Saturday, May 21, 2011

Anish Kapoor's Leviathan at the Grand Palais

A friend who visited Anish Kapoor’s  Leviathan, the latest in the Monumenta series at the Grand Palais , told me that it was “beautiful”. He used words such as “breathtaking”, and “divine” – and had an image of something that would be ethereal, gorgeous, dreamy, something that would give the experience of serenity.

And as I entered the belly of Leviathan, I felt my body swaying, I became nauseous, not knowing where to look, completely disoriented, wanting to find a place to stand, my experience of this mindboggling “sculpture” (if that is what one calls such a creation) was anything but soothing. In fact, I was troubled. This was a monster that could only begin to be described by its title. As I stood back, looking at the entrance, I saw the people coming in, black shadows falling into the void, as if walking involuntarily into the mouth of Moloch. It reminded me of the nightmare of the underground world of Fritz Lang’s Metrolpolis, only everything was red, creating intensity and destabilization. But Leviathan has a kinship with Lang’s world where everything has gone awry despite the pretence of order. 

The seams of the red PVC balloon structure are in many ways the most intriguing parts of Leviathan. Because the seams are the place that we look to for explanation, for order, for a sense of orientation. Of course, it is impossible to find one’s bearings here, because this is a world in which there is a constant unsettling of everything we know: we are enveloped by a not so reassuring red, where color has become tactile and weighs upon us. I read somewhere that Kapoor likes to create structures that remind of the womb, and yes, I think to myself, this is where I am – intrigued, disoriented, wondering how long I need to stay in here before it is time to leave. And then everything changes – the sun comes out and I see the reflection of the iron structure of the roof of the Grand Palais reflected on the now translucent PVC shell that protects me. It is gorgeous. Like a chain reaction, everyone inside lies down. They put their bags under the heads and they lie down to look, to dream, to imagine the world outside of the womb. The monster comes alive, and people’s response to it changes completely.
Anish Kapoor, Leviathan, c. designboom

As in the past Monumenta installations, the Grand Palais and the French Ministry of Culture, employ young students to discuss the work with visitors. They explain this mythical, incomprehensible beast to an intrigued and voracious public. One young man tells me that the work is breathing, when I look at it and remark on the transformations that take place in the sunlight. He tells me that it’s the red, the unrelenting red, the purity of red that makes me feel lost and troubled, that unnerves me. He wants also to say that Kapoor has created a space of the imagination. And yet, as I take off my jacket because it is so hot, as I nervously look to see who is creating the echoes that reverberate throughout, as I try to find a place to be inside this belly of a beast, I do anything but follow the temptations of my imagination. I am so physically confronted, there is no possibility of transcending the body. At night, he tells me that the PVC balloon looks like cement, because it takes on a density. I wonder if Kapoor knew this would happen at night? How could he have known how it would behave because this was the first time it was ever inflated? In many ways, it is the aleatory, the “onceness” of Leviathan that makes it so mysterious. How can it be so perfect, not a wrinkle, not a flaw in its skin? And how can Kapoor have designed such a structure, not knowing what it would be like, look like, feel like? It’s the technical impossibility of Leviathan that makes it so confounding.

I watched people touch it: everyone did, everyone went up to it, just to make sure it was there, just to make sure it was where we thought it was. Strangely, because of the illusions created by red and the illusion of perspective realized by the seams, the material of Leviathan is not where we it appears to be, we are completely deceived, as the PVC lining is further away, on an angle, not perpendicular as it appears. And once people have touched it, ever so cautiously, they step back, leaving it to do what it must, on its own.

On the outside, it is a different story. The piece has a life of a different kind, it is imposing, and magnificent. It is magnificent because it sits in the nave of one of the most extraordinary buildings in turn of the century Paris. Almost anything that sits inside this structure cannot help but take on some of the magnificence of the building. But Leviathan on the outside, welcomes the volume, the light, the verticality and simultaneous horizontality of the enormous space. The now purple structure is touched by the lattice work of the ceiling, in reflection, on its skin, making it mysterious once again, but in a gesture of openness and magnificence, where the inside was unsettling and troubling. The outside is still inconceivable because still we cannot see where it begins and ends. And it is inconceivable because it cannot possibly be the skin, the outside of the same structure that we fall into on the inside. Like coming into the world, being born, wide-eyed, there is nothing that connects in there with out here. Nothing.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Giant steps forward for Womankind: Why Dominique Strauss-Kahn belongs on Rikers Island

Dominique Strauss-Kahn in court with his lawyer Benjamin Brafman. Photo: AFP
The indictment, refusal of bail, and shipment of Dominique Strauss-Kahn to Rikers Island has the potential to be a giant step forward for man and womankind. I say potentially because of course, the process has just begun, and there’s no telling where it might go, who might get involved, and what the evidence might reveal.

