Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Omer Fast, Present Continuous, @ Jeu de Paume

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012-2015, video HD, colour
I am always reluctant to applaud unreservedly the work of contemporary artists. It goes against the scholar in me who needs to be dry, measured and cautious in my approach to art. However, I will indulge this time because Omer Fast has to be one of the most brilliant young moving image makers working today. His current exhibition at the Jeu de Paume is masterful. I spent a long time upstairs at the Halsman exhibition, not realizing the Fast images were so long, so I only got to see one piece, Continuity, 2012-2015, 77 mins. But I am definitely going back for a repeat viewing of these pearls of audiovisual wisdom.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012-2015
Continuity touches on every major issue on the table: war, violence, death, teenage doping, drug pushing, murder, incest, homosexuality, terrorism, and there may be others. The film covers every major politically charged topic of conversation in circulation today. However, what makes it brilliant is not what it engages in representation, but how. Most masterful is the film’s editing. It follows the continuity logic, but across the cut changes characters, or places the same characters in discontinuous settings, or finds their behavior discontinuous with our expectations as they have been set up by the film thus far. Thus, it gives the impression of continuous narrative flow, it also plays with our sense of or our desire to have closure and explanation of what is going on, but we get none if it. We are constantly left frustrated, floundering as we attempt to navigate our way through the narrative in the way that the constant protagonists--a middle-aged, middle-class couple--navigate their way through the trauma of losing their son in Afghanistan.
Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012-2015
 It was only when I read the blurb on the film that I was actually able to make this sense of the narrative. We see different sons, at war, we see different sons returning, we see a very young son in civilian daily life buying drugs with stolen money. We see young soldiers in a homoerotic relationship, presumably one of which is the sone. Each fragmented vision bleeds into the next through conventional editing techniques and because of the techniques we think -- because this is how we are accustomed to read the logic of Hollywood film -- that there is a cause and effect logic. But 
there is not.

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012-2015
The images are shocking, not only those that depict the violence of war, but images that show the subtle abuse of the father, the incest of the mother.  The mother reaches under the covers of the sleeping boy’s body, her hand moving slowly towards his crotch, the father kisses another one on the mouth, and another son, he aggressively makes him take out his tongue piercing, And when the three meet at dinner, the tensions begin to boil. 

Omer Fast, Continuity, 2012-2015
Continuity also asks how on earth we can begin to integrate the experiences of violence and trauma into our daily lives. Whether it be of war, of the death of a loved one, of the incongruity of murder, both on the homefront and the battlefield. We experience these extreme situations, in which there is no connection to daily life and yet, we have to connect to the experiences if we are to make sense of them, to live with them as humans in a world that we are compelled to hand on intact to the next generation. It’s not only the war in Afghanistan, but Fast’s own Israel, and all the other places where war in its multi-dimensions is experienced today. For Fast, these wars are only a breath away from incest, drugs, stealing. In Continuity, the repressed desires that get expressed in violent actions at home and at war are coming from the same place, all mixed up with nowhere to go.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Splendour and Misery: Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910 @ Musée d'Orsay

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Edouard Manet, Bal masqué à l'Opéra, 1873

I am still digesting the Splendour and Misery exhibition at the Musée d’Orsay. I don’t know whether to celebrate or commiserate its staging as one of the major exhibitions in Paris this fall. In the first text panel on entry into the exhibition, there is a very bold pronouncement of how surprising it is that men were the ones to paint images of prostitutes in the period (1850-1910). This lack of self-consciousness is indicative of the entire exhibition. Of course, it is only men who painted prostitutes because the kind of paintings the Musée d’Orsay exhibits are all made by men: paintings that demonstrate the coincidence of the rise of prostitution and high modernism. But then, I wonder why I was so surprised, because experimental, amateur and private images made by women in the late 19th century are not going to bring in tourist euros.
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Louis Anquétin, Femme sur les Champs Elysée la nuit, 1889-93 

