Monday, September 26, 2011

Gerhard Richter, Peinture 2010-2011, Galerie Marian Goodman

Gerhard Richter, 6 Standing Glass Panes, 2011

At Gerhard Richter’s latest Paris exhibition, Painting 2010-2011, an exhibition of arguably the greatest living painter, there are two series of images and one sculpture. Ironically, despite the exhibition title, despite the immense body of work that gives Richter his reputation, only one of the series of images is made from the material of paint. And yet, the others, 6 Standing Glass Panes and Strip (2011), the sculpture and a series of computer printouts, have everything to do with painting. Even as he takes the art world into the next period of painting’s evolution, into what some might call, post-painting, Richter’s work continues to engage with the questions that have preoccupied modernist painting in the twentieth and now the twenty-first century: What is painting? What is the relationship between painting and the world of which it is a part, and the world it represents? What is a painter?

The literal and discursive centerpiece of Painting 2010-2011 must be the sculpture, 6 Standing Glass Panes through which over fifty years of Richter’s painting are reflected, refracted, fragmented and performed. The gallery’s publicity flyer claims that the piece verges into architecture and then oscillates with painting. Even the most cursory glance at the glass plates, paralleled and held in three dimensionality by their steel structure, reveals that the glass sculpture engages with much more than architecture and painting. Not only are the reiterations of Richter’s images on the walls mirrored, repeated, blurred and multiplied when seen through the recession of glass panes, but as people wander into the gallery space, a performance begins: the human figure in motion brings the panes alive, again, through reiteration, fragmentation, refraction. Most vivid for Richter connoisseurs will be the blurring of the figure as if it had stepped out of one of the 1960s photo-paintings. And then, suddenly, the performance is done, and the stillness of the perfect squares is restored as they sit, motionless, in the light filled gallery. And so, 6 Standing Glass Panes is architectural, it is performative, sculptural, engaged in the history of Richter’s own painting. It also engages with the history of art when, for example, we remember the enigma of Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1926). This complex and endless depth of Richter's work must be what makes him the most celebrated living artist. 

While most critics will disagree with me, I have always thought of Richter’s work as the most articulate example of modernist painting. Indeed, Richter himself would reject the label, and I certainly do not want to limit the great works through compartmentalization. However, even in these works that ostensibly mark a break in his oeuvre, supposedly doing something that he has not yet done before, I see every reason why his work must be considered modernist. It is true that his interrogation of painting at its interface with other media has shifted, most notably from photography (in the photo-paintings, the overpainted photographs, the persistent use of grey paint) to a  concern with technology and the computer generated. Particularly, in the Strip series here at Marian Goodman in which digital printouts are placed behind perspex. But nevertheless, even in Strip the motivation is the same, the question is the same: what indeed is painting? Richter has been asking this question since the 1960s, the question that is, fundamentally, the primary concern of modernist painting. Though he may be asking the question in a different voice, the question, the language, and the re-invention of an answer, have remained consistent across fifty years. To my mind, this exhibition confirms that Richter is the modernist painter par excellence.
Gerhard Richter, Abstract Painting (CR: 724-4), 1990
Similarly, Richter’s presence as the artist has been the preoccupation of his painting over fifty years, and the urgency of this concern remains in the foreground of these new works. Even if these are works where the hand of the man has been disguised by the absence of a brushstroke in favor of a computer generated line, the series of Strip paintings, for example, begins with his 1990 Abstract Painting (CR:724-4). Richter divided the 1990 painting vertically, first in two, then in four, eight, sixteen and so on to four thousand and ninety six. And so, conceptually at least, Strip  is not so different from all of those works he repaints. The works are like the paintings that begin life as a photograph once found in Atlas, and then, are typically, removed from the archive, manipulated, overpainted, and on through their process of disguise. Strip is a different form of “repainting” that might be understood to meet similar purposes: the interrogation of the interface between two media as a way of determining the role of painting, and Richter’s painting in particular, in the value of representation. Like any of his previous works, Strip is a re-interrogation, a game of concealing and revealing, of creating continuity with the past, even if it is erased through a different technique or technology. 
Gerhard Richter, Strip, 2011
 For all of the resonance and continuity between these new works and Richter’s fifty year oeuvre, there are also striking differences. And perhaps there is none more shocking than the refusal of the Strip series to invite us into their depths and their secrets. When we stand before Richter’s abstract works, especially the large format ones, we watch as the paint and its patterns transform, move, vibrate in front of our eyes. Time spent in front of these works brings shapes we recognize, sometimes because we begin to project onto and into their abstraction. In the case of a series such as Cage I-VI (one of my favorites), the paintings are moody, they shift from cold, through indifferent to vibrant warmth as they engage with the other paintings in their community of six. However, at Marian Goodman when visitors began to study Strip, they found nothing to see, and quickly turned their backs, preferring the enchantment and unpredictability of 6 Standing Glass. Thus, the transformations, fluidity, ambiguity and the passion of painting has now been removed from the painted surface. And in its place, we are offered glass panes that function as a lens through which to discover these qualities in the life that it captures.  
Gerhard Richter, Cage IV, (CR: 897-4) 2006 
And in true Richter style, the minute I write that, I am reminded that the opposite is also true. In spite of the clinical perfection of Strip, it has an aesthetic beauty. Even though the prints are digital, thus the gesture and eroticism of paint completely effaced, seen as a community, here of five images, they move through different emotions, different temperatures. They resonate, not only with the Abstract Painting from which they are derived, but with all of Richter’s painted series. I was reminded of all his squares of color, the windows of the Cologne Cathedral, as these images also look for patterns and logic through repetitions that are always different from each other. The Strip prints are also like Cage I-VI  because they too move through different “palettes” and different temperatures, even though there is no temperature and no palette. I want to project that in 100 years time when none of us are around, art critics will see these works as just another logical step along the path being trodden by the great modernist, Gerhard Richter. These works are surprising for they show Richter in a different light, but they are also, completely in keeping with his oeuvre. They are beautiful, elegant, perfectly controlled, yet still with room for the unpredictability of human interaction. All of them move well beyond what painting can do, and yet, they are through and through painting at its most powerful, provocative and revolutionary.

