Friday, April 29, 2011

Thomas Struth, Fotografien 1978-2010, K20 Düsseldorf

Thomas Struth, Daintree, Australia 1998
The best way to judge whether or not photography is any good is to see it in reproduction. At least this is my new theory after having seen the Thomas Struth retrospective at the Düsseldorf Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen this afternoon. This is seriously sophisticated photography that must be seen in the flesh.
Thomas Struth, Dry Dock DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island, 2007 

In a photograph I didn’t know, the hulls of two vessels out of water are shot from below, emphasizing their enormity, making them colossal and monstrous. There are no people to communicate their largesse (as is often the case with Struth's later photographs of technological eyesores) but the diminutive blocks in the foreground create a perspective, however distorted. We know the blocks that keep the ship from falling over to be the size of a car, and next to the hulls they are as ants to elephants. In the foreground of Dry Dock DSME Shipyard, Geoje Island (2007) these blocks are diminished, waiting to be crushed by the boat on the right that looks as though it might tip over at any moment. Simultaneously, like mythological beings, the hulls of these two ships are tired, in need of repair, making them vulnerable on land, like the big white whale of Herman Mellville’s Moby-Dick, without the sea to give them their power. These beasts are all at once, threatening for their sheer enormity, and outmoded, arcane structures at rest. Nothing about their disproportion or their complexity is experienced from flipping the pages of a book. 

Thomas Struth, Kunsthistorisches Museum 3, 1989
And this can be said for so many of the images: nothing of the charm and legerity of the Samsung Apartments, Seoul (2005), of a world that is monochromatic and alienating beyond belief could be seen in a 4 x 6, even an 8 x 10 reproduction. The green gauze construction material is shot by Struth to be mistaken as wings, giving the impression that the buildings under construction might take off. Again, the size, the contrast of the green with the grey of the buildings, in the dead Korean air, bring the photograph alive. Another image I have always enjoyed, but never appreciated until I saw it in its 141.5 x 183.4 on a museum wall is the Kunsthistorisches Musem 3, Vienna (1989). I have seen this image of a gentleman looking at Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Man (1632) and Portrait of a Woman, (1632) again and again, and thought, oh yes, another of those photographs in which we are looking at a man looking, audience to him as audience, and thus, we are are reminded of our remove from the great art works we experience. This is surely the same oft-recited refrain of the contemporary cultural malaise. But no. In person, a whole world opens up into which I am drawn to participate in a relay of looks in which everyone (including me) is looking and not looking at the same time. Again and again, throughout his career, whether he is photographing 6th Avenue in New York, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Daintree Forest in Australia or Gerhard Richter’s family, Struth captures his subject from an angle otherwise assumed impossible. And again in Kunsthistorisches Musuem 3, the angle is such that we are placed to stand next to the man in the photograph, before the woman in the painting. In this foursome, Rembrandt’s man looks at us, while we are placed to look at the woman. In turn, the woman looks at the man in Struth’s photograph, while he looks at Rembrandt’s man. And so no look is ever returned. Rather, everyone looks past or at right angles to the opportunity for connection. On yet another level, even as we are drawn into the Kunshistorisches Museum, to the point where we edge the photographed man out of our way, we are not looking at the painting, but Struth’s reproduction. And no one, not us, not the photographed man, nor Rembrandt’s man or woman, even think to look at the enormous painting that is, nevertheless, so huge that it spills over into the left hand side of Struth’s frame.  Thus, in an extension of the isolation of Struth’s Asian cities in particular, worlds without people, without personality, worlds in which humans no longer matter, isolation is returned to the experience of looking at art. In a place (the museum) where we are invited to immerse in a mystery that promises glimpses of all that is hidden, a mystery which shows us depths we cannot refute, the opportunity passes us by. Instead, we, like them in the photograph, err on the side of separation, singleness and looks without purpose.

