Monday, January 25, 2016

L'Eau qui Dort ... is having Nightmares

Michael Pinsky, L'eau qu Dort, 2015

Every fifteen years, since the Canal Saint-Martin was created by Napoleon in 1802, it has to be cleaned. The canal that was once a functioning waterway connecting the Seine to the northern reaches of Paris, looks just like Marcel Carné’s reconstruction in Hotel du Nord (1938) and nothing like its live appearance in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934). And at the moment, barricaded and empty, it looks like neither. It is undergoing what the French call Chômage. Yes, it’s unemployed and unemployable.

Like most things in Paris, disposal of unwanted household items takes time. Each object must be registered online and garbage collection ordered, before it can be placed on the street with a reference number. Given this process, Parisians sometimes find it easier to dump their worn out safes, fridges, chairs, tables, beds and bikes (both motor and push pedal varieties) in the canal. And why take the shopping trolley back to the supermarket when you can just throw it in the canal? And what better solution for disposing of the spare body parts taking up space at home? Because it’s Paris, each object is catalogued and the list made available for public information on the city’s website.

Michael Pinsky, L'eau qui Dort, 2015
A little further up the canal at la Villette, before the chômage began, the artist Michael Pinsky dredged up the refuse at the bottom of the basin and made an exhibition of the arm chairs, filing cabinets, beds, and the inevitable shopping trolleys, and bicycles that had been dumped. Accompanying the discarded objects that appeared to float on the water as art works, speakers along the edges played the curious music made by young people who used the discarded refuse as their instruments. The sounds were like an avant-garde orchestra, clunking and whirring and scraping, sounds that reminded me of machines, chimes in the wind and household objects in use. As the weather changed and the sun rose and set each day along the canal, the atmosphere created by L’eau qui dort was haunting.

Michael Pinsky, L'eau qui Dort, 2015
As I passed the exhibition on my morning run, I was all at once, enchanted, mesmerized and shocked to see what Pinsky dredged up from the bottom of the canal. I was shocked, not only by the objects he found, but the method that Pinsky used to retrieve them. He simply lowered a line and “caught” these fully formed treasures, it was that easy. The treasures doubled as signal to the degree of waste and unseen pollution spoiling Paris. Every visitor I meet waxes lyrical “Oh Paris, it’s so beautiful.” Those of us who live here know that, like any city, it’s not as it appears on its façade.

Michael Pinsky, L'eau qui Dort, 2015
L’eau qui dort coincided with the Climate Change Conference taking place on the other side of Paris at the end of November 2015. Thus, visitors and passers by were also provoked to recognize the participation of Paris in the devastation being caused to the environment through our own un-thought through actions to litter. In a world in which we are increasingly made aware of the urgency of recycling, creating sustainable environments as a way to return to an integration with our natural habitat, to save the planet for the next generation, Pinsky’s project ticks all the right boxes. It is a wake up call to the irresponsibility of people who pollute the environment through improper waste disposal. As an exhibition, it recycles trash to create an inspiring installation that is really both aesthetically pleasing and unsettling. As I ran along the canal during the weeks when it was in place, the installation filled me with wonder and joy. There was something really mystical and extraordinary watching the out of season sun on the waste of a waterway. And at the same time, it was a bold wake up call to the unseen ways that we all contribute to the devastation of the environment. Together with the three month process to clean the canal Saint-Martin, Pinsky’s project leaves us fully convinced that all those elegant Parisians need to take more responsibility for the health and well-being of their beautiful city.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Anselm Kiefer @ Centre Pompidou

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Anselm Kiefer, Pour Paul Celan: Fleur de cendre, 2006
I have followed Anselm Kiefer’s work since the early 1980s and, having seen it many times in exhibition, wondered if there was anything new to see in the retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. It is called a “retrospective,” a title that immediately piqued my curiosity: how can the monumental works of this prolific artist be brought together in one place? How could the vastness of Kiefer’s oeuvre be given comprehension and coherence in the relatively compact space of half of level six? For all these reasons, I decided to take a friend who is not familiar with Kiefer’s work, and whose intellectual life is devoted to French literature and culture. Kiefer’s work is so resolutely German, and for the most part, impenetrable. How would it appear to strangers?
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Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973

Given all the constraints generated by the size and proliferation of Kiefer’s canvases and installations, I have to say, the selection and exhibition of the works did give a good overview of his approaches, aesthetic and thematic concerns. Of course, none of the big installations are included, but what makes this exhibition unique is the centrality given to the monumental paintings from the 1970s and 80s. Many of these, such as Nothung (1973) or Shulamith (1983) are more difficult to access, because they are dark, often filled with decay, cindered remains that are dense with reference to German history, philosophical discourse and layer upon layer of cultural reference. Thus, their placement as key developmental works is a courageous and welcome decision on the part of the Pompidou. I was also impressed with the choice of works, many of them never having been exhibited in France. At least, I had not seen a lot of them. In fact, despite having followed Kiefer’s work for over thirty years, about 70% of them I was seeing in the flesh for the first time. For example, one room is devoted to Kiefer’s Vitrines which were intriguing and hauntingly beautiful. Even though they engage many similar themes to those of the monumental paintings, the vitrines are unique. Aesthetically, their mélange of lead, glass, dust and poetry places them closer to the books than the monumental paintings in the exhibition.

