Saturday, December 25, 2010

Raul Ruiz, Mysteries of Lisbon, 2010

At four and a half hours, Ruiz’ version of Mysteries of Lisbon, an adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1852 novel, might be called epic. But given that there are no heroes here, no heroic deeds or events, no masters, no grand historical claims, it doesn’t really sustain such an ordinary assignation. In fact, the film is constantly working against the possibility of grandeur or mastery, opting instead for a sprawling and undulating narrative filled with infinite twists and turns that makes it, ultimately, elusive. This is a film in which the conventions of story telling are used to do rail against the epic.

The film opens with the story of a young, presumably orphaned boy in a monastery school being sketched by an Englishwoman. We never see her again, and the film never explains what she was doing sketching his portrait in the first place. She doesn’t, afterall, seem to be important, but her portrait of the boy is one of the handful of objects he holds onto throughout his life. He hangs it on the wall of every room he inhabits thereafter, irrespective of how long or short the stay. The boy also places a maquette of a theater given him by his mother, and a wooden ball given him by the priest who runs the boys’ school on the dresser of every room he occupies. These three objects are about all young Pedro, or João, as he is also known, and we alike, get to hold onto in a film that flows between past and present, between countries, epochs and generations, unpredictably. Voices, images, characters and places are fluid, and constantly changing through camerawork that equally often breaks the rules of continuity filmmaking. Throughout, Ruiz uses very conventional narrative, story telling strategies, but he confuses them through inventive camerawork that will be familiar to connoisseurs of his films. The flashback, for example, is abundant, but not signaled as such. Rather across edits the film moves with ease through times, spaces, character identities. The camera will track through 360 degrees and as the circle closes, the character seen at the beginning of the tracking shot will appear in a different costume, younger or older than originally. Or if a conventional flashback is signaled, for example through dialogue, the voice of the teller will change in the flashback, so it might in fact be someone else's memory, but we do not know whose. Alternatively, the character in the flashback looks so completely different that we do not immediately believe him to be the one speaking in voiceover narration.

Like Three Crowns of a Sailor (1983), everyone in Mysteries of Lisbon has a story, and everyone must tell his or her story. But it is through listening to someone else's story, not telling his or her own, that each character will discover and define who he or she is. And this search for an identity is in the end, what the film is about. Everyone is in pursuit of who they are, who their parents were, how they got to be where they are. And as they don costumes and names as easily as they change identities, social classes and pick up with the next lover, finding a stable identity is never achieved. As the priest becomes a soldier, he then goes back within his story as a soldier, to tell an anecdote that reveals he was also a gentleman after he was a soldier. While he is a soldier we also learn how he comes by a gypsy outfit that he dons in a plot to save the boy Pedro's life from a killer who then becomes a count, that is, after he is a pirate. And then the same priest goes to another monestary where he meets his father who, in turn, goes back in time to tell his own story which is, of course, the story of the priest himself. So not only do the characters transform themselves across this wandering narrative, as they tell their story, they also mutate into either a protagonist in the listener's story, or they assume the story of the listener him or herself. 

As I say, the lyrical unfolding of stories within stories, in which identities shift in and out of different times and places, across continents is all nourished by the sumptuous camera work familiar to Ruiz's films. As well as the magical 360 degree pans, we see shadows and reflections on surfaces that do not exist, impossible views from under the floor as if through a glass ceiling. And when he is not tricking us, the image is exquisite. In one such moment, filled with irony and beauty, two lovers discover they have been found out by the woman’s husband, they presume. How did he find out, the man, who ends up being the priest's father, asks genuinely perplexed. And as he asks, the shot is framed, masked vertically, we are led to believe by curtains behind which a servant watches the lovers' triste. The curtains gently pulled back, not only reveal the scene, but they place us in the privileged position of voyeur, from behind the curtains. And in the distance, on the other side of the room, through glass doors that open out onto a garden, we see a solitary servant standing, watching, everything. And so the layering of foreground, middle ground and background, through windows, doors and curtains, creates a game of deceit and discovery that so counters the lovers' conversation that their naïvety becomes stupidity. All this, in a single frame. 

There are, as might be expected, an infinity of themes, subplots, morals and meanings. For example, money changes hands constantly, however, having money is not so important. On the one hand, what is important is not to accept money that does not belong to you. Pedro's mother is offered a fortune by her unfaithful husband, a count. She chooses not to accept the money, and thereby impoverishes her son and hence hinders his entry into the monastery school. She dies a solitary death of the plague in a convent, and sees her son only once, through the grate of the convent. And yet, he was the reason for which she lived in the first place. She claims to retain her honour by not accepting the money because her husband had kept her locked up and  had betrayed her for an affair that produced the illegitimate son in the first place. This, despite the fact she had already had the child before they were married! On the other hand, this does not mean that to have money is a bad thing. Indeed, those who are redeemed are those with the money: the assassin who the priest – then a gypsy – pays off to ensure he does not kill the boy – is redeemed in his life of luxury and social elevation. As is the count, who, on his deathbed offers his fortune to Pedro's mother, his wife. Money, like everyone and everything else in Mysteries of Lisbon, is also fluid and unpredictable in the values it carries within it, and the meanings given it by the film. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Mondrian au Centre Pompidou

Mondrian, Composition in Red, Blue and White II, 1937

Tonight, I went to see Mondrian and de Stijl at the Centre Pompidou, and I nearly cried. I didn’t particularly like the hanging of many of Mondrian’s greatest paintings that are on display here. Although this huge exhibition did, at times, gesture in the right direction, in true Centre Pompidou style, there was way too much going on, and to be seen properly it would need at least three full days. While I see the logic of bringing Mondrian and De Stijl together — more on that in the next blog entry — as an exhibition it was too big and too overwhelming. That said, being in the presence of Mondrian’s paintings reminds me of what joy it is to be alive. 