Thomas Struth, Stellarator Wendelstein 7-X Detail Ma Planck IPP, Greifswald, 2009
I have not always been kind to Struth’s photographs and though I see how transformative they are in their series, with the other works, filling the walls of Düsseldorf’s K20, I also think as a photographer, Struth is becoming ever more brilliant with each new series. Certainly, the complexity, intensity and impossibilities of his photographs – even as they were hinted at in the early urbanscapes of the 1980s - become increasingly dense and the subject matter simultaneously more abstract, more stylized. I have never thought of photography as being able to reach anything like virtuosity. This is somehow reserved for the quiet persistence and perfection of painting and musical composition. Photography has always been too attached to representation and to the object itself. But here, in Struth’s latest work, I believe he shows us the photographic image can be used to find such grace. However – and this is what makes Struth brilliant — it’s not a grace of the Romantic or the sacred kind. For by the time he gets to the space stations of Cape Canaveral and the Nuclear fission reactors in Germany, there is very little to revere in the image. These frightening representations of the mess of science and technology are very uncomfortable. Not only do they show us the detritus that is supposed to be technological research at its most vanguard, but they are constructed, through framing, angle and focal length to put us in the middle of the chaos. We fall, and are given no way out of a world without beginning and end, without orientation, without any reference to place, spatial dimensions and location. This, together with the stasis that pervades Struth’s work from the very beginning of his career, is technology’s guarantee that we are trapped, indefinitely.

Thomas Struth, Samsung Apartments Seoul, 2007

This major retrospective is, of course, traveling, having already been in Zürich, and on its way to London and Porto. I don’t know how the work was exhibited in Zürich, but I can’t image how it will fit into the closer space of the Whitechapel in London. In Düsseldorf, the open and upwards expanse of the K20, filled with light, with a silence and emptiness that one tends to only find in museums in Germany, is the perfect home for these photographs. Not only because it is Struth’s home territory and so much of the work speaks to an artistic and cultural tradition that was born and nurtured in Düsseldorf, but because the vastness of the K20 space enables an experience of the photographs that is in keeping with the one they imagine. Inside the K20, the challenge of Struth’s often massive photographs takes place in a world as apparently separated from reality as are those words created by the photographs. 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Paris in Spring

Notre Dame from a different perspective
c. Maria Aragon
Paris in Spring time. It sounds so perfect, and I think this might be the one month that the myth of perfection in Paris actually comes true. Unlike New York where Spring can come very slowly and reluctantly, in Paris, Spring has a habit of arriving on time. As the mild European sun beams down on this already visually stunning city, the buildings, the avenues, even the Seine, simply glow in Spring time. The flowers are out in the Jardin du Luxembourg, Parisians take up their seats on the sun drenched café terraces, and life outdoors begins.

Spring is the season when everything Parisian moves outdoors. Paris is a very public city, a world designed to look outwards, onto the streets. We need look no further than the way the chairs in the cafés are organized — they look out at the world, primed for Parisians to pursue their favorite activity: watching each other as they parade in the sun. And Spring is the moment when all these rituals begin again, the pétanque sets are taken out of the cupboard, the vélib subscriptions are renewed, the nights begin to grow longer and the days lazier.
Jardin des Plantes
c. Maria Aragon
And in Spring, the tourists filter at first, and before you know it, they are flowing back into Paris at full force. I noticed this morning that the line to climb up the tower of Notre Dame already extends the length of the north side of the cathedral down to the Pont Saint-Louis. I am always tempted to stop and tell the Italians, Americans, the English and all those French people from out of town, it’s not really worth waiting for. Surely they need to know that the best of Paris’ sites are seen at street level, not from high in the sky. But maybe the view of the tourist is actually better than mine, even if I do have the luxury of seeing this gorgeous city from all its different perspectives on a daily basis. Like most places and people who are pleasing to the eye, if you see Paris up close, its attraction becomes compromised by unsavory blemishes. From on high, there’s no seeing muslim women being arrested for wearing a veil, or more bombs being dropped on Libya as a way to boost presidential favor. And so I leave the tourists to enjoy their perspective, on high, removed, a view of the city aglow with the joy of Spring.