For all the paintings by French fathers of modernism, there were some interesting photographs and behind closed curtains, some glorious daguerrotypes and early films depicting and advertising sex. These images, like many of the paintings by Musée d’Orsay favorites--Manet, Degas, Forain, Béraud, and Anquetin--were provocative and interesting for many reasons, few of which were raised by the exhibition. In spite of its title and publicity, the exhibition is staged as a history of the rise of prostitution in France.  Thus, paintings and some photographs are used to document the life of prostitutes “in the modern age.” In the couple of rooms that draw attention to the coincidence of technological modernity and prostitution, the paintings are posed as documents of historical events going on outside of painting. Thus, Louis Anquétin’s Femme sur les Champs Elysée la nuit and other paintings in the L’Heure du Gaz room, show that prostitution flourished at night under city street lights. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - At the Moulin Rouge - Google Art Project.jpg
Henri Toulouse Lautrec, Au Moulin Rouge, 1892-95
Little is said of the complexity of representation found in significant paintings that critique this world. For example, Manet’s Bal masqué à l’Opéra documents the habit of poorer women to find prospective husbands and benefactors at the opera. Manet’s painting is an exquisite representation of class and gender visualized across space, in gesture, costume and in framing, as well as brushtroke and the sweep of the crowd in the composition. All of the replication of the commodification of sex and female sexuality for sale by the complex transformation of Manet’s modernist canvas is lost in an exhibition that prefers to titillate than understand modernist art.

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Louis Béraud, L'Attente, vers 1885
Also troubling about the exhibition is its framing of women as victims of modernity, suffering the social transformations that brought the commodification of sex and men’s desire to exploit women’s bodies for pleasure. Modernity is also about pleasure having an expression or needing to be expressed. What’s missing altogether is any appreciation, let alone, understanding of the different ways that the male artist represented the prostitute. Béraud’s placement of the faceless woman in L’Attente, vers 1885, as an object to be looked at by the spectator as well as the man in the painting is given the exact same status of historical document as Manet’s Irma Brunner, 1880. Manet’s portrait is painted with a face, in profile, given a dignity and an identity equal to that of a noblewoman. And Manet’s empathy for La Prune, 1875 in sumptuous pink, in closeup, bored, beautiful but trapped and framed by the devices around her gives her an identity, a personality and a fate, that is not solely dependent on the men who might be watching her. Looking and who looks at who, or how the woman is positioned within the frame is so different from painting to painting. However, this is completely effaced by an exhibition that is interested in using paintings to tell a story.
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Edouard Manet, La Prune, 1878
Even without going into the theoretical issues of vision and visuality that went hand in hand with prostitution and the transformation to representation in modernity, there are other elements of the paintings that are glossed over. The changing definitions of portraiture that see Toulouse Lautrec’s images of women turned away from him and the viewer, the portraiture of everyday people, how prostitution was also all about performance and parading of sexuality -- going hand in hand with costumes, shopping, the changing identity of men in modern society, questions of spectacle, disconnection, all of which are articulated through looks as well as dress, makeup, lights, performance. These levels of complexity are not foregrounded by the exhibition

Of course, it’s always a treat to see so many great paintings on display in one space. And there are many in this exhibition brought from all over the world. However, in direct proportion to the apparent liberation and equality of women apparently intended by the museum, there is also a persistent oppression and devaluation of women. Of course, we can’t do anything about what painters and photographers in the late-nineteenth century saw on their streets, or how they saw it, but surely we are compelled to educate the next generation of women of the prejudices they face on a daily basis? An exhibition that uses paintings of prostitution to tell a story from the perspective of the men who wrote it--but not always the painters who painted it--does not take responsibility for that education.

