Sunday, December 31, 2017

César, La Rétrospective @ Centre Pompidou

César, Blu Francia 490, 1998
I chose the César retrospective over the Dérain at the Pompidou purely on the basis of the fact that the lines were slightly shorter. And what a great decision that was. This exhibition is a delight, and as the number of children, and their level of engagement with the art demonstrated, the work has a broad accessibility while still being challenging aesthetically and ostensibly politically motivated. 

As I see them, the sculptures from across his career fall into roughly two camps: those that recycle iron and other metals into figurative sculptures that, generally speaking, end up representing the human body, and the abstract works. Of course, given my penchant for abstract and experimental art, it’s the latter that I found fascinating.
César, Enveloppage, 1971
The most exciting for me (and those that seemed to attract a lot of attention from the children) were what he named “the Expansions.” To create these massive blobs, glugs, and what looked like syrupy mixtures César added freon to polyurethane foam with the result of a material that swells as it dries, which apparently happens very quickly. The works themselves reminded me of huge piles of scatological waste, but at the same time, because César controls their form as he pours (ie. before they set) the finished pieces are slick. This also results from his addition of a fiberglass reinforced resin to the mixture to gives the amorphous shapes a clean, shiny surface. I found them very challenging because they are on the one hand just a mess of material, and on the other, there is something very beautiful and highly sensuous about the finished product. The works are, in a way, about nothing more than the artist’s process of working with the material – which can be seen in the visualization of the very folds that results from the pouring of the liquid. This reduction—or elevation—of the work to the process of making it reminded me of the experimental film works that were being made in the 1960s, particularly in the US, but to some extent in Europe. That is, César’s sculptures establishing an interesting and very unusual interface with the cinema as the medium of transitoriness and simultaneous substantive reference of reality.
Giant Thumb Outside the Pompidou
The fact that César’s sculptures are also made in the 1960s made them provocative: this moment in the development of American art when everything was about stripping away the decoration, the excess and the drama of the art work. In the “in-forme” abjection of the amorphous sculptures, it was as though César took the very characteristics that were jettisoned by the art world in the 1960s and made them into works worthy of museum display.
César, Dauphine, 1959
The other works that I found fascinating, were those he called ‘the Compressions.” I have to say, my first thought when I saw these cars slammed in a machine that made them either flat or into a cube of crumpled metal was John Chamberlain. But unlike Chamberlain’s sculptures of recycled car metal, César’s are neither expressionist, nor fully abstracted. We are in no doubt as to what this pile of metal was before it was put into a press and made into an art object. The remains of the car make the works highly political. We see cars is made into an art works and then placed on a wall of a gallery, in the very same mode of exhibition as a painting. Clearly, there is a lot going on here: the fetishization of the car as possession; the critique of the consumption of convenience objects such as the car; the critique of the museum’s applause for works that have little commercial value; the retrieval of waste and subsequent recycle into aesthetic objects to be pondered.
César, Compression, Ricard, 1962

A word about his process in all the works: everything César made was apparently done so from found materials. The museum text reiterated his lifelong poverty and as a result, his reliance on the materials he could find. He is quoted by the museum literature as making works that are dictated by the material. And so, we get see objects in which the artist himself is completely removed from the process of production: he welds, pours, folds, casts, envelopes in plastic, objects and materials that already exist. He is not creating anything anew, so to speak. But rather, César’s art is always a production process. And yet, he is everywhere present in all the works: if it’s not his thumb being reproduced all over the place, his presence to the work is shown through the fact that they are reproductions of his process.
César, Expansion, no. 14, 1970

This is a fascinating exhibition, and as I say, one for the whole family at holiday time!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Risiera san Sabba @ Trieste

Outline of the destroyed crematorium at Risiera san Sabba
on the other side of that wall was the kitchen

Today I visited Risiera San Sabba, a former rice husking factory that was taken over by the Nazis and used as a concentration camp in 1943. It is one of the few death camps in Italy, in prime location to put a stop to the resisters and political dissenters from Slovenia and Croatia as well as Italian soldiers and Jews. The haunting turn of the century red-brick building was taken over by the Nazis as a facility for detaining and killing political prisoners—predominantly Italian soldiers and members of the resistance—a transit camp for Jews before they were sent off to Auschwitz, and a store house for confiscated goods. Even in spite of the fact that it sits in the centre of a residential area, at the time little was known of the operations taking place inside the former factory.
Concrete walls recently built
Steel flooring covers areas where buildings once stood
Perhaps the most chilling aspect of the complex is the outline left on the side of a wall by a crematorium that the Nazis ignited before they evacuated so as to erase all trace of their hideous crimes. I can’t think of another example of attempted erasure in a death camp that speaks as loudly of the presence of crimes committed therein. It is even more frightening to experience the proximity of the extermination facility in the courtyard just meters away from where prisoners were held in detention. A display in the museum established on the other side of the wall that would have abutted the crematorium tells of how the captors turned the music up so loud that the local people didn’t hear the screams of the victims as they were sent to their death. Today, it’s unimaginable that the people in the surrounding town would not have known what was going on inside the former factory. However, in between the testimonies and documents on display there is a strong sense of choosing not to know. The reasons for turning a blind eye were complex and ranged from a form of denial as self-protection and to silent complicity.  
Cells used to hold prisoners
Italy’s own fascist dictatorship in power at the time is hardly mentioned in the museum displays, and it’s a silence that can't be overlooked. There was no doubt in my mind that the politics of Italy must have contributed both to success of the facility and to the fact that it took over 30 years before the process of reparation for the crimes was begun. And then, even in 1976 when the trials were staged, the results were highly unsatisfactory with the precise number of deaths never acknowledged, and only one person apparent guilty of thousands of deaths. This was thanks to the fact that the perpetrators were German being judged in Italy and the messiness of the legislation in the region that was the jurisdiction of the Reich in 1943-45.