However, if the events continue to unfold in the way they have begun, then we are on track to seeing a slew of serious social issues addressed in a public forum. The most obvious of course being the support of the victim, an immigrant, working-class woman who has been violated and abused through no fault of her own. And as a measure of the seriousness with which her allegations are being considered, that the judge of the hearings was a woman is another victory. Bravo also to the Sofitel for acting on the distress and testimony of their employee when it may have been easier to keep such violent events out of the public eye for the sake of their reputation. And bravo to the NYPD for arraigning Strauss-Kahn at JFK before he was airborne, before he was lifted like Roman Polanski to a life of freedom from the consequences of his lawless actions. In the US, everyone from Paris Hilton to Kenneth Lay has to take the consequences and take responsibility for their crimes, so I see no reason why the chief of the IMF should be given immunity. On what basis? Because he is rich? Because he is French? Because he is a powerful white middle aged man? We have reason to celebrate that the US doesn’t accept these as good enough reasons for exemption.

The French media as well as the Socialist Party politicians are apparently horrified and appalled at Strauss-Kahn’s treatment by the American media, by the lawmakers, and all concerned. Apparently, he should not have to suffer such “indignity.” How can Martine Aubry, the Socialist Party leader, as a woman, not even acknowledge the “indignity” suffered by the victim? And how can the Former Justice Minister Elisabeth Guigou not see the irony of her claim that the media treatment of Strauss-Kahn is “absolutely sickening.” His treatment of the poor woman who came to do her job in his hotel suite wasn’t sickening?  And one wonders what these women would expect the media, the law, the NYPD to do differently? This is America afterall, and this is what they do with all criminals — let’s get this straight, this is not a titillating sex scandal, it’s a crime we are dealing with here. This is not about a quick blow-job from one of the office interns in between meetings. We are talking about attempted rape.

The treatment of the IMF head has nothing to do with Kahn-Strauss being French, and everything to do with being a criminal. Strauss-Kahn’s treatment by the justice system and the media is no different from that of any suspect of a major crime in the US. Hold the mirror up to Kahn, and rather than seeing the US institutions treatment of him, we see every other ordinary criminal brought on charges for crimes they may or may not have committed. Let the “disgust” of these politically powerful French women be a cry for the breech of human dignity extended to all those who suffer the same treatment on a daily basis, who are made to appear manacled and unshaven before judges, those who might also be innocent, and whose faces don’t cover the world’s newspapers.

Even if Strauss-Kahn is innocent, even if the maid, or someone down the line from the hotel, to the doctors who treated her, to the NYPD, to the DA’s office, to the prosecutors, have framed him, why, one wonders is he staying in a $5000 a night hotel suite? When I was employed by the European Commission they asked for justification of all hotel bills over 100€ per night. Clearly, Strauss-Kahn is manipulating rules somewhere here. There have also been claims that he was framed. This makes no sense because if French politicians are routinely excused of their personal (including sexual) indiscretions, then why would anyone opposed to Strauss-Kahn running for President bother to expose his sexual violation of a Manhattan maid? This is not how French politics works. It just isn’t. What remains a mystery is why the French would not be grateful that this disgusting old man has been stopped in his tracks at this stage, rather than in two years time when he might have been President. Imagine the level of national humiliation then.

In another surprising allegation, there are Strauss-Kahn defendants who believe that his privacy should be respected for the sake of his family. If he was my husband, or my father, again, I would be grateful that his crimes are being made public. Allegations of this sort don’t happen to people who have no proclivity for such behavior. I don’t believe for a minute that was a happy marriage with a healthy sex life!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Adolf Winkelmann, Flying Pictures at the Dortmunder U

Uhr mit Fischen über Dortmund, Adolf Winkelmann 2010

In my travels to the Ruhr last week, bound for the Zeche Zollern outside of Dortmund, I stopped in at the newly refurbished and recreated Dortmunder U. I have to say, for all of the excitement over this project which was supposed to contribute to the transformation of a depressed city into a cultural mecca, there was not so much to get excited about at the converted brewery. Like all of these refurbished former factories, mines and breweries in the Ruhr (see also the Lichtmuseum at Unna, which is the obvious comparison here as it was also once a brewery), the building itself is wonderful. There is lots of space, lots of potential and a feeling of lightness and freedom as one moves through the open, and in this case, as often in others, vertical space. The central eight storey tower which has been the icon of Dortmund since the brewery's construction in the 1920s, has been redesigned with grace and power by architect, Professor Eckhard Gerber and his colleagues. Sadly, however the dream of a vibrant and energetic cultural centre did not seem to have come true on the day I visited. As is so often the case with these Ruhr 2010 projects, I had the building and exhibitions to myself.

