Thursday, November 29, 2012

Adel Abdessemed, Je suis Innocent, Centre Pompidou

Adel Abdessemed, Wall Drawing, 2006
Image courtesy Avis Culture
This is one of two lovely exhibitions in the Espace 315 galleries of the Pompidou Centre, spaces usually given over to newer more experimental art. I enjoyed so much about Adel Abdessemed’s work, not least of all its ability to send a knife through the body without touching it. Perhaps because the work was carefully cordoned off, probably because of its fragility, looking from a distance, I felt its sharp, devastating physical impact.  Looking at Wall Drawing, 2006 for example in which nine perfect circles made out of barbed wire affixed to the wall, a chill ran across my skin. I imagined the heads caught inside those perfect circles.

Adel Abdessemed, Hope, 2011

In Practice Zero Tolerance, the two “charred cars,” that are in fact made of terra cotta, turned over on their sides are familiar to us from Gaza, Iraq as far back as the first war, Desert Storm, and all the other battlefields where the value of a mode of transport is rendered the spoil of war. The charred car, usually having been blown up by a car bomb is one of the most familiar signs of the destruction and insanity of war. It is because these representations have a general, widespread reference to war and violence, not just to one war in particular, that they accrue ever more power. The notion of war is itself a problem, and there is no point in critiquing one war in particular. It’s all the same. Hope functions in the same way. The row boat suspended by cables on its side, about to capsize, is filled with resin black garbage bags. Again, standing before it we see the waste of destruction, the debris of an accident floating out to sea, where people have not survived, people have not made it into the boat.

Adel Abdessemed, Practice Zero Tolerance, 2008
The exhibition also features a number of videos, all of which are compelling and disturbing, all for different reasons. In Also Sprach Allah (2008) the artist is thrown from a blanket held at the corners and on the sides by henchmen. He has to write “Also sprach Allah” on a prayer mat that is stretched on the ceiling. With each throw he manages to make one mark on the carpet. The work is apparently a reference to Goya’s El Pelele (1792) in which a straw dummy is thrown to the sky. Without knowing of Goya’s earlier work, the piece is easily accessible and comprehensible in its realization of the artist as obedient, giving up individual will, whether by force or by choice, as he takes up a role of subservience to the regime, to God, to his role within, for Abdessemed, Islamic society. This is a world where Neitzsche (the obvious reference of the work is to Thus Spoke Zarathustra) has been replaced by Allah. Indeed, even though there is no specific location, the videos depict a war that is everywhere and a war that is clearly taking place in the Islamic world. A man plays a flute, naked, the image is looped, and we are immediately reminded of the torture rituals practiced by Americans in its recent wars. The nakedness, the effort of playing the instrument, the repetition, it’s all a for of torture to watch as well as to perform. 

Adel Abdessemed, Also Sprach Allah 2008

In one of the most disturbing videos, a piglet suckles a woman’s breast in a 30sec loop. As the pig’s snout gently sucks and massages, Lise, 2011 disturbs because it is all at once erotic, exotic and repulsive. It is erotic for obvious reasons, and only repulsive because of our social expectations that would have this kind of bestiality adjudged inacceptable. But the breast is also nurturing the pig, giving life and sustenance to the young animal. And so the image becomes exotic and charming as the human rescues, and gives life, to the baby animal. More than anything, it’s our responses to the image that make it disturbing, because after all, it is just a pig suckling a woman. A no less disturbing image is that of couples performing sex in a gallery. Here, the audience within the film applauds, reinforcing that it is a performance for the enjoyment of onlookers. The diegetic audience members are enthralled, smiling, giving a response that seems superficial, inappropriate, out of kilter with what they have just seen. The motivation for the couples’ performance is also underlined by the fact that there is no love, the men don’t have erections, the couples perform on cue, they make no secret of the fact that they simulate, not have, sex. It’s these uncertainties, the ambiguities and of course the break of certain taboos around sexuality that make this and the other videos in the exhibition, unsettling, even confrontational.