Mondrian, The Gray Tree, 1912

Mondrian’s paintings are among those of a handful of artists that have been reproduced ad infinitum on cups, postcards, posters, t-shirts, and every other object that can be sold for a profit to those who want to own a slice of modern art. This is perhaps what makes the paintings themselves all the more exciting: the reproductions have nothing at all to do with the paintings. From the very beginning, Mondrian’s work is a love affair with paint. Even in the early years when he was painting portraits, the sea, things as we know them in the world, the paintings are about the problem of the medium, they are about how to find a form that is truer to the limitations and possibilities of painting. I had forgotten The Grey Tree, from 1912, a painting that sits on the precipice of abstraction, a painting that marks the beginning of Mondrian’s most prolific and experimental period. The grey tree encapsulates everything for which Mondrian will become famous, its influence will ricochet throughout the twentieth century. And yet, it is grey, recognizeably a tree, in its own frame, ostensibly bearing no resemblance at all to the forms and patterns in red yellow and blue that are reproduced everywhere. The grey may not have the dynamism of red yellow and blue, but that is just the point. Mondrian strips away the distraction of color and focuses on the brushstroke: thick, defined and defiant bare boughs that waver in the still, cold air that surround them. And the boughs become lines, depending on our perspective, in tension with the air that is really a series of staccato, emphatic horizontal white to grey strokes. Line and color are engaged in a battle with each other, even if that color is white or grey. Figure and ground are in the process of merging completely, on the surface of the canvas.

Composition in Red Yellow and Blue, 1927

In a room that was, for me, the centerpiece of the exhibition, a room filled with works from the 1920s and 1930s when one war had subsided, the other still to come, the paintings gradually enter into a world of their own, independent of any influence I may have over them. I last saw paintings such as the compositions in red yellow and blue in New York at MoMA in 1996. There and then, they were hung differently, in galleries that were not thoroughfares, but discreet spaces that invited the paintings to speak to each other. These masterpieces were exhibited slowly and silently, in chronological order, fully allowed to contradict and to enhance each other, to confuse us, to provoke us to marvel at their independence from anything we might think about them. At the Centre Pompidou this sense of community between the compositions is gestured towards, but not fully enabled. Still, we become confused by them, as we try to work out if the red square is bigger than the blue. Is the white between the black lines equal, which is the line and which the color, or is it, in the end, all an optical illusion? These games that the paintings as a community play with us are the great joy of letting go to the magic of Mondrian. It is then that we begin to feel the vibrations as they rub up against each other, constantly moving, changing and deceiving us as our vision is tested against the forms and surfaces of lines, the blocks of red, yellow and blue. This is what makes not only Mondrian's canvases, but the experience of painting life changing.

The excess of context for Mondrian’s greatness is reflected in the enormity of the exhibition at the Centre Pompidou. That this great master was not working in a void, but rather came at the end of a long line of Flemish masters, in a land filled with water, flatness and a natural world waiting to be echoed in painting. This is interesting, in and of itself, but I wonder if it is really what Mondrian has most to offer the world today? Is the intellectual, historical understanding of color on a canvas, ultimately, as interesting as the relationship we enter with them as we stand, among the paintings, listening with our eyes to their intensity?

I was with friends who were unaccustomed to modern art. When I explained Mondrian’s preoccupation with the problem of painting, the revolution that he spearheaded in the attempt to break away from centuries of perspectival renderings as the great deception of painting, they said “uh ha.” And when I talked about his challenge to perception via a fusion of figure and ground, line and color, the space of representation and that beyond the frame, they seemed to be engaged. However, when I asked them to watch the surprises and unpredictable optical movements of the untitled compositions, asking them what they saw, over time, their faces lit up. It was in this gesture of measuring their own perception against the ingenuity of Mondrian’s compositions that my friends became really engaged. Indeed, they were fascinated, visibly animated by the magic of abstract painting as it came alive in a relationship they developed with what was, otherwise, paint on a canvas in a frame hung on a wall next to another image of paint on a canvas in a frame hung on a wall. And I ask myself, isn’t this what painting is all about? Isn’t this what Mondrian was looking for in the first place? 

Monday, December 20, 2010

Raimund Hoghe, Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert

At a work Christmas party tonight, I talked with a colleague about the density and complex chaos of the Wooster Group’s productions. And as I rode my bike home through the snow, I thought how the performance I saw on Saturday night, Raimund Hoghe’s Si je meurs, laissez le balcon ouvert,  might possibly be as diametrically opposed to the Wooster Group as it is possible to be. Hoghe’s collage of dance styles and traditions, dissolving from Romanticism into abstraction, seemed to move at a pace as gentle as the Wooster Group’s performances are frenetic. Where the Wooster Group pack a kaleidoscope of people, things, times and spaces, as well as geographical locations, theatrical traditions and oeuvres onto the tiny stage of the Performing Garage, Hoghe’s stage is sparsely populated, lonely, intensely introspective, lyrical and abstract. Where I have come away from seeing the Wooster Group in the past marveling at their ability to create profundity out of a chaotic layer upon layer of texts, images, bodies, cacophonic dialogue, and sets that are constantly on wheels, in motion, I came away on Saturday night with a sense of quiet awe at the serenity of Si je meurs, laissez le balcon ouvert