On a cold and dark late afternoon in winter, as I wandered through the cells, a building without air and light where up six prisoners were packed into a space 1.20m long and 2m high with only a couple of wooden planks for beds, it was like stepping into 1940s. In the bitterly cold space—in every sense of the word—I felt surrounded by the insanity of Nazi’s thinking and the brutality of their actions. A single rose attached to one of the wooden pylons expressed the sadness of what words can’t articulate. In an ante-room for the crematorium, known as the death room, were bodies were dumped before being incinerated the texture of the walls and the stones underfoot have been left as they were found. The rough cold to the touch surfaces give way to profound memory of the crimes they have witnessed. At various points along the walls, small displays of possessions such as glasses with broken frames, a silver fob watch with no face, and a comb with most of its teeth missing, and identity papers of the dead were heartbreaking.

Commemoration sculpture by Marcello Mascherini, 1958
Visiting concentration and extermination camps is never an enjoyable experience, but there are a number reasons why Risiera San Sabba is imperative viewing. First, it has a complicated history that is woven into the political and social complexity of the Trieste region, including the fact that it was not under Italian rule at the time. As a result, the identification of perpetrators and justice for the past has taken over sixty years to unfold. This comes as both testimony and warning to the fact that violence and ethnic cleansing are never self-contained events. Rather, they tear apart the social fabric of a more than one country for generations. Second, the ills of industrialization are writ large on these walls where the history of the facility converted from one kind of factory to another (that of industrial killing) is made visible. And lastly, as the the emptiness and absence of the past made unusually present through the visitor's experience at this haunting site of destruction.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige in Prix Marcel Duchamp @ Pompidou Centre

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Palimpsests, 2017
The good news about the selection process for the Prix Marcel Duchamp is that there’s very little to argue about with the choice for winner. But this is also the bad news because of the four 2017 finalists (now on display at the Centre Pompidou), as is often the case, the winner’s work is above and beyond the conceptual and artistic merit of the others. This year, there’s no question that Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige’s installation is the worthy winner of the prize. The other three entries are, however, disappointing. Maja Bajivec, Charlotte Moth and Vittorio Santo’s work doesn’t have the complexity and challenge that we might expect from the leading contemporary artists working in France today.

Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Palimpsests, 2017
Hadjithomas and Joreige present a series of pieces representing the process of what is known as “coring”: when a machine pulls out (in the shape of an apple core) the sediments that lay beneath construction sites in Athens, Beirut and Paris. The result is a fascinating collection of film, installation and sketches. The stones unearthed from beneath the three cities in which they live are suspended in resin tubes and hung from the ceiling of the exhibition space. They were very beautiful, some of them even had these silver faces that made them look like gem stones. It was striking to note also how what exists beneath these cities with extremely different histories, politics, cultures, values, symbolic significance and vastly different situations on the world stage are almost identical when reduced to rocks suspended in resin.
Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige
Installation View
The rocks are supposedly remainders of buried cities, the subterranean world that exist beneath each of the three cities. Thus, in the tubes we see a physical manifestation of the past, the excavation of what has otherwise been forgotten and “erased” in the name of progress. The text accompanying the exhibit claims it represents a digging into the past in order to explore the present. However, to me, the works do more than that: they show traces of the unknown, ignored worlds that have been covered over by the sameness of progress. In addition, the extra-large vials preserve the past: they store traces of worlds that cannot be seen in the anticipation of a future generation. Maybe someone in the future, archaeologists will be able to decipher geological finds. It’s also quite easy to imagine the tragedies and other human stories that might be fosilized in the stones, but that are not yet legible. No doubt the new technologies of the future will enable legibility.

A film that accompanies the hanging tubes represents the difference between the cities rebuilt, that is, what is laid over the top of the ruins and underground cities: they are whole new worlds that have little concern for the past. Around the edges of the gallery we see excavation and geological drawings and photographs, together with narratives about the cities, the processes of building, coring, erasing and exposing the past as it has been surreptitiously wiped away. The artists’ giving of a story to these events is so speculative that it becomes abstract, almost like poetry. 

Images courtesy of Centre Pompidou