Images of the Exhibition courtesy Marian Goodman
 Abstract Painting (CR: 724-4), 1990 and Cage IV, (CR: 897-4) 2006 courtesy Gerhard Richter.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Ana Mendieta, Galerie Lelong, Paris

Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Blood Sign #1), 1974
Super 8 color film
This long awaited exhibition of Ana Mendieta’s work in Paris, appropriately titled Blood and Fire, divides Mendieta’s early and late work into the two halves, two rooms at Galerie Lelong. The interpretation of Mendieta’s works are always up for grabs because they carry an obscurity and an ambiguity that open them out to an address of so much more than what is actually represented. Mendieta’s work is always provocative but never belligerent, thus carrying with them a wealth of possible interpretations.
Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Self-Portrait with Blood), 1973

The early work of the 1970s uses two media – her body and blood. These mainly photographic works on display at Galerie Lelong are both intensely personal, and though many critics would question this, to me they simultaneously have a generality, a deeply political motivation and affect. With their provocative use of blood, by default speaking to the discourses on violence against women as well as women’s impassioned retort to this violence through confrontation, Mendieta’s work cannot help but remind us of the exciting feminist debates of the 1970s. In one photographic series, Untitled (Self Portrait with Blood),  1973/1997 a series of six photographs showing Mendieta’s face with blood dripping from an invisible wound we see and understand domestic violence towards women. It is true that a photographic series such as this is always about the artist’s own pain and trauma, but its resonance is also much greater. The specifics of the violence, both personal and political, that might have lead to the wound we cannot see are deliberately obscured, thus leaving us to imagine for ourselves.
Ana Mendieta, Untitled (Gunpowder Work #2), 1980

That said, for all of the power of Mendieta’s use of blood, in all of the photographs and films, there is always a possibility that it could in fact be red paint. Not only does it sometimes look like paint (see for example Untitled (Blood Sign #1) above, but she also uses blood as though it is paint. Mendieta applies blood to walls, her body, wipes it over a plastic sheet, covers herself in blood to play the victim of a rape [Untitled (Rape Performance), 1973]. There are times when it is difficult to tell if we are watching her wield paint or blood around a surface. And this ambiguity around the medium she is using both connects her oeuvre, for example, to artists such a s Yves Klein who use the body as paintbrush and canvas, as much as it establishes a relationship with feminist performance artists such as Karen Finley who use the body as the medium for expression of the woman’s journey.
Ana Mendieta, Ñáñigo Burial1976 
In the second room of the exhibition, fire leaves its trace like blood from an unknown violent act. Like the absence of the visual source in the blood works, those that use fire and gunpowerder as their medium, especially in its connection to the earth are about someone who has now left the scene of the crime. Again, in the same way that the photograph documents someone who is no longer there, the land in works such as Untitled (Gunpowder Work, #2) has been purged, cleansed of the person whose shape nevertheless remains. And it is, of course, the familiar silhouette of Mendieta herself, a silhouette that ensures the memory of the now absent Mendieta is kept alive. Indeed, this sense of the continuity of the spirit, be it of the artist, of the woman’s body, of the rituals that bear their traces in the works, is captured so exquisitely in Ñáñigo Burial, 1976 in which a series of black candles placed to outline Mendieta’s small body continue to burn and leave their trace in the form of black wax on the gallery floor.
Ana Mendieta, Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueta de Cenizas), 1975

