Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Beat Generation @ Centre Pompidou

Bruce Baillie, Castro Street, 1966
The real joy of this exhibition, and in my mind, the main reason to go, are the rarely screened films. The exhibition includes lots of photographs of Kerouac, Ginsburg, Burroughs, Corso and all sorts of other characters, there’s the original typescript of On the Road laid out down the centre of the first rooms, a handful of Burroughs machines, a sampling of Frank’s The Americans, and other treats. But it’s the opportunity to see, for example, two of Bruce Conner’s never screened films, Looking for Mushrooms (1962) and Crossroads (1976) that make the exhibition exciting. Even films that are available such as Bruce Baillie’s Castro Street are so rarely screened, and it’s a treat to see them in large format. Even if they are shown on DVD, as opposed to projected, they are absorbing viewing. I also loved the anonymous footage of Vietnam War protests in New York City for its examples of early video. The colour is unlike anything we would see today. And films by Christopher MacLean, Burroughs, Bruce Baillie make great viewing.

Beat Generation exhibition view
Kerouac's On the Road laid out in the middle

I also have to admit that even though I loved seeing these films, many of them are not Beat Generation films. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie’s Pull My Daisy (1959), and the collaborations made with Antony Balch for The Cut Ups (1966), and maybe a couple of others can be seen as Beat films-including Ron Rice’s Chumlum (1964) and other films, and Harry Smith’s great experiments-- but many of the others screening in Gallery One are not. The late 50s and early 60s was an incredibly furtive moment in American filmmaking, so there were lots of filmmakers and artists making films at the time, experimenting with the medium, doing wild and wacky things. But Stan Brakhage, Bruce Baillie and Bruce Conner for example are not Beat filmmakers.
Kerouac Paraphernalia ... is this really that interesting?
Which leads to what for me was the biggest problem with the exhibition. It uses images of all kinds—photos, films, paintings, graphic art, drawings as documents to exhibit social and cultural and political beliefs. There is no attention to the artistic value of some of these documents. The whole point of the Beat Generation was that they challenged the social and political domain through experimentation in form and aesthetic of their chosen media. Moreover, for the filmmakers such as Smith and Rice, they weren’t just tripping out on drugs and making their experience into films, but their films contain a highly sophisticated philosophy regarding around the use of experimental film (as opposed to other media). The critical ways that these artists manipulated form and aesthetic is completely lost in this exhibition. Similarly, the exquisite use of the camera by Robert Frank in The Americans or even by Burroughs in his never-exhibited photographs is completely lost here. These guys changed art in a way that Duchamp had forty years before them, and because there is no discussion of the aesthetic, there’s no way of knowing the influence and impact they had.
Unknown Photographer, Burroughs in the Villa Mouniria Garden, Tangiers. 
I am always irritated by these exhibitions at the Centre Pompidou because of the conventional mainstream vision they offer of a movement such as the Beat Generation. A visitor to this exhibition could well come away with the belief that there were no women, at all, working in this time. From what the exhibition tells us, if women existed in this world, they did so as accessories to the men’s genius. The only relationships that are given significance as having a formative influence on the writers and artists are their gay male lovers. There were in fact a whole host of women who were producing and collaborating and inspiring these works, but they are not shown here.
Harry Smith

Lastly, the all-over-the-place nature of the exhibition really dilutes the power of what the Beats were doing. Rather than going for the all out summer exhibition bonanza, I would have liked something that was more sensitive to the relationship between all these different movements, art works, artists, art forms and a much more nuanced placement of the movement vis-à-vis political and historical events. It is true that footage of the Vietnam War, for example, is gorgeous, and yes, it’s going on at the same time as the Beats develop their ideas and work, but more information on their actual engagement with it would have been more satisfying the events as something like background scenery.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Josef Sudek, Le Monde à ma Fenêtre @ Jeu de Paume

