Monday, April 29, 2013

Un, Mani Soleymanlou au Théâtre du Chaillot

Un de Mani Soleymanlou
Because I book so far in advance, as I take my seat at the theater, the first thing I usually do is try to remember what prompted me to buy tickets for the performance I am about to see. But my motivation for seeing last night’s performance, Un, by Mani Soleymanlou was clear from the minute the lights went up on this one man show. Soleymanlou is an Iranian living in Montreal, a city he arrived at via Paris, Toronto, Ottawa. And his one man show is all about him: who is he? what is his identity? is it given by his passport? The traditions of the world he was born into? The one that educated him? The one he lives in? Growing up surrounded by my father’s collection of fine and not so fine Persian carpets, I have always been fascinated by Iran. And having been in motion all of my adult life, questions of home, exile, and whether the two have anything to do with the peripatetic motion of being a wanderer, are lifelong preoccupations. I knew why I had bought the ticket to Un.

In presentation, Soleymanlou’s performance reminded me of Spalding Grey’s Swimming to Cambodia — the images of which I still carry in my mind even though I saw it 30 years ago in an Adelaide Festival of Arts. Soleymanlou plays every part in his play, his story, of the young boy who left Téhéran, moved via France to Canada in exile from Iran of the Ayatollah to join the Iranian diaspora, and over the course of the one hour performance, the adult who goes back with his mother to “the homeland”. The story itself is somewhat standard: the exile searching for an identity, torn between lands, cultures, traditions, cuisines and of course, languages. Soleymanlou takes solace in other exiles, always yearning for a home he did not know, or one he has not yet found. Even though we have seen and read this story over and over again, the reality of his individual synthesis of the familiar questions, and his narration in different languages to create vivid images in the mind of the spectator, was convincing.

For Soleymanlou, the vast cultural richness, the dense political histories, the ancient traditions, the language, the cuisine, the beliefs of Iran, all of them have been caught in the crossfire, as he puts it, of the battle for oil. His picture of Iran is fascinating because it is taken from both inside and outside, neither here nor there, just like his expressions of what it means to be in the diasporic community in Canada. And perhaps the most impressive element of the show is Soleymanlou’s movement around the languages – English, French, Farsi, Arabic – between countries, between characters. As he shifts in and out of identities, the expectation is that an identity will reveal itself somewhere in the breaths that he nevertheless doesn’t allow himself to take.
Un de Mani Soleymanlou
People often tell me I am a nomad, and I once thought of myself as an exile: brought up in a culture in which there was no place for me. Over the years I have come to understand why I am neither. I am no exile because I chose to leave Australia, and to call myself nomadic would be to ignore my deep sense of attachment to home, and to the place from which I leave and to which I return at the end of my travels. The world has changed since I left Australia for a job on a cargo liner in 1986. If for no other reason than we live in a world where “international” is a valid response to what, for many of us, is that very complicated question: “where are you from?” After all these years, I still carry an Australian passport, I live in Paris, I work and pay taxes in the United Kingdom, and my intellectual work usually focuses on things German. So, like Soleymanlou, I live between languages, cultures, across geographical borders.

As I watched and listened to Soleymanlou, I saw and understood from a different perspective how different that sense of displacement is for each of us, depending not on where, but on how and why we left. Soleymanlou describes an emptiness, a sense of something missing, a solitude that must be filled, an emptiness given him by the country from which he was forced to leave. His emptiness and solitude are reflected in the fact that he sits on a stage surrounded by empty seats. He is both the actor and the spectator in his own life, a life in which there is ultimately, no filling in of the gaps. I don’t have that emptiness. I have a plenitude that is characterized by the richness of the world that I have chosen to inhabit, a world that gives me what Australia never could. And at the same time, I take Australia, it’s landscape, the sun, wherever I go. At least, that’s the lifelong search: to complement the international world I live in, I am always looking for places that rhyme with the memory of the world from which I began, but to which I no longer belong. I long to have that memory resound as it is mimicked by a somewhere else, in a different octave, on a different horizon. And that's the difference: for an exile like Soleymanlou, there is no image, no memory, no sound, because there is no land beneath his feet, from which to begin the search for an echo.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

David Claerbout, Kunsthalle Mainz

David Claerbout, Oil Workers (of the Shell Company of Nigeria)
returning home from work, caught in the torrential rain
In Mainz a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to enjoy a private viewing of the current exhibition of video works by Belgian artist David Claerbout. In their insistence on the power of time as a subject in and of itself for video, the works reminded me of those by Steve McQueen. But while I am always disappointed by McQueen’s exhibitions, Claerbout’s was innovative and provocative, especially as they interacted with the medium’s capacity to visualize time. Each of the handful of pieces in the exhibition presents as a series of still images, and then, over time, we recognize the slow unfolding of a narrative. Whereas in Steve McQueen’s films and videos the narratives are predictable and often looped, Claerbout’s are focused and goal oriented.