 I am tempted to think of Mendieta’s work in contrast to the photographs of Candida Höfer, not because they have any relationship whatsoever, simply because I saw them on the same day. Mendieta uses the word silhouette in the title of one of her films: Silueta de Cenizas, 1975 which looks to represent a sheet being born through fire. The title reinforces the idea of the missing person, the sense of absence and eternal memory as this absence is left to scar the landscape. Mendieta’s is an absence that is far more personal, emotional and devastating than the human absence often referred to in Candida Höfer’s photographs. Because in Mendieta’s works, part of the person remains to disturb the balance of the world on view to the camera. The memory, their memory is now imprinted, or rather, burnt into the landscape. Through the body's integration into the natural world the person becomes forever remembered. 

Similarly, unlike Höfer who is so committed to the structures and mechanics of photographic representation, Mendieta works in sculpture, film, crayons, acrylic, as well as photography. She is an artist who reaches for a given medium in response to whatever it is that needs to be expressed inside of her. And even though very little might be said to “happen” in these works, they are moving and evocative because Mendieta’s sole purpose is to give voice to that expression.

All images are courtesy of the Estate of Ana Mendieta

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Candida Höfer, Erinnern, Galerie Yvon Lambert, Paris

Candida Höfer, Neues Museum Berlin VII, 2009
Like other of the descendents of the German realist photography of Bernd and Hilla Becher —Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth, to name just two — because of Candida Höfer’s insistence on a repetition of composition, subject matter, and thematic concerns, we might be tempted to argue that there is nothing innovative or individual about any single work or series of her photographs. Nevertheless, seeing eleven large format photographs together in Erinnern at Yvon Lambert this afternoon, I am very quickly reminded how misleading this assumption is. The photographs on exhibition here were taken of the Neues Museum in Berlin, the Archivo General de Indias, Sevilla and the Archivo di Stato Napoli, all taken in 2009-10. It is unclear why Yvon Lambert selected these particular 11 photographs to go together, and though I could question the decision, it seems more provocative to think about the result of the curatorial decision.

Exhibition of Höfer's photographs with Vincent Ganivet's sculpture at Galerie Yvon Lambert

Höfer’s photographs  are usually discussed as having an “absence” and a “distance” at their center. Obviously, critics are referring to the absence of human life in places and institutions that are typically seen and experienced as filled with people. However, this absence becomes the literal space into which we are invited to walk in order to become integrated into Höfer’s image. Standing before Höfer’s photographs is about as close as a contemporary artist takes us to entering the uncertain world of Velasquez’s Las Meninas. For as we walk toward Höfer’s represented spaces, we also walk into that space. At least this is the optical illusion created by her extraordinary constructions of perspective and space. Indeed, when we are up close to the images, we become surrounded by the walls, the ceiling and we walk on the floor in the photograph. And so, in spite of the photographic rationalization of architectural spaces, in spite of their clinical depiction of institutional interiors, they are extremely disconcerting. Höfer breaks the imaginary, un-visualizable line between representation and reality as she invites us to walk into the representational space. And momentarily, following these photographs’ command, I find myself struggling to exit this space. This experience which is had often before Höfer’s images becomes writ large in the experience of the Sevillan archive.
Candida Höfer, Archivo General de Indias Sevilla, 2010
The Archivo General de Indias is the repository of the archival documents from the Spanish empire in the Americas from the seventeenth century. Indeed, as we approach Höfer’s photographs, we can see that all of the perfectly organized files, so perfect that they are integrated into the architectural form of the cabinets in which they are kept, are labeled “Sección Contratacion.”  And immediately we are reminded of the buying and selling, the trade agreements, the mechanisms put in place to ensure the smooth running of Spanish monarchical power. Moreover, all of the visible doors in the photograph are closed, giving the apprehensive, but thankfully, momentary sensation of being locked inside this vaulted chamber, together with all those bodies whose ownership we imagine to be detailed, hidden away in these files.
Candida Höfer, Neues Museum Berlin XV, 2009