Josef Sudek, La dernière Rose, 1956
If Hadjithomas and Joreige’s Two Suns in a Sunset is about shedding light on the trauma of living in a war zone, the Josef Sudek photographs in Le monde à ma Fenêtre, downstairs at the Jeu de Paume rest in the darkness. The tone of these images is bleak. They are very beautiful and somehow reveal a hidden serenity and spirit behind the windows and doors that had to remain closed during the difficult years of Prague’s twentieth century. The condensation collecting on Sudek’s studio window in photograph after photograph, year after year, is very much the theme of the exhibition. It is an exhibition that shows how this Chekoslavakian man hid from the dark presence of history. He repeats the veil behind which he hides in the form of condensation on windows before dark, melancholic gardens and streets.  Standing this side of the photograph, inside his room, we feel safe in Sudek’s world.
Josef Sudek, La Fenêtre de mon Atelier, very 1940-1948
An alternative approach to Sudek’s images is to understand their representation of something that cannot be touched. Whether it is the divine light that falls through the window of Winceslas Cathedral, emotions of sadness, the melancholy or other states of being such as comfort, warmth or the security sequestered behind windows in dimly lit rooms, we often sense we are looking at precious and delicate objects in the image that show emotions and spiritual states that have no physicality.
Josef Sudek, Sans Titre (Nature Morte sur le rebord de la fenêtre), 1951
There is incredible melancholia infusing the objects. Empty chairs show they have clearly been occupied in the not too distant past. The objects that accompanied the sitter lie by their side. The head of a statue, wrapped and bound in string also tells of the destruction that occurred at some point to an ancient relic. The emptiness of the chair resonates with the cindered dead trees that are the result of industrialization in photographs from the 1950s. They are all images soaked in a nostalgia for the time before, for the pre-industrial, for the natural landscape of a bucolic life. This nostalgia and sadness also comes through the emptiness of landscapes, this idea of a vanished world, a world that we never see. We might see the results of the destruction, but never the events themselves. What we see in the photographs is also the result of Sudek’s carbon process printing which retains the darkness of black or sepia in the pigmented gelatin. 
Josef Sudek, Dans le Jardin, 1954-1959
Darkness prevails in a world that we assume is Sudek’s technology, but it has also to be his vision. The heartbreaking loss which permeates these images is his. It must be because we meet with it over and over again, throughout the oeuvre. The Royal Garden in Prague for example would /could be life giving for a different photographer. Here for Sudek, the garden is the stage for a funeral march. What I saw everywhere in these photographs, even when they were not taken in the war years and even though we never saw Germans, was the darkness and death of Nazi occupied Prague. And we see the devastation that Nazism has on individual lives. The way that it shaped destinies and identities. The world outside Sudek’s window has been reduced to a shadow, where buildings and streets are desolate, ethereal. There is no escape from the darkness, this is how he sees.
Josef Sudek, Labyrinthe de verre, vers 1968-1972

In the final years of his life it seems as though Sudek had a renewed energy. The still lives of the 1950s onwards, the post-Nazi years are just that, still lives. Ordinary everyday objects are transformed into shapes, forms, densities, patterns, repetitions, surface textures, reflections, tones, again rendered immaterial through Sudek’s viewfinder. And then in the very final works on display at the Jeu de Paume, such as Glass Labyrinth (1968-72) glass is transformed from a material into something that can be seen through, something that reflects (like the windows) and changes the world seen on its other side. The intimacy, mystery and delicacy of his world continues until the very end, as it can be found through his camera. However, the vision becomes more complicated, multifarious and although filled with more light and hope, the spaces it creates are just as closed.

All Images courtesy Jeu de Paume

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Eugen Gabritschevsky @ La Maison Rouge

Eugene Gabritschevsky, Untitled, 1947
I know very little about Art Brut, other than that it is usually identified as being outside the trends and movements of the professional market. It is also meant to possess a purity and an innocence that derives from the isolation of its artist: people in prison, with mental health disabilities, and those who have “never grown up.” This imprisonment of the artist is what isolates him or her and gives the work a purity and freedom from the forces of culture that weigh on the socially integrated as opposed to excluded. And as I wandered through the more than 250 works of art by Eugen Gabritschevsky at the Maison Rouge, I was convinced that today, this man’s art would probably not be Art Brut. Hospitalized at 39 years of age with schizophrenia, and thus imprisoned by his own mind, he was effectively locked up for the rest of his life. In France today, he would be treated differently, and given a place within a community. As a result, I imagine his art would have looked very different. So given all this, I wonder if this genre of Art Brut is in fact a historical phenomenon?

