Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shanghai: Disappointments and Surprises

This is Shanghai

My feelings toward Shanghai will always be tainted with association as the city that blocked access to my blog. I think, more realistically, Shanghai was probably not to blame, but the hotel submitted to government censorship. Try as I did, I couldn’t circumvent their server, whereas in Beijing, the hotel was more interested in the comfort of its customers than obedience to the Chinese government. And by the way, did I mention, the hotel in Beijing was government owned, where they send their VIP guests?
Self Portrait in Shanghai
Once I got over my frustrations and I started to look around, there was not so much to endear me to the place. Word is out that Shanghai is an exotic “Paris of the east.” Alternatively, it is known as the rival to neighboring Hong Kong for business, the hub of a thriving Asian economy. There is no doubt, this is a wealthy city: money oozes along the streets in big cars, neon lights oversized shopping malls filled with every name brand under the sun. Shanghai is wealthy because of its long historical entanglements with the West, and of course, as the destination of the opium trade in days gone by. And today, it’s wealthy because of its every growing expat community, here to head up manufacturing, sustainability, construction, oil, and to trade the markets. Add to all this a less obvious working poor, streets not as wide, a brighter sunnier climate, faux colonial buildings, and a neighborhood such as Jìng’an begins to look very much like gentrified Georgetown, Washington DC. Venture further inwards to Nanging Road and Shanghai with its intense neon lights and teeming crowds looks a lot like a cross between Hong Kong and Las Vegas. Beyond its looks Shanghai is a city with a lot of appeal for Chinese business.
My dinner companions
With my mind already made up, I couldn’t leave without making some effort, however small, to find traces of traditional China in the streets of Shanghai. And what better place to begin my search than People’s Square. My evening was made not by the square, but by two Malaysian men at a dumpling joint on Huanghe Road on the edge of the park. Always slightly ashamed of my non-existent Chinese, I had my face in my dumplings when the older of the two began talking to me. It’s these moments that make me so happy for shared tables. Not only do I get to share dinner with others, but I get fun and interesting conversation into the mix. As we ate out of our tin dishes that looked like they dated from the Cultural Revolution, we talked together with the man sitting next to me about living in Shanghai, about beautiful places to visit in China, and about traditional Chinese food. Sadly, I can’t relate much of the important facts of the conversation because I never fully understand the Chinese names and places. Every now and then I would be distracted when the guy in charge of pan frying the dumplings on the street had to wait for the next batch to be steamed and he hung his head through a window, a hole apparently cut in the glass for no other purpose than him to stick his head through and talk.

The chef
No sooner had we finished eating than the older man promptly told me I had to have a foot massage at 30 Yuan (about 4€) for 90 minutes. There was no suggestion I might not want a foot massage, but rather, I was brusquely led across the road and before I knew it was lying back in the upstairs parlor of Hanlu’s with my feet in a bowl of hot water. If I closed my eyes, I felt like the chosen concubine as my feet were slapped and pulled, rubbed and kneaded. There were no candles or rainforest sounds, just a room filled with cigarette smells, a television playing something that was of great fascination to all of the masseuses in the room, and constant chatter mixed in with the sounds of men being massaged behind a screen. Every now and then, the girls massaging two men in suits, still on their telephones, in front of me would continue their labor and announce in a very loud voice something that obviously had to do with me. Everyone would turn to me and with a smile that was almost a laugh, break into intense discussion. When I clearly had no idea of what they were saying, the masseuse would slap the man extra hard, and order him to translate. The first time he obeyed, asking “What country you from?” Given the continuing hilarity of all but me, I have a feeling something was lost in translation. Later when the same thing happened again and he asked, “You want full massacre?” any doubts were dismissed.

View from my hotel window in Shanghai
When 90 minutes later I hobbled out of Hanlu’s, my feet fatigued from the realignment of Qi, I reflected on my conviction that language is in anyway necessary to a therapeutic relationship. Indeed, in the inconsistencies and mis-interpretations, I realized its potential danger where physical exchanges can be transformative. Who would have thought that I would learn this, in Shanghia of all places? I can't say my night at People's Square endeared me to Shanghai, but it did reassure me that there are gold nuggets of all kinds to be found in even the most unlikely of cities.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

LEE Yongbaek: Angelus Novus, Pin Gallery, Beijing

LEE Yongbaek, Angel Soldier (Installation), 2011

This was easily the pick of the exhibitions that I saw in Beijing on my afternoon at 798. LEE Yongbaek was chosen for the Korean Pavillion at the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011. And as I understand it, Angelus Novus is a version of the works he presented in Venice.

