Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Joel Peter Witkin, Heaven or Hell, Bibliothèque Nationale

Joel Peter Witkin, Woman Once a Bird, 1990

Every one of Joel Peter Witkin’s images in Heaven or Hell is violent. These photographs are violent, disturbing, and I can see why they have a history of controversy in the United States. That said, however, they are also very clearly  critiquing, or at the very least, drawing attention to violent images of a different kind: all those media images that massacre and maim the body in the interests of political oppression and financial gain. Similarly, the way they are exhibited at the Bibliothèque Nationale together with other drawings from their collection, I wonder if the photographs were a commentary on the history of art that Witkin clearly draws on? While Rembrandt's women's bodies are voluptuous and rich, Witkins will be obese or painfully thin to the point where they are skeletal. What does this say about the representation of the body in Western art? 

Joel Peter Witkin, Melvin Burkhart: Human Oddity (1985)
As a man hits a nail through his nostril or a figure sits with his or her wings broken off, we are reminded of the history of art that is referenced by the images, but simultaneously, as we look at these and other images of violated and distorted bodies, it’s impossible not to recall the wars, both real and represented that care little for the integrity of the human body.  And surely, though Witkin’s images may be more explicit, they are no more violent than the barrage of mass media images that verge on pornography as they penetrate our homes and our lives on a daily basis. Indeed, this reminder makes the photographs even more disturbing and confronting than they are already. Because for all their confrontation, the real crime is being committed elsewhere: if Witkin’s photographs are about death, destruction, war and the loss of humanity, the performative and ironic twist to these circus creatures ensures their morality is left intact, while the same might not be said of their mass media counterparts.
Joel Peter Witkin, Woman Breastfeeding an Ael, 1979

What I loved most about the freaks and geeks in Witkin’s photographs was that even when they were minus an arm, massacred, violated, scarred by torture, or had an instrument of torture attached to their genitals, they were proud, they were human, and they had a strange beauty. Always, they were made up for the camera, and happily parading on a stage. This gives them a status somewhere between genetic hiccups, circus freaks and fantastical creatures of the perverted unconscious. Because the photographs are stripped, scratched, bleached and chemically disfigured, the medium itself gives the images a resemblance to early daguerrotypes, and with that resemblance, all of the implications of staging and posing. Similarly, the photographs reminded me of Méliès films, mainly due to their element of the magical, but also of course, because of Méliès’ wont to disfigure, decapitate and disappear the body. Once again, the staged element is exaggerated by the reference to Méliès’ films. Like the early silent films, the magic in Witkin's photos is both created in the mise-en-scène and in the manipulation of the medium. Or, put another way, the “performance” is created for and before the camera. In addition, like Méliès’ films the violated and decapitated body is returned to the body of the photograph, here with the scratching and distressing of the image.

Also made overt in a very unique way is the  discourse on sexuality and gender. In all of the photographs gender is mutable or complex — women with penises, women without breasts, men with breasts and a whole pageant of figures who are neither and both men and women — but it’s rare to find any interactions between whole people in Witkin’s work. Nearly all of the figures are solitary, explorations of the isolation and desolation of the individual in this imagined world. 
Joel Peter Witkin, Studio of the Painter Courbet, 1990
The title, Heaven or Hell points up another set of complex ambiguities that confused my response to the photographs. All of them hover between representations of unconscious fears and desires, and playful satires on the history of art. Are they tragic or ironic? Fiction or fact? It’s difficult to tell. And by extension, I found myself not being quite sure of whether or not to be repulsed or amused, horrified or in empathy with the distorted, degenerate bodies. And even then, I watched my response incase it was not what the photographs were wanting of me. So as they wandered between S & M, pornography, the history of art, Greek mythological figures and even contemporary politics, and as I moved through the exhibition, I became increasingly at home with the otherwise deeply disturbing and confrontational images. 

copyright of all images, Joel Peter Witkin

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Gerhard Richter, Dessins et Aquarelles 1957-2008, au Louvre

Gerhard Richter, 7.1991. Ink on paper, 1991
c. ADAGP Kunstmuseum Winterthur
Even though a number of contemporary artists have exhibited in the Louvre, I still think that entering into the hallowed halls of the great museum brings a certain kudos to contemporary artists. And Gerhard Richter confirms his place in the upper echelons of French culture as his retrospective not only occupies the Centre Pompidou, but two rooms just off the main hallway of the Louvre have been given over to his drawings and water colors. The achievement is even more impressive when we remember that Richter is a German artist who has no obvious connection to France. The very exhibition of these works in the Louvre is honor indeed.