Again, in Neues Museum Berlin XV, I find myself drawn to an empty plinth, newly erected in what looks to be a centuries’ old environment. A classical sculpture watches over the plinth from his alcove above, and at the same time, he observes my look at the empty space that might once have been occupied by a sculpture, or perhaps awaits its next occupant. Above his alcove a medieval city still bears resplendence on high. I cannot help but fall into the space as though it is real, but know it is not. Thus, although there may be no traces of people in these images, they are waiting for us to enter them and bring them alive. Similarly, the building interiors themselves are brought to life, their historical, cultural and architectural lives are brought into the foreground even though they are the background of Höfer’s photographs.
Candida Höfer, Neues Museum Berlin, 2009

Another gesture of individuality can be seen in the way, the cultural and political histories of the three institutions are reflected in the way Höfer has photographed them, in what she finds in them. For example, Höfer exposes the age, the layers of history of the Neues Musem, Berlin by drawing our attention to the literal layers of history on the walls of the building. We see freshly laid plaster, centuries old frescos, over bricks and marble, tiles, and gilted ornamentation from still different eras seemingly laid over one another at random. This layering of centuries and cultures, is of course a literaliztion of the palimpsestic history of the city of Berlin. And all this in a museum puzzlingly called Das Neues Museum, the New Museum.
Candida Höfer, Archivo di Stato Napoli I, 2009
Similarly, the State Archive in Naples with shelf upon shelf of tattered files, consecutively numbered and even though there is some writing on them, it is too faint for us to read. We don’t know what room we have entered, we don’t know if these are the files of murder cases or paleographic discoveries. If there is anything personal about the files, we have no access to it. It’s interesting to compare the organization of the files in the Naples State Archive and that in the Sevillan repository. Because despite the careful consecutive numbering in Naples, in Höfer's images there is something very disheveled about these files. They are of different sizes, their paper containers placed unevenly along the shelves, and again in a what for Höfer might be thought of as a radical gesture, in the second photograph (not pictured here) she has photographed them laterally, rather than in diminishing perspective. The sense of infinity continues off the right and left sides of the frames rather than into the background of the image, and thus emphasizes our inability to fathom this archive. Just as we might have the feeling of being locked inside the archives in Seville, we feel very shut out from the historical and cultural secrets in Naples.

Ultimately, taken as an exhibition, as photographs more or less given meaning by their display at Yvon Lambert, the images in Erinnern do, as the press release promises, offer an entirely new experience of these spaces. As we scrutinize the details of each image, the files in Seville and the walls, ceilings, floors and window frames in Berlin, we are invited to see what we would otherwise ignore entirely on our path through a space inviting us to look elsewhere — be it inside the files of an archive or at the works on display in the museum. In addition, Höfer’s images offer a unique experience of photography, an experience that has us hesitantly wondering where the reality of our own space ends and the representational begins. 

All images copyright Yvon Lambert

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

k.364, Douglas Gordon, 2010

I have always been slightly suspicious of Douglas Gordon’s video installations. I know, in the 1990s his work was groundbreaking and, together with artists such as Gary Hill and Stan Douglas, Gordon was using the new medium to create a brand new phenomenology of the moving image. I appreciate that. But I have often found his work predictable and lacking the depth that others claimed it had. So, as I was on my way to see k.364, 2010 a work designed as a split screen installation, that was to be projected on a single screen in the Pompidou Centre’s cinema space, I wondered why I was bothering. And then, when Gordon introduced the film with what I read as inappropriate mockery of himself and his film, I was about to start counting the minutes till it was all over. Add to this the fact that the reviews of K.364 by the British broadsheets were scathing, I was prepared for the worst.
Installation of K.364 at Gagosian in London
But k.364 is compelling for what it sets out to do as much as for its creation of a world from which we have no exit until the film is over. At Gagosian in London, k.364 was installed on split screens, presumably looped, with mirrors at the entrance to the room and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and Orchestra in E-flat major filling the room. And probably for the first time ever, I was relieved to have seen Gordon’s film on a single screen projection. Because this is a film with a very clear narrative journey, beginning as the train that will take the violinist and the violist to Warsaw via Poznan to play the Concertante pulling out of Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof. And the journey continues towards the final half of the film which comprises the performance of k.364 in Warsaw with Avri Levitan and Roi Shiloah,  playing the viola and violin solos respectively. Both are, significantly, Israelis of Polish descent. Gordon’s film installation actually takes its title from the Köchel catalogue number of Mozart’s 1779 Concertante. So on the train from Berlin to Warsaw, a train journey that mirrors those we know to have carried Europe’s most cultured Jews to their deaths, the indivudals also have their own history.
K.364, Douglas Gordon, 2010

