Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Summer Reading: The Mussel Feast by Brigit Vanderbeke and Thomas Bernhard, Old Masters

I loved The Mussel Feast. I know that Vanderbeke has lifted her writing style and form directly from Thomas Bernhard, but she uses Bernhard’s single paragraph, stream of consciousness, flow of ideas, to quite different but equally provocative effect. The family at the centre of Vanderbeke’s The Mussel Feast is as trapped by dysfunction and violence as Reger in Old Masters is made instransigent by his neurosis and solitude. And while Reger’s caustic opinions are tightly wrapped within the walls of tradition in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the the family that sits at the table, before a large pot of mussels waiting for a father who will never come home is held hostage by an equally unforgiving institution: marriage in the former Eastern Germany. The young protagonist of The Mussel Feast, though less experienced in the world than Reger, the protagonist of Old Masters, offers penetrating insight into the frightening destruction of a family that cannot break the walls of shame and guilt imposed by years of patriarchal oppression. And she does this, befitting a child, as if in passing. She mentions her thoughts of suicide, her mother’s emotional abuse by a husband who cannot escape the trauma of his own childhood. While Reger sits before an old master painting, his thoughts wander around the world, from politics, to religion, to the weather and every aspect of German philosophy. The child in The Mussel Feast by contrast, sits with her young brother and mother around a table at the centre of which is a pot of mussels. From here, she takes us deeper and deeper into the recesses behind the doors of familial loyalty.

The narrative of The Mussel Feast is like a therapy session, as we the reader become witness to the trauma that has been kept inside, by the violent oppressive father for the lifetime of the young female narrator. We wonder how she, her brother, and most of all, her mother could have survived the father’s manipulation and violence, but of course, we know the impossibility of leaving such situations. We know how the daughter survives, she turns inwards, and leaves the family room if only in her thoughts. It is as though the memories of the father’s abuse become louder as the waiting continues, as the mussels tire and become less edible. Or perhaps it is that the young narrator becomes more confident in relating the events that led to her father’s disappearance from their lives. It comes as a great relief that he doesn’t return at the end of the night, but at the same time, the family is helpless and does not know what to do, how to behave now that the glue that held them together has evaporated. Clearly, The Mussel Feast is also an allegorical tale of patriarchal oppression of a more public kind in the former East Germany.

Vanderbeke sent me back to Bernhard’s Old Masters, a book so immersed in the pleasure of thought and reverie as it happens in a great art museum, that I wanted to live inside the Bordone Room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna together with Reger. Like all of Bernhard’s protagonists, Reger is a solitary man, a social recluse, an intellectual with an acerbic wit and a penetrating insight on the reality of the Viennese, of Austria, of European life. Reger commands a court of two — the guard Irrsigler, and the listener Artzbacher who he has summoned to meet him at 11.30am before Tintoretto’s White Bearded Man in the Bordone Room.

Between them Reger and Artzbacher take us from the lavatories in Vienna through the corruption and oppression of the Catholic Church, to the curse of childhood and the inherent untenability of the family as an institution. In usual Bernhard fashion, Reger is the voice of the author and we see, we laugh, we cannot help but agree with his scathing perspective on art, music, history, and on the pretentions and aspirations of humanity. What makes the book so brilliant is different from Vanderbeke’s. While she captures the most devastating events of a lifetime in a single sentence, for example, the desire of a child to jump from a window, Bernhard can dwell on a topic for pages. He has Reger and Artzbacher muse on the mediocrity of the Austrian writer Adalbert Stifter, or “that ridiculous Nazi philistine in plus-fours” Martin Heidegger, the incompetence and absurdity of the Art Museum guide, the unseemliness of Viennese lavatories. Bernhard connects the topics of conversation effortlessly, the one flowing into the next in the most seamless of ways, like thinking. The book is one long sentence moving in and out of the voices of the three characters. Until, in the end, it is impossible to distinguish between Reger and Artzbacher’s voice.

