Thursday, April 30, 2015

Mark Lewis, Above and Below, @ Le Bal

Mark Lewis, Above and Below the Minhocao, 2014
Being so underwhelmed by the recent installation of Lewis’ films at the Louvre, I was relieved to see that the in situ installation of some of his new works at Le Bal in the 17th arrondissment was done with more care and respect for the integrity of the films. For all the reasons the film installations did not work at the Louvre, Above and Below does. At Le Bal, the 35mm and HD works are exhibited in spaces where people can uninterruptedly watch them in comfort, see the clarity of the image, and experience their physical response. The interest in Lewis’ films is often the physical experience of watching a camera very slowly moving across and around a space uninterruptedly, creating a smooth path through impossible angles and perspectives. Most often, we experience nausea, dizziness, the unsettling experience of being taken on a journey only to end up back where it began, and having to ask, how did I get here? And in order to have this experience, the projection and viewing conditions need to be very precisely observed.
Mark Lewis, Hendon FC, 2009
While Lewis is known to work with and manipulate the materials of film, often engaging with histories of visual representation, these on exhibition at Le Bal seemed like a shift into more political territory than others that I have seen previously. Above and Below the Minhocao, 2014, the work that gives the exhibition its title, is a complex and detailed film that demonstrates this venture into the political. The moving bird’s eye views of the great auto route in Sao Paulo on a weekend afternoon is unsettling simply because of the absence of cars and the odd sense of decay and nostalgia, emphasized by the late afternoon sun. With the traffic nowhere to be seen and the long lazy shadows of bikers and runners, enjoying the freedom to run and bike along this uninterrupted stretch of highway, the contradictions are everywhere in tension along this monument to modernity. Apparently, 80,000 cars traverse the Minhocao per day, but in Lewis’ film, there are none. Below the overpass, the streets are old and worn, the houses not so up to date, there’s a tiredness and a sense of the forgotten about this apparent revolutionary structure. Lewis’ familiar slow motion tracking and focus pulling from an airborne camera underlines the laziness of the day: the camera takes us nowhere, it becomes as langorous as the people out enjoying the last vestiges of sun.
Mark Lewis, Forte, 2010
Like Forte,2010, also on exhibition here, Hendon FC, 2009, is also disorienting. A camera takes us around an abandoned football ground taken over by Roma Gypsies.  The film is unsettling because the camera ends up sweeping through the overgrown grass and we become lost, with it, in the overgrowth. This, even as the film is also a mapping of the space and the daily lives lived there by the Roma families.
Mark Lewis, Cold Morning, 2009
Another work that forces a discomfort of a different kind is Cold morning (2009). Through a fixed camera, a homeless person whose face we never see organizes his or her clothes and other possessions on the street. The figure meticulously works across the 8 minute film next to an underground steam hole while the odd figure passes by, two pigeons watch for a while. What is most striking about the person’s actions is how strong the identification is: the ordering and reordering of possessions is something I find myself doing, everyday. Cold Morning speaks to the circularity of life, the mindless routines and rituals we engage in, rituals that are the great equalizer among us. This is the preservation of life that we are all involved in, and this makes the images unsettling: it is as if the camera is turned on us as the subjects of this film.

Lastly, Le Bal is one of a number of interesting spaces recently opened in Paris that have taken over disused spaces for the exhibition of art. It’s a great place to visit as not only do they have great exhibitions and talks, there’s an excellent bookstore and of course, because it’s Paris, a café.

All images courtesy Mark Lewis Studio

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Taryn Simon, Rear Views @ Jeu de Paume

Taryn Simon, Cutaways, 2012. Single Channel Video. 3 minutes, dimensions variables.<br><br>Courtesy of the artist © 2014 Taryn Simon
Taryn Simon, Cutaways, 2012
“The photograph is just another place from which to observe” Taryn Simon

What then is Taryn Simon observing? And what for her is the photograph? Or rather, what kind of photographs are Simon’s images observing? And what is observed in those her images observe? The answers to Simon’s complicated body of work are equally complex and, at times, elusive. While these images come close to our most articulate examples of images as a political weapon, they are also much more, and much less, than that. It’s difficult to place Simon’s work because there’s something in them that is not yet resolved. I shall try to put my finger on what that something is.

Larry Mayes
Taryn Simon, Larry Mayes. The Innocents. 2002
In the most compelling series in this current exhibition, Simon photographs and films The Innocents, men who have been wrongly accused of violent crimes and served a big chunk of their often lifetime sentences. When all evidence shows the men are innocent, and yet, the police still don’t have a conviction, Simon argues, photography comes to be used against the suspect most likely to be indictable. Through a series of false moves, a photograph is shown that will convince the victim to identify the innocent in a lineup, and the lie is fully fabricated, there is no turning back. Simon points to a use of photography that runs counter to all we have come to know it to be, to do and to argue: she reveals photography’s ability to blur evidence, truth and create a memory for victims looking to identify and punish perpetrators.