I can’t help thinking that the critics for the Guardian, the Telegraph and other British papers either don't understand music or they don't understand film. Even the most rudimentary understanding of Mozart’s Concertante, gives insight into the tensions and contradictions that become echoed in Gordon’s film. Mozart, as a rule, did not write a lot in minor keys; although of course he has two symphonies in D minor, he preferred the brilliance and delight of the major keys. And E-flat major is the most heavenly of all; it is the key that takes music closest to God. E-flat major typically wraps all those who hear it in love and devotion, transporting its listeners to heaven. And yet, the middle andante movement is written— not unusually —in the corresponding key of C minor. And in the languishing notes of the andante movement, we hear the pain and agony of the history that we know too well took place in Poland during World War II. It is an agony that today is often symbolized by the train journey from Berlin to Warsaw. Mozart’s tension between major and minor keys therefore comes as the most perfect expression of the irresolveable contradictions between the ethereal beauty of the music and all that is carried between Berlin and Warsaw on a train.
Douglas Gordon, k. 364, cover of catalogue
One of the most memorable things about k.364 is the time it takes to declare the ethereality of music. At one point, one of the train travellers reflectively announces that “music only exists in the air”. And later in the film, he says “music only exists when it is heard”. Music has no past and no future: it is the perfect and only expression of the present. Yet, while music has no history, this is a film in which history abounds. And so  another contradiction, between the pure presence of music and the weight of historical burden carried by images and words, is brought to the fore. This is often the problem that the reviews have with the film: namely, that it doesn’t go deeply enough into the Holocaust that it nods towards. But I don’t think that Gordon is making a film about the Holocaust. Rather, if I had to pinpoint what the film is doing, I would say he references the Holocaust, and indeed, connects to it in the conversations had on the train, as well the very journey of the Israelis from Berlin via Poznan to Warsaw to reflect on how the shadow of the Holocaust is cast across the apparent seamless and peaceful world of contemporary eastern Europe. And the perfection of this world is carried through Mozart’s music. 

There is another discourse about the past and the weight of its barbarity as it is measured in the installation of a swimming pool in the place of the synagogue in Poznan by the Nazis in 1939. This story is told on the train as the travellers pass through Poznan. In addition, the film goes back to balletic underwater shots of body parts swimming in an outdoor pool. These fragments I assume are meant to communicate a clash between the barbarity of the Nazi’s act and again the beauty of the music and the bodies. However, I was not convinced these fragments were so necessary to the film.

The brilliance of Gordon’s film lies in his ability to create music in a medium other than that created by musical instruments. One of the most impossible tasks of film and moving images is to recreate the experience that an audience would have if it was engaged with another medium. And yet, Gordon manages to do just that. I became so enveloped by the music that by the end of the film, I felt as though I had been dragged through the gamut of emotions of Mozart’s Concertante: the excitement, the tragedy, the celebration that is this exquisite piece of music. It is because, not inspite of the fact that they are often shot in tight closeups that make it difficult to focus on the violinist's and the violist's faces, that we are able to experience the love affair so delicately developed between them. Because the music, not the image is what enables this relationship. All the time the image is there to show the affect of the musical intimacy, through the fragment of a facial expression or the falling of an arm into the depths of a phrase. This fragment is all we need to see something magical happen between two musicians playing Mozart. Also, through the use of the split screen, the two soloists are held in a relationship with each other, in tight closeup, such that there is nothing else in the world besides each other and the instruments that connect them.