Nothing happens in either novel. The silence of waiting holds within it the distinction of these two compelling reads: In The Mussel Feast the waiting is excruciating as the mother and brother, together with the protagonist, anticipate the return of the angry father. But silence is also a place to go where the father cannot reach the young narrator. Silence is a protection against the inevitability of being physically, mentally, emotionally violated. In Old Masters the silence of the Bordone Room before Tintoretto’s painting is a privilege, a joy, a place to dive into. It is the space held open for Reger only by the loyal guard, Irsigler. Silence in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna is the magical space created by an opinionated but nevertheless wise old man. In Vanderbeke’s novel, silence is the purveyor of something terrifying. And of course, as we look outwards from each novel, it makes sense that the representation of silence might be their distinguishing hallmark: in 1980s Vienna, silence would have been laced with creative energy, whereas a young girl in a novel written at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall would understandably communicate horrendous familial abuse behind the silence of her screams. 

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Dynamo: Un siècle de lumière et de mouvement dans l’art 1913-2013

Anish Kapoor, Untitled, 2008
Until we reached the films by Viking Eggeling, Walther Ruttmann, and Paul Sharits I couldn’t decide whether the problem with this exhibition was the works on display or the way they were exhibited. But then I saw the likes of Tony Conrad’s Flicker, 1966 — a film I always claim, as Annette Michelson announced to me when I was a student, to be the most brilliant film ever made. The inclusion of a selection of films from the 1920s international avant-garde and 1960s & 70s America convinced me that the works were chosen and curated to create something closer to a fun park than an art exhibition. Dynamo is a typical example of a Paris blockbuster designed to attract the summer crowds to the Grand Palais. Dynamo opens with Anish Kapoor’s Untitled, 2008, three metal concave discs that embrace us with their energy as we step into what feels like a magical space transformed sonically as well as visually and conceptually by the discs. However, the exhibition goes downhill quickly, not through any fault of the art, but a design intended for maximum thrill and minimum provocation.

As we wandered through the spaces my friends and I were treated to a visceral experience in which we were carried away by movement, overcome with nausea, disorientation and constantly followed by the persistence of vision, confronted with optical illusions. The experience with many of the works results in a questioning of our own space, and our own orientation within this space. It was a lot of fun to take photos inside the exhibition, to see how so many of the art works are transformed through the iphone lens. We oohhed and ahhed at Dan Flavin’s light works as they refracted colour through the camera to become their opposite, complementary colour. We were consumed by the mysterious and ethereal light creations of James Turrell, mesmerized by the lights in motion of French artist François Morellet, never being able to fully grasp their rhythms and logics.

Although I knew some of the artists' work, and admired that of others, I found myself moving through the exhibition at a fast pace, looking at the work as though looking in the distorting mirrors in a fun park. Any claims that individual works might be making about modern art had no resonance: the possibilities and productivity of light as a medium, the profundity of light as a tool for the organization and transformation of space, its power over human vision, its agency to deceive, to design, to create and diminish time were discursively concealed or bracketed by this smorgasbord of light and movement art. When I reached the experimental films at the end, I realized how much I was missing a context for the works on display. The European avant-garde and structural American films in their time broke every rule of representation, of cultural expectations, of how we understand ourselves in relationship to the visual art object. And yet, in Dynamo, they were displayed as yet another form of visual eye candy that would entertain the masses at the Grand Palais. And the greatest sin of all? They were shown on small screen monitors in DVD format.  

All in all, Dynamo provided pleasant refuge from the heat of a Paris July afternoon, but did nothing to engage or broaden its audience’s experience of the parameters of modern and contemporary art. It was fun from beginning to end, but in my books, that’s not enough to call an exhibition successful. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Gerhard Richter, Tapestries, Gagosian Gallery, Davies Street London

