Centre Pompidou. However, as hard as I tried, I just couldn’t.  Because as gorgeous as many of the works are, like all light sculptures, their meaning is generated by their definition of space, their rhythms, reflections and refractions of public space. And when installations that at their inception define, articulate even form castles, cathedrals, and the squares and promenades of Europe, when they are re-installed in the white cube galleries given them at the Centre Pompidou, nothing translates. There was something very staid, almost static, about the exhibition even though I walked around the sixth floor of the museum: I moved, but the work seemed trapped as I looked at piece after piece. I kept thinking how much better it would be to experience these neon lights made intense and beautiful as they transported and guided me through potentially unfathomable public spaces.

Francois Morellet, Reflections in water deformed by the spectator, 1964
That said, there is much about the exhibition that I did enjoy, not least of which was its size. So many of the Pompidou’s exhibitions are overwhelming and exhausting in their size, but the Morellet is small and very manageable. In this sense, it was a delight to explore the various phases of his creative process, and easy to get an overall sense of what is a very coherent body of work.

I also enjoyed individual works, sometimes for the aesthetic, at others for their conceptual level, and at still other times for both. A work such as Reflections in water deformed by the spectator is inventive and wonderful in so many ways. The rigidity of minimalism, the seriousness of conceptual art are disturbed and thrown into disarray by the intervention of the audience as well as the unpredictability, and apparent unruliness of water in motion. What makes this piece so thrilling is the clarity of the artistic proposition even as the piece is technically very complicated.  On the floor, a basin is filled with water, and in it are reflected the lines of a luminous structure suspended from the ceiling. The visitor is invited to move a prop on the right of the basin, thus disturbing the water and deforming the pattern of the light reflection on its surface. Indeed, this highly sophisticated design and construction somehow declared, yet overridden by the power of the artistic proposition, is the brilliance of Morellet’s work.

François Morellet 2 trames de tirets 0°-90° avec participation du spectateur, 1971 

The dialogues with art history are seemingly infinite in Morellet’s sculptures. There are the obvious references to Mondrian’s planar compositions on exhibition next door on the 6th Floor. And similarly, the engagement with icons by masters such as Leonardo, Picasso, Delacroix are everywhere made obvious through their transformation and disfiguration by Morellet. In these works such as Delacroix Disfigured (The Death of Sardanapalus), 1989 Morellet gives us reflections of the icons’ life in a museum, returning to the sculptural form and aesthetic the disfigurations of the institution, spectators, critics, and all others involved in its exhibition context. And then there is the companionship given Morellet’s work by Nauman and Beuys, and in his wake, the light installations of Robert Irwin and James Turrell. 

Delacroix Disfigured (The Death of Sardanapalus), 1989

I also enjoyed the feelings of nausea, Morellet’s tendency to take the visitor to the precipice of some kind of convulsion, usually through his or her own interference in the stability of the world as it is given by Morellet. Morellet’s pieces invite us to participate in their process, and then when we do so, pressing buttons that activate multiple neon lights usually forming some kind of right angle compositions, we are given the illusion of full control of the speed of their blinking, and apparently the patterns they make.  I found myself energetically turning the lights on and off, watching the patterns to the point of dizziness and disorientation. And as if this were not enough in itself, what then makes Morellet’s work unique is that, at heart, it has all the seriousness and intellectual profundity of various touchstones in the history of twentieth century art. And so here is a corpus of work that pushes us to physical extremes, while all the time being appealing to the eye, and challenging to the mind. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tinkers, by Paul Harding, Windmill Books, 2009

As I sat with my father on his deathbed, in the days immediately before he died, I watched and listened to him relive his life in what for me was the most mysterious of ways. He was there, then, in that moment that had passed probably sixty years before. It wasn’t coherent in the sense that he was not telling me stories. His wanderings were more like hallucinations, but not quite. He was caught, somewhere between consciousness and the hallucinations of heavy painkillers, clearly going through something he needed to experience before he died. Sometimes there was an urgency to it, at others, he would mutter quite calmly, reminding me of the flower in the shoes, by the potatoes. He wanted to sit in the bucket, he became extremely agitated one afternoon because he needed to leave and he wanted whoever he was with to take him wherever he needed to go. And when I asked him where it was he needed to go, he looked at me incredulously, as if I should know: “home.” And as he uttered it, he relaxed, as if through speaking he had got where he was going. He talked to his father, and remembered his mother in a way that I had never experienced her. Indeed, this was the first and only time I heard my father ever speak of his father. I couldn’t grasp his reveries, he and his narrative were somewhere else, already, in a time and a space I have not yet experienced, or perhaps, never will. Whether he was rewriting or even reliving the narrative of his life, I knew it was his eulogy to himself and his own life. I knew there was something magical and mysterious about this process, but because he already occupied a time and a space somewhere between life and death, all I could do was witness it. 

And then I read Paul Harding’s Tinkers, only to find myself in conversation with a book that knew what I had witnessed 12 years ago. I expected little from a book that I picked up in St Pancras, wary because it was written by an alumni of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I have nothing against Iowa graduates, but I do find their work generic, with a voice I have heard before. And I am skeptical of these high-profile prizes that adorn writers who, on another day, with another selection committee, might have written a book left to gather dust at the back of the shelf.