Adel Abdessemed, Lise, 2011

Lastly, this is the perfect exhibition for the industrial space of 315 sud. These spaces use the exposed air conditioning, and the exposed infrastructural scaffolding for which Richard Rodger’s Pompidou Centre is so famous. Abdessemed’s sculptures and video work particularly well in here because of they complement, and effectively extend, the harshness of the space. It is also a gallery that is both inside and outside. The floor to ceiling windows that surround three sides of the 315 sud look out to the harsh world of homelessness on the plaza. I visited Je suis Innocent as day turned into a cold, wet night, and the destruction and tragedy of history echoed in the works became one with the sometimes desperate world outsize on the plaza.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Nosferatu, after Bram Stoker's Dracula, Grzegorz Jarzyna

As a longtime fan of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922), and never forgetting the spell under which I fell on seeing Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu (1979) for the first time, together with the fact that I am a somewhat dilettantish follower of contemporary Polish dramaturgy, the anticipated appeal of Grzegorz Jarzyna’s Nosferatu was greater than the apparent inaccessibility of Nosferatu in Polish with French surtitles playing in the Odeon satellite theatre on the péripherique. And indeed it was worth every bit of the effort to get there and sit through it.
Renfield in his cage
The performance was spellbinding and in so many ways reminds of the relationship between the cinema and theatre as it thrived in Germany in the 1920s when Murnau made his silent film. Even though his Nosferatu is closer to Bram Stoker’s original with the inclusion of the secondary characters, Jarzyna makes multiple references to the narrative silent cinema of Murnau’s time. Which is to say, the performance was not necessarily cinematic, but it was in productive relationship with previous visual examples of Stoker’s book. Perhaps the most obvious and striking reference is in the use of the lighting to create multiple scenes on a single stage with a single set. As day turns into night, the steel cold light by which the vampire comes to life drenches the stage entrances and exits. And when daylight returns, the diffuse lighting that provides the stage for scientific and philosophical conversations softly illuminates the Harker’s living room and van Helsing’s office. The morgue, the cemetery, and the perspex cage at the front right of the stage that holds Renfield as he writhes in madness, eating his insects and nurturing his connection to the mysterious force, are likewise created as much by the sculpting of light as they are by the placement of the furniture (the same used in all other locations) and the positioning of the characters around it. This dramatic use of the lighting to command the mise-en-scène was also underscored by the fades to black at the end of each brief scene, as if we were indeed watching a silent film. Simultaneously, the scenes mirrored the epistolary form of Bram Stoker's original, but without that mode of address.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Jarzyna’s production, that which made it somewhat trancelike to watch, was the predominance of silence, movement without speech, a mysterious space carved in the air by sound effects that were often no more than hinted at. While the characters talked fast and animatedly when they spoke, there were many pauses and spaces in the conversation. When the women entered their illicit communication with the vampire, whole scenes passed without a sound being uttered. Into these spaces, even when physically absent, the vampire entered and overtook the house which was the stage carved in harsh blue light. And when his spell drove the characters wild, he breathed in the air between people in a room, stopping their conversations, or distending them so that everything adjusted to his presence. Again, Nosferatu himself was nowhere physically present. And so, while Murnau used shadows and editing techniques to convince us of Nosferatu’s curse (or seduction), Jarzyna uses light and a score that itself could have accompanied a silent film. When the vampire eventually arrives to dinner, we hear menacing winds blow through the trees, rats teeming the streets of the town outside, the threat of illness and death made visible through sound. The spell, the irrational, and the heightened arousal of Nosferatu crawl through the air, becoming visualized only when dry ice consumes the stage and envelops Lucy and Mina as they are charmed, impregnated, and violated by his apparent irresistible seduction.

Like the Herzog/Kinski vampire who, in one of the most poignant moments of postwar European cinema, reminds us that “the absence of love is the most abject pain” Jarzyna’s Nosferatu searches throughout the play, for love. Really, in the end, this is all he wants. And though he comes close — he has a similar kind of repulsive attraction to Kinski’s Nosferatu, even for us — his disease, his unsociable habits and undead-ness make it impossible. But our own desire for and identification with him makes his eventual disintegration in the daylight, anything but a happy ending.