Gordon captures this impossible intimacy, a union that can only exist in the air that holds the music in a fleeting present. This is an intimacy I would not have thought it possible to capture through the concretion of images. And for this reason, Gordon redeems himself as a videomaker to be held in my esteem.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Lewis Hine, Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson

Lewis Hine, Street Child, 1910

For years I have written about Lewis Hine’s photography as the benchmark of all photographic experimentation and development in the twentieth century. I have discussed his work in reference to, for example, New objectivity, Soviet Montage, the social conscience work of the British Documentary tradition of the 1930s, and even made reference to it in my forthcoming book on amateur film and photography in Nazi Germany. I have always believed that Lewis Hine’s photography is everywhere present in all of the most important photographic movements of the twentieth century. And, though I am ashamed to say I saw his work for the first time yesterday, I was reassured to find that my claims have not been misplaced. This is a body of work that may have been in the name of social change through documentation of life on the streets and in the tenement houses of turn of the previous century’s New York City, but Hine’s photography is so much richer than a straight forward documentation of what lies before the camera. 
Lewis Hine, Pittsburgh Steel Plant at Night, 1910
The most impressive aspect of Hine’s work is its breadth and diversity. Not only did he photograph many people in single, full and head and shoulder portraits, but he was equally adept at crowd scenes and group shots. Hine had no problem moving between indoors and outdoors, day time and night time, between figures in motion and stasis. He created images that span a geometrically constructed scene to echo the principles of modernity and industrialization. And with equal proficiency, his vision could be deeply romantic – usually created through his extraordinary dexterity with lighting – at all hours of the day. 
Lewis Hine, Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908

Hine’s technique is, to be sure, to be marveled at, to the point where much of the time going around the exhibition, my friend and I were in disbelief at what he managed to make a camera do in the relatively early stages of the technology's development. Through his manipulation of the lighting especially, but also, apparently due to the rapport he created with his subjects that allowed them to trust him and to make themselves vulnerable in front of his camera, Hine gave identity and dignity to subjects who were often struggling just to survive. Thus, we see him continually separate out the figure from its background, bringing it into sharp focus and thereby emphasizing its humanness. When he was indoors, Hine worked with chiaroscuro lighting and typically a softer,  more key light outdoors with the result that even if the people are isolated from their environment photographically, they are nevertheless, seen as the product of that environment. In some of his images, he also creates a multi-dimensional cinematic world. An image such as Girl Worker in a Carolina Cotton Mill, 1908 not only elicits compassion for the child being exploited for her labor, but Hine’s control of the light from the windows brings the machine, thus the scene alive. We hear the din of the machines in motion, and feel the intensity of the child’s work.
Lewis Hine, Poor Home, New York City Tenement, 1910
Even though the photographs were taken a hundred years ago, using now outdated techniques, and in spite of their aesthetic beauty, there is nothing nostalgic about them. They may be carefully lit and framed, but they still have the documentary quality necessary to bring the conditions of working class life to the fore. It was of course his motivation to use photography for his campaigns for social justice. In a photograph such as Poor Home, New York City Tenement, 1910, for example, I marveled at Hine’s ability to capture with clarity every tiny detail of the interior scene as much as I was compelled by the family’s impoverished living conditions. What I did not do, however, was entertain any nostalgia for tenement life in New York City at the turn of the last century. The grittiness of the streets and the dire conditions of life on what I assume was the lower east side are the resounding message of these images. That said, there are also images in which Hine manages to capture the joyfulness and play on the same streets, while still emphasizing the poverty. I want to say that these seemingly impossible contradictions are always enabled through his mastery of composition and lighting.
Lewis Hine, Neil Doherty, 1931
There is no doubt that we see Hine’s photographs influence photography as it developed across the twentieth century. Everyone from August Sander with his portraits of individual types, Helen Levitt’s focus on children on the streets, the Russian constructivists and their celebration of the machine and modernity, especially as the human becomes one with the machine, Walker Evans, and even, as I am attuned to see, the images taken, especially by the Allies, of the victims of the Holocaust on liberation of the concentration camps. The list of the many places that the influence of Hine’s work can be found is endless. This oeuvre carries within it a history of photography in the twentieth century, not just an important step forward in the conception and use of documentary photography. Just how rich, varied, creative and technically precise this work is must be seen in the flesh. If ever we think of photography as having an aura, this would be it. Because it is not possible to reproduce the plethora of nuances of each image as they invite us to study them in this impressive exhibition. For people like me who thought they were familiar with Hine's photography, this exhibition offers both the opportunity to see many of his now canonical works as well as to discover them anew in the flesh.  

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How to Spend an Anniversary in Paris

This week will mark my five year anniversary in Paris. September 15, 2006 I moved here temporarily, with all intentions of returning to London after six months. I meet so many Americans who come through Paris in search of a dream: “what brought you to Paris?” I ask, always interested in what makes people move countries, move cultures, and choose to live in a different language, on a different continent. What motivates people to live on the outside, as a foreigner in a city that insists on reminding us we don’t belong? I would say that 90% of the time, the answer to my question is, quite simply, “I always wanted to live here, it was my dream.” But of course, life in Paris is not like it looks. It may be the most beautiful city in the world, but the city is not kind to everyone who comes here and looks to it for elegance, charm and a world of romantic make believe.