That said, I can’t resist sharing just one thing those of us who don’t belong find difficult about Paris in Spring time. As is so often the case in Paris, it’s one of those things that is both its seduction and a difficulty to be negotiated. On the terraces of every café in town, the Parisians no longer huddle under the heat for the length of time it takes to smoke a cigarette. Like us, as I say, they sit for hours on the terrace, enjoying the sun. Thus, like so many of the joys of Paris, sharing the terraces with the Parisians comes at a cost: coffee and drinks comes with the complimentary cloud of second hand smoke. For as long as we sit, the men and women fill the air with smoke, sucking in the pleasures of nicotine and tobacco as they discuss business as well as their social lives on their cell phones. Still, sitting next to the smoking Parisians for an hour or so beats standing in line at Notre Dame surrounded by tourists – at least the discomfort can be justified as being a part of the fantasy. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Aernot Mik, Communitas, Jeu de Paume

Aernout Mik, Raw Footage, 2006

Despite only eight video installations, Communitas is a huge exhibition that could take hours, maybe even days, to go through. This is primarily because there is no telling where the beginning and end of the video loop of each work might be. We can sit and watch for extended periods of time and never see the same scene twice. In fact, in only one of the installations did I recognize something I had already seen. The absence of beginning and ending, the unknown locations, the movement through scenes that constitute something closer to a series of vignettes or situations in motion than a narrative unfolding, the blurring of the line between documentary and fictional representation, all of these attributes have the opposite effect of what might be expected. Their experimental form that results in an absence of familiar structures is what makes Aernout Mik’s installations compelling, entertaining, seductive.
Aernout Mik, Raw Footage, 2006
Even if the exhibition is long, or the pieces are long, Georgia and I found it best to sit with two or three of them that are easily more engaging than the others. Perhaps the most profound is Raw Footage, 2006, an installation that is terrifying, then funny, with moments of quaintness leading to ennui as we watch people going about their daily lives in an unnamed war zone. We are never quite sure if we are watching actors re-performing the documentary reality, or if Mik has edited together, for example, a series of animals at war: shots of goats wandering through town, cows idling past burnt out cars, of pigs oblivious to the trauma of their environment. The accompanying text says that the footage belongs to “Reuters & ITN Source agency” that, despite the absence of date and location, represents the “disintegrating Yugoslavia in the 1990s.” I can’t be sure that this footage was not shot by Mik himself as it looks too far removed from the excitement and energy of warfare to be of interest to a press camera. The two-screen projection shows the moments in between; soldiers eating together, smoking a cigarette, kids playing soldiers, innocently, while in the juxtaposed image, bombed out buildings and roads ripped apart by warfare are the everyday stuff in the background of someone running to catch the bus. Thus, while the images are moments of everyday life in the war zone, they are “life unawares”. What makes them disturbing and profound, is not the image itself, but the image in juxtaposition. For the juxtaposed video will often shows the effect, or even the nonchalance side by side with the results of deadly acts that are, nevertheless, all in a day’s work.

Aernout Mik, Shifting Sitting, 2011
Another of the really strong installations is Shifting Sitting, 2011, a scene in the courtroom, again, unidentified, but kind of obvious where it is. After a few minutes we are once again confounded by the image – is it the real Burlosconi or is it an actor. What is so engaging about this particular three screen installation is the way that it critiques the formalities and codes of the courtroom through irony, all the time, confirming their existence and importance through the juxtaposition of the various groups present. Apparently, the images refer to Burlosconi’s legal entanglements. Each set of people in the courtroom has his own specific function, and a space that is designated as his. Each has a uniform, a role to play on what could easily pass as the stage of the courtroom: the actors are the judge, the security, the jurors, the prosecution, the witnesses, and of course, the public in the gallery. And as each group crosses over from its designated space and mode of performance to the others, it becomes unsettling. What is also unsettling about this video is that it is silent. So this accentuates their performance. We also see the activities of the court from different perspectives — closeups, different camera positions, but there are also images that are back projected, on different screens– this is something Mik does in a number of his videos, showing us the performance of film in its attempt to create logic. And at the same time I think it shows how film has this capacity to break all of these expectations? Or perhaps it is a representation of the performance of film in an attempt to frustrate our attempts to create the logic? Again, it is the compete uncertainty dominating every aspect of an installation such as Shifting Sitting that makes it both fascinating and disturbing as well as a searing critique of its subject matter.
Aernout Mik, Middlemen, 2001

