WILLIAM KENTRIDGE at Annandale Galleries 2014

 9 April – 24 May 2014

William Kentridge is now included within the “canon” of contemporary political artists. Born in Johannesburg, South Africa in 1955 he is one of the relatively few colonials to reach such a level of success in circles which remain dominated by Western European and United States’ artists.  Kentridge’s identity as a white Jewish South African anti-apartheid supporter has played a central part in the interpretation and reception of his work.

Kentridge has had a long association with Australia, largely established through the support of Ann and Bill Gregory at the Annandale Galleries, who began showing him in 1995 when he was virtually an international unknown.  His eighth solo exhibition there ran to coincide with the 2014 Sydney Biennale although it was not part of the official program.  This small gallery in Sydney’s inner west remains associated with him even though his international profile is now so high.

Kentridge’s work is both overwhelming and deeply puzzling.  He is best known for prints, drawings and the animated films he constructs with them.  Sheet after sheet of paper is covered with charcoal or graphite drawings, each sheet being photographed and then partially erased and changed, the final sets being made into a film using a kind of primitive animation technique.  He is also a sculptor, designer and interpreter of opera.

There is nothing easy in Kentridge’s work.  The viewer needs an instinctive gut reaction, and some knowledge of South African history and politics, to grasp the intent behind his sparse, rough and expressive works.  He began making prints and drawings in the 1970s with a series of monotypes and small format etchings showing domestic scenes and localities.  Later he made charcoal and pastel works focusing on the blasted dystopian urban landscape.

Between 1989 and 2003 he made a series of nine short animated films, “Nine Drawings for Projection”.  This elaborate project established him as a practitioner of a new kind of visual art. His most recent work, of which the 2014 Annandale Galleries show is an example, is linked to the use of text, word and image in animated films alongside startling graphic images printed on old texts such as the pages of the Oxford English dictionary.

The 2014 show is called “SO”, just one more element of the puzzle of what is going on in Kentridge’s imagination these days.  It fills both floors of the gallery, offering mainly prints and some sculptural pieces, along with a series of three animated films.  The latter, along with some associated graphic prints which make up the components of the films, are shown downstairs, irritatingly close to the front desk and subject to all the noise of a small gallery space as people enter and leave.  This is a great disappointment as the viewing of these films is in my view the key to understanding the exhibition as a whole.

The prints take a lot of looking at and demand intense focus.  “The Hope in the Charcoal Cloud” offers a series of drawings of the artist printed on the pages of an old dictionary, as he steps up and down on a low stool, interspersed with the printed word “SO”, a single red-coloured sheet, and a sequence of four images which look like the earth or the moon, prefaced with a printed statement “TIME IN THE GREY PAGES”.

time in the grey pages

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that this represents a statement of the artist’s own sense of his (and our?) existence.  He hopes every day to achieve success in the charcoal cloud which he creates as he works diligently on his sheets of paper, creating graphic images of himself.  He repeats his actions, going up and down that low stool over and over again.  Having got onto it the first time, he says “SO”, which could mean “so what?” or something completely different.  Off he goes, doing it again.  He runs into the red barrier, which might be his own blood, but off he goes again, and finally realizes that he is facing his mortality as the grey pages he is creating pass by over and again.  The earth, maybe a dark moon, and a globe on a stand complete the sense of Time and its passing.

But this is just one interpretation and there is nothing in the work to encourage us to think that any one might be better than any other.  It is almost like encountering a Rorscharch test.  One wonders if the same sequence was shown to twenty others, how many would come up with a similar interpretation?  And to what extent is this, or any other, interpretation dependent on the written texts that bookend the images?  It is a kind of narrative art which refuses to disclose the narrative.

Kentridge has long been fascinated by trees, particularly the species indigenous to South Africa.  This is something Australian viewers might find particularly compelling.  Many of his recent images, including those at the Annandale show, involve a combination of prints forming images of large trees.  These were obviously popular with the audience as most were sold.

Big Tree-2012-Linocut

Universal Archive: Big Tree 2012 linocut

Davidkrutprojects.com/artists/William-kentridge-universal-archive

The sense of intrigue in the work, evident in the Charcoal Cloud discussed above, becomes even more compelling in the animated films.  These works invite the viewer to consider them as a philosophical event.  In the midst of striking images and forms, texts appear which seem to suggest a platform or conceptual grid beneath the surfaces.  For example, in the midst of an animated film certain messages suddenly appear and disappear:  ANYTHING TO SAY?  With the question mark hand-drawn clumsily.

anything to say?

Universal archive:  Ref 52, 2012.

Or, in the midst of a series of images printed on the old pages of The Universal Technological Dictionary, a lively black bird carries a sign:  WHICHEVER PAGE YOU OPEN THERE YOU ARE.

whichever page you open

RETURN TO THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT, 2013

INDIAN INK ON UNIVERSAL TECHNOLOGICAL DICTIONARY: OR, FAMILIAR EXPLANATION OF THE TERMS USED IN ALL ARTS AND SCIENCES: CONTAINING DEFINITIONS DRAWN FROM THE ORIGINAL WRITERS, AND ILLUSTRATED BY PLATES, DIAGRAMS, CUTS, &C, VOLUME 1 AND 2 BY G. CRAGG, 1823
40 1/8 X 39 3/4 IN. (102 X 101 CM)

His use of three old book texts and their pages in the 2014 film work also invites philosophical discussion.  The pages of the Oxford English Dictionary provide one support.  The second (above) is the Universal Technological Dictionary;  and the final one is Richard Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy.  Do the images and interspersed texts relate to anything specific in these works?  Is the film printed on Burton’s old work, one of the first discussions of depression in English writing, to be interpreted as a meditation on the meaning of sadness and sorrow, or even as the product of a period of depressive illness?  There is nothing to tell us and no way to know, and it is especially frustrating with the films as there is no way to slow them down and “read” them through a narrative grammar, even though one is implied by the very form of the work.