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Anselm Kiefer, Palette on a Rope, 1977
Kiefer’s artistic language is difficult, and I would have thought this were especially so for a French audience. His work represents a constant search for a language with which to understand and integrate the unfathomable complexity of German history into the present. A lot of the time, Kiefer does this through reflection on his own role within that history, within the depiction of that history. Some of his early attempts caused a ruckus in Germany. At a time when silence prevailed around the Holocaust and the presence of Nazi Germany in everyday German life was at best ignored, Kiefer took photographs and painted himself performing Heil Hitler salutes on beaches. In one of my favourite works, Palette on a Rope (1977), an otherwise abstract grey palette is suspended between two cords. The simplicity of Palette on a Rope makes it powerful, an image in which he reduces the discourse on history, memory, representation, far off lands and inexplicable dilemmas to an artist’s palette in grey. This is, of course, Kiefer’s way of making sense of all that he paints: through his eyes as an artist.
Dem Unbekannten Maler (To the Unknown Painter)
Anselm Kiefer, Nothung, 1973
I was interested in my friend Loren’s response, as someone schooled in French thought, before a body of work, so resolutely German. He saw it is as a kind of writing, a furious attempt to communicate to the point where it becomes like graffiti, scribbling and scrawling, defacing and revising the history. This is, as he pointed out, what saves Kiefer from the accusation of grandiosity, and a sense of his own importance--he sometimes equates the artist with God--to understanding the depths of history. All of Kiefer’s canvases and are steeped in irony, an irony that takes many different forms. There are moments when we suspect he is being the self-conscious provocateur. At others, he lets slip an uncertainty of his own centrality, his own grasp on what he represents. It’s not only in the uneven textures, the burning of his own and other’s work, the erasure of his images. But also, irony pervades the depth and richness of the references, the complexity of materials that are always charged with a significance that enables them to articulate beyond their materiality. Added to this, the paintings are like visual events that are the equivalent of a Paul Celan poem in which there is no structure, no language which could possibly articulate the depth and complexity of what he is already representing. It is, ultimately, the only way Kiefer dares to paint something that cannot be painted.

As I say, Kiefer often puts the painter at the centre of these vast universes, but the painter is always anonymous, equated with the unknown soldier, a nobody. In To the Unknown Painter (1983) the mausoleum is built for the painter as God, equated with Hitler through its architecture and an unknown soldier, the symbolic death for a nation’s loss. As always, the tomb (of the painter) is surrounded by death, fire, and skies heavy with lead. The corrosion of the textured canvas becomes the image of German history, dried up, burnt, never to rise again.
Anselm Kiefer, Etroits sont les vaisseaux, 2002

I also wondered for the first time, do we really need to know the references to history, to legend, to the Nazis in order to access Kiefer’s work? Doesn’t this painting with its black, ashen decay, show everything it needs to, visually? Even though the paintings simultaneously are not always asking to be seen, but rather, they become like philosophical dramas asking to be read.

Our conversation about the landscapes brought new insights. We discussed the landscapes as an invitation to go on a journey, to trudge across dirty snow scattered with books, lead books, burnt books, to a distant horizon that, for Kiefer, always promises through a ray of hope. The books are burnt, books are stepping stones on a journey, they are placemarks in history as well as the detritus of that same history, they represent a knowledge that is now out of date. And the books are usually written by men. They scatter these landscapes, just as the official versions of history, but with characteristic Kiefer irony, the books are the litter that make this land a repository for the rubbish of history. And it goes on: books deface the canvas to show that this is just a story, a story that can be rewritten, trashed, once again, ensuring that Kiefer’s repeated message is clear: I do not claim to have the last say about this history that I paint.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Demain de Cyril Dion et Mélanie Laurent

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Demain is an unlikely film and as a film, it’s nothing special. It’s a very conventional documentary with nothing memorable in its mode of address, and much of its subject matter will not be new to a lot viewers. But unusually, for a mainstream documentary playing at the UGC cinemas in Paris to full houses over the holidays, Demain has left me thinking and inspired.

While it critiques the governments, institutions and mechanisms that perpetuate the destruction of the planet, social crises, and economic alienation, the film is inspiring for its choice to offer solutions. Demain is a film about what we can do, rather than who we need to hate. The film is about so much more than the imperative to recycle and regenerate all of our own energy, waste, and lifestyle. In addition to the creative solutions of making our own money, creating economies that generate income for those who work within them, growing our own food, choosing green and sustainable lifestyles, Demain convinced me of the reason we don’t already. It’s in the interests of governments--particularly in America--to perpetuate the use of fossil fuels, battery fed chickens and, in Europe, to make donations of billions to Greece, rather than teaching them how to build a self sustaining economy. Perhaps Demain is idealist, but it showed me how the systems of food and energy and money and education are an extension of the alienation of capitalism as it has developed over the last century. The further we are from the source of production--whether it be energy, food, money or government--the less control we have over our own lives. Isn’t that interesting? The more ecologically friendly we live, the more choice we have in our lives. And it is only because we are told that malls and cars, money and tax regulations brings us freedom that we continue to choose the easy, unhealthy and detrimental to the environment options.