Taryn Simon, Calvin Washington. The Innocents. 2002
Simon then takes the accused “back” to the scene of the crime, a place or location they have never been before, and there she takes a photograph that creates a memory they (and we) did not have. She too uses photography to fabricate evidence. In her talking heads documentary of the same “innocents” they explain the trajectory to their imprisonment, life inside and the compromise to their freedom as a result of a wrongful conviction. What’s so powerful about this series and other of Simon’s photographic work is that she might be the only artist working at the intersection of text and image that leads to getting men off death row. I say “might” because Simon’s photographs and film don’t go that far. This is the “something” that I found frustrating about her work. I wanted the resolution of an otherwise motivated narrative: to effect a political change. While Simon is clearly making visible what is ordinarily kept from view, she still works within the boundaries of art, not politics. The photographs are indeed aesthetically pleasing, even gorgeous. The slickness and beauty of the photographs are somehow surprising as one might expect her to make images that are more cutting edge. That she doesn’t, takes the edge off the frightening subject matter of inmates convicted and serving time for crimes they did not commit. Similarly, there is no visual or textual context for these people’s lives. Who were they before their conviction? What led them to be caught in a line up in the first place? Why are the police keeping mug shots of their faces? Are they guilty of other, smaller crimes? This taking out of context is the prerogative of the artist, and no doubt is Simon's point. However, I was frustrated by the questions left unanswered.
Taryn Simon, Contraband, 2010
In other series, she archives, catalogues, to creates memories, rather than to hold onto or preserve memories as is the usual purpose of these practices. Simon spent 48 hours in the contraband room at JFK airport and photographed the enormous amount of confiscated and abandoned goods. Everything from guns and class A drugs and steroids to apples, pirate DVDs and fake Louis Vuitton bags are photographed and displayed in Contraband. She photographs the goods as an archive, arranging objects for display, again, making them look beautiful, artistic, appealing. Unlike The Innocents, these photographs also have an evidential/ documentary aspect to them that makes us look at them as a record of what is not allowed into the country, and we remark on the absurdity of US customs. Again, the objects are taken out of all context, shot naked against a white background, making me wonder who they belonged to, why they are forbidden.

Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011
In another series about invisibility, about what cannot be seen, what will never be seen, what cannot be seen, even by the photograph, she photographs the bloodlines of a Nazi criminal, victims of Bosnian genocide, India in A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII. In the every day people including cute children, with everyday jobs and everyday lives we look for the sadistic power of the Nazi ancestor, or the inherited trauma of the Bosnian victim. Of course we can’t see them, even the photograph does not reveal the bloodlines, even as Simon has archived them and displayed their connections. In the middle panel of each bloodline she places text that explains the images, and on the right, what she calls a footnote, with various related images. It’s a fascinating work because everything is created in the connections, in the archive that Simon creates, even as nothing can be seen, known or made certain.

Taryn Simon, A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I-XVIII, 2011Detail, V

Simon’s complicated and very sophisticated conceptual body of work challenges our longstanding beliefs as it zooms in on the absences, the secret chambers that the security of governments and nation states are built on. I think because very little of it comes as a surprise, I found myself waiting for Simon to go further. I kept wanting her to do more than observe, that is, to show me a photograph as a place from which to act. That said, i can't be sure that this is not the response she is looking for through her photography: a spectator motivated to want more.

All images courtesy Taryn Simon

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Lumière! Le cinéma inventé @ Grand Palais

Auguste et Louis Lumière en 1895
when the cinema was invented
I am always wary of exhibitions that feature  light sensitive films in a museum space. Films made to be projected in a darkened movie theatre, seen by a seated, stationary audience just don’t translate to projections on white walls or monitors in fully lit galleries. That said, after teaching silent and experimental film on DVD with poor projection facilities for a whole semester I could have sat for hours in the reconstructed theatre of the Grand Café watching the 15 minute program from that auspicious December night in 1895. I didn’t care about the gaudy décor, I was entranced by the experience of watching the real deal, 35mm film being projected. The grain of the worn image, the clarity of the light, the sound the projector in the background, none of it can be replaced by video, digital or computer generated images. I am lucky to have access to many places in Paris where I can see silent film projected, but I wonder how many of the visitors to this exhibition will have seen such wonders on screen? Unexpectedly, this is one of the great treats of the Lumières exhibition now on display at the Grand Palais.
The first film, workers leaving the factory, 1895
This comprehensive exhibition of the Lumières inventions is all but the transplant of the Lyon museum to the Grand Palais in Paris. The rooms are filled with treasures – images, inventions, apparatuses, documents and historical information on their technological developments of which the cinema is just the beginning. In the factory, they made the cameras for still images, the glass plates, the processing dyes, and all manner of cameras, apparatuses and other technologies. In addition to the display of their inventions, all of the extant Lumières films are exhibited in some way throughout the exhibition, whether on interactive touch screens, in video installations or in the Grand Café replica. The invented technologies themselves are very beautiful objects. Made of wood and brass and glass, with handles and lenses that can be seen and many times touc
hed, they are fascinating to see in motion.
Repas familial Lumière en 1910 à la Ciotat (avec Louis Lumière
Plaque Autochrome Lumière
My favourite part of the exhibition were the colour photographs. I had no idea that the Lumières extended their skills to colour photographs. Of course I didn’t because this was thirty years before the techniques were developed by others. And the resultant photographs are absolutely gorgeous. The light in an image such as La neige à Chamonix, a winter landscape at day’s end is varied and crystal clear, with the shadows of the wintry trees cast long and atmospherically across the pink coloured snow. The image captures a sensitivity that is marveled at in photographs made 30 years later. Other examples, such as Ciel d’orage are extremely painterly, with the swelling clouds given three dimensionality by the clarity of the blue sky, and Repas familial Lumière, en 1910 with its dappled sunlight and bourgeoise lunching party is all but a repetition of Renoir’s most famous painting, Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1876). Equally as surprising was that the colours were fast and had not degraded as did so many images from these early periods. Like so many of the Lumières inventions, these exquisite images were way ahead of their time.

