Monday, December 29, 2014

Silvered Water, Syria Self Portrait, dir. Wiam Bedirxan, Ossama Mohammed, 2014

Omar with the flowers he finds on his walk through Homs
I have not been able to stop thinking about Silvered Water, Syria Self-Portrait. The film was reviewed and received maximum stars in the cultural columns of all the major press here in France. It’s when I see a film like this in a commercial cinema on Friday night that I am happy to live in Paris. I can’t even begin to imagine the film being screened, let alone applauded by the mainstream press in the UK the US, or any other economy-based country. Film festivals yes, commercial release, I doubt it. What is effectively an experimental film that shows the unspeakable horrors committed by government forces during the Syrian Civil War in 2012 should, however, be compulsory viewing.

Ossama Mohammed, living in exile in Paris (no doubt the reason for the film’s feature at Cannes and commercial distribution in France) has put together a feature length film compiled of fragments posted on the internet, amateur footage made with cell phones, apparently by 1001 Syrians. Prominent among the fragments is the footage of Wiam Simav Bedirxan who, through the course of the film, and presumably the course of Ossama Mohammed’s making of the film, becomes its co-director. Bedirxan is a school teacher in Homs and to capture atrocity and the ravage of the war at first hand, all she needs to do is go to school for the day. It is everywhere. The bombed out rubble through which she and the children walk aside, the sights are of a hell on earth. Animals with their faces blown out, children lying splayed on the street, blood covering what little skin is left for the camera to see.

As if these images were not horrifying enough, perhaps the most disquieting are those that open the film and are repeated throughout: a baby being dismembered, a naked man being beaten, an unidentifiable object penetrating his anus. This and other fragments of footage must have been shot by dissenting soldiers from within President Bashar al-Assad’s army. How else could a camera have witnessed these acts of torture? As an anonymous voice is heard imploring an equally unknown and otherwise invisible enemy: why would they want to kill their own people? That’s why what Silvered Water shows is as, if not more, devastating than the horrific images that came out of Bosnia 20 years ago. The Syrian civil war was the army of a dictatorship against its own people. There's no ethnic cleansing here.

What makes the footage and the film experimental is that everything is seen through the eye of a hidden camera. It has to be. Mohammed is haunted by the death of a young man who stole his camera, a death we see in full. As Mohammed says on the narration, for the Syrian government, a camera is equivalent to a gun. This is perhaps the only, and most convincing example of Paul Virilio’s otherwise all too easy equation. When a camera has the power to show the world what the government is doing to its people, the camera and anyone behind it must be eradicated, uncompromisingly disposed of. And for this reason, there is no choice but to hide the cameras. Even the dissident footage of internal rebellion is grainy, showing shaky camera movements, constantly broken up images, events and atrocities never filmed in their entirety. The events are always cut short, if not by the guns of the unrelenting army, by the inability of the camera to finish what it had started out to film.

As the film progresses Bedirxan and her footage become increasingly prominent. She adopts a child, a young boy, Omar, who though he appears adorable to us, has been deemed  a blasphemer by the aggressors. His father was killed by forces, and he has been left an orphan by this treacherous state of affairs. As he walks through Homs with Bedirxan he collects odd bits and pieces that, like any child would, he considers to be treasures. He does not flinch or even turn around as bombs go off all around him, he knows where the snipers are hidden, and when it comes time to walk down a street he knows is littered with snipers, he shows Bedirxan how to pass and leads the way. The boy must be no more than five or six years old. And all we can think is: this is his future, this hell on earth in which finding a flower alive, or leaves on a tree are nothing short of a miracle.

This is an extraordinarily powerful, if deeply disturbing—visually, emotionally and intellectually— film. For some years now, the space and logistics of warfare have changed thanks to people’s access to its representation. Since the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine in 2004, participants and spectators have become instrumental in these dramas because of their easy access to the production of images. The result, as it is witnessed by the many image makers of Silvered Water is the chaos and slaughter that are the reality of a twenty-first battlefield.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Olafur Eliasson: Contact & the Foundation Louis Vuitton

In a world in which culture is the esprit de vie there is always room for another art gallery, and Paris’s most recent addition is spectacular. A Frank Gehry designed composition of glass, Perspex, steel, light and water sits on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne and surprises at every turn. As can often be the case with Gehry’s buildings, the galleries housed on three of the five floors of a building that echoes the natural environment that surrounds it, are overwhelmed by the architecture. Inside the building, where inside is often confused with outside, visitors are invited to move constantly, exploring the structural surprises and secrets.