 Takashi Ueno and Marion Ballester 
This is not to say that Hoghe’s choereography, inspired by a Lorca poem, Adieu is emotionless or stagnant, far from it. Rather, there is something about it that makes me come away feeling as though I was meditating for three hours. Even though at times there is a powerful intensity to the dance and the emotions it expresses, these moments are couched in a quiet resignation to the place of such emotions in the montage of life on its way to death, of the advent of death, and its opening up to life, from the balcony. In one extraordinary vignette, somewhere in the middle of the three hours of fragmentary dance, the frustrations and anger, the resignation to loss and its shadow over every movement that comes in its wake, is danced to the crescendos of a full orchestra requiem. Marion Ballester was literally chased around the stage by Takashi Ueno, passionately, in a frenzied desperation. He never catches her, and yet, as she evades his reach at every turn and twist, he smiles with glee at her cold, relentless cruelty. Suddenly, Hoghe, who has been sitting watching the performance, holding a bouquet of flowers on the side of the stage, gets up, yells his disapproval and comes between them to break the tension, momentarily. But the arrest of this painful pursuit is always impossible because Ballester is the figure of death, clad in black, angry and raging out of control.

Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert is supposedly an homage to Dominique Bagouet, the young dancer who died of AIDS last year. But when Hoghe appeared in a soft silk dress, my friend Anne leaned across and reminded me it was a Pina Bausch dress. Hoghe quietly moved a hand, raised the shoe lace straps, placed his arm around the tall woman next to him, quietly and gently offering one of the few moments of human contact in the entire performance. As if in homage to Bausch, such gestures resonate throughout the performance to create something beautiful, strange, tragically hopeful. Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert was, like a Bausch performance, a surreal reflection on death, memory, hatred and desire, none of which can be pinned down.

And then Hoghe appears appeared in a black jester’s hat and a long black coat, I imagine paying homage to Dominique Béjart who also died recently in 2007. Like Béjart’s most celebrated productions, Hoghe’s work appears so simple that there are times when it seems as though not so much is happening on the stage. But it is in the raising of a hand, or the peeling of an orange (as Hoghe does opposite Ornella Balestra in a breathtakingly beautiful scene) that everything about being human, every desire and frustration, is revealed. And like Béjart, Hoghe places the young male dancer in the spotlight. Witness Emmanuel Eggermont shift from burlesque through pantomimic and classical dances to his closing solo in which he twists and turns his body such that it becomes an abstraction in the slowly fading spotlight. He was, in many ways, the highlight of Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert. Thus, this is a piece about death, loss, memory, about the end of the twentieth century, the end of an era in modern dance, an era which was shaped by three masters who recently died: Pina Bausch, Dominique Béjart and Merce Cunningham. And it is simultaneously a celebration of the life of the male body.

Emmanuel Eggermont

Faced with the difficulty of interpreting Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert, I am left simply observing a work filled with confrontation, pain and remorse. The confrontation extends limitlessly: between texts taken from Goethe, Lorca, and others, music of all eras and genres, between the rich variety of colors and the death of black that cloaks their bodies, between death and the life that is invited in through the open doors of the balcony, between the dance styles of Bausch, Béjart, Cunningham, all of which, for Hoghe, begin with the classical. And then, as Balestra stands tall, imposing, completely possessed of her own grandeur stands as if on her balcony, and as she beckons her audience below to adore her, I am reminded that the confrontation extends into the space between life and representation. As Si je meurs laissez le balcon ouvert slides into the world of representation, we are invited to occupy that space opened by the death of representation and of dance in the twentieth century, as well as that space of mourning that we drift in and out of in the unconsciousness of loss. This is the only way to explain why it is so mesmerizing.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Mathilde Monnier and Dominique Figarella, Soapéra au Centre Pompidou

A choreographer and a painter joining forces to create an opera, Soapéra, in which the medium is soap bubbles? It was all very unlikely, and I couldn’t imagine what this would be like. I am so happy I surmounted my skepticism of what sounded like one of those camped up, post modernist, not very meticulously sewn tapestries of faux intellectual frivolity. Mathilde Monnier, the choreographer and Dominique Figarella, the painter, created a piece that was as sensuous and subtle as it was dense and imaginative.

As we arrived in our seats in the large theater at the Pompidou Centre, soap bubbles were spewing forth from a huge pipe suspended above the stage, settling into a cloud of soap bubbles of considerable dimensions. As we sat in silence, we began to see something. Though I was initially unsure if I was imagining it, the cloud of soap bubbles began to change shape ever so slowly and slightly. The first half had begun. It was a mesmerizing image as the four dancers very slowly crawled underneath the soap, moving as if they were on the moon, slowly, at the same pace as the soap bubbles. They made shapes with the soap, standing up, lifting an arm, and the soap would obediently rise up, as a mass, to a height double that of the standing human figure. Who knew this is how excessive amounts of soap bubbles would behave? Accompanying this entrancing vision was a soundtrack, eerily like heavy breathing, as though the astronauts wading across this previously undiscovered planet whose surface is covered in soap were breathing artificially.

As we watched in total silence, the manipulations, distortions and elongations of the soap bubbles, the moment came when everyone in the audience began to cough. Again, who would have thought that soap detergent gives off fumes that could make the entire audience in the Pompidou’s huge theater cough uncontrollably? And so our coughing took over as the soundtrack, noises generated by soap bubbles.


And then, in what I understood to be the second part of Soapéra, the bubbles disintegrated. Without soap, the dancers were left on a black felt-laid stage with a white square in the middle. This square then became their medium. They picked it up, slammed it against the wall (above), rested it on their outstretched legs, and then when the soap had all disappeared, they danced on the white square, writhed on it, crawled underneath and around it.

