Saturday, January 31, 2015

David Altmejd, Flux. @ Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

The text accompanying the exhibition of David Altmejd’s work at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris claims that the work bears resemblance to that of Matthew Barney, but this works seemed to me more sophisticated and more interesting than anything Barney does. There may be similar references and motifs, but Altmejd’s art appears more complex and has a life outside of itself, rescuing it from the navel gazing that pervades Barney’s films in particular.

Giants turn into buildings, trees, inhabiting a fantasy or a dream. Mirrors, hair, wood, painted, stuffed animals, precious minerals, create complex worlds in which inhabitants would get lost, that is, if there was a possibility of habitation inside Altmejd’s environments and installations. For the most part, nothing holds its form. Any resemblance of the human in these figures is always in the process of transformation, dissolution into something else. Simultaneously, objects, both animate and inanimate are always brought together to make people. Figures dissolve, feet melt, a man made of hands in The Pit, 2011, both perfectly and barely resembles the body as we know it.

The question I kept asking as I walked through the Altmejd exhibition was what to make of the metamorphoses into abjection, the forms’ and figures’ absence of boundaries, where the lines between man and birds, men and bananas, have melted? The bodybuilder series was, for me, a place to begin to understand the sculptures. Not only is the body melting in these works, but so are the steps the figure is climbing. In the Untitled examples of this series, the figures are all engaged in an activity that is the very opposite of body building. Indeed as forms, the disintegrating bodies would dispute any suggestion of body building. In clear reference to classical figures they stand erect on their mirrored plinths, but these forms are bodies without insides, about so much more than the perfection for which classical sculpture and men at the gym both strive. So what’s the meaning in all these repulsive figures? The frailty of the human body? Man as a palette? Or are we as humans reduced to anxiety and trauma as hands scratch and tear at bodies that will soon cease to exist?

Exhibition View 
The references made by the sculptures seem to be endless: Abercrombie, the Winged Venus, David, Duchamp. But it is in their own grotesque contradiction, outside of any history to which they might belong that the figures are most captivating: They all stand erect, even if they are eaten from the inside, wasting away. They all pose, are made of plaster, have a sense of dignity, but they no longer exist. Precious and perfect, and simultaneously, repulsive and disgusting.

As the exhibition progresses the works become increasingly observant of order, structure, categorization. Intricately sculpted scenes, environments, made of glass and mirror, crystals and plexiglass begin as orderly, but are promptly confused when it looks as though a bomb has been set off in the middle of it all. Threads, feathers, jewels, pineapples with screaming mouths, heads that are decapitated and multiplied. Chaos created by thick goo, bleeding black rubber puts an end to any semblance of order that may have existed. I kept thinking it was a bleak world, only to be reminded by explosions of glitter and reflected light, that it might all be a big joke.

Eventually, at the end of the exhibition the form becomes unrecognizeable, not human or animal or vegetable or mineral. Just one big mess. While the  mess doesn’t disintegrate, it holds its shape as mess, it is somehow more traumatic because all reference to familiar form is gone. These are strange, uncertain, but somehow joyously playful works.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Boris Mikhaïlov, Arles, Paris ... And. series 1989-2015 @ Galerie Suzanne Tarasieve

When I think of Boris Mikhailov’s photography, I think of large prints, perfectly composed, people of the street who have been violated and abused usually by the State. The slick gelatin-silver prints make the naked bodies more vulnerable and more confronting, creating an uncomfortable viewing experience.

The current exhibition of photographs at Suzanne Tarasieve’s Marais gallery could not be further from the familiar Mikhailov prints, and the viewer’s experience could not be more different. The series of 67 photographs in Arles, Paris … and are small, ephemeral, even whimsical. They are light, joyful and celebratory.  Mikhailov travelled to Paris in 1989, the year the Soviet Bloc collapsed and took these photographs apparently, to capture the joy and freedom of the West. For this current exhibition, Mikhailov re-presents the images, and as if to give a contemporary commentary, he overpaints them in bright colours. These images are anything but the tragedy of his native Ukraine.