Similar to a first visit to Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Gehry’s addition to the Paris museumscape privileges architectural form over comfort and ease of viewing contemporary art. And so, visitors can expect to be constantly distracted by the building, as its walls end short of expectation, bend and slant at inconvenient angles and hit by a wave of cold air, we look upwards rather than at the art on the walls. That said, the display of the works is minimal with a few well-chosen examples given ample space to breathe. Works by a number of artists of the moment—Tacita Dean, Ed Watkins, Sigmar Polke—and others by older, more canonical artists—Ellsworth Kelly, Alberto Giacommetti—are placed sparingly.

Olafur Eliasson’s Contact, the inaugural exhibition commissioned for the occasion consumes a space called the grotto that, although below ground level, could not be more open and filled with light. Eliasson’s manipulations of space, light, mirrors that distort the visual field are compelling. As he intends, some make us nauseous, others are dizzying, disorienting us as we become confused by the absence of distinction between reality and its reflection. Eliasson’s installations are technically brilliant, and I kept wondering “how does he do that?” But before such benign questions can be answered, I found myself going through tunnels, walking along the curvature of blackened out rooms, losing my step and being deceived by my own mirror image.  

Much as I enjoyed the spectacle of the inaugural exhibition at Paris’ latest cultural mecca, I also came away wondering if Eliasson’s was just another sideshow, albeit one more sophisticated in design than those distracting shoppers on the Champs Elysees? The tour through the exhibition was like a fun park with mirrors and rides and unusual experiences to be had by all. Kids of all ages loved it! There is no doubt that Elisasson’s inventions are clever, mathematically, scientifically, even aesthetically. And they do succeed in immersing the viewer in a sometimes radically new environment. Nevertheless, even if they draw on other media and other moments in those media, there’s not enough of an exploration or historical influence to think that he is actually saying anything with these references.

Mark Lewis, Interventon au Louvre

Mark Lewis au Louvre
Mark Lewis, Invention au Louvre, 2014
Much as I am an admirer of Mark Lewis’ work, this exhibition of four short films he made at and for the Louvre is disappointing. It’s almost impossible not to come away wondering what it would have been like if more care had been taken in the exhibition of the films. Screened on continuous loop in a room at the end of the medieval moat in the Sully wing, the viewing conditions are less than ideal. The room is not fully blackened, and worse, the light from the open entrance to the space shines across the image.
Mark Lewis, Invention au Louvre, 2014

These particular examples of Lewis’ works create a shifting play of light and shadow around icons from the Louvre collection to make the treasures dance across constantly moving images. In addition, one thing I love about Lewis’ work is the nausea and sense of disorientation, the destabilization they invoke in the viewer. The ideal viewing position to create this effect would place us consumed by the images, in the main auditorium at the Louvre, for example, or another comparable cinematic space. Three wooden benches are placed in the middle of the room, and as people come and go, or even use the space as a thoroughfare, it’s extremely difficult to enjoy an uninterrupted experience of the films.

Lewis is the next in line to use the Louvre collections as inspiration for his own art. He selects The Blessed Ranieri Frees the Poor from a Prison in Florence by Giovanni Sassetta, Child with a Spinning Top, by Chardin, and the gallery of the Venus de Milo as his subject matter. The camera becomes a viewer –it looks up, around, distractedly moving, always, just like our eyes do. The camera confronts crowds of tourists, lost in their reveries as they visit the Louvre, tired. Watching the behavior of the tourists is as interesting for the camera as the Sassetta and the Chardin. We see visitors stand back from the camera, to allow it to pass. In marked distinction from the delegates who disembark the Staten Island Ferry in the Lumières film, the tourists at the Louvre remain discrete – they know what a camera does, and they assume it doesn’t want them in its viewfinder.