The Lumières kept inventing way beyond the capacity of the world to keep up with them. Even when there was no audience for their images, they were inventing them, even when the technology had not or could not yet be developped, the Lumières were there with a solution. It was astounding to see their inventions of panorama, real 360 degree moving images. And then they also invented 3D well before the capacity of technology to produce the ideas. As inventors, the Lumière brothers did so much more than invent the moving images, and anyone who thinks they know all there is to know about the Lumières will still enjoy seeing the cinema in the context of this vast body of work.

All images courtesy Institut Lumière

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Bruce Nauman, Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain

It’s always with a dose of apprehension that I go to see an exhibition of the work of an artist who has a reputation made and confirmed in a past historical and cultural moment. What could Bruce Nauman be doing today that will continue to push at the boundaries of possibility as he tested them in the 1970s? And how will he live up to the billing he has been given at one of Paris’s most seductive spaces for the exhibition of contemporary art? These were the skeptical questions in my thoughts as I approached the Bruce Nauman exhibition at the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain.

Bruce Nauman, Pencil Shift/Mr Rogers, 2013

On entry to Jean Nouvel’s modernist—or is it post modernist?— glass building on Boulevard Raspail, the view is consumed with Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers (2013). A short pencil sharpened at two ends is held between two sharpened pencils by the artist in his studio. A diptych, two giant LED screens, one with a blank white background, the other with Nauman’s studio desk, show the “pencil lift” images on an asynchronous loop. The moment I liked best was on the right screen, when we saw the passing presence of the Mr Rogers of the title. Nauman’s cat walks across the table, each paw seemingly weightless as it is nonchanantly placed on a CD and a pile of papers on his path. Mr Rogers’ presence is the heart of an otherwise manual and intellectual exercise, though I didn’t really see the conceptual point of the actions.

In the smaller ground level space there was an audio piece—For Children/Pour Les Enfants— a sound installation in the genre of Nauman work that was so radical in the 1970s, but today lacks a little lustre. The words, “for the children” and “pour les enfants” are endlessly repeated, eventually creating an auditory illusion. I was reminded through experiencing this piece, how words for Nauman never communicate in the conventional way, language is always made into a kind of misinformation that then carries the theme.

Installation View of Bruce Nauman 
The three installations downstairs had none of the playfulness of Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers. On the contrary, Carousel (Stainless Steel Version), 1988 is one of the most terrifying artworks I have seen in a long time. Taxidermy cast sculptures of fragmented body parts of deer, lynxes and coyotes are dragged around the floor by wires around their necks that are, in turn, tied to a complex carousel-type structure. The piece is frightening because the animals are screaming silently, unable to audibly cry out against the injustice that has been committed against them. The sound of their paws gently sweeping the floor as they are dragged around, makes their utter powerlessness confront us, especially as we think of Mr Rogers gentle poise as he walks across the table upstairs.

“Carousel (Stainless steel version)” (1988) (detail)
Bruce Nauman, Carousel (Stainless steel version)" , 1988 detail
The brutally tortured animals share the space with another equally violent installation from 1991. The head of the classically trained singer Rinde Eckert is projected three times, once upside down, and on six monitors stacked on the floor to create a circle of heads. He repeats “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology” “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” and “Feed Me, Help Me, Eat Me, Hurt Me” with the volume turned up so high that the gallery guard was wearing headphones. The voice is aggressive and violent, giving the visitor a headache from the dissonance when standing in the middle of the circle. And just when the voices trail off and we think it is going to stop, they begin again. It’s not possible to sit with it for any length of time. Because Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) is so confrontational – it pushes the aesthetic beyond its limit. I felt trapped, violated almost, in its presence. At the same time, if we do stay with it we begin to hear the music as, once again, repetition leads to an auditory illusion and the words become lost in the din.

Ultimately, the frightening, violent works in the downstairs galleries from the Nauman archive, so to speak, are still the most powerful works of the exhibition. Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers is visually striking and rhymes with the glass walls of the Nouvel designed space, but I am not convinced that he is doing anything conceptually that would come close to the challenges of Carousel and Anthro/Socio downstairs. What I also found interesting was the human element of the earlier works, what they evoke in the viewer. In distinction to the cuteness of  Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers, the downstairs pieces evoke substantial feelings, and a visceral experience.