Gerhard Richter, Abdu, 2009

I nearly didn’t go to see the latest Richter exhibition at Gagosian while I was in London last weekend. I had limited time and there were a number of exhibitions of artists whose work I don’t know or haven’t seen for a long time. Surely, I thought, Richter can’t be doing anything I haven’t seen before. Standing in the light drenched store front gallery on Davies Street, I saw that he had proved me wrong yet again.
Gerhard Richter, Iblan, 2009
If great painting breaks all the rules, social rules, cultural rules, the rules of art and life, then Richter is still a great painter. In the four tapestries — yes, he’s making tapestries — AbduIblanMusa, and Yusuf (all 2009), Richter brings together painting and weaving, paint and wool, modern art and traditional crafts, the East and the West. I have recently been thinking about what makes Richter’s work political, how it resonates and affects the world outside the frame, how it brings that world into the frame and critiques the world simply through translating it into painting. For an artist whose work is always ambiguous, always slipping just out of our grasp, it’s difficult to reconcile the ephemerality and perpetual motion with the seeming intransigence of reified politics.
Gerhard Richter, Yusuf, 2009
The titles of these four tapestries alone convince of their political relevance, and apparent urgency: AbduIblanMusa, and Yusuf are common Arab names. There’s no need to explain why tapestries titled with Arab names would be a radical gesture by a German artist in 2009. To be sure, Richter is breaking the rules: he gives each work a name, an identity, an individuality. He gives each tapestry an Arab name, an Arab identity. The four enormous tapestries do more than provoke with their titles. In a typical Richter strategy, they bring the past and present together on one surface: the ancient Arab art of carpet weaving is brought together with the technological sophistication of the modern world.
Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting, CR 724-4, 1990
The process of production is difficult to grasp: again in a familiar Richter strategy, he begins with one of his own paintings, Abstract Painting, 1990, CR 724-4, the same painting that is the springboard to his strip paintings from 2011. Rather than dividing the painting vertically, first in two, then again up to four thousand and ninety six times, he digitally transferred a quarter of the painting to the memory of a mechanical Jacquard loom. That is to say, I assume the transfer is done digitally,  though we will have to wait for the catalogue to appear to have this confirmed. The loom then weaves the digitally transferred painting fragment and produces a Rorschach-like pattern that iterates the original Abstract Painting. How did he even imagine this, I wonder? In usual Richter style, everything about the work is controlled, perfect, and yet, it is a perfection that is imbued with aleatory and unforeseen possibilities.
Gerhard Ricther, Musa, 2009

In the same way that the paintings made with a squeegee will throw up unanticipated colours thanks to the process of application by the doctor knife, so the woven tapestries in this digitally determined process produce colours that surprise. The stretching and pulling of greys, whites, cobalt blue, yellow and red creates mirages, mirrors, and ricochets emanating from the central core. The visual effects, together with the colours are beautiful, the colours of the Mediterranean in one, of ancient Persian carpets, or tribal art and Richter’s own mirror images in others. And all at the same time, Richter is engaging with his favorite concerns of repetition, of translation between media – how one medium can tell us everything we need to know about another.

I sometimes wonder if Gerhard Richter will ever run out of ideas – I guess if he can still reinvent painting at 81 years old, decades after it was pronounced dead and gone, the answer is probably, not in this lifetime. For Richter, painting is an endless, unfathomable and ineffable reality, even as it is realized in woollen tapestries.

Copyright of all Images. Gerhard Richter

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Lorna Simpson @ Jeu de Paume

Lorna Simpson, Wigs II (1994/2006)