LEE Yongbaek’s work fulfils my two essential criteria for art worth looking at and spending time with: first it is a truly multi-media exhibition in which he pushes at the boundaries of each medium: photography, video installation, installation, sculpture. And second, Lee’s work is a searing political critique of institutions which might ordinarily claim to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum with art, but that Lee demonstrates with conviction, are in fact, in cahoots. The art gallery and museum are as much a target of his work as are the military and the government behind it.
LEE Yongbaek, Broken Mirror, 2011
 I can’t remember the last time I saw an exhibition that was both frightening in the levels of violence it represented and critiqued as well as mesmerizingly beautiful in its aesthetic. For me the most terrifying and powerful pieces were found in the Broken Mirror series in which the frames of old master paintings contain video screens made to be mirrors. As we stand before the “images” which are really reflections of ourselves, we hear shots fired on a soundtrack that fills this and the surrounding gallery spaces. We “see” a bullet hit the glass mirror thus our image, and with it, the certainty of our identity, our vision, our self-understanding, shatters. Alternatively, as we attempt to contemplate the reflected image of a frame on the opposite wall, the “painting” is violently shot and this time, our reverence for art, together with the expectations the institutions that enable it are smashed. Then the image dissolves back into the dark, deep expanse of a mirror with nothing to reflect. The Broken Mirror series attacks the experience of art at every level: it assaults the visual and aural senses of the viewer, the art works on display, the institutions that exhibit them. There is nothing redemptive to hold onto in these shocking works.
LEE Yongbaek, This is Art + Pieta (Self-Hatred), 2011
 In another series (I refer to them as series but they are not serial in any way) LEE depicts pietas either destroying their casts or holding a repetition of themselves, tenderly as the Virgin once held Jesus. Obviously, psychoanalytical critics will have a lot to say about Lee’s work thanks to its persistent discourse of destruction as a simultaneous variation on self-destruction, self-hatred, self-immolation and the smashing of all pretences of the art institution. Not to mention the engagement with religion that is surely invoked through the reiteration in plastic of the pieta as genre. His ability to conjoin self-violence with that of the most public of institutions is another level on which Lee’s work speaks to the urgency of art as socially and culturally responsible, or in this case, irresponsible. In one work a Pieta strangling its cast, having already dismembered it, is literally trapped by giant stainless rods, each one of which has the name of a prominent world art museum on its handle: Pompidou, Tate, Stedelijk, Minsheng and so on. And at the end of each rod, a letter of the alphabet contributes to a collection of letters that spell out the title of the piece: This is Art (2011). The rods with letters immediately reminded me of charcoaled fire pokers; they left no way out for the self already entrapped and crippled by its Self-Hatred.

In the opening two rooms of the immense Pin gallery, soldiers wearing fatigues camouflaged in flowers hang from the ceiling and stalk the space. Tropical rainforest birds sing sweetly making the experience of this apparently peaceful environment one of enchantment. This is until we spend time in the space and it sinks in that the soliders are carrying rifles, and that they re hanging from the ceiling. Suddenly, the singing birds create claustrophobia and nausea. Each soldier had a name tag, as soldiers do. But their names were disturbing: they carried the names of famous film directors, actors and celebrities. These sculptes are the angels of the exhibition title, Angel Soldiers, and are then repeated in oversized C-print prints, and again, in a single channel video in which they move in slow motion through a desert of flowers, their rifles appearing every now and then. In the same way that Lee denies any refuge from the institutional forces that crucify the individual in the Broken Mirror and Pieta series, in Angel Soldiers, flowers are no haven from the attack of and by soldiers at war. The subversion of ordinarily distinct and oppositional icons is not only unsettling, but here, it is frightening.
LEE Yongbaek, Plastic Fish, 2011
Lee’s work is further complicated by its address of the political situation in Korea, and of course, by the process of setting this in relationship to all the other discourses that run through the exhibition. I am not able to speak with any authority on Korea, but it’s clear that an artist who is entwining discourses on the self, the military, the art institution, nature, and technology, has his own identity as the pivot around which these all turn. And let’s not forget, Lee’s is not a world where artistic creativity can be celebrated with any optimism.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