David Claerbout, Riverside, 2009
Each of the pieces in Mainz is, in some way, about isolation. In Riverside, 2009 a young man and a young woman on two adjacent screens appear to walk towards each other through a rugged landscape. However, they never meet in a single image. There are several moments when they almost meet, but they never do. The young man hurts his hand, he is bleeding, we want the woman to come to his rescue, she never does. Rather, each is left to inhabit his and her own reality, even when the other is always present in imagination, if only in our imagination, not theirs.

In Oil Workers (Of the Shell Company of Nigeria) returning home from work, caught in torrential rain (2013), a piece made specifically for the Kunsthalle Mainz, we approach the piece that takes up the whole of one wall, with colonialism on our minds. We feel sorry for the workers and assume, because they are in Nigeria working for a multinational company they must be poor. Poverty is, of course, the general disposition of workers in Nigeria. And yet, they are lined up, well-clothed, completely in control of the gaze throughout the length of the video. Their line of sight follows that of the camera and, by default, ours as the camera moves around them in slow motion. Simultaneously, the water flooding the street increasingly becomes the focus of the film images, creating a churning, a nausea in us as we, not the workers, lose our balance before the image.

David Claerbout, Arena, 2007
Water is everywhere in Claerbout’s videos: he is obsessed with water, reflections, isolation, separation. Water and the camera together, isolates us from them, the characters in the images. The people are isolated from each other, even when there is more than one in a frame. In Arena, 2007, even the spectators to the basketball game are isolated, usually because they are all looking directly at the camera. Their relationship is with us, looking directly into the camera, or rather, with the technology that films them, not with each other. They never speak to each other or interact in any way. This particular image is also soulless – the colours are glaring, the image highly saturated, making the people plastic, vulgar, brash, and their world uninviting.

David Claerbout, The Quiet Shore, 2011
In this piece in particular, we see Claerbout engage with different types of perception: looking at the camera, the camera looking at the subject, our awareness of our own placement as viewers, our ideological perception – of the Nigerian workers – the actual processes of looking. And the nausea we experience as we follow the camera around the water of the flood creates a physiological, corporealization of vision. While the effects he creates in Oil Workers (Of the Shell Company of Nigeria) returning home from work, caught in torrential rain are more transparent - the use of multiple different techniques at the same time to create a simultaneous pulling away and lateral movement that creates physical discomfort, there are other pieces such as The Quiet Shore that frustrate us because the logic of the piece is not revealed through looking. What looks at first like a narrative proves to be many stills taken of the same scene at the same moment but from different places around a beach in France. As we watch, we only ever see part of the piece: we think we are looking at photographs but we are not looking at photographs, and some shots appear to stay longer on the screen than others, perhaps this is an illusion. Similarly, we want to know how he has determined the placement of the people, especially because some reappear at apparently different places on the beach, but perhaps it is at a different time? Among other of its complex narratives, The Quiet Shore reflects the inadequacy of the human eye to the knowledge we seek in images. 

Copyright of All Images: David Claerbout

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Fragile. Murano. Musée Maillol

Jan Fabre,  Shitting Doves of Peace and Flying Rats, 2011

Included in the exhibition Fragile. Murano. Chefs-d’oeuvre de verre de la Renaissance au XXIe siècle at the Musée Maillol are works commissioned for Glasstress, a collateral event of the Venice biennale. For Glasstress, known contemporary artists who have no previous knowledge of working in the medium of glass are invited to create works in glass on the island of Murano and exhibit at the biennale. A selection of these pieces is the final room of this exhibition of exquisite glass at Musée Maillol. I struggled to find a way into the glass from previous centuries. Yes, I could look at it and think it was beautiful, yes I could see the intricate lines where the glass had been engraved with diamonds, the swirling marble effects of melted glass that is coloured the whole way through, the exquisite details and extravagance yet simultaneous fragility of pieces made for rich families from the 17th, even the 19th century. But the installations I loved the most were the contemporary ones because I was able to see how the glass is used in very creative ways, how the material is pushed in all directions, not just literally, but for its contradictions and multiple meanings.
Javier Perez, Carrona, 2011