Gerhard Richter, 27.4.1999 (1), 1999
Private Collection, Cologne

The drawings are sensuous, intimate, even more intimate than the paintings which, as I repeatedly insist, give us opportunity to sense and to see the great artist in the pulling and dragging of paint across a canvas. In the drawings and watercolors we see his hand move, at times, uncontrollably, across paper. The works are physical as well, in a wholly different way from the paintings. They are physical because their creation is so vulnerably present to the point where, at times, they appear as not fully conscious reveries.  

It’s difficult to look at the drawings without thinking of the paintings, and often they are connected, somehow belonging to the seriality of the paintings. Sometimes the drawings are conceived in advance of the paintings, or as reflections on them. In the multiple renditions of Halifax, the drawings are like extensions or versions of the 128 Photos of a Picture (Halifax 1978) in which Richter photographed the original painting in extreme close up in black and white to create a new abstract vision, or series of visions, discrete unto themselves. In the drawings of the same title on display in the Louvre exhibition, it is as though he is exploring the physical texture of the painted surface in lead pencil on paper. What light achieved in the photographs, Richter here reaches through movement of the pencil. Except of course, the drawings come twenty years before the photographs.
Gerhard Richter, Halifax, 1978
CR: 78/15-6 
There are also conceptual and thematic continuities between the drawings, watercolors and paintings. Throughout we see a continued importance of time and place: November, the Elbe, even Halifax Times and places are always ambiguous in Richter’s work because it’s never clear whether or how the title is important. Are the series of watercolors painted daily in November 2008 remembering or documenting the importance of this month? Or do they merely reveal the weather in the winter months? In another consistency with Richter’s paintings, he draws and explores inks and watercolors always in series. And the series is always a search for something that he never finds, or something that is always on the cusp of appearing. We see windows, figures who are never realized, sometimes because they are unfinished, at others because they are always in a state of appearing and disappearing across the paper support. And then there is the characteristic Richter erasure, the palimpsestic over drawing erasing and re-inscribing.

Gerhard Richter, 128 Photos of a Picture (Halifax 1978)
1998, CR: 99
I must say, some of the drawings are so hastily and sketchily done that I wonder if they had not been done by Gerhard Richther would we bother to stop and look at them? Moreover, the drawings and watercolors do not come together in a body of work over which various issues are repeated and worked out year after year after year. Similarly,  not all of these images are equally captivating. This skepticism, coming from me who otherwise struggles to see Richter's work as anything short of a masterpiece, is quite a statement. However, I will say that my issue may perhaps be the museum's reverence for the works more than it is with Richter's drawings and watercolors themselves.
Gerhard Richter, November, 2008
Ink on Paper, Private Collection Cologne
 Because for all that I say, the most gorgeous images are the series of ink on paper works, November a title given to them apparently because they were painted daily throughout the month of November in 2008. I wondered how they were made, perhaps they are blown or put under glass and smudged as the areas of different colored inks are bloom and bleed, floating across the page. With Richter it is always a question of how they are made, but then when we know how he does it, the mystery remains. How has the ink become pink? And are the inks on oiled paper making the medium pull away from the surface of the support? Do they have some reference to the wintery world outside Richter’s window, or is the title about no more than the month they were made? In some the ink is absorbed, and on others it looks as though the paper may have been folded in half and the “figure” on one side repeated on the other. 

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Andreas Gursky, Bahrain I, 2005

Andreas Gursky, Bahrain I, 2005
It was unclear to me why Andreas Gursky’s photograph of the Formula One racetrack in Bahrain I, 2005 was included in one of the chapters of the Patrick Keiller curated exhibition in the main hall of the Tate Britain. It may have been there simply because the photograph is owned by the Tate, but it looked out of place among otherwise de-aestheticized or minor works by other leading artists of the past three or four centuries. Similarly, Gursky being German and his subject matter being the Middle East, Bahrain I didn’t have any obvious connection to The Robinson Institute’s polemic on the sorry state of Britain as it is written across the nation’s landscape. Irrespective of its curious inclusion, I was excited to see the photograph in the flesh for the first time. And even though I know the impoverishment of photographic reproductions, I was still surprised to see how powerful Gursky’s photograph is in the flesh.