c. Gerber Architekten, Photo. Jürgen Landes
The real drawcard is Flying Pictures by filmmaker Adolf Winkelmann, a three part film installation that maps the verticality of the one time brewery tower, the horizontality of the Ruhr region, and the panoramic views that are its trademark. The first installation, indeed, the first view of the Tower, shows Winkelmann’s images filling the crown of the building. The flickering images reminded me alternately of Times Square with its barrage of screens that color the sky and streets in its midst. However Winkelmann’s images are more silhouette like, they are flickering colors that also reminded me of the window displays filled with moving images from the turn of the century cities. On the overcast day that I was in Dortmund, it was difficult to see the images at the top of the tower — an obscurity that seems in keeping with the dimming of all the cultural and artistic activities in the Ruhr region that are billed as being so exciting. Apparently, the images “create the sense of a space behind the colonades and fills it with life, with imaginary water or with beer. Every hous on the hour it is inhabited by large pigeons” However, to reiterate, it was impossible to see this from where I stood because of the light conditions.
Neun Fenster in der Vertikalen, Adolf WInkelmann 2010
Just inside the entry of the building, visitors are greeted with a panoramic view of the Ruhr – an open circle of 11 screens that show the same image, with maybe a minute's time lag. Visitors are supposed to walk through this space on entry to the museum proper, however, again, the dream did not fit the reality the day I was there. There was no other reason to go inside this part of the building and so I sat, alone with the images and the pylons holding up the building. The panoramic form echoes the landscape of the Ruhr – flat, circular, and typified by its horizontality. Winkelman includes images that are said to be atypical, however, for anyone who has spent time in the Ruhr, the visions are very familiar: factories inside and out, street life, daily life intertwined with manufacture, slag heaps, and the attempt to transform the region into a cultural mecca. This is the post-industrial Ruhr region as we have come to know it.
Ruhrpanoramen im Foyer, Adolf Winkelmann, 2010

The next chapter of the installation represents nine windows, images that fill the vertical tower that can only be seen as we ascend on the escalator. This installation is as much a technical feat as the panorama on the ground floor, and with the light from the white walls, and the juxtaposition with the real windows in the tower, it has an energy that the others parts of the installation do not. Various, but not typical, Ruhr citizens are shown inside windows the same dimensions and design as those that actually form part of the building’s tower. We see a man writhing in the window, another young man holding his baby, a man playing a sax, all for a matter of minutes, sometimes with only three, even two windows “opened” at any one time. They are striking because the images are transitory in form, again speaking very much to the essence of cinema and this idea of images passing us by, in a state of transition. In their mirroring of the dimensions of the real windows, there is a sense in which Winkelmann’s windows look out onto the world of the Ruhr, from a different perspective.
c. Gerber Architekten, Photo. Jürgen Landes
After visiting the U, I strolled down to the main street of Dortmund, filled with chain stores, and teaming with shoppers. It was impossible to get a seat in any café that might be along the way, and this was the perfect confirmation of my suspicion that the “U” was not the success it had hoped to be. Clearly, shopping in Dortmund is much more enticing than any engagement with culture. Nevertheless, if you find yourself en route to somewhere else — probably the only reason to go to Dortmund — Winkelmann's images are, in my opinion, much more appealing than chain stores and sausages.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Luc Tuymans, Retrospective, Brussels Centre for Fine Arts (Bozar)