While Raw Footage and Shifting Sitting were the best of the installations, others made me laugh, and identify. For example, Touch, Rise and Fall, 2008 in which Mik examines the tedious existence of the security guards in an airport made me see the unpleasant and invasive experience of going through security in a while new light. It had never occurred to me that the job of a security guard might be onerous: indeed, they probably don’t want to be doing their job any more than I want to be going through the security checks. Again, Mike shows the moments in between, we see these people at repose, caught in the tedium of their job. In Touch, Rise and Fall and Middlemen (2001) shot in, or perhaps it is a recreation of, the stock exchange floor, Mik slows down the image. And so we not only see those moments that usually make their way onto the cutting room floor, but we see them in close up, in an attenuated form, thus emphasizing their boredom. 
Aernout Mik, Touch, Rise and Fall, 2008
We also see our own boredom. In one section of Touch, Rise and Fall, we walk down the corridor to the gift shop where buying is done for the sake of spending money. We get to see the garbage on sale for a high price in the duty free store, the children’s funny toys, the useless knick knacks. I was brought face to face with the mindlessness of being in an airport, and that all too familiar temptation to shop for the sake of something to do, the frustration and demoralization of the excessive security checks. In Mik’s videos, we recognize a whole other world unraveling, in the cracks between, squeezing through the crevices in the system that binds us to each other and simultaneously ensures we are enemies. Whether it be on the battlefield, in the law court, or in the airport, the horrors or inanities of daily life bring an alienation that is nurtured by the systems and institutions that underwrite us, and that as Mik demonstrates, simultaneously, undermine our existence.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Waste Land, dir. Lucy Walker, 2010

Fabio Ghivelder, Vik Muniz at Jardim Gramacho Beside Magna

I am not a big fan of Vik Muniz’ photography and sculptures, and have always found them to be somewhat obvious. Despite their appeal to the art market and the buzz that accompanies each new series, I have never been so interested in them as aesthetic objects. The same reservation rests true for what I see of his work in Lucy Walker’s Waste Land, a portrait of Muniz’ project on the garbage collectors and sorters of Jardim Gramacho, a landfill on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro. However, the film has something else: it shows Muniz’ engagement with the “catadores”, the “self-designated pickers of recyclable material.” And as Muniz himself acknowledges, they are the heart and soul of his project, its raison d’être, relegating the aesthetic to the background.
Vik Muniz, Marat/Sebastiao - Pictures of Garbage, 2010
I want to put Waste Land in the same genre as films such as Born Into Brothels (dir. Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, 2004) or War Photographer (Christian Frei with James Nachtwey, 2001) in which the artist goes into the ghetto and ostensibly liberates his or her subjects through his or her art. Because this is what Muniz wants to do: to give oppressed people a voice and an identity through involving them in his art. His goal is their liberation. And within that genre, Muniz’ work is probably better than most because it retains an ethical correctness that the others do not. The film itself is nothing special or revelatory as a documentary, but it does mark a rare occasion on which I want to reflect on the subject matter without demanding filmic innovation.
Vik Muniz, View Down onto Irma's Portrait on the Floor, 2010