This context, the re-articulation of Paris 26 years after the fall of communism, is essential to understanding the power and influence of Mikhailov’s photographs. Without it, the rationale behind the overpainting is not always clear. Knowledge of the context, and in particular, the date of 1989, however, underlines the celebration that is indeed taking place in the photographs. Hand in hand with seeing the joy and freedom that Mikhailov experiences on this, his first visit to the West, we cannot ignore the grey austere world that he has left behind. Thus, the small, hand painted photographs make a powerful political statement on behalf of their artist.

Without the story behind them, the vision of Paris in the photographs is enchanting. Every traveller to Paris thinks that her photographs are special and different. Really, they are the same as those of every other tourist. Mikhailov’s are however, unique. Not only is each photograph individualized through the addition of gold, silver, green and yellow paint, but each has an unexplored vision of Paris. Even the familiar icons and landmarks become curiosities in Mikhailov’s images. Together with the overpainting, the landscape frame stretches the image, making Paris strange, offering a perspective to which other tourists are blind. 

Images courtesy Suzanne Tarasieve/the Artist

Monday, January 19, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

A week after the terrorist attacks that took place in my neighborhood, the disquiet reverberates across Europe with Belgium taking its turn this weekend. The incessant sound of sirens, police and national guard armed with rifles, and the Je Suis Charlie signs still emblazoned on shop windows, doors, consuming advertising spaces and websites of local companies and institutions, all of it brings terrorism into our daily lives here in Paris.

It’s disturbing to have police with bulletproof vests, carrying rifles in my neighborhood. Of course, they are present for the security of the community. But, the side effects include a pervasive sense that I live in an unsafe world. Terrorism is now on my doorstep. Another part of me also feels as though I am living inside a thriller movie. Events like these don’t happen in real life: terrorists with Kalashnikov rifles storming a satirical magazine in the 11th arrondissment. Ten days later, clarity on what happened to the editorial team at Charlie Hebdo, is even harder to come by. I am filled with sadness at the human lives lost in this destruction. I also wonder, all the time, where does my emotional response to the murders end, and the anger towards the complex set of political events that have led to this mess begin? And is that line so hard to see because clarity is not forthcoming from those in the know? It’s confusing to know what’s going on, even though I am in the middle of it all.

As I ran along the quais of the Seine on Wednesday, January 7, around noon, the city erupted into sirens. I knew something was wrong. I knew something bigger than Paris was happening because in among the unmarked cars with the blue flashing lights, ambulances, the Red Cross was racing past. The Red Cross never come out in force here. Once I reached the Bastille I was in runner’s heaven: streets had already been emptied of traffic, but I had no idea why. This kind of disturbance to the traffic happens all the time in Paris, so in spite of what should have been alarm bells, I quite enjoyed the empty streets. Until I reached rue Chemin Vert. I could go no further. No one would answer my questions of what was going on — clearly the other bystanders had no idea and the police weren’t saying—I went on a circuitous route, 1 km off my path, to get home. Only when I looked at my phone and the BBC breaking news did I learn why my running route was blocked. Though even then, I didn’t fully understand the severity: gunmen shootout at magazine office in Paris. How much of this was the drama of the press? Only later, when I watched the footage of the police officer being shot on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, did I start to recognize what this was.

Caught between disbelief that this was happening in my neighborhood, a fear that I was in danger, and an uncertainty about the scale of the events, it took time to realize that the world as I know it changed on Wednesday morning.

I watched the events of 9/11 from a distance, in Berlin, and I watched the world try to come to terms with what had happened. I couldn’t imagine what it might have been like because I wasn’t there. My brush with terrorism is not, as you can see, so close. But what I now understand that I didn’t then, is that the politics and effects of terrorism are a personal, physical experience. I feel the Charlie Hebdo massacre in my body. My understanding of public violence, public trauma, public mourning, has been changed through my proximity to these events. Terrorism (and the resultant racism) is something I now live with, it won’t go away, it will only get bigger.