China: Land of Opportunity

view from my window, 11th floor, China World
Repeatedly over my week in Beijing, every Westerner I met announced that they would eventually leave the city. Why? They all had the same reason: “Because of the air quality.” In a city that teems with 20 million people, and by the looks of things, 2 million cars on the roads at any one time, it’s not the density of people and traffic, the stigma of being a foreigner, or the difficulty of the language that will force everyone out. It’s the air quality. Air quality is not really in the vocabulary of the cities in which I live, so I didn’t fully understand what everyone was talking about. And when the announcement came from British people, I wondered what could be worse than the damp, cold and overcast skies of the place they call home. When I opened my curtains on my final morning I finally understood. So that’s polluted air, I thought, as I searched for the second layer of high rise buildings on the other side of Jianguomenwai Avenue. That was, until I got to breakfast and my waiter told me it wasn’t pollution, it was “froggy.” Froggy or fumes, it doesn’t make much difference. I could finally imagine how depressing it might get to open the curtains to this, morning after morning after morning.
Same View on a Sunny Day
I enjoyed a week of brilliant sunshine in Beijing, and the sun was just the beginning of what, for me, was a glorious week. I hate nothing more than tourists and travelers who compare their host country and culture to the comforts of home. But I can’t resist sitting China side by side with the world I come from.

If I had my time again or if I had the courage to pack up my life in Paris and move anywhere in the world, froggy or fumes, it might possibly be China. With a dream and a dime, I can imagine coming to Beijing where I could thrive, where doors would open and I could make the world happen for me. This is the sense I get of what happens when one comes to Beijing: whatever the nature of the dream, in Beijing for the small price of time and energy, that dream will come true.
Being Tourists

 The Chinese don’t seem to be as stuck on being Chinese as the French are on being French, or the British on being British. With one pocket full of energy and the other filled with ideas, foreigners are embraced, included, even promoted in their plight. To give one example, a colleague has come to Beijing where she will, after only a couple of years on Chinese turf, curate an exhibition in the 798 district. In London, such opportunities don’t present themselves to the young and aspiring for it takes lifelong connections in the art world to wedge one foot inside the door. And in another example, an American Friend is in Beijing studying Chinese medicine. As he happily admits; he didn’t even finish high school in America, and here he is studying to be a doctor. Everything is possible in Beijing, especially if you are foreign. That said, to be a foreigner doesn’t necessarily mean privilege, but it does mean, at the very least, to be a worker among the hoards of Chinese workers.
Guards in Tiananmen Square
Unlike the British, the Chinese don’t care much for rules and regulations. Unlike any other nation of people I know, the British don’t give an inch when it comes to two things: 1. Changing place in the queue, and 2. Waiving the paperwork. Britain is a country where people are oppressed by the bureaucracy – the form filling, the imperative to account for every decision in the workplace, the signing and countersigning first by one committee, then the next and the next. In China, my sense is that the relationship to bureaucracy is complicated and as unpredictable as everything else. Looking from the outside, everyday life in China appears to have no notion of forms and mindless bureaucratic hurdles. Even traffic lights seem to be a mere suggestion. However, I am assured that the layers of bureaucracy are even thicker and deeper in China than they are in Britain. Of course, they must be, we are talking about a Communist country that has suffered years of colonization. But there’s a difference, and the difference is what makes living here as a foreigner not only attractive, but possible: the Chinese are not afraid to circumvent the rules for a few thousand RMB. There is nothing that can’t be bought and sold under the table: visas, permits of all genres, higher education, and the list goes on.
This is meant to show people exercising in the background, but it didn't come out
Together with the potential access to circumventing the bureaucracy, there is another factor that makes dreams come true in China. This is not a world that weighs under the social devastation of unemployment. And neither is this a world in which people sit around in cafés whiling away the hours, philosophizing and bemoaning their rights, or lack of them. In China, everyone works. Work is the driving force of an economy that is growing and growing and growing at exponential rates. And this translates to the foundational principle for the realization of a dream in China: work hard and the world will become yours.

This man wanted to taxi me home, but it was too cold,
so I gave him the money anyway and took his photo

The reality in China is of course, the working poor. The other night when I was out with my American friend who has recently moved here to Beijing, after 20 mins on the corner trying to hail a cab a man on a bike stopped with the idea of taking me home. It was too cold so we gave him the money anyway, and took his photo. Then he insisted on taking photos of us, and me being the perfectionist, I kept asking him to retake the photo because it wasn’t the right focal length. After three photos my friend stopped me, with what for me was indeed a reality that had never occurred to me: “some people are so poor -  he might never have held a camera.” How is it that I share the same streets as someone who has never held a camera? If Britain is weighed down by the layers of mindless and unnecessary bureaucracy, then China is crippled by the gaping chasm between rich and poor. I say that anyone can make it here, but let’s be clear, I can only speak for Westerners. 