There is a conversation mid-way through the film between Muniz, his wife and a skeptical observer about the ethics of Muniz' introduction of these garbage sorters to the art world, to London, to money and prestige. Will his opening of a door to desires, hopes and dreams that will forever rest unrealized further oppress?  This, of course, is the question for any such project that claims to “make people’s lives better”. Because as we learnt from the end of Born into Brothels,  showing the ghettoized what it might be to live outside of the ghetto is a recipe for disaster. But this is where Muniz, and Waste Land stand out from other work of this genre. Muniz makes clear that he came from the same world as the catadores, he understands them, he listens to them, he admires and loves them. As Muniz says, the only thing separating them from him is luck. His father happened to live and work, and so he remained in a lower class neighborhood of Sao Paolo, rather than relegated to the edge of the world in Rio as are the catadores. 
Vik Muniz, Portrait of Valter, 2010
What makes Waste Land work where other films fall short, is that Muniz is one of them. The film is not focused on Muniz, the great artist at work in his studio in what is, to be sure, an interesting process. Infact, there is very little shown of his complicated and obviously lengthy process. Rather the film focuses on the relationship between Muniz and the Catadores whose portraits will be made out of garbage and photographed for exhibition and sale in London and New York. In a moment towards the end of the film, Muniz gives each of those pictured a copy of their portrait, and they hang it on the wall of their home. Muniz makes no attempt to direct where they put it, how to hang it, but rather, each subject places the image where they see it best in their home. As Muniz quietly looks on as each performs the ritual, his presence acts as an affirmation to their choices, just as it has throughout the film.
Vik Muniz, Original Shot of Isis and Valeria, 2010

Of course, what the film doesn’t show are the many many catadores whose lives are not touched by Muniz. He did, afterall, only profile a handful of them in his photographs. Though the lives of those in the frame are made better, transformed by the possibilities of creating art out of what effectively gives them their livelihood and their identities, there must be those who remain in the shadows, who continue to suffer at the bottom of the trash heap. Well, one could argue, Muniz sells the works and gives back to the people, as one of his subjects, Tiao creates an association, and sets up a library with discarded books, thus creating better conditions for everyone. In the end, the film thus has Muniz gesture towards the possibility of art to transform lives, to literally make something out of nothing, and specifically, from the very things that oppress them. But, in doing so, I wonder, is he also perpetuating his own image as the do-gooder, the savior of those who have hitherto been cast on the trash heap? And if so, perhaps we need to see the film as making his practice out to be more ethical than it really is... 

All Images Courtesy of Vik Muniz Studio

Monday, April 4, 2011

Amos Gitai, "Traces," at the Palais du Tokyo

Amos Gitaï, Berlin-Jerusalem, 1989
I wonder what other major museum in the world would undergo renovations and, rather than close down for months on end while the work takes place, turn its construction site into an exhibition space?  And then have one of the world’s leading artist/filmmakers utilize the space, who, in turn, ends up creating dialogues and historical resonances between the museum, the Holocaust, and his own family history? Even before stepping through the doorway that leads down into the building site in the basement of the Palais de Tokyo, I was enthralled and excited by the very idea of Amos Gitaï’s installation, Traces.

This was an amazing and unforgettable experience –

Traces is a filmic poem for Gitaï’s father, Munio Weintrab Gitaï, and a polemic on the enormous historical circumstances that incarcerated him. The father was an architect who trained at the Bauhaus in Dessau and in 1933 was accused of “treason towards the German people, and subversive activities”. He was tried in June 1933, sentenced to jail for six months and exiled to Switzerland before finding his way to Palestine in July 1934. Munio’s only crime was, of course, that he was born Jewish.
Amos Gitaï, The Violinist, 2011
The exhibition is difficult to watch and to listen to. The basement space overflows with soundtracks; as we step through the door, we step into another world where we are bombarded with noise. Each video installation is accompanied by its own soundtrack, but they merge, indiscriminately, cacophonously, to fill the huge space underground at the Palais de Tokyo. The minute we step away from the voiceover coming out of a speaker, the noise of the others drowns out all comprehension of what is being said. The images are equally difficult to watch as they are faint, merged with the walls onto which they are projected, like graffiti that scars with its unsavory stories. The walls are textured and like the walls of any construction site, they are crumbling, potted, uneven. There is nothing particular about these underground walls, but overlaid with Gitaï’s images about the insanity of Nazi “justice”, we start to see the blemishes as bullet holes, the remnants of posters as cries for freedom, the writing on the wall as solitary voices of resistance. As I watched Gitaï’s panoramic image of an infinite track across the Zeppelinfeld stadium in Nuremberg, designed by Albert Speer, and used for the famous Nazi Party rallies, all I could see was the wall behind the image. All I could see was the wall next to cell block 11 at Auschwitz. Here prisoners were routinely lined up along the wall only to meet their death by a firing squad. There were many stray bullets at Auschwitz, bullets that still mark the wall of execution at cell block 11. I could see those very bullet holes in the wall onto which the fragments of Lullaby to my Father, 2011 were projected.