The first thing that struck me was the impossibility of the perspective on the landscape seen by Bahrain I. Gursky places us, at one and the same time, looking down from on high at the racetrack as it winds through the sand dunes of Bahrain, as well as perpendicular to a diminishing perspective. The built environment in the background, or at the top of the image, depending on how we look at it, recedes towards a horizon marked at its precipice with a sky erased of all detail. The simultaneous horizontality and verticality of Bahrain I, suspending the viewer in a contradictory indecision about how to look, is typical of Gursky’s tendency to push representation right to the edges of abstraction. In a compositional frame that is familiar from Gursky’s other landscapes in particular, the racetrack is simultaneously in the world and reduced to a two dimensional surface made representation by what could be plastic tape. Until, of course, the eye reaches the back of the image and the traces of human life have either been left, or await us, in the form of a man made environment. And then, in that moment of recognition of the city, the racetrack starts to appear to fall down the side of a vertical cliff.

Andreas Gursky, Bahrain I, 2005 (detail)

I have always been skeptical of the argument that the digitalization of Gursky’s photographs effectively erases their relationship to place, culture and politics. Bahrain I surely provides a sturdy example of how such photographs might be read differently. The dominance of this Kingdom in the desert, not only as it is symbolized by the Grand Prix circuit as home to one of the earliest Formula One races in the season, but also by its role in world business, are surely written in the sand by Gursky’s photograph. And in another prophetic script, what is perhaps most disturbing about the image is the thin, but shocking red advertising slogans on the side of the race track, larger than life. Thus, vodaphone also gets its chance to stake a claim on the desert landscape as well as that of the photograph. These realities, like Formula One racing make Gursky’s image more than complicated aesthetic propositions.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Picasso and Modern British Art, Tate Modern

Pablo Picasso, The Three Dancers, 1925

My friend James vetoed the Damien Hirst exhibition at the Tate Modern, and though I was disappointed not to see the latest shark in formaldehyde, I was happy to forego the crowds obstructing my view at the Tate Modern. We ended up at the Tate Britain which, despite its filial connections to the Tate Modern, is a completely different museum that offers a whole other experience. There were no crowds, no merchandise dominating the museum visit, and neither was there any sense of being seen in the right place on a Saturday afternoon. On entering the museum, in the main hall, we spent time engrossed with the Patrick Keiller commission curated The Robinson Institute. The installation which focused on the economic and cultural status of Britain as it is written on the contemporary landscape probably made more sense to those who had already seen Keiller’s Robinson films: Robinson in Space, 1997, and Robinson in Ruins, 2010. Like Keiller’s anti-aesthetic documentary films, the installation is not about the image, but about the conceptual and historical significance of images spanning three hundred years, most of which were from the Tate’s collection. The result was a not altogether convincing collection of images whose relevance was not always clear, and an exhibition that lacked coherence.

Pablo Picasso, Guitar, Gas Jet, Bottle, 1913

Pablo Picasso, Man with a Clarinet, 1911
In contrast to the display of a few minor Turner paintings in Robinson in Space were the outstanding Picasso’s included in the Picasso and Modern British Art exhibition. However, this exhibition is not about Picasso’s art, but rather, it is about the influence of the decisions and preferences of collectors and dealers who either exhibited or bought Picasso paintings in Britain in the early to middle twentieth century. So while I was excited to see some rare and prominent Picasso paintings, I had difficulty with the exhibition’s impetus to detract from the aesthetic value and the aesthetic attributes of Picasso’s art. Especially because the distraction was motivated by a focus on the decisions of the art market and the not always impressive British art that was apparently influenced by these great Picassos.

