Monday, March 30, 2015

Qu'est-ce que la Photographie, Centre Pompidou

Paul Citroen, Im Theater/In Theatre, c. 1930

Qu’est-ce que la photographie is the inaugural exhibition of the new downstairs space devoted to photography at the Centre Pompidou. It was only when the space opened last month that I stopped to think how long awaited it has been: that the national museum for modern art opens its first ever photography space in 2015 is difficult to believe.

Man Ray, Boite d'allumettes fermée, vers 1960
Man Ray, Boite d'allumettes fermée, vers 1960
The small exhibition asks the question that has pursued photography more than any other medium across the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Why photography and not other media? Why not painting? sculpture? The exhibition answers that question as well as asking it: namely, because the photographic medium is delineated by its material like no other in the twentieth century.  Immediately, we might think of the cinema. However, though the question is asked of cinema, it is nowhere near to the same extent, probably because the cinema is defined by paying audiences and industrial modes of production from its beginnings.

James Welling, Gelatin Photograph, 1984
What is unique about the Pompidou’s introduction to the question of photography’s identity is that the curators have selected some gems, all from their own collection, some of which will be very familiar, others not at all. The curators use the photographs themselves, not the texts about photography to explore the question. Thus, visitors are made aware that the exhibition is not a history of photography and neither does it claim to trace the answering of this question through the history of photography as it has changed and mutated across the centuries. Rather, it’s a selection of works that all engage the question, predominantly at some kind of reflexive level, between the period of the 1930 and 1970, that is, the period when the question was addressed directly by photography itself.
Image result for centre pompidou qu'est-ce que le photograph
Denis Roche, Gizeh, 1981
The exhibition is divided into eight sections that give eight different responses — desires, material, principles, praxis, alchemy, distance, resource, verifications. Some of the images are exquisite, like Paul Citroen’s breathtaking, Im Theater (1930) with its gentle and almost impossible lighting. While others, such as Denis Roche’s Gizeh 1981 is curious and keeps us looking to see if we can determine what is actually in the image, how it is done. James Welling's Gelatin Photograph, 1984 with the substance of photography made sensuous and tactile is compelling.
Timm Rautert, The Sun and the Moon from the same Negative, 1972
The photographs that I enjoyed the most were by Ugo Mulas when he completely undoes the illusion of photography, its contradictions, his examination of the impossibility of finding a truth through photography. In a series titled Verifications each piece is invariably doubled, a positive and a negative, a double portrait on the same negative, photographs of the strip of negative image. Mulas interrogates the question of what is photography through representing the nature, ontology and processes of photography itself, within the image. Through Mulas’ work, we come away believing that photography is in its material.

Ugo Mulas, Verification 7, 1972
There is a lot of other works worth stopping at, and lots to learn from seeing these unlikely photographers’ work together. The fascination for boxes, the constant exploration of opposites and contradictions in a repetition of the positive/negative instantiation of the image. Indeed, many ideas and realizations are generated by the selection of images from the Pompidou’s own collection. To give one example, the juxtaposition of James Welling's photographs with Man Ray's boxes created interesting connections between to artists' who strip the medium to a fundamental material, at different ends of the twentieth century.

My one criticism of the exhibition relates to the wall texts – the interpretations are forced and often too literal, too unimaginative, giving a straightforward interpretation to works that are often more poetic, thus tending to close down the otherwise very imaginative use of the medium found in the works.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Luc Tuymans, The Shore @ David Zwirner London

Luc Tuymans, Bedroom, 2014
It’s always a strange experience for me to be among Luc Tuymans’ paintings. I love painting. And so much of what I love about painting is nowhere to be found on Tuymans’ canvases. There is nothing painterly about these works, nothing to seduce the viewer into an engagement with the material of paint, nothing to invite the viewer to indulge into the sumptuous eroticism of paint, nothing to contemplate. Tuymans’ idea of painting is all about surface: flat, fast, and superficial. The aesthetic is designed to echo, as a strategy of representation, the screens that are the preferred form on which we view images. And with that, comes the alienation and coldness that, as we know, takes over when we look at these screens for too long.
Luc Tuymans, The Shore, 2014
Also alienating and cold is the fact that what finds its way into the Tuymans frame is usually not what the painting is about. That is, the important aspects of the image are rarely within the frame, usually just out of frame, creating an ambiguity and a frustration that keeps us looking, even though there is not so much to look at. Nothing is fully visible, if it’s not obscured by the vagueness created through the out of frame, as we see in the title image of this exhibition, The Shore, the light is so black that the white figures becomes ephemeral, a compositional conflict with the darkness that surrounds them. It is one of the many ways that Tuymans insists on abstracting the image and its subject matter.

