Saturday, August 27, 2011

Marc Desgrandchamps, Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

This week I dragged Georgia along to the Marc Desgrandchamps exhibition at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Although I am not much of a fan of contemporary French painting, I had read some good reviews, and word has it that Desgrandchamps is an important artist. Unfortunately, there was little in the paintings to persuade me to review my preconceptions, but rather than race through an otherwise disappointing exhibition, Georgia and I decided to pinpoint why the paintings didn’t work. 
Marc Desgrandchamps, Gradiva, 2008
In his blog on the exhibition David Cobbold succinctly captures the problem when he describes the early works as having “that strange, clumsy look to them of the neoclassical period of Picasso, with a touch of Roualt and bad Matisse. I find them ugly and derivative.” However, while Cobbold goes on to appreciate Desgrandchamps’ work from 1993 onwards, I remained unconvinced of any developing sophistication. Overall, I sensed an emptiness and superficiality that opened neither to the desire nor the possibility to fill it. By way of contrast, one is reminded, for example, of the empty plazas that fill de Chirico’s early surrealist canvases. Their openness and sparsity are replete: with a timelessness, with the heat of the midday sun, with the enigma of the dream, with historical, social and artistic references. By contrast, Desgrandchamps’s spaces don’t seem to be filled with anything. The museum guide claims they are the spaces in which “the observed and the known, of memory and the imagination” converge. It may well be the case that the transparent figures overlaid on beaches and sparse landscapes in a very thin paint suggest memory, movement and the passing of time, but they do this in form only. There is no substance to the memories and flights of imagination that might be outlined on the canvas.
Marc Desgrandchamps, Untitled, 2009
One could argue that the transparent layers of paint are an interrogation of the existential emptiness that plagues contemporary life. However, in 2011, the moment when transparency, superficiality and the depthless as a political statement on the vacuity of modern, or more rightly, postmodern life, has now passed. Surely, we learnt all that in the 1990s? Isn’t the demand and responsibility of contemporary art in 2011 for realism? As we watch dictatorships collapse, insurrections in the Arab world and right wing conservatism take center stage in the West, there is no real urgency for paintings of horses on beaches and women walking down streets wearing flip flops. Even in their material qualities, Desgrandchamps’s paintings don’t offer any great insights. I think of the all the abstract paintings that use the medium to expose the depth of the metaphysical questions that plague human being. But Desgrandchamps doesn’t seem to engage these issues, paintings by those Desgrandchamps draws on: Picasso, Dali, and more recently, Fischl. It is true that his paintings echo the form of the cinematic but even then, they have no interest in its potential for social and cultural critique. Rather, he is relying on the conceptual to carry his point about abstraction, shadows, memory and time. However, sadly, the point is itself, one-dimensional.

Typically, the dreams, memories and fantasies that we hold onto have a power and energy to them that often overtake us. So when Desgrandchamps paints these phantom images as representations of this other level of consciousness, I couldn’t help thinking that he paints the dream, the imagination, the past as they have been constructed discursively. Thus, even on this level there is little of substance. Ultimately, the works are repetitive and if this retrospective is indicative of his oeuvre, it must be said to lack focus, both in its debt to art history and its engagement with intellectual and existential questions. There are contemporary French artists who are doing interesting work, artists who not only cite the history of painting and echo the form of other media such as the cinema. However, unfortunately, the significance of Desgrandchamps's conversation with them is as ephemeral as the person (likely a woman) who lost her running shoe on the street in the untitled painting above. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Les Nymphéas, or The Water Lillies at the Musée de l'Orangerie

With little happening in the galleries in August, Georgia and I decided to be tourists for a day and visit l’Orangerie; embarrassingly, neither of us had ever been. Fortunately, the real tourists were out enjoying the sun and we were able to retreat peacefully into the cool, dappled light of the Nymphéas—what we know as The Waterlillies—made between 1914 and 1926. Both of us are big fans of the Monet paintings at the Musée Marmatton in the 16th arrondissment, so we had expectations of the murals in l’Orangerie.

First, I need to emphasize that no postcard, mouse pad, calendar, scarf, tea towel or any other of the infinite objects onto which the famous paintings are reproduced does justice to these works. Primarily because they are not about objects, objectness, or objecthood. The Waterlillies are about color, light, and air as they are expressed through the medium of paint. They are so much more ethereal and ineffable than their reproductions would have us believe. Nevertheless, it is usual for images to choose to reproduce the waterlillies themselves, the weeping willow tree trunks, and those aspects that gesture towards the graspable in an otherwise ephemeral world. These are paintings that are better understood as a preface to Jackson Pollock’s all over drip paintings than as contemporaneous with August Renoir’s tea parties. The eight panels that adorn the purpose built gallery walls at l’Orangerie are without beginning and end, without horizon, orientation, or scale. Similarly, their perspective is ambiguous, and we can never be sure whether we are looking at reflections on the water or the garden itself. True to their place on the cusp of modernism, The Waterlillies sit somewhere between abstraction and representation.