Luc Tuymans, The Architect, 1997

On the way home from a research trip to Germany, I got off the Thalys in Brussels to visit the Luc Tuymans exhibition in its final days of its two year world circuit. I have always been dismissive of Tuymans, convinced that he does nothing that hasn't been done before by better, more reputed artists. I had concluded the work was derivative – before I had even seen it in any substantial form. How wrong I was!
Luc Tuymans, Pharmacy, 2003
Although Tuymans' brush barely appears to have touched the canvas, this is painting that demands immense concentration, extended periods in front of it, and as a result, reveals a depth over time. This is where Tuymans’ work is so different from Gerhard Richter’s, the painter I most wanted to believe Tuymans was imitating. On Tuymans’ canvases, there is no working up or working over with layer upon layer of paint. Indeed, Tuymans’ work is not very painterly; it is ephemeral, transient, disappearing off the side of the canvas. It is this quality that has prompted critics and historians of art to proclaim Tuymans’ iconoclastic practice as a response to the end of painting, the end of art as we know it at the end of the twentieth century. And it is also the quality that makes Tuymans’ work so different from both the American and European painters with whom he shares the second half of the 20th century. Peter Schjeldahl in his review in The New Yorker writes that "Tuymans is the most  challenging painter in the recent history of art.” 
Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005
However, Schjeldahl also claims that Tuymans will never be popular. And if this is true, it is for the same reason that I have often dismissed his paintings. In keeping with the thinness of the paint, they are not in anyway aesthetic, but rather, appear as painting put in the service of conceptual arguments that are often very difficult to grasp. The experience of being in their presence is unsettling because unlike virtually every other artist who devotes him or herself to painting, Tuymans refuses to draw us towards his work. Before them, I had no desire to move closer, to inspect them, get intimate with the canvas. Indeed, these are images seen more clearly and with a greater sense of ease from a distance. 

There are other characteristics that make them difficult to look at, and sometimes impenetrable to understand. For example, in a painting such as The Secretary of State (2005) Condoleezza Rice’s image is difficult due to the way it is cropped, the ambiguous expression on her face, our inability to give it context through knowledge of where she is, what she is reacting to. The painting is unsettling because it could be interpreted in a number of ways. Like many of his works, this painting is one in a community of works, in this case: Proper. The museum displays talk about Tuymans’ paintings as existing in series, however, to be sure, they don’t belong to series in the Warholian sense (despite what the museum claims). Rather, like the number of paintings that express the obfuscation and resultant devastation of US political life in the Bush years to which The Secretary of State belongs, these are groupings or communities of paintings that have been placed in a set of historical or conceptual circumstances. Small and, more recently, larger paintings are placed on a wall such that the only conversation between them is established by their presence on the wall. Each of the rooms in this retrospective was used for a community of paintings and in each case, the historical context of the group as a whole had to be communicated by texts. There is nothing inherent to the images to explain what we are looking at.

Luc Tuymans, The Diagnostic View VII,
  To reiterate, visually, the works are often ambiguous, sometimes even abstract in their ambiguity and inaccessibility. Their troubling nature is emphasized in many ways: for example, in an image such as The Diagnostic View VII, 1992 there is a layering of paint. However, the layering does not create depth to the painting, but rather, it functions to make the image and the object luminous – a luminosity that is in contradiction to the obviously sick breast in the image. The titles of Tuymans’ paintings are also disquieting, titles that usually change the meaning of the image completely. As in the case of The Diagnostic View VII the perspective and the dimensions of people’s bodies, the fragmentation, the impossible sizes, bodies always skewed and distorted by the painter can be challenging even to look at. Thus, in their form, the paintings are awkward and resist all possibility of comprehension. The images, like those above, often disappear off the side of the canvas, or the image is eclipsed by an encroaching shadow to emphasize the off-screen, the threat of the out of frame. Tuymans work is often described for its resonance with the photographic, and it is true the photograph is everywhere hovering around these paintings: the transient, the sense of an image in passing, on its way somewhere else, the low production values, the strange perspectives, these aspects of Tuymans' work are all more commonly found in photographs not painting.

I could talk about many of the individual paintings but just to give one example. In an image that was part of a group entitled, Holocaust, Der Architekt is a figure in the snow. We don’t know if it looks forward or backwards, thanks to a mask which could cover the face or the back of the head. The image is, apparently, taken from the home movies of Albert Speer, the architect of Hitler’s monumental cities. The text on the museum wall says that this group of paintings echoes the unrepresentability of the Holocaust, however, to my eye, what makes them compelling is that the painting exists outside of the context of German history. The architect seems to be an image of a man, or maybe a woman, who has fallen, or perhaps has been caught in the act. He or she is vulnerable, but maybe completely in control, in a landscape that is luminous. The contradictory possibility of a painting such as this is its very meaning. Certainly, the representation of elements of the Holocaust as “contradictory” and opaque do not fall under the conventional demand for “unrepresentability.”

Luc Tuymans, Within, 2001
Yet another aspect of these works that makes them visually compelling is the frame within frame motif that emphasizes the second hand nature of Tuymans’ visions. In each of them, there is something caught, cold and still, and in an image such as Within, that something might be us, the viewer, behind bars. In this gesture of repetition, whether the frames within frames are real or imagined, we find a critique of images, an iconoclasm that rhymes with the use of grey, an iconoclasm that emphasizes the mystical, whimsical nature of paintings that are in the process of fading out of view.