See original image
Eugen Gabritschevsky, Untitled, 
The Maison Rouge exhibits Gabritschevsky’s work thematically as opposed to chronologically. This is somewhat disappointing because although similar themes and motifs preoccupy Gabritschevsky across forty years, other critics have noted the transformation of the work together with the deterioration of his health. This is not visible in the current exhibition because of the thematic organization. The thematic organization also underlines repetition. It is then only a small step to looking for the obsessions and fixations that lead to his label as a mad man. I kept looking for the the wisdom in the madness, but I was no doubt looking in the wrong places. A different organization of the work might make for a very different response.

Eugene Gabritschevsky, Untitled, 1947
It is a body of work that is very close to nature -- the understanding of the emotions and movements and rhythms of nature is keen. The works are consistently and repeatedly filled with dramatic evil forces, storms brewing and at times in full force. When scenes unfold, they often do so in what might be an underwater setting, where things are unpredictable and uncertain. Or perhaps the scene in the painting is being washed over by a tidal wave. Figures also proliferate: there are animals and ghosts and ghouls, humans, fairies, devils, Christ and a whole host of other unidentifiable creatures. It’s as if Gabritschevsky sees creatures that we don’t, as if he finds life and meaning in the monsters and malformed beings that live in his painted worlds, often either alone or made anonymous through their substance as one of a crowd.

Eugen Gabritschevsky, Untitled, 1942
The images themselves are usually flat, played out on the horizontal surface of the paper or  cardboard, composed without depth. And as a result, we never get a sense of any human emotion. For example, the human and non-human figures are never connected, they are isolated even when they are in a crowd. They can be precise, motivated by raw energy and uncontained, but they never relate to the world around them.

What I loved most about the abundance of works, in addition to the child like innocence, and the fact that everything is always in a perpetual state of transformation, is that nothing is precious. The works are made in paint, charcoal, pencil, on note paper, tracing paper, newspaper, effectively, whatever Gabritschevsky can lay his hands on. And though the figures and scenes can be very precise and deliberate, they typically are not dwelt on after execution. It seemed as though we see Gabritschevsky’s mind moving directly through his hand onto the page. The instantaneity is both charming and unusual. For Gabritschevsky, painting comes as a life force, something he has to do in order to maintain his subjectivity in the world. And there’s no singularity of purpose, no tortuous looking things over and over and over again to follow an intellectual preoccupation as was the tendency of those painting in the twentieth century. In spite of the curatorial choices, this is a rare opportunity to see painting at its most primary: these works are what they are, and say what they say, there’s absolutely nothing compromising about them.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mika Rottenberg, Palais de Tokyo

If you want to avoid the tourists, terrorists and Trumpist fervor, my best suggestion is to head over to Mika Rottenberg’s current exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo. There’s a bunch of artists on exhibition at the moment, some better known than others, but to my mind, Rottenberg’s installation is the Paris summer pick.

I want to put her work in the same category as that of Ed Atkins, though she’s more expansive and mature in her vision and her work is more sophisticated in its understanding of the medium. Even before I intellectualize it, I have to say, these films are funny, endearing, brilliant and silly. They can be cute and compelling at the same time as they are deeply critical of the status quo. It’s the ability for her films and installations to function on so many different levels, that will ensure they have a lasting impact in a way that Atkins’ images—so far—will not.  

See original image
Mika Rottenberg, Sneeze, 2012

Even before we reach the enormous space given to Rottenberg’s installation in the bowels of the Palais de Tokyo, their rich soundscape fills the air of the entire downstairs. The whistles, groans, boings, jingles and hums merge into an unidentifiable sonic environment that delights and, before discovering the objects they belong to, or that emit them, can irritate. The first piece we see is Sneeze (2012), a short looped single channel video apparently motivated by silent cinema representations of sneezes. This delightful film gives dimension to the senses: the men who sneeze do so with an entire body shudder, and with each sneeze their nose extends, becoming increasingly red and unhealthy. While we expect repulsive things to come out of their noses, the opposite appears: cute furry bunnies, an unused lightbulb, and a perfectly acceptable uncooked chop. It’s the contradiction between expectation and what is shown in her films that makes them so compelling. The men, otherwise dressed in suits, have bare feet with toes painted in bright nail varnish that curl up with each sneeze. Their masculinity is seriously compromised by their sick noses and their painted, but unattractive toes.
See original image
Mika Rottenberg, Bowls, Balls, Holes, Souls, 2014 

 Bowls, Balls, Holes, Souls begins before we see the image as we enter a bingo hall constructed in in the space of the museum. Inside, on the video, various unlikely looking women sit in a bingo hall of sorts, waiting for the magic numbers to appear before them. The most tragic looking of all the women is a large black woman who then, it turns out has special powers. When we realize her telekinetic power influences the number of the balls that come out of the bingo machine, pathos turns to wonder. 