Ultimately, Jarzyna demonstrates that Bram Stoker’s novel is as relevant to our contemporary world as it was to that of late-Victorian England. His staging of the story raises (as did Stoker's book at the turn of the 1900s) the most confrontational social issues, but within what for today is a non-confrontational narrative. The book, and Jarzyna’s staging of it extend between issues such as the power of female sexuality, through rape, adultery, AIDS, the danger of our innermost sexual and spiritual desires to make the spell of Nosferatu a challenging pleasure. 

All Images Courtesy of Théâtre de l'Odéon

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Imaginez L'Imaginaire, Palais de Tokyo

Exhibition View of "Les Dérives de l'Imaginaire," in Imaginez l'Imaginaire 
Ever since the Palais de Tokyo underwent its “renovation”, the exhibitions have become increasingly on the edge. On entry to the massive structure, the visitor is greeted with weird noises, what looks like industrial garbage hanging from the ceiling, graffitied walls and exposed air conditioning ducts. The (highly organized) disrepair of the space invites young people and students to sit around on the floor, sketch, talk, and enjoy the environment. It's a pleasurable place to be these days.

Ryan Gander, Ampersand, 2012
There was a lot going on when I visited last week, and though I didn’t really understand the cohering logic of the exhibition, Imaginez L’Imaginaire was a welcome addition to a Paris art scene that is often overtaken by conservative, more established artists, especially in the big museums. As I say, it seemed like a bunch of contemporary artists were brought together under one roof and given the global title of Imaginez L’Imaginaire. As a result the pieces were varying in quality, some of them inaccessible because of an absence of context, others because the technology wasn’t working and so they effectively didn’t exist! That said, there were a handful of interesting and challenging examples of contemporary art.

Matthew Buckingham, One Side of Broadway, 2005
British artist Ryan Gander’s, Ampersand, 2012 was one of the big crowd pleasers. An easy chair in front of an opening in the wall invited the visitor to sit in front of a “window” and watch useless objects move along a conveyor belt. I, like all the others who lined up to sit in the chair, was transfixed! The irony was of course, that we are transfixed by a drill, a zippo lighter, an old vacuum clearner, toilet paper, a baguette, leaves from a tree, a book. That is, we are transfixed and seduced by worthless objects that nevertheless look sexy and desirable because of their display and the enticing way they are lit. It reminded me of my visits to Duane Reade when I was recently in New York City – the mirrors, the lighting, the shine on the bottle that makes me think my life will be better if I buy that product. At the same time, as I sat watching nothing I was reminded of the empty, jetlagged stare at a conveyor belt as I wait for my luggage to be delivered after a long flight. The anticipation, the anxiety that what I am waiting for will not arrive, the seduction of the movement of the conveyor belt, all of it is caught in the window that tempts us with nothing in Ampersand.
Matthew Buckingham, One Side of Broadway, 2005
Another piece I would have loved to see more of, but wasn’t fully working the day I visited, was Matthew Buckingham’s One Side of Broadway, 2005. In the middle of the room 81 slides of the east side of contemporary  Broadway in wintertime, from Battery Park to Columbus Circle, are projected onto a triangular plinth. A speaker hanging from the ceiling emits a woman’s voice that describes the west side of Broadway in 1910 as it is seen in a series of photographs that were published in a book in 1910, Both Sides of Broadway. Even though I couldn’t see the projected images, there was so much going on that I was captivated by the story, and simultaneously, challenged to “imagine the imaginary”. Because the photographs in the book were made using the negative plates manufactured by the Lumières, the narration that accompanies Buckingham’s One Side of Broadway discusses the role of actuality films at the turn of the century, the desire to know the world in its entirety, the wonder of the cinema as the form of the new century. And so, Buckingham’s piece interweaves the stories  of cinema, photography, voice, the written word, the city of New York as a medium itself, into a reflection on the passing of time, the urge to know the world, the ephemerality of memory and the stimulation of the senses in that ephemerality.  