In their panoramic sweep around the oval rooms, The Waterlillies capture the motion of time as the day moves from dawn to dusk, a time that is reflected on the surface of the pond at Giverny, a pond that now has iconic status. Again, while the tourists pilgrim out to Giverny to see “the garden” and “the pond” that inspired these canonical paintings, the works are less about representations of nature than they are nature as the inspirational source of Monet’s search for something in painting, namely its ability to capture things like time, color, light, air. 

It is interesting, and counter to expectation, to discover that The Waterlillies are not about painting per se. While Jackson Pollock, or perhaps Rothko would be a better example, was determined to explore the properties of paint, to draw attention to the dynamics, the viscosity, the virtuosity of the brushstroke, Monet is more intent on pursuing his search for the atmospheric. And though this is achieved through paint, in Monet’s search, paint is relegated to a vehicle for exploration of the atmospheric, something he finds at the artistic interface between abstraction and representation. And again, contrary to expectation of a painter inspired by reflections and water, Monet’s paint is dry, and worked around the canvas with a rag, not with the brush. There are no wet oils or watercolors, but in the interests of prioritizing the pigment, and its representation of nature, the paint is virtually without texture.

In spite of the apparent radicality of Monet’s paintings, many of the tourists who wandered into the exhibition spaces while we were there stopped to have their photographs taken with The Waterlillies as background. And we found ourselves admiring the color co-ordination of the visitors wearing greens and blues with the canvases behind them. Rather than seeing this contradiction as undoing the progressive nature of Monet’s practice, it is, I would argue, where it becomes extraordinary. Even though The Waterlillies press at the beginnings of modernism, the clarity and vibrancy of the color panels make equally great wall paper. It cannot be denied. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2009)... but more like, why I run

Recently, a friend visiting from Japan brought me a small gift as a token of our friendship – as the Japanese do. She brought me a book from her own collection, Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I talk about Running: A Memoir. Immersed as I am this summer in the writing of a memoir of sorts, and as someone who has run five to six times a week for the past 15 years, I myself couldn’t have chosen a better gift for me.
            At one point Murakami says that he doesn’t expect his book to inspire anyone to go out running, but if it does, that’s great. What he doesn’t reckon with is that it might also inspire novices like me to write. As I devoured this small book over the weekend, in between work, movies, grocery shopping and laundry, I heard myself in constant conversation with Murakami, needing to tell him how and why I run. All the way through I identified with Murakami: like him I am an endurance runner, I run miles every day in celebration of a body that has brought me this far in a life that it cannot have always found easy. I don’t run to compete, I run to stay alive. Running is the best anti-depressant I have found yet. I run alone, and like Murakami, that suits my personality. As he says, running is the only sport I get to do when I want, how I want, and where I want. I need nothing other than a road to run on and my New Balance 992s. Because I get to do it on my own, as an expression of my independence, running is effortless.
            What I Talk About When I talk about Running is also a book about growing old. As I approach my 48th birthday, I sometimes wonder what I will do when I can no longer run. Like Murakami, I don’t stretch much, I can push my body, I can exhaust it when my mind needs to do so, and yet, I have never sustained an injury. In fact, to date the only thing that has stopped me running are the bruised muscles resulting from spills on my bike. Reading Murakami, I realize that for old runners like us, there is no such thing as a use by date. He has filled me with joy as he reassures me I will keep running as long as I need to. Age has little to do with running. Running has little to do with age.
            Like Murakami, I run to write. But unlike Murakami, I never listen to music, and nearly every inspiration I have comes when I run. Running is meditative for me. Running has taught me who I am. Running is what I give myself to solve the problems of life at any given time. Whether they be about work, about writing, about love or about life, whatever is on my mind, I find the solution in the six miles of my morning run.
And unlike Murakami, I am not running marathons and I have no intention of doing so. I could if I wanted to, but that’s not why I run. I run to find my place in the world on a daily basis. I run no matter the weather. I run in the rain. I run in snow and, I have run in the searing summer heat of Istanbul, and in the dense humidity of Tokyo as I ran the Jingu Gaien course - Murakami's home run. When I traveled across the State of Texas a couple of years ago, every day began with a run in the desert. When I first started to travel for work, I would take swimming trunks, cap and goggles in the hope of finding a pool. The logic was that the swimming attire took up less space in my suitcase than the shoes, and in winter, the layers of clothing. But the problem was I never swam. I would go to conferences and watch Tom Waugh and Jonathan Kahana go off to swim at the end of the day, and though I yearned for the exercise, it was too much effort. And when Tom or Jonathan weren’t there I couldn’t be bothered finding the pool, getting permission, working a swim into the schedule.
            In Christmas 2001, I went to a conference in Brisbane with a suitcase filled for an onward flight to holidays in Sydney. I had running shoes, and it seemed like the most logical thing in the world to run the length of the Brisbane River at South Bank. It was effortless. I have traveled with running shoes ever since.
            When dogs enter a space for the first time they sniff. And then as if to stake their claim on that space the male dog lifts his leg, even when there is nothing to pee. I understand that reflex motion, I understand the pursuit of a routine in an expression of the need to feel at home. That’s why I run. I arrive in a city, and even if only there for a few days, I run. And when I run, I see the city differently, I go places no other tourist, visitor or traveler would go. I have seen the flower district of Los Angeles come alive at dawn, I have seen the sun set on the plains of Jaiselmer, the deserted streets of Detroit in mid-winter, and in one of the most glorious runs I recently ran the length of the River Po at dusk in Torino.
My favorite runs, the runs closest to my heart, are those I run day after day year after year. From 14th Street to Battery Park along the East River, Earl’s Court through Kensington, Hyde Park and up to the West End of London, and the Canal Saint-Martin, along the Seine to Pont Neuf. Just as it’s what I do when I arrive somewhere new, the first thing I do when I come home to Paris after time away, even if only for a weekend? I run. I need to run to tell myself that I am home, where I belong, I need to smell the air, do battle with the cars, and say hello to all the homeless people I know along the Canal. Once I have run, I am returned to my life at home, returned to who I am.
            Again and again astrologers have told me I am a wholly typical embodiment of my star sign. I have Leo as my star, I am ruled by the sun, and in all those houses I am dominated by fire and sun. And true to the lion, I run. And like the lion, for me, the relationship to where I am, to who I am, whether it be nomadically wandering the world, or at home in my den, is only determined by the course I have run. 