Amos Gitai, Lullaby to my Father, 2011
As I watched Gitaï’s fictionalized images of his father’s indictment, trial and imprisonment, the walls of the Bauhaus buildings resonated throughout my experience. The Bauhaus walls were clean, functional, geometrical, unblemished, and of course, socially motivated. And thus, Munio’s history projected onto the decrepit walls of the Palais de Tokyo, knowing his career began in Germany at the Bauhaus, becomes increasingly disturbing. As the individual (Gitaï’s father) and his image become lost in the devastation of the space, the magnitude of twentieth century history takes over as the subject of Traces. I can’t remember the last time I experienced the “place” of the moving image so powerfully in dialogue with the images themselves.

Amos Gitaï, Lullaby to my Father, 2011
These walls of the Palais de Tokyo were the very walls within which French Jews were brought and stripped of their possessions during World War II. Thus, they are walls steeped in the same history that is explored in the films. Sometimes I wondered if the walls were hews especially for the exhibition as their texture was so rich and so forceful when put in conversation with these fragments from Gitaï’s films. And then, of course, I would remember, this is a space in the throes of renovation, signaling hope and possibility of rebuilding. All of these layers of meaning, of history, of temporality, make the walls in their dialogue with images, the most compelling aspect of Gitaï’s installation.

Amos Gitaï, Berlin-Jerusalem, 1989
My favorite of the film fragments was a fictional recreation of the hands of the stenographer as she documented the trial of Munio Weintrab on 14 June 1933. The hands of the typist are mesmerizing, while the sounds are confrontational, as each clack on the old machine becoming isolated from the others. The image of the gracious hands in motion in close up, focused on a task, was very moving, while the soundtrack alienated. And then, the image would disintegrate as the wall behind it took over, became more present to the insanity of what we knew the woman was typing.

We never see Munio –he remains invisible, even in the fragments of Lullaby to My Father in which he is the subject of the film. In one such fragment we see Munio’s lawyer visit him, the camera stands behind the bars of the prison cell while the lawyer goes inside the cell. The lawyer talks to Munio explaining that they are going to have to plead for his release on the basis of his health records. But we never see Munio. Even though Munio lived until 1970, it is as though he disappeared with all of the other Jews in the Holocaust. He is invisible, but his presence and that of all the others who were murdered in his wake haunt the basement of the Palais de Tokyo. Again, Munio’s story becomes that of the many whose lives and deaths remain undocumented, the many who did not survive the Nazi brutality.

Amos Gitai, Free Zone, 2005

Traces is not really about the details in Gitaï’s films: in them we won’t find a logical, coherent whole. Because to do this, we would need to sit down and watch the films in their entirety in a movie theater. Rather, the installation is about the person who is invisible, silent, about an image that never fully captures the trauma, the image as graffiti that scars the walls of history, and thus becomes the image as the trace of another world, another life that can never be grasped.

This representation of what is ultimately absent, together with the dialogue that is set in motion between walls that tell of histories that are only ever gestured towards and the images that color them, makes Gitaï’s installation powerful. Within the genre of works that explore personal memories of a family member in order to visualize a post-memory of the Holocaust, this is among the very best. Its movement from individual story to the enormity of the historical trauma, simultaneous with the spectator’s immersion into the construction site that enables the articulation of both the personal and the grand historical narratives, is unforgettable.