Boulevard Richard Lenoir
When I ran down Boulevard Richard Lenoir on Friday January 9, I ran past the ever growing memorial of flowers and candles that now sits where the policeman was murdered, I felt it in my heart, my blood ran cold, I was filled with tears. As I reached the Bastille, the French flag at half mast, blowing in the strong winds, against a dull grey clouded sky drew another tear. I felt in my body the anger and actions of two brothers with a grudge to bear. I am so far removed from the Kouachi brothers and what was their lives, but their trauma, the trauma of the murdered, and that of the French public, become mine, every time I run past the memorials accompanied by police in bulletproof vests.  It’s a strange experience that I don’t yet fully understand.

The French have responded with characteristic grace to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. The march on Sunday January 11 was an extraordinary experience. Most moving was the fact that everybody was there, together. Veiled Arab women and men holding Je Suis Charlie signs was perhaps the most moving sight, and the children holding up pens in a sign of solidarity and peace. Nobody wants any of this, and yet it affects us all.
Graffiti is all over the city
As the police continue to raid terrorist cells, the government meets for hours on end, the press rummages to find its explanations and analyses of what’s going on, I wait to see what it all means, what will be its lasting effects on my small world. I don’t know where this is going, but I do know that the world as I know it changed last Wednesday morning.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Luc Delahaye @ Galerie Nathalie Obadia

Luc Delahaye, House to House, 2011
I have never really understood the excitement over Luc Delahaye’s photographs. However, because they are so celebrated, particularly in France, I persist in believing the critics and doubting my own judgments. I went back to Galerie Nathalie Obadia to see his exhibition of recent works in the hope that this time they would reveal to me what I seem to have missed in the past.
Luc Delahaye, Death of a Mercenary, 2011
This set of “ten works produced since 2011” apparently represents a shift in his oeuvre, a shift from the theatre of war to the everyday in the developing world. As always, I found the photographs aesthetically compelling. The oversized C-prints continue to delight, and because Delahaye’s journeys take him to India and Libya the colours are as dazzling as the curious compositional framings. We see two boys fighting in an abandoned—or maybe it was never inhabited—nowhere-land, a father and his young daughter in conversation, a man talking to himself, and another entering a sundrenched building. The gallery flyer claims that the images revolve “around the dialectical interplay of false opposites: distant-present, archetypal-particular, beautiful-cruel, manifest-enigmatic” and that these opposites hide an inherent tension.
Luc Delahaye, Father and Daughter, 2013
My problem with Delahaye’s work is that I don’t see the tension. on reading an earlier blog, I am reminded that when I saw his work four years ago at the same gallery, I was already missing the tensions. And they don’t seem to have emerged, at least not to my eye, in those four years. I see poverty, I see actions that might be read as ambiguous, I see snapshots taken from their narrative context which might prompt us to ask what happens before and after the moment we are given. But I don’t see tension.

Luc Delahaye, Boys Fighting, 2013
The documentary aesthetic of these photographs is even stronger than it was in Delahaye’s war photography, despite the fact that a number of those on current display were apparently staged and manipulated. But still, I am left unsure of what exactly Delahaye is documenting: is it poverty? The developing world? Libya in peacetime? That said, images such as Death of a Mercenary and House to House, even Talking to Himself have a distinctly Jeff Wall-like feel to them. So perhaps, like Wall, Delahaye is looking for the above mentioned “false opposites” and doesn’t manage to find them in the everyday realities that he documents.

Once again, I came away disappointed. However, what I have learnt by visiting this (very badly lit) exhibition, is that I rest in my convictions about the underwhelm of Delahaye’s photography.  

Images courtesy the artist