Monday, August 8, 2011

Brancusi, Film, Photography, Images sans Fin au Centre Pompidou

I had no knowledge of Brancusi's work in photography and film, so it was a delight and a joy to discover the seriousness and creativity with which he pursued both. Brancusi the photographer and Brancusi the filmmaker were every bit a part of his Paris intellectual environment as Brancusi the sculptor. My overwhelming impression of his work in the new media is its complement to the great innovations in the avant-garde of the 1920s. Inspite of the varying degree of proficency with the camera, his use of light and its interaction with the world was clearly influenced by the radical experiments of his friends Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. And yet, Brancusi's work can be seen to do something different because so often, his sculpture is the subject of the films and photographs.

Constantin Brancusi, Leda, c. 1933-34

Constantin Brancusi, Leda, 1920
The exhibition claims that Brancusi's primary impetus for picking up the camera was to document his sculpture. Whether or not this is true, the photographic images of his own sculptures are exciting artworks in and of themselves because he simultaneously brings them alive, puts them in motion, and dissolves them as objects. The numerous photographs of the Leda sculptures —in bronze, in marble, in darkness, in light —are so vivid that we alternately see the swan flap her wings, and then lose all definition as she dissolves into an abstract compositional element in a play of light and shadow. In the photographs dated c. 1933-36, Leda realizes ambitions similar to Moholy-Nagy's photographs in which the purity of light itself becomes the artistic medium. However, while Moholy-Nagy does away with the object altogether, Brancusi's sculptural objects remain the focus of the photograph. And it is in their transformation through the photographic process that together, sculpture, light and camera produce a new art form.

While other of the photographs create dimensionality, shape, textures, and spaces within spaces through the manipulation of light, and still others propel the sculptures into a motion held in tension with the static frames, the films are not as convincing in their experimentation. When Brancusi gets the film camera out in his studio, filming his friends at dinner, and again when he films friends dancing or his travels through Romania from a train, the result is nevertheless interesting for what it does not achieve. The attempt to integrate sculpture, dancer and film movement for example, shows Brancusi the filmmaker in search of a new language, a synergetic art form. However, the three media rest separate Brancusi is unable to create the relationship with the body and film in motion that Maya Deren achieves in A Study in Choreography for the Camera (1945) ten years later.
Still from Brancusi, La Colonne sans fin de voulangis, 1927
Towards the end of the exhibition, though not necessarily later in his career, Brancusi's films became more interesting. For example, on display is a wonderful film of celebratory fireworks at the Eiffel Tower where once again, the fireworks are a play of light and darkness. And then in the number of films of his La Colonne sans Fin, the works begin to approach some of the questions about the bringing together of documentary recording and the artistic possibilities of filmic construction that defined the theoretical discussions of his time in the 1920s and 1930s. In these works where Brancusi varies the focal lengths, sources of light, framing, and he even works in color, he begins more convincingly to open up a relationship between sculpture and filmmaking.