The exhibition could have been called “hair”. Again and again in Lorna Simpson’s photographs identity is determined, expressed, reflected through a representation of hair. It is true, hair is a complex signifier of who we are and, as I was reminded by the focus on hair in Simpson’s photographs, we don’t pay enough attention to all of its social, sexual, gender, racial meanings. In the entire wall covered by Wigs II, (1994/2006) 54 women’s wigs are photographed and printed on felt squares. They are given dimensionality, they cast shadows, are made whole and real. In each felt square, the style of the hair and the colour of the hair differs; it might be waxed, natural, coiffed, but always we recognize it as a black woman’s carefully groomed hair from behind. Everything about the person who does not appear in the image is characterized by the hair. We might also say that the identity of the owner of the wig is given to her by the world for and by which she is groomed. Something akin to the internalization of the fashion world’s demands as they are reflected in our own self-stylization might be at work in those described by the wigs. In a typical Simpson strategy, the wigs are accompanied by texts, at times on the image, at other times between two images, and still other times, relating to no image in particular. The texts echo sexuality, black sexuality in particular, as well as desires we assume to be created by and for the woman who owns the wig. One, for example, details an enslaved man’s plan to have his wife wear a wig in a subterfuge that would allow them both to escape to freedom. Thus, the power of a woman passing as a man, passing as white.
Lorna Simpson, Day Time, 2011
This series, together with images of both inside and outside Lincoln Centre reproduced from old photographs are photographs printed on felt. Immediately, the use of felt recall the work of Joseph Beuys who effectively canonized and colonized the fabric in his depictions of survival against all odds in Siberia. The connection thus invokes a discourse of memory, of survival of warmth and protection. Even though there is no felt in the decoration of Lincoln Centre, I can’t help thinking that the felt in Simpson’s installation is in keeping with the period of 1960s architecture of the building. As such, together with the 1960s colour reproduction of Simpson’s photographs, works such as Day Time, 2011 and Curtain, 2011 are imbued with a nostalgia. But of course, we wonder, a nostalgia for what?
Lorna Simpson, Five Day Forecast, 1988

Another indication of the works’ historical context is Simpson’s creative use of repetition. In a work such as Five Day Forecast (1988), the differences in the repetition of a black woman’s torso, her arms crossed, her head cut off, are so miniscule that we are impelled to study the photographs to find them. Faced with multiple repetitions of the image we cannot resist the temptation: we constantly look for the differences. Again, the text that accompanies the images is always different. The days of the week, one above each torso, are clear, each photograph being labelled with a day of the week. But then there are ten labels along the bottom that don’t ever correspond exactly to the photographs. They correspond neither in their placement, nor in their meaning. This inconsistency adds frustration to the viewing process – we are always trying to connect images and texts, as another automatic response to the work. But we never can. For me, the changing, somewhat free floating texts create different circumstances for each image, thus giving a kind of slipperiness to the identity – which is interesting, especially when we assume that Simpson’s goal is to comment on the fixity of the black woman’s identity.
Lorna Simpson, Chess, 2013
In Chess, 2013 the repetition is multiple. Simpson herself plays not only the five different figures on the screen, but she also plays five men on an adjacent screen. Similarly, each woman plays the moves of both black and white pieces on the board in front of her. While the women always make the move, the men mirror their moves on the other screen. The way the women hold their hands, arms crossed like those in Five Day Forecast is opposed to how the men hold theirs, on the table. Chess introduces an element of deception that seems new to Simpson’s work, a deception that is due to the medium and the multiple mirroring devices. There are five repetitions of each figure — five men and five women — and with so many figures, there’s always the anticipation that we will get a panoramic, complete view of the figure’s moves. However, repeatedly mirrored images reveals no more about the figure than the wig seen from the back. We never get the full image.
Lorna Simpson, Please Remind me of Who I am, 2008
Please Remind me of Who I Am, 2009 and Gather 2008 extend the concerns of isolation, memory and identity that pervade Simpson’s photographs into processes of collecting. There is a performance of the search for self in the repetition and obsession of collecting as we see a proliferation of photo booth photographs of African American women, each framed in their own individual brass frame. Identity is interesting in this series as well as in Gather: we wonder whose identity is at stake? Whose identity is being played out? Is identity exchangeable –by putting the images in the brass frames, Simpson shows the individuality of each person, each otherwise throwaway image, each identity. The intertwining of collective memory and individual memory is also raised and complicated in Gather, a photographic narrative in which Simpson re-stages the photographs of anonymous people she finds on ebay. They are black men and women, who perform their sexuality, their identity, their personalities she presumes for film auditions. The connection is created between the women in the images.

Lorna Simpson, Curtain, 2011
What I really love about Simpson’s work is its subtlety, its quiet but very powerful critique of image, of personality, of the way black women, and by extension, all women are presented to the world, how we self-construct according to how the world wants us to be. Simpson’s work is all about how gender is no more than a performance, an idea we already known, but an idea that is given a particularly intelligent and quiet but powerful depiction by Simpson. That makes her work extremely effective, and this small exhibition, important.