This woman ran after me on Tiananmen Square to be photographed with her and her baby

There is no doubt that Beijing is at the centre of the world today. The vibrations of its streets, the noise, the masses, even the air, are the marks of a city that works hard, really hard. And if I had my time again, this is where I would be, learning Mandarin, learning first to survive then to prosper in what must be one of the densest urban jungles.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

798 Art District, Beijing

Party Members in 798

Today I ventured out to 798, Beijing’s home to contemporary art. The site of the art world here in Beijing is itself worth the hike. The galleries have taken up residence in a disused electronics factory that was apparently built by the East Germans, by the look of things, in the 1950s. As I was guided around the space by one of my fellow Artslant contributors, I was amazed at the buildings, much more than I was by the art: the original Bauhaus style with Communist slogans still sprawled across the walls made the buildings sights to behold. I was struck by the immensity of the spaces as well as the design – dwarfing Chelsea’s biggest spaces, and making art gallery hopping in Paris appear as precious as a tea party.
Pace Beijing

That said, I didn’t think that the galleries always used their spaces to their advantage. Pace Beijing for example, had both an extraordinary building and an exhibition of work by the hottest name on the US art scene, Sterling Ruby. The Pace gallery occupies a former arms factory, a building made prominent by a sawtooth profile roof with repeating clerestories. Despite the height of the ceilings, the clerestories ensure they come so low that the space becomes effectively horizontal. Nevertheless, some of the Ruby sculptures were extreme in their verticality and thus had to be hidden behind supporting concrete pilons. And the result was a closing down of the building on the art work, completely distracting from the reason we are presumably enticed inside. I was so much more intrigued by the building than Ruby’s sculptures, and yet, in another space, the reverse may have been true.
Pace Beijing again
A highlight of the day was the non-profit art center, Ullen Centre for Contemporary Art. But again, it wasn’t so much the art that appealed to me, rather, the whole experience of visiting the space is what I will take home with me. As a part of their “service,” I was greeted by a young man who showed me around an exhibition by Los Angelean Walead Beshty. The man went to great pains to explain the art to me — all about transition and transportation of art to the museum, it was okay, but nothing earth shattering. And as he meticulously pronounced certain words, slowly and carefully to ensure comprehensibility, it was all I could do to stop myself telling him that he was far more interesting to me than the art. Though the art wasn’t as chintzy as some of the work I had seen during the day, the young man fascinated me because he had clearly read the script and was regurgitating it with great competence. I wanted to know what was not in the script.

Tatsuo Miyajima: Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust 
Also on exhibition at UCCA

I have seen this again and again over the past week: Chinese people following a script. And when the script doesn’t quite go according to plan, the trouble begins. My guide at the UCCA was the same – when I asked him a question, he struggled to answer me, and simply repeated what he had said before, not because he didn’t know the answer, but because I think he had not necessarily learnt the vocabulary to answer. I was so appreciative of his English, especially because my Chinese now extends from “hello” to “thank you.” And what I loved most of all was his eagerness to impress me, to make my visit to the UCCA a pleasant experience; it didn’t really matter that he was not always informative and that I didn't always understand his English. When he had difficulty explaining why a particular photograph was very grainy, I wanted to save him, and so I asked where he lived. This is always interesting: which ring road orients them? And if I am courageous enough, I will ask how they live, what floor, how big, and then, if I can, how much. Somethings I take with me wherever I go, and one of them is an obsession with appartments: how big, how much and where? My three favorite questions. I didn’t get this far with the guide at the UCCA as I thought better and asked him about his studies: marketing and publicity. This of course raised a whole new set of questions, beginning with how he got to be a guide in an art gallery. His story was quite common for a young Chinese man, but for me as the foreign listener, it was fascinating. When he asked me if I had enjoyed my “visitor’s experience” I was profuse in my thanks. I find it special and unique to be in a world where as a foreigner I am made to feel so welcome.  It’s for these reasons that at the end of my day at 798, I was ultimately more impressed with the people I met than with the local art that I saw.
Walead Beshty

Monday, October 17, 2011

Beijing: Real impressions

Either I am getting old or I have read too much fiction set in the years of the Cultural Revolution. When I imagined China, sitting in my apartment in Paris, I imagined streets dense with people on bikes wearing Chairman Mao suits, I imagined truck loads of dead rats, children urinating in the streets, public announcements on PA systems flooding the air, blaring indecipherable instructions. I imagined the hawking and spitting on the street. In short, I imagined a cold, strange world full of  unfriendly and distant people. How wrong I was.