Because much is made of the fact that Monnier the choreographer comes together with Figarella the painter to create a new medium on this strange planet of Soapéra, I was compelled to imagine the dialogue between dance and painting as I watched the piece. In the first half, the soap was the paint, flowing, viscous, being pushed around the canvas by the dancers as unseen brushes, molding their movements to become one with the medium. In the second half, the merging is complete: they take off their grey protective hooded jackets, to become four brushes: golden, green, yellow and white, their tops colored as though their upper bodies have been dipped each in a different colored can of paint. And as brushes, they danced on their white canvas. The dancing and movement was as agitated, energetic and disconnected in the second half as it was minimal, fluid and gracious in the first. And so the unpredictability of paint, the sensuousness of working it across a canvas in a search to discover its infinite forms of behavior, its endless possibilities, is perhaps just like the exploration of another planet; strange, unknown and a constant negotiation with the unknown, the not yet colonized.

Often today, contemporary dance performances are uneven, a single dancer being so much better than all the others such that an imbalance and a kind of inertia result on the stage. However, the last thing I must say about Soapéra, and one of the qualities that make it so captivating is the equality of the four dancers. Each was very different in his and her particular personalities, but their level of exertion, the assimilation of their movements with the body as energy source and their physical relationship with each other was, in all four dancers, exceptional.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ryoji Ikeda, data.matrix[no.1-10], 2010 Forum, Centre Pompidou

Georgia and I met on Friday one last time before she goes off to the sun and surf of California for the winter. Because it was our final get together we chose carefully: Nancy Spero and Aman at the Pompidou Centre. While we bemoaned the vacuity of Aman’s work and the small range of the Spero’s on exhibition, sipping our tea, I started folding the Pompidou’s “what’s on today” sheet and suddenly realized that we were perfectly timed for the opening of the latest Ryoji Ikeda installation, data.matrix[no.1-10], 2010. And so we rushed downstairs for what I knew would be an unforgettable experience.


Ikeda’s work is the closest thing I know to brilliance. In fact his work is so haunting, mesmerizing, hypnotic, challenging in every way — physically, emotionally, spiritually — that I can never do justice to it in writing. If you only go to see one piece of art this year, Data.matrix [no.1-10] has to be it. 

datamatics [prototype-ver.2.0]
Apparently Ikeda is a composer, but he could just as easily be an engineer, a computer programmer, a filmmaker, a mathematician, a physicist, an architect or a philosopher. His electronic and digital sound-image installations and environments are so expansive, so complex that they not only engage us on every level, demanding activation of all our senses, our minds, our instincts, but they also embrace every form of epistemology, and every form of communication. It is difficult to capture data.matrix [no.1-10] in words because its uniqueness demands a whole new language. I don’t fully understand Ikeda’s work. Not only because the acoustic and visual environment is beyond human time and space, but I am not a sound technician, neither am I a physicist, a mathematician, a computer programmer or an engineer. And my guess is that if I were, I still wouldn’t understand because I am not a filmmaker, or a musician. In the same way that the data that produces the lines, patterns, scenes and sounds is motivated by a logic of aleatory proliferation and sequencing, so the audio visual construction is infinite and always unknown. And yet, while this is conceptual art at its most cerebral, Ikeda’s installation is also inviting, seductive, sensuous, and it echoes my desire.


My first response is one of wonder at the persistence of vision I experience as I focus on one screen and its rapidly changing “images.” Bursts of color appear, indeterminate, as I continue to stare at white on black that is really on the screen. I struggle to find familiarity. The sound reminds me of that distinctive clicking of the train timetables in European stations as one train departs and all the others move up a notch on the schedule.  And I think of Las Vegas, of the eternal spin of the roulette wheel with a clicking sound that is so addictive, so filled with expectation and carries in it the promise of disappointment. The infinite and constant stream of undecipherable numbers on one screen reminds me of the stock exchange, and I watch hypnotized by the rhythms and the beat of the images as they proceed like a LED light display, only faster to the point of imperceptibility. My only reassurance is that sound and image are synchronized, as far as I can tell.

And then when both image and sound disintegrate into white or black, static, all at once, I know there is some power behind them, too immense for me to imagine. Perhaps this is the power of mathematics looking to understand the universe? The screens explode in synchonization. And then it all starts over again. Something is repeated. But it is not repeated in the sense of the same: This is repetition where there is no original, no telos, and every iteration is in search of these non-existent end points.  The mathematical precision that energizes this other world is again inexplicable because if the secret were known, cognizeable, no limits would be challenged, in fact everything would take place in the realms of human time and space.

Data.matrix [no.1-10] is, as I say, visually entrancing: mesmerized, I cannot take my eyes off it. And the sounds, the rhythm of the beeping, the ticking, the otherwordly chimes, are hypnotic. And so, this highly intellectual and cerebral exercise seduces me. With my constant search to control and to know it, I am reminded of Peter Kubelka’ Arnulf Rainer or a Tony Conrad flicker film. These ten screens  like structural film, though in a whole new medium, or concert of media, are light reduced, and elevated to image such that it is the substance of what our eyes behold. And then there is the acoustic environment I cannot account for.


As Georgia pointed out Data.matrix [no.1-10], is also clean, free of the messiness of the human body. It might be all about perception, audition, desire, seduction, and the sheer density of emotions. But, in a characteristic, I want to say, typically Japanese way, it is also slick and with no trace of the clinical. Yet another characteristic that makes Ikeda’s work unfathomable. This is what makes all other art in its midst pale by comparison. Data.matrix [no.1-10] is beyond the constraints of the body, constraints not only imposed by the physicality and substance, the material of human flesh, but, as I say, the constraints of time and space as we know and imagine them have been disintegrated and left behind.