Dove Allouche, Déversoirs d'Orage 1-14, 2009
In a very different vein, was French artist Dove Allouche’s Déversoirs d’Orage 1-14, 2009 was compelling and complicated. He went into the mystical and mythological Paris sewers and followed the flow of the water along the storm spillways, taking photographs. He then printed them as heliogravures, a technique dating from the same time as the sewers were in full operational usage, used acid to corrode a copper plate and revealed images that lie somewhere between stormy seascapes and abstract compositions. Not only are the plates aesthetically sumptuous, but their exploration at the intersection of an old printing process and Paris’ subterranean labyrinth raises interesting revelations about worlds not immediately apparent to the human eye, and the distortions of their transposition to the surface. He’s certainly an artist to watch.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Edward Hopper, Grand Palais, Paris

Edward Hopper, Chop Suey, 1929

For me and every other art lover in Paris, this is the event of the season. When the publicity around the Edward Hopper exhibition began, I was curious as to why it would be so anticipated in France. All mystery was resolved in the first few rooms of this massive exhibition. What feels like an inordinate amount of space and energy is expended in the first rooms on putting Hopper’s idiosyncratic style into context. And the context given in the Grand Palais is, of course, the influence of Paris and French painting on Hopper’s entire career, aesthetic and painting style. This is apparently the argument being made for the visitor: that Hopper’s Paris years (1906-1910) were formative, that he was profoundly influenced by everyone from Pissaro to Degas and Courbet. While the connections may be credible, the imperative to contextualize made the exhibition too long. Convinced that Hopper’s paintings and his development as an artist can speak for themselves, this was my one misgiving about the exhibition. That said, the abundance of key Hopper paintings, as well as many lesser known, but no less provocative works, makes the exhibition a treat. 

Edward Hopper, Apartment Houses, 1923
Although he was clearly influenced by contemporary painting, no mention was made of what, to me, is the most obvious and longstanding influence on this oeuvre: the photographic image. The task set for the viewer of Hopper’s paintings is always to solve the mystery of the highly enigmatic scenes before us. There are a number of factors that make them enigmatic, one of which is the often impossible angles, cropped compositions, and distorted perspectives of the image. From the beginning of his career, Hopper crops the image, as though photographing a detail in closeup, unconcerned with what lies outside the frame of the image. And from the beginning — though this will become accentuated as his oeuvre develops — he paints scenes from a perspective that could never be seen with the naked eye. A painting such as Apartment Houses, 1923 has the appearance of a cinematic close up taken from a crane. Certainly, there is no other way to see inside the window to watch the woman at work.