In Tinkers we see and hear the narrative of George Washington Crosby’s life. The book is loosely framed by the dying protagonist’s hallucinations, and more substantially, it reveals the dearth and struggle of his rural American north eastern childhood. Harding’s novel is fragmented and episodic, completely eclipsed by the uncontrollable and violent epileptic fits of George’s father Howard. These fits and their unpredictability, their impenetrability, shape the loneliness of George’s life. At the same time, they somehow reign the slow-moving, fractured, hallucinatory narrative of an old man in his final hours. This creativity of form is, indeed, a break away from the Iowa mould, and therefore, I would want to celebrate its innovation. Nevertheless, for this reader, it is in its articulation of an experience for which I have never found words that Tinkers takes on the dimensions of a magical, mystical and unforgettable contemporary novel.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia de la Luz, 2010

As the camera moves ever closer, the light delicately balanced in the left of the frame, the porous density of a skull becomes interchangeable with the pock-marked surface of a distant terrestial planet, or perhaps it is a star, or the moon? The beauty of Patricio Guzmán’s new film Nostalgia de la Luz, 2010, is in the gentle weave of the infinite and unfathomable world of extra-terrestial galaxies and the equally unfathomable search without end for the bodies and souls of the Chileans who were disappeared in the Pinochet regime. The image of the skull that becomes a planet, or perhaps it is a planet transforming into a skull towards the end of Nostalgia de la Luz is the most awesome moment in a film filled with breathtakingly beautiful images and remarkable expressions of the ongoing trauma of the witnesses to Pinochet’s violent dictatorship. 

The slow turning of human bones into planets is the visual crescendo of a film that demonstrates with all credibility that we belong, hand in hand, with the universe from which we came. Scientists talk about the calcium in our bones, or rather, the bones of the disappeared, as one and the same with the calcium of the planets. We are all traced back to the infinity of the universe that births, houses and, in Guzmán’s film, to which we are ultimately returned. It is not only the view of the cosmos above that draws astronomers to Chile's Atacama Desert, but geologists bring their instruments and their eyes her to roam the oldest desert floors for fossils and mummies that tell of life so long ago that we cannot conceive of when. And in Nostalgia de la Luz, both are joined by women who come for the remains of their loved ones, the remains of the heinous crimes of the Pinochet regime. Their bodies have become petrified in the parched desert soil, and they are recognizeable after nearly forty years—one woman finds the foot of her brother, still in the shoe, and she takes it, in tact, for her memory. The remarkable climate and conditions of this unique geographical location bring these unlikely people together to explore the temporal expanse between infinity and the recent historical past. What lies between the two is a trauma that lingers in the Chilean present moment. 

And as astronomers, archaeologists and architects of memory meet in Guzmán’s film, we begin to see the lyrical connections between the grave story of a young Chilean boy who was murdered by Pinochet and the breadth of a universe which has no beginning and end. The film doesn’t simply juxtapose these different people, with different motivations that all converge in the Atacama Desert. The film asks why. One philosophizing astronomer explains that there is no such thing as the present in the universe, and that we are always telling the story of the past, and that past is why the women are digging through the desert soil in search of their relatives. As they look for the traces that will explain and resolve the irresolutions of the past, the astonomers in the observatories above them will continue to look into the future.
Miguel with his plans
Another man, Miguel, survived the concentration camps and he shows us in detail how he survived, how the past survived and continues to survive in his present. In his memory he held the image of all the prisons in which he was incarcerated and, as soon as he was released, he created maps, plans of every prison that held him so that they are known to every Chilean. Like Miguel’s plans, every memory, every experience is given away to the enormity of the world that houses it, leaving a trace for those who might one day look for remnants of this as the past.

Guzmán’s images are exquisite, and when they move, they do so with a slow paced, meditative lyricism. He shows the observatories, and in their clean precision, they are alluring, their calibrated perfection almost seductive. The observatories are huge, again, unfathomable, shown in a landscape that is lonely and scattered with life that has been fossilized and forgotten. The human remains in the landscape are unknown, unpredictable where the instruments of observation represent all that is rational. The star dust that a young woman, Valentina, refers to as the essence of us all frequently covers the screen making it luminous, and again, the world behind it, unknowable. And yet, the star dust covers us all, and through it we are given access to the unimaginable trauma suffered and endured by the survivors in Nostalgia de la Luz. In one of the most moving testimonies, Valentina, now working in one of the observatories was the child of disappeared parents. She tells her story and that of how her grandparents who were given the choice between the parents and the child, showed the militia where the parents were hiding so they could keep the child. And they brought her up as their own – she describes herself as a faulty product, as someone for whom something is missing, not quite whole, always broken, because her parents were taken from her at such a young age. Her work is to ensure her own child is not a broken, faulty product.

Valentina with her child
There is something so finite about the disappeared, about the violence and insanity of the Pinochet regime that can never be understood. In Nostalgia de la Luz the concrete finitude of Pinochet’s acts is transformed into the infinite possibility of the sweeping reach of an astrological observatory eye, and yet again, into a film that espouses there is hope in coming together in a common plight for healing and freedom from a past that plagues the Chilean present.