All images copyright Ryoji Ikeda

Saturday, November 27, 2010

In November we go to London

American friends visiting Paris, here to write a travel blog — 30 days in Paris —  quizzed me on buying Eurostar tickets and making hotel bookings in London. At first I thought, how strange, that a travelog on Paris would need to include London. But for those of us who live between lands, London is as much a part of Paris as Monoprix and the metro. And in November, that’s what we do: we are all, at some stage in the month, on the Eurostar to London. In November, the Christmas lights that turn Paris into a fairytale land have not yet been put up. And in November, when the rains of October are done with, before it gets really cold and the Eurostar gets stuck in the tunnel, the streets of London are at their best. For those of us in the English speaking community here, London is a suburb of Paris in the way that Brooklyn is a suburb of New York City. Some of us go to great lengths to avoid the train journey over (or under) the water, convincing our friends we, not they, are at the center of the world, and therefore they must travel to us. While some of us commute it daily, and others of us even love it so much we eventually move there, still others go for the shopping (still more interesting in London than Paris), the art or to have dinner with an old friend. Whatever our relationship to London, for all of us, it is somewhere on the expatriate map of Paris.

It was because of London that I moved to Paris. No longer able to afford the expense of London, Paris was to halve my living costs. But it wasn’t only the expense of London that eventually forced me to take up residence in the 11th arrondissment. It was the difficulty of living as an English speaking foreigner in a city that insisted, daily, on the fact that I didn’t belong. Being a foreigner in a city of people who speak the same language is more alienating than living in a foreign language. In London I was expected to belong, expected to be a part of and to share the values and cultural reference points, the social mores and customs, all because I spoke the same language. But the English language is where my affinity with this world not only begins but ends. 

It was, perhaps, because I did not take the Eurostar to London, and instead travelled from my job in southeast England on the local Southeastern trains, that the difficulties of living in England came flooding back to my mind. When I traveled to London in November to see the Muybridge exhibition, I was reminded of all the reasons why Paris is easier than London. Funnily enough, it is primarily because of, not despite, the fact that English is my first language. In London, I was overwhelmed, frustrated and resentful at the dominance of the negative. In November I found myself flailing in London’s culture of no. As an Australian, London is stressful, nothing works, the idea of customer service is a misnomer, a tube strike means total shutdown of all public transport, and if I want to buy a ticket for something, an event, a talk, a train or a day at the races, there’s a fairly good chance that the answer will be: “no."

Louise Bourgeois' Mother
Another British custom that has always bemused me is their erection of barriers, everywhere. When I lived in London I could never swim laps in the public pool because they cordoned off the 50m blissful expanse of water into boxes, each box occupied by a different group: children, the aerobics class that looked and behaved more like water lilies, and lap swimming was relegated to one 20m lane. The English also like to build walls in their houses – the idea of a huge open space, must somehow frighten them. Not like me whose country is 5000 miles wide with nothing on that road. I imagine, for the English, an open space might offer too much possibility, freedom and the promise of desire. Knowing the British passion for building barriers, you would think I would be able to laugh in the face of them. But no! When I tried to enter the train station in Canterbury in November, new turnstiles had been installed. Unsurprisingly, these “high tech” machines rejected my ticket. A man stood watching me, the train in the station, ready to leave on the other side of the barrier. He wouldn’t let me through even though my ticket was valid, insisting there must be a reason why the turnstile rejected my ticket. It is moments like these, traveling in London and England, that I long for the metro etiquette of going through the turnstile with the stranger in front of me, and knowing that if I miss my train, I will wait a maximum of three minutes, not one hour, for the next one.

Metro at Gare du Nord

I know such comparisons are a cheap rhetorical device. Especially because many might argue that Paris is also predominantly, a culture of no. But my experience in Paris is that they start with “no” and slowly but surely, through persistence and good humor on the part of the petitioner, the Parisians always end up at “yes.” This may be for myriad reasons that I don’t understand because I am not French. Just as I don’t fully understand the British culture of no. Perhaps it is their fear of the consequence of doing things differently. Or it may even be because of a pride in jobs they approach with a solid protestant work ethic. However, what I do know is that it is far more enjoyable to flirt with the French ticket officer, plead ignorance and naievety in foreigners’ French, than it is to understand every word of a crusty old Englishman with an illogical rationalization he passes as justification. Repartee with a Frenchman, in French, is a delight, and when I become drawn into pleading in English with the "cheers Chas crew" before I am even on the train to London, I can't wait to get back on the Eurostar, and home to Gare du Nord.

Eurostar train at Gare du Nord

Monday, November 22, 2010

Lessons from Lexington: Sally Mann at Karsten Greve

Sally Mann
"Emmett, Jessie, and Virginia"

Sally Mann fans who missed her show at the Photographer’s Gallery in London will want to make the journey to Karsten Greve Gallery in the Marais before December 10. What Karsten Greve are billing as a retrospetive is more accurately a summary of four of Mann’s different artistic periods. On exhibition are samplings from the series: Deep South 1996-1998, Battlefields 2000-2002, Faces 2004, and Proud Flesh 2004-2009. Though it is not as comprehensive as Karsten Greve claims, the exhibition is significant for Mann and for Paris. I have never seen Karsten Greve filled with so many people; indeed it felt like I was at the Grand Palais seeing Monet.

