Saturday, March 31, 2012

Saburo Teshigawara, Mirror and Music. Théâtre National de Chaillot

I recently heard Akira Lippit discussing Hirokazu Kore-eda’s wonderful film After Life. Lippit compellingly identified in the film the haunting memory of Hiroshima and the dropping of Atomic Bomb as the traumatic memory that would never heal, the trauma that pointed to the disaster that, in turn, always lay on the horizon in twentieth century Japan. Lippit identified in Japanese culture, an imaginary built on a memory, and a conception of historical memory of a trauma yet to come. And when the Fukishima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant exploded as the domino effect of a Tsunami and an Earthquake of inconceiveable proportions, the promised disaster arrived. As Lippit convinced me, it’s so difficult to see anything Japanese without looking through the lens of the violent disruptions to its history and identity effected by these traumatic events.

And so I was surprised that none of the reviews of Saburo Teshigawara’s recent piece, Mirror and Music make any reference to the disasters that underwrite Japan’s more and less recent histories. When a dancer (Teshigawara himself) stands in the line of a strobe light that tears the stage along its diagonal, music blaring with an unrelenting rhythm, we begin to see what is not there, our eyes deceiving us as the strobe creates the persistence of vision, or is it that our eyes become overwhelmed by what our ears tell us to see. Namely, the illusion of movement? The deception of vision, the overwhelm of the imagination, the loss of definition to the human body, and the intense bombardment of music that is nevertheless familiar, took me right back to the struggle to know what is real, what is reality in a world turned asunder. And because Teshigawara and his 8 dancers are Japanese, I am immediately plunged into the nightmare of the context of the country’s old and new disasters.

Teshiawara, in particular, but also the dancers who accompany him, move to a realm that pagans such as myself might recognize intellectually, but could never experience. Mirror and Music is captivating because the dancer’s movements are familiar, just like the reverberations of baroque music gone awry that dominate the soundscape. Every movement begins as a move we know from classical ballet, but the recognition only lasts momentarily. The dancers take off and through endless repetitions, and distortions, exaggerations, under the intensity of either fixed spotlights or a strobe in full force, their bodies become ephemeral, intangible, otherwordly. There were moments when the arms of the dancers moved so fast, with such repetition that their hands became replaced by some kind of transparent, multi-colored substance that wove through the air. Any resemblance the dancers might have had to you and I, restricted by the physical and spiritual limitations of being human, disappeared.

Teshigawara himself, always in motion, making repetitive gestures that defy his physicality, is like a Buddhist monk in his extraordinary ability to be in the same pose for an unending amount of time. Except, that unlike the monk in meditation, Teshigawara in a body that defies time with its classically sculpted perfection, is in unending motion. It’s as though he steps outside of his body and lets it take control as it spasms impossibly, at the same time as it is caught in a pose beyond what we know the body can do. Of course, it’s not just classical ballet that forms Teshigawara, but the politically subversive Japanese Butoh. The absurdity and poetry of Butoh, as well as its sedition and discipline, are everywhere weighing on the form and expression of Mirror and Music. Teshigawara and his dancers thus dance in a language that resonates for a cult following in Japan, and simultaneously, draws a full house to Chaillot. And like audiences of Butoh in the wake of World War II, at the end of the 75 minutes of Mirror and Music, we in the West understand the urgency to face the social (and cultural) challenges of contemporary Japan. 

Images courtesy of Sakae Oguma

Monday, March 26, 2012

Contes Africains d'Après Shakespeare, de Krysztof Warlikowski à Chaillot

A play lasting five and a half hours, influenced by Shakespeare crossed with J.M. Coetze’s latest novel, in Polish with French surtitles, after a solid week’s work? I anticipated a long night ahead last Thursday night at Chaillot. But anyone who knows Krysztof Warlikowski’s work will know what an extraordinary experience it was to see Contes Africains d’après Shakespeare.
Pigs Taunting Shylock
I don’t remember ever having sat in a theatre and felt so confronted and emotionally disturbed by what I saw on stage. When two men wearing pigs’ heads snorted and spat, fornicated, and sniveled their heinously racist insults at the character of Shylock, the man next to me tensed up, and voiced his disgust. He said what I was feeling. Shylock, the Jewish money lender in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice is the villain, but in Warlikowski’s play, as he stands before the same table on which we have seen him casually cut up meat, wearing his own mask and a prayer shawl, he is every Jewish person who has been the victim of anti-Semitism, especially in the twentieth century. Earlier when Shylock cuts up the meat, we imagine him slicing off that pound of Antonio’s flesh, a cold and calculating businessman. But when taunted by the pigs, we are horrified at their disgusting behavior, and every ounce of our compassion goes out to Shylock. Behind the perspex curtain that separates audience and actors throughout the performance, a back projection of pigs wanders backwards and forwards, and is mirrored on the right hand wall of the set. The stage is also filled with Paweł Mykietyn’s eerie music, and even though the scene is self-consciously staged, we are confronted us at every level. Somehow this scene takes away all the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s villain and has his humanity restored. “Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew Hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?” (III.i.54) pierces every fibre of our being.
An Irate Antonio
In this same first of three acts, Portia disguised as the lawyer sits down at the front of the stage (before the perspex), and eats a slab of meat. She then proceeds to vomit it back up. I felt my stomach turn, and thought I would throw up as well. She takes off her mask to become Portia, and the intensity of her anguish and pain somehow enables us to translate the violence against the Jews that she has just enacted on Shylock in court into a violence committed against herself. Following Shakespeare, Warlikowski’s Portia in disguise turns Shylock’s revenge on Antonio back against him, and when Portia silently rages against herself, the anguish, in turn, becomes a violence I want to commit against myself.