In this current series, The Shore, at David Zwirner’s London gallery, each of the images has a story, but the story has been removed. The flyer given out by the gallery describes the story, thereby turning ostensibly abstract paintings into narrative paintings. Without the text and the suggestive titles, we might be satisfied with the abstract visions, but with it, we become confused enough to want to cognize what has ultimately been erased or removed from the frame. This is par for the course in an exhibition of Tuymans’ painting. In fact, it is the point of them.
Luc Tuymans, Cloud, 2014
Tuymans, as always, begins with found images, this time from his cell phone, the media, found on the internet. Even though Tuymans’ work is highly original, there’s no such thing as an original image in his body of work. In the ultimate irony, he was found guilty of plagiarism earlier in the year when he painted a portrait of a Belgian politician after a photograph. How can third degree, out of focus, abstracted images possibly be a form of plagiarism? All his images begin somewhere else, of objects and people that somehow become lost to the painted image. Even if they do represent something, a recognizeable object, such as an obelisk, a cloud or a light fitting, the painting is no longer about that object. Ultimately, even when the paintings look as though they are figurative art, they are not, they are, somewhere along the line, transformed into conceptual and abstract works.
Luc Tuymans, Issei Sagawa, 2014
Despite the oft remarked upon links to Gerhard Richter’s painting, I suppose because of the blur, the dependence on photography, the engagement with painting in a post-painterly world, Tuymans is original and innovative. His work is not like Richter’s. Even though both may be challenging and interrogating representation, a challenge that is posed through a use of painting, Tuymans is doing something different. Tuymans does not put painting and the photographic image in a relationship of interchangeability. Rather when he paints Wallpaper (2014) of a luxury hotel he visited in Edinburgh, the off kilter image of an obelisk in a wooded landscape assumes an objectivity, a detachment from the found image, rather than merging the two as Richter usually does.
Luc Tuymans, Wallpaper, 2014
 The press release for The Shore claims that historical subjects of these paintings are placed into the present moment. However, I think his practice is even more radical than this: through the detachment and abstraction of grey paint, I would argue that Tuymans takes the objects and people who might be recognized out of time altogether. And the grey is crucial here: it’s not a grey of darkness and isolation, it’s the gamut of greys that colour the digital screens and other source images that alienate us, that take us out of the reality of time.

What then are these paintings about? Beyond their play with representation three times removed. The work shifts very quickly and easily from highly charged public subject matter across a range of historical sources. For example, the face of Issei Sagawa (2014) who murdered and ate a Dutchwoman and then became a celebrity in his home country of Japan for the bizarre crimes, becomes a fascination for Tuymans. In the blurred, extreme closeup the murderer’s identity is lost or rather, confused by the close to abstraction of the original photograph. Again, Sagawa becomes as ambiguous as the subject matter in Bedroom or The Shore, based on the opening scene of a 1968 colonial film A Twist of Sand in which people are about to be gunned down. I wonder then if any of these paintings, no matter what they represent in the image ever reach beyond a discourse on the image? This is not to demean Tuymans’ paintings because of course, their brilliance lies in the perpetuation of this question that might be unanswerable.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Why I will run the Paris Marathon

Running the semi-marathon in March

I was recently told that “women your age don’t run marathons.” While I understand "women my age" are more prone to injury, I have never seen an age-only warning on a pair of running shoes. So when a friend asked me why I would run a marathon, I didn't have to think about it, the answer is simple:  because I can. I run because I have the health and as a woman living in the West, I can. I run the marathon in celebration of a body that has got me this far in life, to obey the instinct of a body that, for reasons I can’t explain, has been charged with the imperative to run.

I don’t run fast, in fact, like most things I do, I run slowly.  I do the obligatory strengthening exercises to ensure I will run as fast as I can, and I do the speed runs, but I still don't run fast. I won't be running to win on April 12, but rather, am motivated by a commitment to fulfilling my own potential, and a curiosity to find my own limits, to reinforce that I can; that's what keeps me going. What I didn't reckon with was that training for a marathon I would discover so much more about myself than my physical limits. I am learning, about commitment, about finding my rhythms, how to self talk my way through "the wall," but most of all, I am learning how to believe I can.  

My training schedule is all pleasure and joy, thanks to the fact that I live in one of the most beautiful cities on earth, a city that looks gorgeous in every light, no matter the weather.  My long runs are measured by the number of bridges along the Seine. Each week as I have built up miles, I ran a few more bridges until eventually I reached Sèvres and the Bois de Boulogne.  It's a long way, but I get to see Paris in a way I never have before. Some mornings the sun shines so brightly on the river that it sparkles, some mornings the smoke from the chimneys on the outskirts of Ivry appears like a hologram, surrounded by a cold grey, but always translucent sky, a sky that reminds me winter is not quite done.

I ran my hills in Canterbury, sometimes running as far as Whitstable, with a headlight as the dark falls so early in winter. That was until I fell on the entrance to the A2 to London, a bad fall that knocked my confidence, and had me running a far less ambitious route, but still with hills. I don’t enjoy running the hills, and the cold wet England night air can be challenging, but this is when I start California dreaming. It’s what I love about running—there are no limits to what I can imagine when I am running. When I run the Whitstable Road in the dead of winter, in my thoughts I am usually somewhere between Santa Monica and Venice Beach, in the sun and the sea. 

The hardest thing about training for the Paris marathon is the hardest thing about living in Europe in the winter: the cold and dark. I don’t run in the early morning, I don’t get up particularly early, but there are days when my long run is scheduled, so I do it even as the snow begins to fall. There are people I know from my runs, most of them homeless, panhandlers, council workers, the man who walks his dog at the same time I am stretching, the security guards at the bank, the man who sells lunch to the workers from a caravan on the Quai de la Rapée, the woman who sits at the entrance to the toilets on Quai d’Orsay. Very occasionally I see someone I know, from my other life, from those hours of the day when I am not running. All of them, no matter who it is, whether I know them or not, if they smile and say "bonjour," put a spring in my step. I get more energy from seeing familiar faces on my run than I ever have from gels and power drinks.

Four years ago, I announced that I don't run marathons and I never would. What changed? It’s easy. Running is the most resolute reinforcement of my identity, it reminds me who I am, it gives me independence and completion. To run a marathon is a celebration, a celebration of life, of health, and being an independent woman. When my undergraduate women students tell me with long faces that they are conditioned to fill a given social role, to live up to the expectations of a world in which women take their place behind men, I tell them they don't have to comply. They can do whatever they set their minds to. They don't all believe me. Age is changing me. I realize that there will be a time when "a woman of my age" will not be able to run the marathon. I figure that while I can, I need to pass on what I have learnt if I am to fulfill my life’s purpose. And so, I will run the marathon to show to myself and the generation of young women who don't yet believe that they can do whatever they dream, that anything is possible!