Sally Mann, Candy Cigarette, 1989

Mann is probably best known for the troubling photographs of her three young children. Mann’s girls, Jessie in particular, pose provocatively and precociously for the camera such that their young adolescent bodies take on the seduction and wisdom of promiscuous, self-assured, adult women. The handful of these photographs on display at Karsten Greve are, as always, provocative and confrontational, and yet somehow tragic. What is the world we live in where young girls already know the postures and gestures of sexual seduction well before they have reached puberty? And the fact that we know her mother is behind the camera makes the famous image of Jessie in “Candy Cigarette”, 1989, heartwrenching.

Sally Mann, The Quality of the Affection, 2006
However, the most extraordinary photographs on display, and those given pride of place at Karsten Greve are the most recent, those of her husband Larry, taken from the series Proud Flesh, published in 2009. The images are taken over a six year period as something like documents of the effects of muscular dystrophy on Larry's body. If the viewer did not know Larry has muscular dystrophy, it would not matter. Indeed, to see Larry’s body for the first time, unknowingly, would perhaps enhance the beauty of the images, the tenderness of their vision. We see fragments of his body, a thigh, a forearm, his back. There are no faces, no identifying features, and there is nothing beautiful about this body, these limbs suspended in light. And yet, Mann’s camera, her processing techniques, her eye, offer a vision of a body so loved, so powerful, appearing here with an intimacy that I would have thought impossible to translate into a photograph. 

Sally Mann, Memory's Truth, 2008

While Mann typically used traditional photographic methods, in the 2000s she started to make contact prints made from wet-plate collodion negatives, produced by coating a sheet of glass with ether-based collodion and submerging it in silver nitrate. The result are these sensuous, almost erotic, images whose tactile, distressed substance echoes the degeneration of the body, and the temporal longevity across which it has been transformed. She manipulates the surface aberrations that result from the unpredictability of the wet-plate process to produce images that are scarred, filled with abrasions, and a gradually diminishing light, just like the body that they capture. In images such as Hephaestus, the scratches and marks incurred in the production process become inseparable from the physical reality of Larry’s body, they might be mistaken to visibly scar its surface. 
Sally Mann, Hephaestus, 2008

Standing before these haunting photographs, over time, what becomes transparent, is not the degeneration of his body, but the relationship between the photographer and the photographed. The distress of the photographs emerges as a mirror of the intense, complicated emotions that exist between her and him, between the two lovers. No one but a lover could hold a body part to the light, make it shine and imagine the softness and beauty of its fragility, its vulnerability, as Mann does in these photographs.  And yet, the abrasions, the violations of the surface tell of emotions far more complex than those of a doting lover. Here, there is anger and frustration, resentment and tears. And the excess of these emotions is both created in the space between the image and the imagined, between photographer and photographed, as well as being carved on the surface of his body.
Sally Mann, Somnabulist, 2009 

There is also something about the images that makes them like x-ray photographs, giving them a scientificity, a matter-of-factness. Look, it’s a leg, skin and bones, held to the light, become transparent.
And yet, they are much more, because of the way the limb is placed, the gentle caress of the light across the veins and hairs on a body whose muscles are wasting, each one in its place, with its own individual meaning. That intensity and intimacy is heartbreaking, because of the love that enables each hair to appear in the first place. The love, sadness, anger across the passing of time is also in the vulnerability of a man, exposed. For a man — not a woman — to be photographed naked, his body in a state of deterioration, he has to trust the person taking that photograph. His vulnerability is laid bare by Mann, especially, but not only, when his genitals are the focal point of the image, sagging.

Sally Mann, Deep South, #1, 1998
Lastly, a brief word about  the landscapes in the Deep South series also on display at Karsten Greve.  Like siblings to Proud Flesh, these images show the wreckage of a Holocaust of a different kind, on a landscape not so far removed from that of the human body with a wasting disease: the American Civil War. In Mann's photographs, this is a world where trees cry, where they are wounded, cut, stabbed, where nothing has survived the violence and the anger. These beautiful trees have been left longing, knowingly, as if yearning for a time before they were ravaged by the inhumanity of war. Again these images capture memory and time passing on the surface of the tree, the surface of the image. And like those in Proud Flesh, the light and the photographic process lovingly caress their wounds and the incisions of time and age. And yet, like Larry's body, they are not stagnant or dead, even if they might be on the way to death. I would not be surprised to see a monster appear out of the mist – there is something in the unpredictability of Mann's photographic method that makes these images like a volcano threatening to erupt. Even though Mann's work is always recognized for its discourse on death and destruction, as we see from these photographs, it is just as much about the unknown, the possibility that is always on the horizon of a photographed world made uncertain by a turmoil not yet begun. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

André Kertész au Jeu de Paume

André Kertesz, Montmatre, 1927

The Hungarian photographer André Kertész is not usually associated with place. However, coming away from the wonderful retrospective of his work at the Jeu de Paume, my resounding impression was one of just how dependent on Paris he was for inspiration. His dependence on Paris becomes painfully evident when Kertész goes to New York and he tries to find in New York what brought his frames alive in Paris. The lines, the light, the stillness, melancholy and nostalgia of an historical moment as it unfolds, none of these are the trademarks even characteristics he can find through his viewfinder in New York City. 
André Kertész, Mondrian's Glasses and Pipe, 1926

Perhaps the most striking thing about Kertesz’s Paris is the absence of people. On the streets, in the courtyards and apartments of the famous and not so famous alike, people are never the focus of his images. That said, human life, even if in its absence, can be traced across these exquisitely composed frames. People are shadows in a landscape of lines, textures, light and angles. The often reproduced photograph of Mondrian’s glasses, or the Autoportrait from 1927 are now icons of Kertesz’s creativity. Like these photographs, across his life’s work, the human form is reduced to another compositional element that nevertheless adds to the substance and emotion of his vision. In an image such as that at Place Gambetta or the Place de la Concorde, for example, the presence of the human, although minimized, is identifiable such that it creates a deep felt sense of absence. The single emotion that glimmers on these rain-soaked squares and pavements: melancholy. Empty, deserted streets taken in the powerful light of sunrise, at times at night, brim with a sadness and nostalgia as if for a Paris long gone.