Portia in disguise before she eats the meat
In the middle section that focuses on a handful of scenes from Othello, scenes, in turn liberally woven with interpretation, Desdemona is raped by a repulsive Bassanio and an Iago who is horrible. The representation of the violence towards her is more disturbing than her suffocation by Othello, a gesture that is here in Warlikowski, one verging on resignation, almost beautiful. The two lie down together to die. And yet, these moments are excruciating to watch.  As Desdemona, like Shylock before her, is taunted, violated and spat on, even before she is punished by her jealous husband, I was touch again: emotionally, physically, and of course, all of my cultural expectations of what it is to be a woman, to be independent, respected and complete, were smashed as I watched Desdemona suffer. 
Desdamona in Agony
The screens and Perspex that move along the horizontal axis throughout the performance, the mirrors along the right hand side of the stage, the industrial doors on the left through which the actors come and go, and the back projected images that repeat but never fully capture what happens on stage, all of this makes for a visually stunning performance. The music that never really goes away, and the most daring of actors who take risks on a stage, doing things we hesitate to do, say and feel in the privacy of our own minds, create theatre that at one and the same time is uncomfortable, and yet, mesmerizing.

"Lear" being shrouded by Regan and Goneril
Contes African d’Après Shakespeare got more and more intense, more daring and more intimate as the night went on. In the third and final part, a daughter sits by her father's hospital bed telling him she would hate him if she stayed, but hate herself more if she left. She left. He died. The father was played by the same actor as the one who played Shylock and Othello. At one point, at a change of scenery she stood against the back wall, her arms spread out on the wall, not moving, and two people came and changed her clothes for the next scene. This was Cordelia, who in Warlikowski’s rendition was raped by her father as a child. She hates him, she loves him, she is completely dominated by his presence, even when he is not with her. They go to the beach and she is seen by two young men who flirt with her from afar. But she cannot leave the command of her father, even as she turns her towel around and away from him, her attention on the young men is always compromised by her father’s presence. Cordelia was, for me, the character that I found most disturbing. She was also the character who was most literally made contemporary, in her clothing, her story, her relationship with her dying father. Cordelia is disturbing because she is every woman who has had a troubled relationship with her father. She is, if you like, the one every woman either is or knows intimately.

Warlikowski's work is evidence of the fact that Shakespeare can be modernized, or rather that Shakespeare is as relevant as ever to the contemporary cultural landscape. I can’t think of more appropriate and resonant images in a week when France is reeling from the massacre of its Jewish children and African paratroopers, events that have seen the country united in disgust at what happened, events that will because they have to, will change the face of an electoral campaign. Warlikowski could not have made Shakespeare more relevant if he tried. This is theatre at its most relevant, but also at its riskiest and most radical. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Néon. Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? à la Maison Rouge

Joseph Kosuth, Neon, 1945
On the face of it, this exhibition, Néon. Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue? is just plain fun. With the Maison Rouge all lit up in different colored neon lights, both industrially produced and hand-crafted  tubes bringing the walls to life, inviting us to walk into spaces saturated in impossible colors. A visit to Néon is ostensibly a joyful, light way to spend an afternoon. Then as we quickly realize, neon has more to it than meets the eye. Neon lights may look pretty, but they are potentially lethal: the transparent rarefied gases enclosed in glass tubes, shot through with an electric current are dangerous if leaked: helium, argon, mercury, and of course, neon are not to be inhaled. Thus, the art works may look light and fun, but they are made of materials that are simultaneously fragile and dangerous. 
Bruce Nauman, None Sing Neon Sign, 1970
The exhibition is ambitious in scope. Although it disclaims to be a retrospective, it does cover the history of art in neon lighting from the immediate postwar period through (to my mind) the great conceptual artists working in neon in the 1960s and 1970s, and then onto contemporary examples. And the exhibition is also concerned to remind us that neon lighting, the invention of Frenchman, Georges Claude, in 1912 began its public life illuminating of the streets by night. Given this vast territory covered by Néon, from the beginning, it sets itself up to disappoint. And indeed, its expansive embrace makes it unwieldy and overwhelming.
Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 2011