The Chinese are warm and friendly, always ready to help when they can, though most don’t speak much English. There’s nothing cold or distant about most Chinese people, and on the contrary, they are emotional, warm, they yell when they need to, speak loudly if necessary and even when it is not. In my first days here I kept wanting to compare China to Japan, especially as Japan is meant to be the wealthier country, the one that is supposedly closer to the West, both economically and metaphorically speaking. But the two countries could not be more different, especially in terms of the mentality. And strangely enough, here in China, it seems to be more relaxed. Behavior does not appear to be coded in the same way as it is in Japan, or even France for that matter. There is a freedom and a vivacity to the interactions between people – between me and them, between each other. For a country that still functions under a dictatorship, even if a somewhat more relaxed one, there is a very keen sense of individual identity. The young especially are all out and about with their fabulous haircuts, tattoos, wild clothes and heels where to express oneself in these ways in Tokyo means being on the edge, alternative. Here, it is de rigeur to be expressive and alive with one’s own sense of individuality. 

There's not much Communism left on Jianguomenwai Avenue

Even more surprising, though I shouldn’t be surprised, is the equality between men and women in seemingly every walk of life. Being in China reminds me that there were advantages of Communism that we are too quick to forget in our efforts to do away with all of its ruinous and scandalous dealings. Communism was a system that had equal place for men and women, and this filters into, and keeps the city of Beijing alive today. This, and the whole lane on the roads given over to bicycles make a city in which neither women nor bikers are second class citizens – now there’s a liveable city. 
Scallops. This was served under a bell jar that was lifted and the dry ice 
underneath wafted with the smell of the flowers

The sign indicating the way home
And when I went running, Beijing came alive in a different way. As I ran in the bike lane, very peacefully, down past the worker’s stadium and the voice of the PA system blared out at top note, I was reminded of the old days, the image I had of how Beijing was meant to be. In a short distance, I felt as though I had run from the present through the early twentieth century and into the twenty-second. The conglomeration of architectural styles, modes of life and transport, storefront lighting in all possible variants, were from different eras, different political regimes, different cultural beliefs. It’s a city of the vastest contradictions that I could not have begun to imagine prior to arrival. And there are many beautiful things about a city characterized by its air thick with pollution, its dazzling skyline filled with searing sometimes gawdy towers. For example, always, wherever I go I am greeted by orchids, in full flower, in the most elaborate of arrangements. Even on the 12 lane highways someone has taken the care to arrange the flowers as exquisitely as the Parisian patisserie owner dresses her window. And the service culture is first rate: even when they don’t speak English they are obliging and friendly – unless of course you stop bargaining before buying at the market.