André Kerész, Place Gambetta, 1928
For other photographers, modernity and the modern city were articulated and envisioned in the hustle and bustle of life, in the thronging crowds on their way to work, the dazzle of night life entertainment, and the excitement and possibility of industrialization. Kertész’s vision of modernity is different. City, or rather, Parisian life, most notably in the 1920s, is typified by the emptiness and the desertion of streets shown through conflicting and chaotic angles that nevertheless come together in perfectly coherent images. Kertész's  picture of the emotional life of the city did not set new standards. Rather, it is the angles, so canted they are sometimes vertical, his eye for perspectives and lines, the patterns and rhythms of the built environment, and above all, his use of light as the subject, and structuring device of the frame, that revolutionizes photography.

André Kertész, Place de la Concorde, 1927
Kertész and photographers such as Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray among others made their success on the back of their experiments with artificial light, experiments that so re-visioned the composition and substance of photography in the 1920s, that their influence extended to the film frames of the great German expressionist filmmakers. In the works of Fritz Lang, Karl Grüne, F.W. Murnau, the loneliness and emptiness of city life is transformed into a different kind of foreboding. While this historical aspect of  Kertesz’s  photographs is not on display at the Jeu de Paume, their historical import is: the age of these images, primarily because their objectness, is emphasized by the use of contact prints in the early part of the exhibition. Moreover, the layering of light, the perfection of the angles and the delicate balance of the composition remain every bit as breathtaking as they were in their time. 

André Kertész, Chez Mondrian, 1926
Take for example, a photograph such as Chez Mondrian, 1926, in which  Kertesz’s  follows the line of the stairs up the length of the image. Despite the fact that the image is dissected by the door frame, the line of the banister extends into the room in the foreground in the for of the shadow of the perfectly lit vase on the table. Or an image such as one of the Eiffel Tower, where the shadow of one arm of the base of the tower creates a circularity to the ground below that is otherwise rectangulated by the form of the grass and the elongated shadows of the people who cross it. For all their obsessive construction and intricate structural design, the lines are angular, canted and multiple and they conflict such that there is, at this level an imbalance. And the mastery of Kertesz’s frame appears at that moment when we recognize this chaos somehow, impossible, adds up to a perfectly balanced composition.

André Kertész, Eiffel Tower, 1929

Lastly, a quick word about the polaroids that Kertesz made in the 1970s with the new medium. They are magnificent, not only because of the color and their brush with abstraction, but because, as if carrying on the tension between chaos and coherence in the earlier images, the polaroids witness an impossible marriage of snap photography and intricate, meticulous construction. Towards the end of an oeuvre which has been dominated by an obvious obsession with camera set up and frame composition, as well as the processing of the image, the polaroids are thowaway snapshots rendered strange and beautiful by the eye that precedes their execution.

André Kertész, August 16, 1979.

All images thanks to Jeu de Paume

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Eadweard Muybridge at the Tate Britain

The most challenging aspect of teaching early photography is communicating to 18 year olds just how enthralling, even mesmerizing it was to its nineteenth century audiences. Coming away from the Tate Britain’s exhibition of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic experiments, my resounding response was one of wonder at the beauty and magic of what I had just seen. Muybridge, the innovative, self-made man of modernity with a sensational biography is not the only draw card here, rather the Tate Britain presents his photographic treasures so that their innovation and aesthetic beauty is the great wonder of this exhibition.

Most visitors will be familiar with Muybridge’s motion studies through stop motion photography, particularly the running horses and dogs. In these images Muybridge is the scientist who discovers that when four legged animals run, all four legs leave the ground at the same time. And in the photographic camera’s ability to see this observation unable to be made by the naked human eye, Muybridge becomes the physiologist who develops an understanding of perception. Muybridge’s contribution to a whole plethora of knowledge-fields does not stop there. At times he is the anthropologist, at times the medical researcher, and with his development of the photographic apparatus, an engineer. Even his photographs as images are always more complicated than what we think of as photographs today. In the images made for the zoopraxiscope for example – an alleged forerunner of the motion-picture camera – Muybridge hand paints the tints of each image. Similarly, the cameras, production and developing processes of his photographs evolve across the second half of the nineteenth century. This embrace of different media, different modes of experimentation, and the venture into so many different territories makes him an ideal candidate for the renaissance man of modernity.

The wheel made for the zoopraxiscope

Charles Darwent in The Independent claims that Muybridge's inventions were not as influential as is often claimed, that his apparatuses and production methods were never actually taken up at large. However, Darwent doesn't account for the fact that these technologies were developing at such a rapid pace in the late nineteenth-century, and that even if one replaced the other in quick succession, each invention was an indispensable step on the way towards the next. Thus, Muybridge's zoopraxiscope may not have become mass produced, but it was certainly a necessary step along the path towards the ever sophisticated machines we now know as the cinema. 