Edward Hopper, House at Dusk, 1935

Another characteristic that makes Hopper’s paintings special — again very telling of the general fascination with the photographic and cinematic possibilities of vision in Hopper’s contemporary world — is the representations of space as ungraspable. As my friend James observed, over and over again, both these works depict claustrophobic interior spaces and exteriors that are also closing in on the human figure or the built environment. This, despite the fact that the exteriors often replicate the principles of a cinematic horizontal tracking shot. In a painting such as House at Dusk (1930), only the top right hand corner of a multiple storey building is shown to force its way out of the frame towards us. And even though the majority of the canvas is given over to the green trees and the hint of a setting sun, our attention is fully focused on the woman in the window. This tiny detail overtakes as the mystery of an otherwise (for Hopper) large canvas. I was also interested to see how, again and again, exteriors are used as interiors and interiors become exteriors, usually through the activities that take place inside.
Edward Hopper, Room in New York, 1932
The familiar refrain about Hopper’s figures is that they are isolated and lonely.  It is true that they are often alone in a space, and if and when there are a number of people, they don’t speak to each other. However, I am not convinced that all these figures are lonely: the women especially are often reading books, or caught in a private moment of reflection, staring out to space, often in a state of half undress. Alone, yes. Lonely, no. The woman is also the lynchpin for the enigma of these paintings as her presence, posture and costume nearly always leaves us asking “who is she?” “what just happened?” “What is her relationship to the man in the image if there is one?” “An image such as Room in New York, 1932 is typical. The man reads a newspaper, the woman turned around, deep in her own thoughts, gently plays a single note on the piano, as though she is not concerned with the sound, but is preoccupied by a conversation they just had. Does he refuse to continue the conversation? Or perhaps she is composing her thoughts before opening up a meaningful discussion with him? The perspective of the painting contributes, once again, to the mystery: it is as though we are looking in on a very intimate moment — and yet the windows are wide open. Is it a hot New York summer night? But then why is the man so impeccably dressed, his collar and tie fastened? Perhaps they are about to go out? But then, why would he be reading the newspaper? The endless questions that we ask of every single image are what make Hopper’s world so enticing, his figures both performing within their everyday world, and simultaneously, shut down and shut off in their own worlds, completely at peace and serenity. 
Edward Hopper, Morning Sun, 1952
There are copious images of theatres, but curiously, there is never a performance on the fragment of stage. And yet, everyday life is filled with the drama of what takes place between people, or what might have just take place, or might be about to take place. Even where there is one soul person, such as the gas attendant who is deeply etched on our imaginations, the paintings are about what takes place between people — the ones who might just have left the station, or the ones for whom he prepares. In the theatrical spaces, figures wait for a performance, or they read books at what might be the intermission — we are reminded of the Vermeer influence every time we see a woman reading, and especially when she is reading in the throw of light that forces its way through often non existent windows onto walls that are like screens for the throw of a cinematic image. Hopper is not interested in what happens on stages, not only because the drama is around him in daily life, but also because these are paintings whose real subject is not depicted within the frame. The something that has just happened or maybe is about to happen, the questions surrounding the state of dress or undress, the secrets we think we are privy to, none of this is shown in the paintings we see.
Edward Hopper, Gas, 1940
And all of this uncertainty, all of this ambiguity and avoidance of what is really taking place, the solitary figure weighed on by an impending sky, or a house on a hill on the verge of disrepair (but not quite there yet), all of these characteristics, repeated over and over again throughout his career, are the precursor for the horror movie in Technicolor. So even though Hopper is preoccupied by the same issues, and is exploring the same technique from the very beginning of his career, the expansiveness of his painting and the never ending questions, makes it a great oeuvre. And to its credit, the Grand Palais has very convincingly demonstrated the greatness with this huge exhibition.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Anselm Kiefer, Die Ungeborenen @ Thaddeus Ropac Paris-Pantin

Installation View, Thaddeas Ropac, Paris-Pantin
Two of Paris’ blue chip galleries have opened new spaces in the bandlieu this fall, and, apparently unbeknown to each other, both Gagosian and Thaddeus Ropac are inaugurating their new spaces with exhibitions of Anselm Kiefer’s vast canvases and sculptures. Because Thaddeus Ropac’s Pantin is easier to get to than Gagosian’s Le Bourget, the choice of which to visit first was made for me. I was not disappointed to find that this new space is definitely to be celebrated: it is expansive, filled with light, and enables an display of art that the cramped — or intimate, depending on how you want to think of them — spaces in the Marais can’t compete with.
Anselm Kiefer, Für Rabbi Löw, 2010-11

As further celebration, the new series of Kiefer works — new in that they are brought together here for the first time, but not necessarily created for the space — was profound and moving. The themes and aesthetic concerns of Die Ungeborenen are not new to Kiefer’s work, and those familiar with his oeuvre will know them well from his previous series. We will remember the steps made of lead books leading (or not)  to the sky on a canvas of ashen skies in the Heaven and Earth series. And the tragic and poignant remnants of children’s foreshortened lives have covered Kiefer’s canvases for decades. These, together with the shattered glass and rusted metals so typical of Kiefer’s works have, and continue to remind us of the weight of the Holocaust on contemporary history. And for Paris people, the dead sunflowers that nevertheless reach  toward re-birth are very familiar to us from, Hortus Conclusus 2007 permanently installed in the Louvre. What is rare and makes this exhibition welcome, is that in Paris it’s rare to see such a series of this many monumental Kiefer works under one vast roof.
Anselm Kiefer, Hummelsschlucht, 2011-12