Among the contemporary pieces are Javier Pérez’ Carrona, 2011, Jan Fabre’s Shitting Doves of Peace and Flying Rats, 2011, and Shen Yuan’s 2008 piece Poïkilotherme. Pérez’ Carrona, 2011 is terrifying. A blood red chandelier has fallen, or more likely, was forced to the ground by the ravens who devour it as if it was their prey. Little imagination is needed for us to see that the crows have turned the glass chandelier into a carcass. They are like vultures feeding on glass, its intense red dripping from their hungry beaks. Standing before the piece with the self assured crows, heads held high, satiated by their meal of glass, it feels like the end of the world. Pérez pushes at the boundaries and conventions of glass, both as it is and as we imagine it to be. The glass of Carrona is fragile, but it is blood red, viscous, its sharp edges pouring out of the beaks of hungry predators. The crows are like vultures, feeding on a substance that is surely dangerous for their digestive systems.

Javier Perez, Carrona, 2011
Poïkilotherme is glass of a different kind: it is an enormous glass thermometer sturdy, heavy, industrial in thickness and resilience. The piece must be about the human body, about temperature, about water, movement, life. A goldfish swims inside, demanding that the thermometer be left open to allow him to breathe. But Poïkilotherme is also about death: if we see the red glass of Carrona shattered by the crows, here we imagine the liquid of a thermometer that is not yet broken as deadly. The fish is not meant to survive on the liquid of a thermomenter even though it is "poïkilothermous". Because this liquidby rights, should be mercury. And if the glass is cracked, even turned on its side to allow the liquid out, we will be dead. Thus, the sleek, stalwart glass object evokes life as well as danger, even as we watch the goldfish happily swimming around inside.
Shen Yuan, Poïkilotherme, 2008
Doves are rats are not meant to be made of glass. They are not meant to be in this crystal, luminous substance. And yet, as Jan Farbre insists, they are meant to sit on shelves, ledges, as pests, taking over the spaces not designated as theirs. In Shitting Doves of Peace and Flying Rats, a row of doves and rats sit proudly on the shelf, once again, completely satisfied having eaten a bird, the remains of its carcass splayed open on the ledge. And as their title suggests, as we expect them to do, they have happily been shitting their meal. It drips, in glass, off the shelf. Once again, what makes Farbre’s piece fascinating is that these organic forms and process of nature are completely contradicted by an installation that sees them in glass. Furthermore, their form and their secretion is so vivid that I imagined, for a moment, that their pungent smell was wafting towards me as I turned the corner to see them on their ledge.

Jan Fabre,  Shitting Doves of Peace and Flying Rats, 2011
Other than the contemporary works, because I have continued to think about the colourful extravagant pieces from earlier centuries, I want to sing the praises of this exhibition. My one reservation, however, is that on the day I went, the museum was overflowing with four to five deep visitors of another generation. In principle, this is not a problem, but it did make for uncomfortable viewing experiences as Anne and I vied with very loud audio guides, pushing and shoving, not very relevant conversations, and slow progression from display to display. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

De l'Allemagne, 1800-1939. De Friedrich à Beckmann au Louvre

Carl Gustav Carus, The High Mountain, 1824

The blurb for the De L’Allemagne, 1800-1939 exhibition at the Louvre claims to place the great German Romantic and neo-Romantic artists into the context of German thought in its midst. It’s a big claim, especially given the vast German literature and philosophy from the post-Enlightenment period. Not to mention the music of Mozart, Beethoven, and later the Romantic composers of Brahms, all of whom influenced the culture that surrounded the great Romantic art. While the exhibition includes some of Goethe’s sketches and models for his colour theory, a theory that may have influenced painters’ palettes, it was not among his most influential thoughts of the time. He was a lot more influential as a thinker than as a visual artist, but the colour theory is the only philosophy on display here. Perhaps I am expecting too much for an exhibition, but it is curious to see an exhibition which is not consistent with what it claims.