Darwent is also harsh on Muybridge's apparent fascination with the human form, and particularly his photographs of women and deformed men and children. What becomes obvious when seeing all of these works together is that, even in the series of photographs of men's bodies, and of course, the horses in motion, he is as much interested in form as he is in motion. The images of women walking, getting in and out of bed, going down stairs, all seem to be in keeping with Muybridge's fascination for the body. It is true that the images of women are less concerned with the scientific elements of the female form in motion, and more focussed on the curves seen from different angles. However, exploitation was not the first thing that came into my mind as I looked at images of women proudly parading for Muybridge's camera. 
Yosemite Valley

There is much more to say about an exhibition that was a rich and fascinating experience. The gorgeous and infinite variations of the motion studies could fill pages and pages. However, a brief word about the landscapes of the Yosemite Valley. When Muybridge first set out to California to photograph the Yosemite Valley, photography was one way, in fact for many it was the only way, of traveling. For this reason, just seeing the dramatic mountain formations would have been astonishing to many viewers at the time. Muybridge goes further though. Thanks to a combination of the cameras, the film material, the processing, the Yosemite appears like an abstract vision of rocks, trees, and when there is water, mirrored surfaces. 
Contemplation Rock, Glacier Point

And in the case of the landscapes, so many of the images are split into two – mountains (the valley) distinguished from water, or both from the sky. And when the landscape itself is not split compositionally, his earliest photographic experiments often appear in twos. The notion of repetition and seriality, the dwarfing of human figures in these extraordinary landscapes, the objectification of nature in the pursuit of mechanical reproduction, rationalization, the visualization of never before seen perspectives, all of these concerns are the work of an innovator of modernity. In view of the inventions and explorations of Muybridge's camera, to bemoan the manipulation of reality by an artist with a big ego, seems to miss the point of these magical visions of old.


Monday, November 1, 2010

Gabriel Orozco au Centre Pompidou

If you have a spare hour and are in the neighborhood, it's worth popping into the Orozco exhibition at Beaubourg. The exhibition is small and somehow disparate, not necessarily giving an overall sense of Orozco's oeuvre, but there is something delightful about it. Orozco's works are a playful and joyous celebration of the everyday world seen from a different perspective well before they are profound and philosophical. The distortion, manipulation, the rendering strange and the effects of the artist's interventions come well after we have puzzled over what the object is, or what is shown in the photograph. And so, the works begin as puzzles or games, and as we look closer, for longer, they reveal themselves as highly conceptual, sometimes inaccessible. Stuffed socks, bicycles magically woven together or the ripples created by rain drops are first and foremost fun, and then their reverberrations begin.

Four Bicycles (There Is Always One Direction). 1994

One of the most delightful things about this exhibition is that Orozco had the interior walls of the glass-walled Galerie Sud removed, and the result is an exhibition that becomes an extension of the square outside. Depending on what way you look at it, it maybe that the gallery space opens out and spills over into the square outside.

The other side of the Pompidou Center
The public spaces surrounding the Centre Pompidou are liminal non-spaces, places where those inside the galleries tend not to linger. On the rue Beaubourg side of the centre, the "arcade" is seedy, smelling like urine, home to the itinerant, young people on skateboards and the massive line of people waiting to get into the public library. As I wandered around the various istallations, the echo of the kids on their skateboards became like a sound score to the found and manipulated objects and images of Gabriel Orozco. On the south facing wall, Tinguely's newly renovated sculpture continues to draw crowds, but they were mostly obscured by the people giving massages right up against the glass wall. All of this activity, performed in silence thanks to the glass wall that separates inside from outside, was quietly pursued, reinforcing the silence of Orozco's objects made strange, the exquisite forms and shapes of his paintings, drawings and photographs.

Gabriel Orozco, Extension of Reflection, 1992

The exhibition includes "actors playing the role of Mexican police guards 'imported' to take care of the works." Sadly, the idea of these "police guards" is much more enticing than the reality. The young uniformed or costumed guards slouched on chairs, talked to each other, thus distracted from the silence created by Orozco's works against the background noise of the skateboards. As promised by a sign at the entrance, the works were alarmed because Orozco had chosen to have them laid out in the single space of the Galerie Sud. When visitors stepped over the line that set the alarm off, the "guards" would yell "madame" or "monsieur" from their chairs. One of the things that makes being at the Centre Pompidou so congenial and pleasurable is the non-invasive guards that are often an imposing fixture of other, lesser museums. The fact that the guards at the Pompidou are ordinarily unobtrusive worked to accentuate the Mexican police as an irritating presence rather than the imaginative element they were supposed to be.

The exhibition itself is a landscape rather than a chronological account or even a themed vision of Orozco's work. There are works on walls, tables and the floor. Set out on tressles more commonly found at flea markets than in art galleries, the objects are delicately and precisely arranged. This also made the presence of the Mexican police very irritating because the instinctive urge is to get close and to interact with the objects, to see inside the shoe box, to read the entries on the telephone directory, and to press our face up against the window of the citroen car which is being used on the publicity. But given the surveillance system in place, it was difficult to do this.

Gabriel Orozco. (Mexican, born 1962) My Hands Are My Heart. 1991
One strong theme in Orozco's work is the manipulation of, or the transience of objects that can be manipulated. Orozco uses materials in his sculptures that are always malleable -- foam, wood, paper, plastic, clay, plasticine, rubber. Again and again, the work of the artist is to leave his imprint on the surface of these materials. This need to manipulate and shape reaches its most powerful image in My Hands are My Heart, 1991 (above) in which the hands mould through leaving their imprint on clay, and then when the hands are removed, they have made a heart. This image sits on the same wall as some of Orozco's most exquisite drawings in which he delicately, and meticulously finds the unfathomably perfect patterns and logic of natural forms such as leaves and puddles of water, even the human body. And in the coming together of these two concerns, Orozco explores the permutations of preservation. French Flies, 2010 (as opposed to French Fries!) where flies of different sizes are caught in clay and thereby fossilized. Nature in all its beauty and perfection is here simultaneously stopped in its tracks and given eternal life.