As James pointed out – because he is a Cocteau scholar and Cocteau was convinced - the most interesting of Picasso's work for the performing arts was done before the end of World War I. And I am tempted to extend this judgment to the pre-World War I paintings. I also am most familiar and most interested in the analytical cubist works, because they reflect that moment when Picasso most radically challenged the flatness of the canvas, and the rationale of painting as it had been known up to this point. However, even the later works where he becomes interested in his own status and place within art history, shine in comparison to British pieces that were supposedly influenced by them. If Cocteau's claim can be extended to painting, and it holds that there is a conservatism to post World War I Picasso, the opportunity to assess the claim is lost here because we are discouraged from looking at these great paintings for their aesthetic value.
Pablo Picasso, The Source, 1921
Instead we are guided to observe how Picasso influenced painters such as Duncan Grant, Ben Nicholson, and Graham Sutherland, none of whom look too good next to Picasso. Not only are their works of much less aesthetic interest, but conceptually, these painters are so far behind the radical challenge to painting and representation being dealt by Picasso. So, for example, as Picasso moves into the bright colours and an interrogation of identity, the body, the relationship between artist and sitter and so on in the post World War I period, the British are still painting in grey, and doing nothing with the form and fracture of the canvas. That is, they never challenge the relationships between figure and ground or painting and the world as Picasso was doing years earlier. It is true that as the century wears on and British art picks up, there is more meaning to the juxtaposition with Picasso. Henry Moore’s erotic and sumptuously curved sculptures not only make a more convincing pairings, but they also meet the challenges posed by Picasso, even pushing them into the new creative territory of a different medium.
Henry Moore, Reclining Figure, 1936
There are also some great Bacon works, such as his Crucifixion, 1933 which took my eye in particular. Nevertheless, once again, all meaning of such works other than the fact that they are somehow influenced by a collector or curator who brought a corresponding Picasso painting to Britain is drained out of them. In the case of Crucifixion, for example, the discourses and sensations surrounding a carcass strung up to dry, evoking the torture and misuse of the body as an object, all of it is emptied out of an image whenwe are told it is important because it has a relationship to a contorted body by Picasso as it was reproduced opposite a “recent Picasso painting” in Herbert Read’s Art Now (1933). The grey, ghost like brutality of Crucifixion is haunting as much as it is revolting, and yet, that’s not the point when it is exhibited here.
Fancis Bacon, Crucifixion, 1933

Perhaps I missed the point of Picasso and Modern British Art, but I came away with many questions. The most pressing being: what do we learn from these juxtapositions that we didn’t already know? I understand that Picasso had a big influence on British art and this was enabled by a handful of collectors and curators. But then what? The exhibition sheds no new light on either Picasso’s work or that of the artists who were supposedly influenced by him. This is, indeed, a whole new way of using great artworks: namely to detract from their aesthetic attributes in the interests of narrating a history of modern British art. Perhaps that’s the price to pay for avoiding the crowds at the Tate Modern?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, trans. Susan Bernofsky, 2010

Before I begin, my first caveat is that I read Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation in English, and I know from its German title Heimsuchung that language is important. I suspect, therefore, that I have not read the same book that Erpenbeck wrote. My second caveat, one that explains my enthusiasm, is that Visitation is not just about Germany, it is about that aspect of Germany that has been my preoccupation for the past twenty years: a twentieth century marked by violent ruptures, inconsistent political systems and cultural transformations that attempted to wipe away everything they replaced, but that never quite succeeded in doing so. 

As Germany passes from one political regime and one historical moment to the next, a piece of land by a lake in East Germany, not far from Berlin, passes from one generation, one owner to the next. A house is built, as is a dock, and a bathing house, another house next door, an apiary, and various other spaces come and go. Similarly, the boundaries of the land continue to be redrawn as the title is passed on, seized, bought and sold. An architect whose moral undoing, and for another generation, whose claim to success was that he worked with Albert Speer on the Germania project; he abandons the house for West Berlin once the Communist Regime is in place. Next door a Jewish family is carted off to the ghetto before being gassed sometime in the late 1930s. Their granddaughter hides in a closet in the ghetto, their son, the granddaughter’s uncle emigrates to South Africa with his family. And so the house is taken over by a young Red Army officer who rapes the wife of the architect when he discovers her, but never sees her, hiding in a secret closet, living, eating, defecating in the secret closet. And when he leaves, the house is ownerless, until the next householders arrive “having leased the property from the municipality: A writer couple from Berlin.” And so on until the house is demolished at the end of this century of turmoil.