The daytime view from my window
... and nighttime
I ended up here by default, and so I have few expectations and certainly don’t have a dream awaiting realization. And together with that, I am more or less content to be an étrangère, not to belong, to create an identity somewhere around the edges of a city that, in its own way, nevertheless welcomes diversity. I think of myself as different, not Parisian, and have no real desire to ever be. And then that belief gets shattered when I have visitors from America who hold up a mirror that reflects all of the American ways that I have already shed, all of the Parisian rituals that I am always in the process of adopting. Yesterday, I sat with an American friend in a café discussing high heels. My friend was amazed at the number of women who strut through the streets of Paris, across the cobblestones, up and down the stairs of the metro, and of course, who ride bikes in anything up to 5 or 6 inch heels. Wedges, stilettos, chunky or razor thin, it doesn’t matter. It had never occurred to me that high heels could even be a source of intrigue, or that wearing them was something women might not do all over the world.

Since I have been in Paris I have begun to wear high heels, but I always thought I was merely keeping up with changing fashion, rather than adopting the cultural norms of the city. I have heels of different heights, different shapes, all the way from designer stilettos I only wear to a party or a dinner that I can travel to by bike to Mary Janes from DSW that I wear day in, day out. The minute I have to walk in my designer high heels, I am in trouble: I may wear heels, but unlike the women walking in and out of Yves Saint Lauren on Avenue George V, I haven’t yet mastered the art of mobility in stilettos. The uneven stairs of my 18th century apartment building are as far as I go. I manage to wear 5 or 6 inch wedges to the library, but not stilettos because of the spaces between the panels of wood decking that I cross to get from bike to library entrance. For every activity I have a different height in heels. And for every surface I tread in Paris, there is a different kind of heel.
Photo taken by Maria Aragon
 In the mornings I often feel as though I am on a stage when I go running down Boulevard Richard Lenoir: men stare, children point, the dogs all run towards me. It is as though they have never seen a runner, or sometimes I wonder if it’s the attire that attracts attention – shorts and running singlets are perhaps too revealing for the demure Parisians. Whatever it is that has all heads turn as I run through the streets, the same cannot be said for women in high heels. In spite of the absurdity of wearing high heels in a city that is best navigated on foot, the heads turn with desire not incredulity as women of all social strata, from mothers with babies, through shopgirls, to the rich and famous on Avenue Montaigne parade the streets, usually with confidence, but at times with what looks to be painful difficulty, in the highest of heels. And while only the homeless people on Boulevard Richard Lenoir dare talk to me in my running shoes, when in heels, conversations abound.
Same shoes, different party with Jennifer Murphy
In French, heels share their word with the claws of a bird of prey.  Les talons are appropriately termed as the symbol of Paris’s performance of heterosexuality. For high heels are the mark of a city in which men admire women, constantly, especially in heels. And they are a mark of a city where women, acutely aware of their femininity, typically minimize that admiration. With their large talons, women can loom over their diminutive French men, just as the female eagle overpowers her male. But whether Parisian women's power is, like their city, anything more than a visual appearance, I am not sure.

Another photo by Maria Aragon

What I am sure of is that in the mirror of my American friends visiting Paris, I see that after five years, I may not be always be as different as I think I am. I may not yet eat the top off the baguette as I walk down the street, and I may insist on breaking form by running through the streets, and laughing out loud in restaurants. But in my heels I have succumbed to their ways and perhaps, momentarily, might pass for a Parisian. Wondering how I would celebrate my five year anniversary, the dye is now cast: I am on my way to the basement of Galeries Lafayette. 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Libraries: Andreas Gurksy and Christian Boltanski at the Musée d'Art Moderne

Andreas Gursky, Bibliothek, 1999

As we left disappointed from the Marc Desgrandchamps exhibition last Friday, Georgia and I passed by two of my favorite pieces in the permanent collection of the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Poorly hung, hidden underneath the huge staircase, poorly lit and not enough space in front of it to experience its full effect, is one of Andreas Gursky’s more difficult images, Bibliothek, 1999. I say difficult because unlike his best known work from the past 15 years, Bibliothek confuses the trademark horizontality: the geometry of Bibliothek is eccentric and converses more with early, pre-cinematic forms such as the panorama than it does with landscape painting as is Gursky's usual reference. And yet, its geometry is not alone in Gursky's oeuvre. Unlike similar renderings of dimensionality – for example, Candida Höfer’s architectural spaces - Gurksy's do not invite us to walk into the space of the library for example. And so we are placed outside this library, extraneous to it. 