Ernst Ferdinand Oeline, The Cathedral in Winter, 1821
More realistically, the exhibition traces a certain lineage through German 19th century painting, namely that which feeds the narrative of the triumph of the human spirit over scientific rationalism, and particularly, that spirit as it is envisioned and imagined through nature. And of course, the exhibition traces the German search for national identity as it is played out in painting. This trajectory of the exhibition is made perfectly clear by the final rooms in which we see the destruction of all that is believed in  with the advent of war as it is so violently and abrasively depicted in the work of, for example, Otto Dix, Georg Grosz, Lovis Corinth.
Carl Blechen, Cathedral in Ruins, 1826
The uncertainty of what the exhibition is aside, there are some amazing paintings that are so rarely seen together. There is a room devoted entirely to cathedrals. The Gothic cathedral in Germany is of course the home of its painters and writers fascination with light and lighting. And it was in the depiction of cathedrals that German Romantic painters began to explore the possibilities of colour and light as a medium in and of itself. In Carl Blechen’s Cathedral in Ruins, 1826 the structure of the cathedral completely overwhelms the image such that we are inside of it, caught in the sinuous undergrowth that has overtaken the ruins. And yet, when we lift our eyes through the arches, the light of day is promised as a way out of this quagmire. In Ernst Ferdinand Oeline's, The Cathedral in Winter, 1821 we find the ancestor to Lyonel Feininger’s geometrically abstract structures of luminous colour. Inside Oeline’s cathedral, the light is so powerful a fire could be raging, diminishing the human figure who approaches it, lost in the cold reveries of his thoughts. These gothic cathedrals are fully secularized and made metaphorical in German painting of the 19th century. The structure and the light that emanates from it, or inside it comes to capture everything that characterizes the period of post-Enlightenment in Germany. The gothic Cathedral has a breadth and openness, with its elongated windows ensuring that the power of the church opens out onto the world around it. The windows, the light, the invitation to enter these churches is the 19th century articulation of unity between church and the village that surrounds it.
Caspar David Friedrich, Morning Mist in the Mountains, 1808
The greatest joy of the exhibition is a wall of small paintings by Casper David Friedrich, paintings that are rarely shown together, in a room devoted to the Ideology of landscape. Seeing these paintings is a special moment in any lifetime, and seeing them together comes only once in a generation. The paintings are fascinating on so many levels. They are cold, chillingly so, even when the sky is red. Painted always to represent the nebulous moment of night turning into day, or day turning into night, the heat of the day is gone, or not yet arrived. And yet, the paintings themselves are on fire, they are so luminous. Standing on the other side of the room in which they are hung at the Louvre, paintings such as The Tree of Crows c. 1822 or Morning Mist in the Mountains, 1808 could be mistaken as being placed in front of light boxes. These tiny paintings glow with the brightest light. Seeing Friedrich’s work in this context is also enlightening, as I was able to appreciate how exceptional he was as a painter. Friedrich leads us to a place where we stand on the edge of the world, the edge of time, enticing us into what can only be described as a mystical experience where we are completely united with nature. And yet, these landscapes are also at the end of the earth, filled with ruins, shells of buildings, long vacated. The ruins sit in the centre of the painting, the moon illuminating the sky even though it is hidden behind a cloud, creating the most magnificent lighting. And yet, in spite of the shining light, if there is a man made structure in any of Friedrich's paintings it is typically impossible to reach.

Caspar David Friedrich, Tree of Crows, 1822
Indeed, it’s the ambiguity that makes Friedrich's paintings seductive. They are mysterious, nebulous, cold and simultaneously, on fire. There is no sense of directness or clarity to anything Friedrich paints, and yet, everything is held in perfect balance. Even though the ones on view in the exhibition are not the most famous Friedrich paintings, seeing them together leaves absolutely no doubt as to why he has influenced generations of painters, artistic movements, even art of different media, in Germany and elsewhere.

Georg Grosz, The Lovesick Man, 1918
I was curious about the selection of twentieth century works, both in the sense of those artists who were chosen and those who were not. I loved the George Grosz paintings, The Suicide, 1918, or The Lovesick Man, 1918, not only as paintings, but also because they are the exhibition’s telos, they are where Germany ends up as World War I descends. While the past century was spent searching for an identity, everything falls apart in an instant with the outbreak of war. Together Grosz, Beckman, Corinth, Dix demonstrate that Germany is covered in blood. Looking at these works, I am reminded of something I know very well, but can never get over when I see it brought to life, in the flesh. Namely, that these works are being painted at the exact same time as Piet Mondrian is painting his abstract compositions not that far away, in the Netherlands. And I am reminded of the German responsibility, even imperative, to represent politics in the search for its expressions of modernism. The word modernist is nowhere mentioned in this final room, but what makes German painting of this period so extraordinary is that it not only captures the destruction and self-violation of Germany both as it was in World War I and as it will arrive in World War II. But these painters simultaneously took on the responsibility of representing their world, and made major contributions to the development of an international modernism. This is just one instance of the multi-dimensionality of German art that is left out of De l'Allemagne, 1800-1939.