I was also interested to see that the communities that have adopted the measures suggested by the film are mostly not in the financially prosperous West. The exceptions were found in Basel, Switzerland and the Scandinavian countries where governments make choices not based on the pressures of high unemployment, poverty and fluctuating currencies.  In Detroit and Brixton, Bristol and Todmorden in the UK, the investment in healthier, cleaner, greener communities, makes them low on the national interest list. As the film suggests, for other governments, the price of endorsing such changes would be politically and economically too high. This, in itself, makes me applaud Obama for his attempts to raise ecological awareness and reduce the world’s carbon footprint.

If you are interested in how all this is argued, that's a good reason to go and see the film. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Oresteia (An Organic Comedy?), directed by Romeo Castellucci @ Odéon Théâtre de l'Europe

Photo by Guido Mencari |

Today I experienced Romeo Castellucci’s theatre for the first time: Oresteia at the Odéon Théâtre. Wow. I know he is considered one of Europe’s most exciting experimental dramaturgs, and though his work has played on Paris stages a number of times, tickets are nearly impossible to get. And now I know why. This is among the most inspiring theatre I have seen. It’s mindblowing. I don’t really have a language with which to write about this, it is so far from anything I have seen and know. However, I must blog it because everyone needs to know about Romeo Castellucci.

Where to begin? The man behind me told his companion on a couple of occasions that “these characters are all out of Alice in Wonderland.” Which they are not. I know why he said this though, and will give him the benefit of the doubt that he was not just referring to the centrality of a rabbit who leads the chorus. There is something so ominous, grey, apocalyptic about the visual and sonic density of Castellucci’s Oresteia that it could be taking place down the rabbit hole, behind the looking glass. The whole of the first part of the Aeschylus trilogy unfolds behind a black scrim, giving the stage a blurred lens, making the hellish world of war even more intrepid. The cold, ruinous world behind the scrim is the stage for the power, violence, and the horror of subjection that plague a mythical world at war with itself. Of course, there must be some resonance for an audience in 2015.
Murder about to begin
The bodies of the actors are everything for Castellucci. Their physical appearances are also their allegorical significance in the drama. Unlike the naked bodies of most actors we see on stage today, Castellucci’s are bold and extreme in their size and shape: the actor who plays Apollo is perfect in every way, except that he has no arms. Women are huge as an expression of their power--Clytemnestra for example is obese “because she weighed down heavily on the drama, and Agamemnon was played by a Down syndrome actor “because he was a monarch, and did not enter into discussion.” Orestes and Pylades are anorexic as a statement of their impotence, and because they are covered in flour, they have a ghost-like appearance, marking their other-worldliness.

Torture before murder
Photo by Guido Mencari |
The events of the play are horrific - murder, revenge, torture - when Oresteia kills his mother with a mechanical arm holding a knife, thus, gives over all control, the bloody murder is chilling. When the messenger whips the rabbit, having previously attached its ears to a mechanical hoist, I wanted to jump out of my seat it was so violent. Much of the action is accompanied by either music or silence. When there is talking, the voices are often distorted, thus again, the meaning is not contained in the words that are spoken, but in how they are articulated, and from what body.

However, none of this really articulates the wonder of this theatre. It’s not about the story and neither is it about the description of what takes place on stage. Castellucci says of Artaud in an interview, that the great playwright was in fact a philosopher who happened to present his ideas to the world through the theatre. I am tempted to say the same of Castellucci. I am not really equipped to comment on his philosophy, but I can comment on his mise-en-scène. Castellucci does everything. He is the director, the scenographer, the lighting designer, the casting director, the music director, and he creates a visual and sonic world of wonder. I kept thinking that nothing is impossible to execute on this stage. Whatever he thinks of he will do.

Romeo Castellucci - Socìetas Raffaello Sanzio-Oresteia (an organic comedy?) Photo #1
To give one example, of which there are many: in the final part of the surviving trilogy, after walking backwards and forwards, over and over again, before a black-drawn curtain that extends across the stage, in silence, Orestes rips down the curtain. Behind is a perfect circle in glass, through which we see monkeys on scaffolding, free to move as they will. Orestes climbs into their space, together with Athena (I think), and he becomes one of the monkeys. He moves with his anorexic, almost pre-pubescent, body as they do, swinging from the scaffolding, silently, crouched in reflection, before playing with each other and themselves in the amber light of the aftermath of matricide. It was the most superb image: it evoked the looking glass, the camera obscura, the telescope to another world. We had already seen an albino donkey and a horse, as Castellucci uses the animals for their significance to the definition of human nature, but nothing prepared me for an image so beautiful to signify freedom from the barbarity of the previous two hours.

This is avant-garde theatre at its most exquisite and, to be honest, reading about it is not enough. Everyone must experience Castellucci’s theatre at least once in their lives.