There are many recurring motifs in Rottenberg’s body of work such as water, usually leaking, bodily fluids, circles, the bodies that oscillate between clothes hanger and a commodity. In Bowls, Balls, Holes, Souls a man’s face is slowly covered in coloured pegs, to match the coloured blotches on the wall, moving through windows. Another woman subjects her body to a ritual of beautification that is both grotesque and not so far from what some of us do every day. Her body is washed like the laundry, going round in a washing machine, her nails are done by an elaborate contraption and her face by an even more unfathomable machine.
Still from: Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2010, Single channel video installation and digital C-print, Duration: 20 min. Dimensions variable, Edition of 6 + 2 AP © Mika Rottenberg. Courtesy the artist and Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.
Mika Rottenberg, Squeeze, 2012

Fans are everywhere, as are air conditioners that leak on hot plates and create a sizzle sounds, both in the films and as objects in the space of the museum. Again in contradistinction to our expectations, fans create static environments in spite of the moving air. They always function in spaces that are unusable because they are too big or too small. Holes, openings also lead nowhere. Or things appear out of holes that need to be bigger—like body parts coming through holes in the ground that end up on the other side of a wall in Squeeze 2012. There is a lack of logic to the openings of spaces, suggesting entrapment, or at least the opposite of freedom. This is accentuated by the question of where a given space is in relation to another, or the one that connects it. Squeeze brings these recurring motifs together when we see women put their arms in holes in the ground, only to come out the other end and be massaged by another row of women, in another country. The two cannot see each other, their work is connected, but we don’t exactly know how. The message in such videos is clear: the alienation of work, of work for women, their exploitation in the name of production. Even though this message might seem obvious, the way Rottenberg delivers it is ingenious.

Mika Rottenberg, No Nose Knows, 2015
Exploitation reaches excessive and comedic proportions with the excavation of pearls in No Nose Knows (2015). One row of woman tediously remove pearls from oysters, separate out the perfect ones from the duds. A woman with a nose that is equally sick and suffering as those of the men in Sneeze, smells flowers and sneezes out fully cooked plates of noodles and pasta--both of the Chinese and Italian varieties. The woman sits at the end of a production line of sorts that we never see in its entirety--this confusion in the relations between spaces and the activities that take place therein is one of the result of Rottenberg's inventive uses of the moving image. With each sneeze, each plate of noodles her nose grows longer and redder. She too goes through an elaborate production process to make her into the image that she is before she goes to work to smell plants and sneeze noodles. And by the time she gets to work we wonder why she bothered because the make up is already beginning to smudge. At her feet are two upturned feet in a bowl of pearls, apparently from the floor where the women are taking pearls out of oysters, an activity that nevertheless appears as though it is happening in another country. 
Pears from the Ruan Shi Jewellery factory, which we assume to be those from
No One Knows
In these films, everything and everyone is commodified, everything can be sold, everything is given a value. This connects to the domino effect of the production process. Where each activity connects to the next, but their exact connection is less clear, just like the production process as it is today. Moreover Rottenberg connects the video world and our world. The pearls made at the Ruan Shi Jewellery factory in No Nose Knows are on display, in bags, made into bunnies at the entrance to this video exhibition. We literally walk inside to find where this display comes from, how it got here. Again, the relationship between representation and reality is confused.

This is abstract film at its best. The artificiality of the image, raising questions of capitalism, of commodification and the role of the woman’s body within that is rarely done with such sophistication today.  And added to this is how compelling the films are: it was extremely difficult to leave the looped films. Because with seamless transition around the loop, I kept wondering where I was inside the video. Had I seen this scene before? So it creates this situation where we just continue watching, like we are some kind of video game, unable to distinguish the time and space of our own experience.