When I first entered the exhibition I was also concerned that all of the works were hung as if they were paintings on a wall. Surely the whole point about light art of any kind is that it is only brought into existence through the space that it creates. Light art both transforms the space that it occupies and is defined by the space that makes it. The conceptual works of Joseph Kosuth, Sarkis, and Alfredo Jaar among others in the first rooms of Néon, of course, use light intellectually, to challenge the significance of language, to crack open the lies of the historical past. But even these somber works, even though they are displayed as artworks, they are not meant to be looked at in the same way we might ponder a painting. Indeed, difficulty of looking at them is palpable, as the flickering light challenges our look, creates headaches and dares us to look away, to rest our eyes. This iconoclasm and the conceptual drive of these works makes looking at them as paintings in a gallery very problematic. 
Tracey Emin, Just Love Me, 1998
However, despite being quick to criticize, once I was inside, especially by the time I reached the room collecting works entitled Crisis, a room in which works by a number of artists turn the space red, I had to reconsider my judgments. The further into the exhibition we venture, the more consuming is the experience of complete immersion in color, light, and when the two come together, their threat and simultaneous excitement. These works create reflections, headaches, vibrations. Their interaction with the floor and the walls, creating afterimages, giving off warmth, and generating a gentle buzz throughout the galleries I watched people taking photographs of the works on their cell phones and cameras, and the magic of light laughed at their attempts to document: the image in representation creates a whole new work that, because of the composition of neon, at times only slightly resembles what is seen by the naked eye.

When I reached the room entitled Les Pionniers, I breathed a sigh of relief. These works by Nauman, Mario Merz, François Morellet, Piotr Kowalski, still stand out from the rest because they engage with neon in complex and creative ways. While more contemporary artists use neon in ways that suggest it could be replaced with other media (why does Tracey Emin’s work need to be in neon for example?) the pioneers take up questions of the tension between the old and the new, nostalgia as it is written in light which is supposedly at the technological vanguard. Nauman’s work, for example, not only plays on words, thereby demonstrating the emptiness of language, but the letters of None Sing, Neon Sign stammer and stutter as though they might not be working properly. Nauman thus exploits the inherent dynamism of the properties of neon, as well as its flaws, and then, pushes the light onto the verge of malfunction.
Stefan Brüggemann, This Work Should be Turned Off When I Die, 2010
Today the discourse in neon is old, at least as a form of lighting it might be seen as of another era. Neon lighting hasn’t changed much since the days when it dazzled the streets of pre-World War I Paris, and then by the 1920s, the major European and US cities. And as a substance or material, it can only be manipulated in so many ways:  it is what it is, an electrical current passed through a rarefied gas and cased in glass. In addition, there’s something about these gaudy lights, the trashy of the neon sign that reminds us of the hopeless aspirations of Tony Camonte in Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) where the neon light is the emptiness of capitalism on display. And this is a capitalism that is now old. Because the aspirations, accumulation and wealth of the world's great cities is no longer written in neon lighting. Neon is a medium reflecting the intensified moment of industrial development in the years on either side of World War I. All that said, the best contemporary works in Néon are those that engage with that past, appropriate it, even if they don't criticize it, because in that gesture a tension and depth is created in the conversation between past and present.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Ai Weiwei, Entrelacs au Jeu de Paume

