Saturday, April 23, 2016

Why is everyone so mean to Greece?

View From the Vlatadon Monastery

As I have walked around Thessaloniki this weekend, I kept wondering why is it that the countries with the friendliest, most hospitable people, great weather, great food, and joie de vivre are always victimized by countries that have none of the above to offer? As the Thessaloniki locals showed me smiling faces and every kindness, I couldn't help thinking how unfair it is that their salaries have been cut, their quality of life compromised, and their fiscal problems escalated because of EU policy making. Of course, I know that decisions are politically driven and Greece doesn't have the economic leeway to retaliate, but there's more to a country than the money it makes.
Byzantine Mosaics in Church of Gregorios Palamas

While finances determine the difference between the good and the bad in Europe, if cultural heritage was valued, Greece would be the most respected member of the European Union. As I stood inside the chapel of the Vlatadon Monastery, which includes stones from the place where it is said that Paul preached to the Thessalonians, the monks around me busying themselves for a service, the mosaics sparkling as the late afternoon sun streamed in, I couldn't help thinking of the European Union's blindness. Surrounded by the traces of the beginning of civilisation in the monastery, I was appalled at the treatment of Greece. How could the decision makers not go out of their way to make sure that these treasures for all of human kind are preserved and kept alive for the generations to come?
View from Starbucks
I spent my tourist time in Thessaloniki looking in churches, and mostly marvelling at the mosaics. And when I tired of being dumbfounded at the European Union's punishment of Greece, I was fascinated by the behavior of the people before the icons. People entered the church, walked swiftly around the church, stopping to kiss icons. But not all. They chose specific saints, for reasons which I am not religious enough to know. All of the icons are placed in kissing reach, at head height, quite in contrast to the raised altarpieces and frescoes of the Catholic churches all around Europe. The physical touching of the gold leaf of the icons is not only accepted, but expected. Again, I was thinking all the time of the elaborate constructions put in place in Catholic churches to separate people from the objects of veneration. All of these barriers are indicative, somehow, of the openness and ease of the Greek culture. The people do not stand for hours in adoration of images, distantly looking at the holy, they actually move to touch them. I should add, they don't actually kiss the icons, but rather, make the gesture towards them, always apparently at the hands.
Monastery of Vlatadon

And outside in the streets and on the squares, I noticed the communal use of public spaces. Everywhere I went, there are many and large public benches for people to sit and relax together. Like the churches, public space is used to come freely together, with no roping off, no guards patrolling the grass (I am thinking of the Jardins de Luxembourg here in Paris). Similarly in churches, there were no guards, chairs placed all around, in every nook and cranny, encouraging people to come into the church, be quiet, or not. I sensed a culture of freedom that may be poorer than everywhere else in Europe, but as a tourist for a weekend, it was certainly easier to be there. Irrespective of the economic climate, in Thessaloniki, the locals maintain their embrace of life, their warmth for each other, the importance of being social, their generosity of spirit. Long live Greece.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Richard Serra, Ramble Drawings @ Gagosian Gallery Paris

Richard Serra, Ramble Drawings, Exhibition Installation @ Gagoian Gallery
This exhibition has been getting five stars around town, which surprises me. I wonder if it’s the Richard Serra factor, or is that critics believe these drawings are at the forefront of contemporary art. Don’t get me wrong, I loved them, but Serra’s drawings are not easy viewing, and their meanings are not immediately obvious. His abstract art requires a large degree of understanding to access.
Richard Serra - Ramble Drawings
Richard Serra, Ramble 4-16, 2015

On a superficial level, on entering Gagosian’s Paris gallery, visitors will be struck by the green that shimmers across the drawings mounted in rows. This optical effect of the lighting gives the impression that lime green powder has been spread over black crayon in some of the drawings. However, their composition in lithocrayon, paintstick and black pastel powder defies all possibility that the green exists. As I wandered around the gallery I then experienced a persistence of vision carried into the frames of those without colour. A wave begins to move from frame to frame. The lighting in the two downstairs galleries is quite different, the main gallery exposed to the light coming through the sky light, while the light in the first gallery is muted by curtains. This, together with the individuality of each image, means that each otherwise black crayon on paper drawing behaves like a unique work of art. Each is a different size, a different texture, a different resonance across the paper, and each reacts differently with its environment. Therefore, the impression, that might actually be an indication, is that each drawing is not rigidly structured, but that chance in the process of production has been key to the final product. These first reactions reminded me of the familiar Serra motivation to have his viewer question the space that she occupies, a questioning that takes place in the challenge to vision and the way that vision constructs space in the gallery. After learning that the green was not in the image, I started to question other aspects of my vision.

Richard Serra, Ramble 4-23, 2015
Given how much of Serra’s art is about the process, I was disappointed that the gallery flyer gave no information on what is one of, if not the, key moment of these drawings. Serra has always been interested in the objectness and self-referentiality of his art works, and the drawings are no different. For Serra, as we know from the steel sculptures, matter is the source and motivation of the works. Each work begins with the hand made paper -- accounting for its individual texture, size and finish. Similarly the fact that each is in black is also key to how the RAMBLE DRAWINGS here presented make meaning. Black is the non-color, the only color that refers to itself. Up close we see that the black crayon brings out the thick texture of the paper, so it becomes an interaction between the two. That I then see a lime green powder, on some, but not all, therefore immediately sparks curiosity.
Richard Serra, Ramble 3-53, 2015

The process as I understand it is one of lithography. Serra presses the crayon between two sheets of paper over a steel plate. The result of the pressed crayon on the sheets will determine which will be thrown away. Serra never knows in advance which sheet will be jettisoned. So this element of randomness in the process underlines the “ramble” in the title of the exhibition. Perhaps. The addition of the powder and further modification is dependent on the image produced. Again, the process could be said to express the aleatory of the title.
Richard Serra’s giant steel work Ramble.
Richard Serra, Ramble, 2014 
All this said, the title of the drawings reminds me that there is nothing random or aleatory about them. Their title surely casts them as relations to the enormous steel sculpture installed in Gagosian’s London gallery a couple of years ago, Ramble. The steel slabs arranged in rows, the size of each one different from the next are, typical of Serra, designed to give the impression of chance and randomness, where in fact they are carefully and consciously placed. With Serra everything is precise and thought out in advance, even if there are strains of not knowing in their performance, their reception by a viewer in motion in space. And so, we must assume that Ramble Drawings are likewise measured and methodical, though of course, it is not for us to find their logic and reason.
Richard Serra, Ramble 4-26, 2015

The drawings are sensuous, emotional, expressive, and even if they are not using a paintbrush, we feel the presence of the body, the artist’s body in their production. The hands that are so important in his early work, become felt in the weight of the crayon, or its absence on the paper in the final product. However, we do well to remember that Ramble Drawings work within an oeuvre that has engaged a set of issues over the past 50 years. Irrespective of their medium, the drawings continue that, very practiced, and constantly changing, Serra discourse on form, matter, space, light and vision.  

All images courtesy of Gagosian Gallery