The flower arrangement in the lobby of China World Hotel

Monday, October 10, 2011

Gerhard Richter, Panorama: A Retrospective, Tate Modern

It’s difficult to believe that after twenty years of looking at Gerhard Richter’s paintings, they never cease to surprise me, to move me, and to open up still more questions as I stand before them. At the new retrospective of his work, Panorama, that opened at the Tate Modern last week, there were moments when I felt as though I was seeing his paintings for the first time.
Gerhard Richter, Yellow-green, 1982, CR: 492
Richter’s is a body of work with which I am more familiar than perhaps that of any other artist. Over the years I have seen the paintings and photographs again and again, in traveling exhibitions, in their home institutions, in intimate gallery spaces and filling the walls of the worlds great museums. I have studied them, written about them, and no matter how often I see them, I never tire, and I am always amazed that they have still more to teach me. They continue to teach me about painting, about its relationship to the world, about myself, and most profoundly, about the places that painting takes us, places and spaces — emotional, psychological, intellectual — to which we otherwise have no access. My friend and colleague John David Rhodes will question my tendency toward reverence for great works of art. But it’s difficult to be anything other than reverential, and made humble in the face of Gerhard Richter’s paintings. Having the opportunity to see Richter’s work often and in multiple viewings has been one of the great privileges of living in New York, London and Paris. 
Gerhard Richter, Farm [Gehöft], 1999, CR 861-1
Nicholas Serota and his curatorial team at the Tate Modern have made what can only be described as radical choices in their hanging of Richter’s work. This is an exhibition that emphasizes disparity in an attempt to create maximum tension and clash between works that are nevertheless hung in roughly chronological order. The sheer diversity — in the size of the canvas, application of paint, historical references, subject matter, theoretical concerns, and the list goes on — of Richter’s thinking and its realization in painting, is at the foreground of this huge retrospective. I haven’t yet decided whether or not I applaud these curatorial choices because as much as they enabled me to see Richter’s oeuvre in a whole new context — ironically the context of his own working process — there was a noise and a busyness to each room that at times made for such overwhelm that it was difficult to focus. That said, all of the ambiguity, and the unfathomability of Richter’s work is also emphasized when a work such as Farm [Gehöft] 1999 is placed side by side with a monumental abstract image from approximately the same time.  Even though I missed the peacefulness of being with Richter’s work, the disparities and arguments between paintings actually underlines depths that we might not have previously recognized.
Gerhard Richter, Six Photos May 2-7, 1989 (a/2 May 1989), CR: 74a
Among the works on display that I had not previously seen is a series of photographs, Six Photos 2.5.89-7.5.89 (CR74 a-f) in which Richter appears like a spirit in the process of disappearing thanks to the delayed action shutter release mechanism of the photographic process. These six photograph, each signed and dated, are unusual because they are not overpainted (though there is of course a set of prints that he subsequently overpainted) and neither does it seem as though they were placed in Atlas, that is, they do not appear to have been archived. And yet, these six fleeting images encapsulate so much about his oeuvre. As is so often the case, Richter pictures himself, not painting, but together with his paintings. Although he is the great artist, this series of photographs reveals what is always for Richter his own troubled status, not as a painter, but of his relationship to painting and, at times, to his own painting. In fact, this series of photographs might even be seen as the quintessence of Panorama. Because, the impossibility of resolving his relationship to the task of painting, and ultimately, to representation as it is nevertheless captured in these six images echoes the impossibility of the juxtaposition of works in conflict that might have been painted at different points in his career, but are nevertheless, co-existent in Panorama.
Gerhard Richter, Alps II, 1968, CR:213
To be sure, Richter’s is not a body of work that is just about painting. It is work that is deeply informed by the historical and political worlds that surround it. Another painting I saw for the first time in this exhibition, Alps II, 1968 demonstrates this with unimaginable force. The tripartite painting sees clouds, or perhaps it is the Alps themselves, from above, or maybe even perpendicular to the mountains. It is a painting in which the thick grey strokes that might have been painted with a house paint brush move tumultuously through and around the whole spectrum of the grey palette, from white to black, from luminosity to obscurity, light to darkness. Even more so than Turner’s seascapes in turmoil, Alps II might be abstract, but it is a world in revolution, the intense, dark grey paint at the compositional centre of the canvas is devastating, churning up turmoil and immense pain. Not only does this immensity plummet the painting’s viewer to the deepest emotional levels, but we cannot help noticing the date: 1968. Alps II was painted in a year when the world was in turmoil, and there is an aggressivity, an anger even, to the short, but insistent brush strokes. These strokes, unpredictable, yet always moving somewhere along a horizontal axis, capture a world about to burst. This is the ultimate power of Gerhard Richter’s painting: it moves effortlessly and sometimes impossibly, at one and the same time, between the most intimate emotional experiences of the individual who stands before it, and the monumental sweep of public history. 

Gerhard Richter, Betty, 1988, CR: 663-5
I have written about Richter’s work before, I will write about it again, and most likely, again. Because this is an oeuvre that will never be clear, in which the problems it raises will never be resolved. It is a body of work, that like the blur in the photo-paintings and even in the paintings that did not originate in a photograph, is filled with ambiguity, and is always unfinished. This does not mean that the paintings await completion, but rather, they are plagued by uncertainty. And yet, they exude complete confidence in that uncertainty. It is as though the troubling of vision that becomes realized in the blurring of the paint on canvas, or that which results from the vertical stacking of glass panes is a microsmic expression for the ultimate inability of painting to approach, much less represent what it might claim to reveal. There is no truth of painting according to Gerhard Richter. Rather, its only reality is that which reverberates throughout the “daily practice” of painting. And what this exhibition makes clear is that throughout, Richter continues to practice and to attend to his practice, his process of painting as the most important moment of creativity.
Gerhard Richter, Cage V, 2006, CR: 897-5

There is something incredulous about Richter’s paintings that is captured by Panorama in new and exciting ways. It was a privilege to be at the exhibition with a friend who was seeing Richter’s work on this scale for first time. My friend was in awe at the virtuosity of Richter’s paint on canvas. He kept saying “who else was doing this in the 1970s”? And then as we moved onto the variety and reach of monumental abstractions to unoverpainted photographs of his family, to re-presentations of photos of paintings once placed in Atlas and later repainted, to glass panes, mirrors and the poignant tonalities of Cage I-VI, my friend repeated as if in disbelief, “there’s no one even comes near not only the diversity, but the intensity and scale of this work”.
Gerhard Richter, Tulips, 1995, CR: 825-2)
I can’t possibly capture the complexity of the paintings, and neither can I begin to approach the expanse of emotions, ideas and revellations that these paintings lead us through. Richter’s is incomparable to any other body of artistic work — not only the technique, the experimentation, but I don’t know another painter who moves from historical traumas, to Romantic, but troubled landscapes, through violent effacements and erotic lyricism, from death and a focus on the poignancy of memory to the passionate aliveness of what it is to be human.