As an example of the expansive works on display, Himmelsschlucht (2011-12) is heartwrenching. A stack of child-sized rusted and battered bed frames with lead pillows strewn on the springs is precariously placed on a cement “pedestal.” The beds are on wheels just as they would be in a hospital, or if they were there for the sick, and their placement one on top of another gives the idea they are no longer needed, that their one-time occupants are long gone. A notice, or label, in lead hangs from each frame, with chalk writing, awaiting erasure and the bed’s next occupant. Wires, like the string that might hold together a bundle of belongings on the back of a trolley, give the impression, or perhaps articulation of the intention to hold the bed frames together. In Kiefer’s works, childhood and sickness belong together, like life and death. The contradiction is always alive on his monumental paintings, in his sculptures.
Anselm Kiefer, from Die Ungeborenen

As always the works are as much about medieval mysticism, German history, literature and legend, as they are about Kiefer himself, and about the artistic process of an overbearingly male artist. In one sculpture, strips of what look like paper printed film grow like the ashen sunflowers out of an aging printing press and decaying typewriter. The images depict the concrete and iron towers of Merkaba, the seven heavenly palaces that Kiefer erected on his property in Barjac, the south of France. The “palaces” could be either in a state of incompletion or destruction – typical of the ambiguity and non-determinism of Kiefer’s work. But the point is, the repeated frames of his own work, and the reuse of certain motifs and objects such as the rocks that might weigh down the witches or imbalance the scales of justice, the space set up between images and words, things and images, as expressive of his own creative process, speak Kiefer’s self-obsession, his concern with his own development. Indeed, the shards of lead strewn across the floor of the Paris-Pantin gallery indicate the destruction that surrounds this creative process.

Anselm Kiefer, Die Ungeborenen (Niemandsrose), 2011
Beyond the references to his own artistic output, there are multiple literary, historical and mythical references that give the works and the exhibition a density that speaks the complexity and importance of Kiefer’s art. The piece that gives the exhibition its title — according to the catalogue — Die Ungeborenen (2011) is wonderful. The same piece is accompanied by writing on the wall Für Rabbi Löw, so I could be wrong about its title. On one tray of a scale is what we assume to be Sodium Chloride – due to the “NaCl” written on the underside of the tray – the salt of the earth, the abundance of nature — is the heavier substance. On the other, an “S” indicates that the yellow powder which is lighter, must be sulfur, the spiritual symbol for the human soul. Mercury is the balance itself – perhaps Kiefer’s favorite chemical element because it is fluid, unpredictable, deadly. The letters “Hg” are written on the bar that holds the scales: mercury is also the connection between the high and the low, responsible for the planet’s baleful influences. The title of the work would suggest it is, like the creatures waiting to be born, about the interstitial. The piece also makes reference to witches, their being weighed to determine their guilt. But if indeed the title is Für Rabbi Löw, then magic, science, alchemy, medicine, the horror movie (Rabbi Löw being the protagonist in Paul Wegener’s 1920 film, Der Golem), the Holocaust, and legend are all possible avenues of interpretation. The piece also makes reference to art history with the image of the Romantic stormy sea onto which this whole ambiguous and mercurial narrative is hung.
Anselm Kiefer, Die bösen Mütter, 2007

Everything in Kiefer’s world is grey, though the works in Die Ungeborenen introduce the copper green, the color of oxidization, of age, weathering, exposure to the elements, all of which intensify an agitated, tactile surface. In Die bösen Mütter, infinite lines of what appear to be graves, or a dead landscape of dense un-navigable mud and charcoaled wood gives substance to the doom of grey. And yet, there is always a horizon line, and even when it shows that land meets an apocalyptic grey sky, the line somehow holds the possibility of hope. On the horizon line of Die bösen Mütter is a trace, or perhaps a deliberate overpainting of red, a red that up close is like breath, fire and energy in a dead world. And the chairs, however long it is since they saw life, suspended in the grey sky, drift up to heaven.

When I asked the people at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac why the reproductions in the catalogue did not always correspond to the works on display, their answer was in keeping with the unpredictability of Kiefer’s otherwise Romantic worlds. Apparently, Kiefer kept changing the exhibition right up to the very last minute, changing his mind about what should be displayed. I wouldn’t be surprised if when I go again, I might actually be going to a different exhibition, retaining its perplexity and mercurial dimensions even in the context of display.

All Image courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac and the Artist