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, trans. Charlotte Collins, Picador, 2014

The blurb on the back of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life likens Andreas Egger to John Williams’ Stoner, but he’s completely different. Stoner is an extremely depressing book because the title character is a victim in every sense of the word. Stoner is at the mercy of an academic system that has no care for intellectual values and commitment to his students. He is bullied by the colleague who self-promotes and politics his way to the role of department chair. Stoner marries the wrong woman, and having grown up in a small town in Ohio, he adopts middle-American morality that keeps him tied to her for life. And he doesn’t have the social ability to confront, or better, escape his oppressor. He may not be integrated into the university, but he is in it, a part of that world, and he cannot get away from his circumstances. Stoner is trapped. Andreas Egger in A Whole Life is not.

We all fall in love with Andreas Egger because he is joyous and expresses wonder at the world. Stoner is perhaps a little too close to my own life for comfort, so I find him depressing. By contrast, there’s a part of me wants to be Egger. No matter how brutal and unfair the world into which he is born, Egger has in him a love of life, a habit of looking out into the universe and seeing its magic. Even as he is violently beaten by a step father, or sent to the farthest outpost of a Russian POW camp in an environment that makes the climatic conditions in the Austrian Alps of his hometown seem tropical by comparison, he finds solace and welcomes acceptance of his situation. Likewise, Andreas Egger doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of him. Egger never suffers for the sake of social mores, and he certainly doesn’t adhere to any conventions. Egger is the best worker hired by the company who builds the first cable car on the mountain, he toils in the fields, has calluses and scars all over his hands, his gammy leg is like a piece of wood he carries around with him for a lifetime, he is put in a box by the Russians, but he doesn’t really care what others think of him. The experience that lasts the longest in his mind is one of the shortest in his life: his love for Marie, a young woman who works at the local pub. And through all this, he has very little money, usually one pair of pants and at most a cup and a plate as his worldly possessions. As a young man he buys a plot of land that is so high up the mountain vegetation can’t grow. It is lost not long after he buys it by an avalanche that also kills his beloved Marie and their child. But Egger thinks “things had not gone so badly after all.”

We fall in love with Egger for the expanse of his heart and his mind, even though he leaves the village only twice in his life: once to go to war and the second time on a bus at the end of his life, just for the sake of leaving. The vastness of the universe through Andreas Egger’s eyes is shown in his understanding and harmony with the natural environment. He can bear the ice cold because it is as if he has always been out in the cold, he can toil for hours because he has a sense of self to match, and when he looks to the stars at the end of a day, he thinks that life is filled with infinite possibility. The promise is in the stars.

There are some magical moments in Egger’s life. As is often the case with a character who doesn’t leave his small community, wonder comes to him. A worker loses an arm that he must bury, a man’s body is preserved in ice for forty years, and when the body reappears it is like a freak in a sideshow. The coming of television is exquisitely handled by Seethaler. In the middle of his violent stepfather’s funeral, Egger hears a child’s laughter.

“One of the windows was ajar and flickering brightly. The landlord’s little son was sitting in the room in front of an enormous television set, his face right up against the screen. The reflection of the images danced across his forehead; he was clutching the antenna with one hand and slapping his thighs with the other as he laughed. He was laughing to hard that through the curtain of rain Egger could make out the glistening drops of spittle spraying against the box.”

He thinks about stopping, but quietly decides to continue the procession. When Egger proposes to Marie, he organizes for her name to be written in fire across the mountain that is his home. In one of the most tender and yet tense moments in the book, Egger comes face to face with a Red Army soldier.  The two soldiers, in the snow, no one and nothing else between them, their mutual respect and simultaneous disinterest in each other reveals the triumph of human nature over war. There is no question of what to do with the enemy; they let each other live.

Lastly, given my blog about the joys of spare writing, it’s worth saying that this is a novel of 148 pages that sees the unfolding of an entire lifetime. And it’s a lifetime that is full and rich, complicated by heartbreak and persecution, as much as by love and joy. I read the book in English, so I say with some reservation, that the economy of language is the necessary mirror for Andreas Eger’s reluctance to speak. One of the people he meets on his journey tells Egger that those who talk don’t listen. And it's as though this book asks us to listen, just for a brief time, to its wisdom.