To be sure, there are problems with the exhibition, most notably the fact that too many paintings are crammed on too few walls, and the loss of context through taking the works out of their series is frustrating. But, to be with Richter’s paintings is an experience that everyone must have at least once in a lifetime. Wherever you are, go see Panorama and make this that occasion. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

To Adore or not to Adore? When I see Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter,  Self-Portrait, Three Times, 22.1.1990

Last week when I dropped into Marian Goodman on my way home to see the latest exhibition of Gerhard Richter’s work, I was under the impression that the vernissage was the night before. However, one look at all the women in silk dresses and heels told me I had come in time for the vernissage. One by one the who’s who of the Paris art world strolled across the courtyard of the Hotel Particulier that is home to Marian Goodman's Paris gallery. They picked up a glass of champagne and found each other in the small but light filled space of the ground floor gallery.

The work was somehow unrelated to what was going on around me. The fact that Richter had apparently made a radical departure from the trajectory of his celebrated oeuvre didn’t seem important. It was, or so I thought, just another vernissage, and as the space became very crowded I decided to leave and return on a less crowded day.
Gerhard Richter, Grey, 1968, CR 194-6
Then as I walked across the cobblestoned courtyard, a posse of photographers, and men in grey suits strode towards me. I can be forgiven for thinking I was witnessing the arrival of a famous rock star. The crowd at the drinks table suddenly went quiet, and with no attempt to disguise their fascination, turned around and strained to catch a glimpse of the slight, but energy-filled, Gerhard Richter. And from that moment on, the eyes of the crowd never left him, registering his every move and gesture with its photographic gaze. The only difference between Richter’s arrival and that of any other media personality was that the art world crowd maintained its poise and decorum. Though he wasn’t mobbed, he was, at all times, surrounded by admirers, seeming to tower above him: everyone had a book they wanted him to sign. 
Gerhard Richter, Cut, 2006, CR896-4 
I owe so much of my intellectual development to Gerhard Richter: even though I have published on the work of many others, his paintings have influenced and encapsulate everything about German art and film that has preoccupied me for the past 15 years. The engagement of even his abstract paintings with German history, and German memory, with the questions raised at the intersection of painting and photography, painting and cinema, with modernism and its relationship to the revolutions of modernity, and with paint, light, and the role of the painter as author of his self-exploration on a canvas, the representation of trauma and memory, and the ultimate failure of vision and visual representation, these are the issues that haunt all of my academic work. As I stood watching the fans getting autographs of their hero, it occurred to me that the paintings and the man whom the art world reveres have very little to do with each other.
Gerhard Richter, Self Portrait, 1996, CR836-2
The cult of the individual great artist, the man to be adored and annexed as something like the art world’s messiah is in fact in direct opposition to his oeuvre. His work has, since the 1960s, continued to develop at the edge, to create a space within artistic modernism where every certainty — of the passion and urgency of painting, of its persistence in a world that doubts it is even alive, and of a painter who has reached heroic status — is undone, challenged and negated in the moment of its articulation. Richter’s paintings question and problematize everything they touch. It is no coincidence that so much of his oeuvre, especially up until the 1990s, and again at the turn of the twenty-first century, is pursued in the vast possibilities of grey paint. For this is work that is ambiguous, dense with impossibility and never sits still. Like the eternal transformations of grey paint, Richter’s presence on the canvas is always shifting, often in the process of disappearing, sometimes erased, violated through scratching of the surface, blurred, or his image and images overpainted.
Gerhard Richter, Self Portrait, 1970, Atlas Sheet: 62
Of course, fans want his autograph, because there’s a desire in the world we live in that is underpinned by the logic of exchange. We want to own, to become an individual through our proximity to that which everyone else covets. But Richter’s autograph, at least in the various ways it is inscribed on his works, always awaits its erasure, it’s immanent disappearance. This, while he continues to represent himself over and over and over again. While a part of me wanted to join the line to get Richter’s autograph, to pay my homage to the master of contemporary painting, I left without speaking to him. In the moment, I just couldn’t bring myself to approach him, I realize that I had nothing to say to him, that I had no need or interest in the man’s autograph. Offered the invitation, I would, in a heartbeat, leave my self behind and forgo my identity for the unfathomable painted world of Gerhard Richter. These are paintings before which I am not only willing, but have often been tempted, to kneel down.
Gerhard Richter, Self-Portrait, Three Times, Standing (16.3.1991)
I say all this, and yet, when I got home, my heart was still beating, I was breathless and had to phone Georgia to tell her I had seen Gerhard Richter. And so, as I watch my intellectualization of the encounter begin to unravel, I simultaneously see what might just have been a case of being too star struck to gather the courage to speak to this prophet of modernist painting. As though standing before one of his paintings, my spiral into contradictions leaves me wondering if the man and his art ultimately do have more in common than I like to admit? 