One of the final pieces in the exhibition is a rare and unusual film by the American avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits, Brancusi's Sculptural Ensemble at Tirgu Jiu, (1977-1884). Sharits goes to Romania and documents his visits to the three Brancusi sculptures in rural Tirgu Jiu. Sharits explores the sculptures by moving through the town and allowing the sculptures to come into view from different perspectives, giving a sense of a narrative discovery. The film is aesthetically very beautiful, with its 1970s Kodachrome, and unlike the harshness and confrontation of Sharits' earlier abstract work, the camearwork and editing is lyrical, ultimately producing a film that echoes the infinity of the Endless Column that is one of the three Brancusi sculptures in Tirgu Jiu.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Moonlighting, dir. Jerzy Skolimowski, 1982

There’s little love lost between me and England, but one thing I have always embraced about the  "motherland" is its immigrant population. And related to the diversity of its immigrants, in London particularly, is the ease of entering the country if not of living there. When the four Polish protagonists of Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting (1982) make it through immigration with cartloads of work tools, a bicycle and all manner of things not necessary for buying the secondhand car they tell the official is the purpose of their trip, I am convinced. And when Nowak, the only one of the four to speak English says, “I speak their language, but I don’t understand them” I knew exactly what he meant. With his usual subtley and irony, Skolimowski’s profile of the English teeters on the edge of farcical caricature, and yet, for those of us who have experienced this beguiling culture from the outside, Moonlighting is full-blown realism. It had me laughing out loud in a theater full of silent French people.

There is much to enjoy about Moonlighting, especially the careful way Skolimowski deals with the confusing tensions of inner life. Nowak's fantasy, paranoia, desire (played by Jeremy Irons), are woven seamlessly together with the external reality of cold, unfriendly London in the 1980s. Thanks to the skilful intertwining of the two, the film is as much about the loneliness and isolation, the delusions and imaginative wanderings of the migrant worker as it is about the absurdities of British behavior and the racism that runs and ruins the cultural fabric. The slow and very subtly moving narrative shows Nowak sliding in and out of guilt, recognition of his own weakness, feelings of power, control. The whole film is told through Nowak’s point of view, with the other three workers tentatively shown to shift from servitude to an explosion of anger at Nowak’s deception at the end of the film.

It is not just racism that is on display here. Other social ills we know to despoil daily life in England are slowly revealed. We see the neighbor yelling, hysterically, out of proportion to the Polish mens' apparent disturbance of his peace. I have come to accept such pent up, repressed anger, as part and parcel of daily life under the drab, leaden skies of London. It is somehow born in the depressing streets with everyone behind their perfectly painted doors. Emotion in these cold and depressing streets, lined as they are with perfectly painted doors and lace curtains in the windows, has to have an outlet, and so often, I have seen immigrants (including myself) as that outlet. And then when kids break the glass in the red phone box while Nowak is making a call at the beginning of the film, I was convinced. Moonlighting is rivetting partly because it takes us deep into the heart of residential London from the point of view of those who do not belong.

Nowak and his three men are in London for a month to renovate his boss's apartment, paid cash in hand, in the black. Nowak learns of the December 1981 military clampdown in Poland when he can't get through to his wife one Saturday for the regular call home. The isolation of Poland at this time is mirrored in the isolation of the four men in London: the English stare, whisper and distrust the Polish man because they are different from them. From the moment when they walk into the supermarket on arrival, dressed differently from the English, the men are the subject of scrutinizing looks, racist outbursts, and derogatory comments. As Skolimowski shows with verve, it’s not about the foreigners, it’s about the British.

Moonlighting is also a film about labor relations. Everyone is exploited: Nowak is exploited by his boss because he has not given him enough money to finish the job, Nowak exploits the other three men, deceiving them to get the job done whatever way he can. And then Nowak starts to steal for the same reasons as Michel in Pickpocket (1959), to survive the harsh reality of city life. And in clear references to Michel, although Nowak steals food not money, he takes his goods home and hides them. But Nowak is not in a Bresson film and there is no redemption from his sins, which are nevertheless, a form of self-sacrifice. 

Perhaps the greatest irony of Moonlighting, a film that was made with Poland trapped behind the Iron Curtain, and Britain in the grip of Margaret Thatcher's savage measures to privatize the country and wrap it in the cloak of Capitalism, is that the Poles now run London. From the young students who seem to have a monopoly on jobs in London’s chain coffee shops to the workmen and builders who do all the wealthy capitalists' home renovations, London has become a haven for Polish people wanting a better life.