As German history moves forward, and social standing, meaning and identity illogically erode with the introduction of each new political system, all of the inhabitants of the house are threaded together, not only by the house as the place they inhabit, but more vividly by their search for a home. Each of the owners, whether legitimate or illegitimate are looking not only for a place to be home, but for a homeland in a country where the same was distorted, violated and finally ripped out from underneath them. In a conversation created on the page, the writer who moves into the house sometime in the 1950s having been exiled in Moscow, and having lost her husband on a platform when he boarded a different train somewhere in all that movement, carries the message of what it is to search for a home.

“I just want to go home, just home, she’d often thought in those days, and from the Urals had directed her machine gun fire at her homeland, word after word. But now that no one country was to be her homeland any longer but rather mankind in general, doubt continued to manifest itself in her as homesickness.” (p. 89)

Ultimately, it is the house that becomes the home, the character that we identify with, that we grow to know, in which we find security, and feel at home in, as do those characters with whom we take up residence as the novel progresses. In the final pages, before the land is bought and the house we have settled in over 150 pages and the narrative's 100 years will be demolished, we are in it, together with the now adult daughter of a young couple who were permitted to spend their summers in the house on the condition they mowed the lawn. We, together with her, are hidden in the secret cupboard as the investors and speculators look suspiciously for secrets of a different kind: the property is expensive so they must be sure of its shortcomings.

We smell and know the freshness of the summer air as it fills the bedroom, coloured by the stained glass windows. We know what the would be buyers do not: the creaks in the wooden floor, the very faint clinking sound of the milk-glass panes inset in the door, the shutters with the crank concealed inside the wall to allow access to the secret cupboard, the smell of the cats and the martens. And we know of the histories and memories buried, sometimes literally, in the garden that surrounds the house. The one character who remains on the land throughout the book is the gardener, quietly tending the land, the gardens, looking after the house when it is empty of residents. Like the other characters, he never speaks, but he is given a voice through his consistency, his reliability, his silence. When the gardener disappears one day, it is as though there is no longer a need for a refuge. Or perhaps there is no longer an answer to the question of what it means to be home, because there is no such thing as home. And so, the gardener and all traces of his aged existence on this land vanished, the speculator is invited to calculatedly, and in all ignorance of the secrets, the turmoil, the violence and the death to which the house has been a witness, demolish it. But when the land is cleared and only a dirt pit remains where the house once was, we are left with a knowledge the speculators can’t reckon with: that as history transforms from one era to the next, power and favor are always revealed to be temporary. Visitation and twentieth century Germany can confirm that there’s no guarantee that what is morally triumphed today will not be adjudged reprehensible tomorrow.

As if the violence and the guilt, the scars and haunting memories of twentieth-century Germany were not enough to disturb the reader, Erpenbeck magnifies the impact to create a powerful and disturbing novel through the use of a dry, apparently objective third person voice. The narration is detached, factual almost, and when it reaches its most heinous visions, the maintenance of its rhythms, and its unrelenting objectivity add to the monstrousness of what it sees. 

“Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Lodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, the frozen bank accounts dissolved and their household goods auctioned off.” (p.44)

Or, as the young Berlin girl and her childhood friend watch from their secret hideout in the woodshed while a 12 year old girl is raped, their silent powerlessness is reinforced by an economy and precision of language:

“First it had been too soon to burst out of hiding, and then it was too late, and the dividing line between too early and too late was so sharp that it couldn’t even have been called a no man’s land. Behind the wooden wall … it was dark and cramped, and if they had so much as shifted position, everything would have collapsed.” (p.129)

Indeed, where the book becomes most powerful is in its shift from the devastation of Germany’s checkered history to that same history’s emotional and psychological disfigurement of the individual inhabitants of the land. And the extent of their hope, despair, their loves and tragedies are written in the repetitions, the rhythms and the otherwise plaintive language of Erpenbeck’s prose. 

About once every couple of years, I come across the book that gives me the reason to keep reading. Visitation is one such book