Andreas Gursky, Rhein II, 1999
I also find Bibliothek beguiling and difficult for the simple reason that I have less to say about Gursky’s later work than I do his 1980s photography. With my interest in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, Gursky’s photography provides key examples of how the region has been culturally and socially imagined. Despite critics’ constant claim that Gursky’s aestheticization through digital manipulation universalizes, even effaces, the political and ethical content of his images, the 1980s photographs of the Ruhr Valley would tell us otherwise. Their emptiness echoes the isolation of these post-industrial landscapes.
Andreas Gursky, Ruhrtahl, 1989
The later work, however, as critics claim is more focused on formal experiment and visual logic, aesthetic principles that leave little room for the representation of social truths. Bibliothek would ostensibly fit into this vein of Gursky criticism. Here we have a library that is not only unspecified by the title of the photograph (even though we know the library is in Stockholm) but Gursky has deliberately effaced all signifiers that might help determine where it might be found. He has chosen to photograph the language section of the library, and each section is labelled in the language of the books contained therein: SVENSKA, FRANÇAIS, РУССКИЙ, and so on. Thus, the library shelves could be in any one of these countries. Similarly, Gursky has digitally removed the floor creating a symmetricality with the ceiling, a symmetricality that is nevertheless symmetrical in form only. The floor of the library now mirrors the books on the shelves above, but not the ceiling which has also been erased through manipulation. These manipulations are perhaps what keep us outside the library: not only is it an anonymous library, in its visual representation it is also an impossible one.
Andreas Gursky, 99 cent, 1999
What is unusual about Gursky’s library is that there are no people. For all of the themes of repetition, commerical obliteration of the human, Gursky’s photographs usually contain human figures, even if only to be diminished by the overwhelm of business, production or the proliferation of information. But here, there is not even the slightest suggestion that this might be a repository of information that has anything to do with human life. Information has here been reduced to an abstract, precisely organized image. 
Christian Boltanski, Les Abonnés du Téléphone, 2000
In another library, hidden in the bowels of the museum is Christian Boltanski's Les Abonnés du Téléphone (2000) the third part of what might be understood as an installation triptych. Les Abonnés du Téléphone is a collection of over 3000 old telephone books from around the world, neatly arranged on shelves that line the space. In typical Boltanski fashion, the lighting is dim and, adding to, or replacing the visual obscurity of the installation is the familiar odor of old paper. Here, on level -3, as we enter this somewhat uninviting space, the smell however seems natural though.

In distinction to Gursky’s slick and aesthetically brilliant (literally) library, Boltanski’s creates a space in which we want to huddle over and lose ourselves. There is nothing to distance or beguile us in the way that Gursky’s photograph does. On the contrary, Boltanski’s is a library that invites us to sit down and read. Long benches and tables with desk lights are placed as they are in archives all over the world. And immediately, visitors are drawn to the telephone books from the worlds they know. At least I was. I went straight to those from Adelaide, Australia, and searched for my father’s name and number in what would have been the last appearance of his listing in the telephone book before he died in 1999. On the slightly yellowing paper, I showed the entry to Georgia, as though it might enable her to see him, to know a little bit about him. This process of creating and recalling memories is familiar from other of Boltanski’s installations. He lures us into a world in which poor lighting is the attraction rather than a frustration as it was in viewing Gursky’s Bibliothek. And Boltanski asks us to explore through senses supplementary to the visual, often in spaces, such as an archive, where looking would ordinarily be privileged. And in these spaces we are invited to take a journey into our memories, sometimes of events and of people we never knew, to experience memories we did not know we had, or memories we have for the first time in the presence of the installation. Thus, it doesn’t surprise me that inside Les Abonnés du Téléphone, while looking through otherwise ordinary anachronistic objects, I experience the memory of my father, a personal memory that Boltanski could not have known or anticipated.

And so these two prominent contemporary artists, one German, one French, one overwhelmed by the alienation of the consumer world, the other obsessed by the shadow of the Nazi Holocaust in his own life, show us two extremes of what it is to lose ourselves in the shelf upon shelf of books in a library. And all this hidden in the basement of the Musée d'Art Moderne.