Mark Lewis, Night Gallery, 2014
Lewis’ camera reproduces our vision, travelling, finding a painting, stopping and then wandering around the surface of the painting, looking at it from different angles, as though we will, somehow, see inside of it. Technically, Lewis’ films are seductive, people move in slow motion, the camera is moving at the pace of a person wandering through the Louvre. To achieve this effect, Lewis has invented one of his characteristic maneouvres that must move forward and pull back at the same time.
Mark Lewis, The Pyramid, 2014
My favorite of the films was that in the hall belonging to the Venus de Milo. The camera encircles her, examining the ceiling as much as it does her, again the environment of her display is as much to be wondered at as the ancient piece. In a fourth film, The Pyramid, Lewis’ camera watches, upside down, the people walking across and underneath one of the Louvre’s most famous attractions: pyramid. The shadows are mesmerizing, sensuous, and even in their distortions, it is as though their shadows were made by and for the cinema. If only this true magic of this short film of 8 minutes and 18 seconds were able to be witnessed through better viewing conditions.

The publication that accompanies the exhibition is inventive and well worth the 20€. In fact, in some ways it’s more provocative and more interesting than the films themselves because it can be read, at leisure, and the images can be viewed as they are meant to be. For the publication, Lewis has chosen still images from films that have influenced him, to create a montage of fascinating and suggestive connections. Perhaps the most provocative of all connections are those Lewis makes to the silent cinema, particularly, the Lumières films of the Eiffel Tower, Murnau’s Last Laugh, and others that explore the phenomena of modernity that were so much a part of the context that defined the cinema’s history.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Markus Lüpertz, Promenade, 1963-2014 @ Suzanne Tarasieve Paris

Markus Lüpertz, Promenade, Exhibition View
For an exhibition filled with disformed, disabled figures, all of whom have been violated, their limbs torn off, their genitals erased, I found Promenade  to be a curious choice of title. None of these figures were going anywhere in a hurry, and most of them don’t even try to move. In keeping with their classical inspiration, they are more comfortable in a posture of repose, always standing tall, despite their dismemberment and disability. They are the figures of an anonymous war, in an anonymous space, bearing witness to the vagaries of another world. On approaching Suzanne Tarasieve’s tiny Marais Gallery, one of Lüpertz’s figures stands at the window, ultimately, contemplating its own reflection, removed from the busy Christmas shoppers who fill the streets outside. The figure was haunting.

Markus Lüpertz, Figure at the window Suzanne Tarasieve, Paris

I wondered what an artist so closely associated with Cold War, divided Germany and post-war torn Europe would be doing today. How would Lüpertz respond to a world that is so fundamentally different from the one we knew in the 20th century? The one in which he came of age as an artist? And even though we are meant to see Lüpertz as unique, an individual abstract artist, doing something so radically different from those around him, I was reminded, from beginning to end, of the postwar German neo-Expressionist artists, particularly, the works of Georg Baselitz onexhibition a couple of years ago at the Musée d’art Moderne.

Markus Lüpertz
That said, Lüpertz works in plaster, Baselitz in wood, where Baselitz’s figures are pronounced and proud, but inwardly reflective, Lüpertz’s figures are in the vein of their classical forebearers, giving away little emotion. And I noticed very quickly, there were no women here at Susanne Tarasieve’s gallery, just men, mythical, oversized, deformed, crippled men. Similarly, although they are violated in their own individual ways, quite different from Baselitz’s chiseled bodies, each of Lüpertz’s figures has a history, it’s just that we don’t know what it is, where or when it might have taken place. There is a longing a nostalgia, a sadness that we come to perceive, particularly, as we spend more time with each tortured figure.

markus lupertz centaure 2014
Markus Lüpertz, Centaure, 2014

Many of the figures have metal rods, rusted nails, broken stakes, and shrapnel flung through what remains of their limbs. They are warriors, having fought a war that we know nothing of. They are alone, but give the impression that they are content in their loneliness – because they are the descendants of sculptural perfection, masculine superiority, after Dionysos,  Hercules, Orpheous. But as much as they are warriors, they are mythical figures, not real humans, they are without genitals, with imperfect bodies and blown off faces. They are like an ode to every solider who has lost his body on the battlefield, and been given a traumatized identity in exchange.

"Rückenakt", Michael Werner Kunsthandel
Markus Lüpertz, Ruckenakt, 2004
The most striking thing about the figures in the paintings that surround the sculpted warriors is that their backs are always turned to us. They are not looking, as if to retain their integrity at the other side of their trauma. Like the sculpted figures, the painted ones may descend from greek mythological figures, but they don’t belong in any of the categories that are usually given to sculptural, or painted representations of gods: they are all at once historical and mythical, tribal and from antiquity, they are deformed giants and classical figures, always referring to Germany’s tortured past, and yet, telling a story that belongs to everyone on an intimate level.