All images copyright Gerhard Richter

Sunday, October 2, 2011

DV8 Can We Talk About This? Théâtre de la Ville

As I sat fixed to my seat at Théâtre de la Ville watching the latest DV8 production Can We Talk About This? there was a moment when it suddenly crossed my mind that it would not be surprising if someone, even a group of people, wielding machine guns burst into the theater and held us all hostage. And if indeed this were to occur, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you the political or religious identity of those with the guns. For Lloyd Newson’s documentary “physical theater” takes no definitive stance on the highly-charged and thorny discourses on Islamic law, multiculturalism, xenophobia and racial intolerance. As its title suggests, Can We Talk About This? is a manifesto-like call for open and honest discussion of what it demonstrates to be the decades old conflict between Muslims and Christians in the West, and particularly, in Britain. The absence of truths is what lifts the credibility and conviction of Can We Talk About This? above and beyond all the other representations of what should and should not be done to resolve the otherwise irreconcilable ruptures in British society. All that said, despite its intention to open the doors to debate, rather than to point fingers, this is a searing critique of the British government’s irresponsible, and ultimately, racist address of these problems.

I am no theater critic, but I do know that DV8’s Can We Talk About This? is exciting because it pushes at the boundaries of what dance conventionally does. The eleven actors/dancers perform what looks to be the most exhausting performance as they constantly move their bodies in impossible ways and simultaneously talk, speaking the words of many figures from all sides of the debate who gave interviews for the piece. This might be the closest dance comes to documentary as the actors move in and out of character playing historical figures who have spoken out against and for observance of the Koran, forced marriage, crimes of honor and racial violence.

What I most appreciated about the multiplicity of representation — words, body movement, sounds, acting, archival footage screened on monitors — was the movement of the dancers/actors. In what I understand is a characteristic of Newson’s choreography, their movements were exaggerated gestures from every day life transformed into fluid dance. A nervous rolling of the hands, a repeated lift of the shoulder, a turn of the head made in tandem with one, two or three others, a sudden shut down of the body in reaction to the fear incited by an opponent. All of these gestures were legible, if exaggerated and transformed into the medium of dance. Similarly, when two or more of they dancers were on stage, they may have danced in pairs, but they never danced together, always working off one another, using each other as props, to shape their own body. I understood these subtly confrontational movements that never directly responded to or engaged with the other to echo the form of public discourse and debate on racial integration, the upholding of Sharia Law and so on in Britain today: no one ever says what they mean, and they never say it directly to the one concerned. I understood the physical movements and the dancers’ lack of direct relationship to each other to be a critique of the age old British tendency to talk at cross purposes, to avoid the truth when it hurts, and to use each other as a ploy to get what they want. There is even one scene when a dancer playing Ann Cryer, British Politician who campaigned against forced marriage, sits on another dancer and drinks a cup of tea. It’s the inability to say what is meant, preferring to drink tea when things get too tough, that makes the discourse go round and round in circles.  The contortions of the body, the dancers’ wrapping themselves around corners, standing upside down, are the very acrobatics that we all do to avoid having to talk about the challenges of reality. 

DV8 do not present any material we don’t already know. From the Fatwa against Salman Rushdie, through the brutal slaying of Theo van Gogh for his film Submission about a woman forced into marriage by her family and raped by her uncle, to the establishment of Sharia Law councils in the UK, nothing new is revealed about the tensions and conflict between the Muslim and the Western worlds. But the way this material is presented makes it worthy of outrage. There were many moments that induced such incredulity in me. To name just one – on a monitor isolated by a darkened stage, an adamant David Cameron insists that less tolerance be shown to those who speak out against “whites” (his term) in an effort to bring equality to the insistence on the practices that condemn and punish racial prejudice against “Muslims”. I wondered silently, is he stupid? racist? a political fool? 

As I say, the question in the work’s title is left as a question. There are no answers given in this powerful piece of dance theater. But then, simultaneously, as a question, “Can we talk about this?” becomes the solution to the problem. In spite of the powerful juxtaposition of contradictions and incompatibilities, the ultimate message of the piece is clear: we need to sit down and discuss. And we need to discuss not religious beliefs but the plight of the individuals who hold those beliefs.  Like the impact of the great manifestoes in history, we come out of Théâtre de la Ville with raised fists and a determination to fight the long struggle to commence responsible discourse on issues which are, to be sure, tearing apart the very fabric of everyday life, and not only in Britain.