Ai Weiwei, Olympic Stadium, 2005-2008

This exhibition is a great introduction to the controversial work of Chinese political art superstar, Ai Weiwei. I was skeptical, and given the intense publicity around Ai Weiwei, we should all be skeptical. When an artist who attracts this much hype for his vociferous attack on governmental regimes and global capitalism exhibits at the Jeu de Paume, there’s every reason to be dubious.
Ai Weiwei, Mirror, 1987
Ai’s work is copious and the artist is prolific, unsurprisingly given his Duchampian belief that art is life. One of the wall texts in the room that included his Blog photographs bemoaned the fact that so many of Ai’s photographs were confiscated when he was imprisoned in 2011, but that fortunately, many of them still existed. While it is indeed a great misfortune to have lost his images, given the prolificacy of his production, I did wonder if he himself would be so upset to see his photos seized? Afterall, none of them are aesthetic treasures, and it seems as though he will continue to refill the void with his limitless supply of photographs of everything he sees and does. Not only is his aesthetic deliberately in search of an anti-aesthetic, one which confronts and prohibits any possibility of desire or consumption of the image, but it is throwaway, there is an impermanence to the hundreds and hundreds of photographs he takes of everything and everyone in his path. When authorities confiscate or destroy Ai’s pictures, they inadvertently idolize what are otherwise empty images.
Ai Weiwei, Provisional Landscapes, 2002-08
The exhibition claims to introduce the variety of Ai Weiwei’s work, but really, it’s a photography exhibition with some video screens showing images that document the blogs, films, sculptures, interviews and architectural works. Among the most interesting series were those photographs of the New World Order, otherwise known as contemporary China. Whether in the “Beijing photographs, 1993-2002,” the “Provisional Landscapes, 2002-2008,” or “Earthquake, 2008-10,” Ai draws on the conventions of, for example, landscape painting, and empties out the conventions and the content to reveal the rubble and ruin of this New World. If the foreground of a classical perspective landscape painting leads us towards the possibility of a horizon that will allow us to dream and to yearn, in Ai Weiwei’s landscape photographs, the foreground is uninviting, a wasteland across which we have no desire to walk. And in the background, all we see is an (im)permanent disaster: buildings apparently suspended in a state of incompletion, money being wasted, lives being spent with ultimately nothing to show for any of it. Like the expendability of Ai Weiwei’s photographs, the landscapes and cityscapes of modern day China are here today, gone tomorrow. It’s a world in which the turnover of buildings and capitalist monstrosities are as common as the buying and selling of consumer goods. What we don’t see in Ai Weiwei’s photographs, but we know must be there somewhere, are the literally millions of people who neither make it into the photographs nor who have no identity in the nightmare of Capitalism gone crazy under the dictatorship that now lies at the centre of global capitalism. And all this caught by a photographic anti-aesthetic which replicates the pollution filled skies of China’s great cities: bland, blurred and unappealing. 

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective - The Eiffel Tower, 1995-2003

In “Study of Perspective, 1995-2010” in which he photographs the world’s famous cultural institutions and monuments, its most iconic cityscapes and landscapes, Ai “desecrates” the iconicity of the symbol and our vision by seeing from an unflattering perspective, by blurring the image, or by placing it off-centre, and then having the gesture of “giving it the finger” fill the foreground. In these, Ai extends his critique of China by denouncing the history of Western culture. This is a history that, when we see the Roman Forum receiving the finger, we recognize has been revered for thousands of years. And so, not only does the critique extend outwards to the whole Western world, but it extends backwards to the historical past.
Ai Weiwei, Fairytale Portraits, 2007

Also powerful were “Fairytale Portraits, 2007”, individual portraits taken of the Chinese people Ai would take to Kassel for his installation at Documenta 12. Each individual is given his or her own photograph, but like the regime that subjects them, each is made anonymous in Ai’s portrait. Each person is placed at an identical, full frontal distance from the camera, with one or two exceptions, standing in the same pose, one after the other after the other. The repetition of the photographs as they are laid out on the wall turns the images into documents that surely draw on the conventions of a totalitarian regime’s exigency to anonymize existence. Moreover, what is more noticeable here than in any other of the series is that Ai’s photographs are not about him. Even though he engages with the modernist techniques of repetition, standard compositional principals, rendering the portrait sitter as anonymous subject, Ai’s photographs bear none of the self-absorption of the modernist artist. Rather, he uses these strategies as a means to efface his own identity: repetition, de-aestheticization of the image, the pose and composure of the one being photographed not only underline the anonymity of the person before the camera but they efface any pretence to greatness of the one behind it.
Ai Weiwei, Ai Weiwei with the rockstar Zuoxiao Zuzhou in the elevator
under surveillance by the police in Sichuan, China
, August 2009

While I was mostly impressed by the exhibition, I was unconvinced by the placement of the blog entries and photographs on wall-mounted screens. The turnover of images was so quick that it was impossible to focus on any of them, and when the bog texts appeared, they passed by so quickly that I rarely finished the English texts. I didn’t even try to read the French ones. I am not sure how the French audience fared – if they had more success reading the texts and, most importantly, taking in the terse political attacks. But the real problem with the display of the blog texts and photos was the invitation to ogle as if at art works on clean white walls, when really they are meant to be seen on the web, a medium in which we have control over our own viewing process.
Ai Weiwei, Dropping an urn from the Han Dynasty, 1995
I did leave satisfied with the glimpses I had of Ai Weiwei’s complicated and unusual, not to mention prolific output. But given the images of sculptural and architectural works in the blog photos, as well as in the bookstore catalogues, I know this exhibition only begins to introduce his work. Nevertheless, given the hoards crowding the gallery spaces and the long line of people outside waiting to join them, I am assuming he has quite a following in Paris and we are definitely going to be seeing Ai again in the not too distant future. 

All images courtesy Ai Weiwei