Kentridge’s use of animated film seems to be accepted by most critics and commentators as just another element in his diverse art practice.  Arguably, though, it is the key medium through which he has approached the political underpinnings of his work. Like most white South Africans he has been forced to confront the issue of white guilt.  In the 1990s he made a series of nine remarkable semi-autobiographical films, including Felix in Exile (1994) and History of the Main Complaint (1996).  This series is read by Erickson (2011) as being shaped by the confrontation of two strong needs, to acknowledge white guilt and to find a means of redemption. In these films the key structural elements of gender and race undergo shifting patterns.  He creates two characters, both of which can be understood as elements of himself.  Soho Eckstein represents the dominant white male, Felix Teitlebaum the artistic and sensitive male.  The only real female characters are both black females, a woman called Nandi and a black nanny.  Hence the fundamental model for white-black exchange lies in transactions between a white male and a black female.  In Tide Table (2003), Kentridge goes into his past to retrieve the memory of his own black nanny seeking for a tentative act of blessing through gestures of recognition.  Erickson’s fascinating analysis unpacks clearly what is going on in this series of films which traverse themes of guilt and redemption in surprising ways.  Today, though, this series of films seems to have virtually disappeared from critical comment on Kentridge.  It is as if the in-depth exploration of a deeply disquieting personal memory, infused with a horrifying history and politics, is many steps too far for our contemporary awareness.  That era, and those questions, seem now to have been repressed.  Perhaps, for Kentridge, he has gone through them and has nothing more to say about it.  His recent animations reflect his earlier pre-occupations only in the most minor register.

Viewing his three animations in the 2014 show, one is struck by their apparent incoherence.  Boer (2013) offers a highly nuanced account of what is going on in these and other of his films, from the viewpoint of a history of film animation. She shows that Kentridge uses many familiar stylistic features and techniques of this medium, which Krauss has referred to as “stone-age film-making” (Krauss 2010: xiv et seq). Krauss concludes that Kentridge’s work is even more “primitive” than the first forms of Disney cartoons and the thaumatrope.  Boer describes the elements of commonality between Kentridge’s Drawings for Projection and the early black-and-white Disney cartoons (Boer 2013:1148).  Without an extended commentary on her very subtle and ingenious essay, it is helpful to note that the intersection between art, violence and technology is exactly the intersection where Walter Benjamin, in The Work of Art (1935) situated Mickey Mouse.[1]  A full comprehension of the import of Boer’s analysis makes the reception of Kentridge’s film work even more problematic than it would seem at first glance, which is the only glance which most viewers of his work will ever have, that is, a quick view of some flickering scenes in a gallery somewhere.  Following a careful analysis of specific scenes in some of his films (eg Weighing … and Wanting, 1998 and Tide Table (2003) Boer suggests that Kentridge is drawing attention to the artificiality of reconstruction and questioning the idea that reconciliation, both personally and in the larger South African context, can paper over cracks seamlessly even while leaving them intact.  The technology of animation allows for a visual demonstration of this idea, so that “the viewer is called upon to view these shots with suspicion, exactly because they seem to erase the consequences of the oft-violent events that took place on-screen during the filming” (Boer 2013:1167).[2]

To what extent can the traces of this political past retain an equivalent vitality today, or has his concern with the chaos of those years transmuted into a more indirect autobiographical direction in his later work?  Terry Smith (2011:48) raises the question of whether today “we”, and the artist, can “relax a little” and “enjoy the fruits of his protean creativity”.  His major recent show (2010) offered a comprehensive survey of his career and toured many of the major museums and galleries around the world, including a show at MoMA in New York.  This show integrated his graphic and other works with a production of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose at the Metropolitan Opera.  Kentridge studied mime and theatre in Paris in the early 1980s, and the show Five Themes brought together a kaleidoscope of imagery in sixteen acts, referencing the constructivist scenarios of the early twentieth century.  This work used no direct elements from the political context of South Africa, although Smith argues that it retains a form of activist uncertainty and a sense of political art, which, in his own words, is “an art of ambiguity, contradiction, uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings” (Kentridge, quoted in Christov-Bakargiev 1998: 136).

Nevertheless, in his 2014 show a major piece consists of a 42-panel gridded picture of a tree, called Remembering the Treason Trial (2013).  It refers to the 1956 trial of Nelson Mandela, in which he was successfully defended by Kentridge’s father Sydney.  As McDonald comments “the work is covered in sentences, some portentous … others more mundane” (2014).  McDonald remarks that in this work personal recollection and historical memory have been blended “drawing the private and public realms into one all-encompassing image”.  Kentridge’s use of text and writing is particularly striking in this piece, as if he is trying to blend his graphic art with a form of literary memoir.

The wealth and depth of Kentridge’s work makes it difficult to evaluate in terms of conventional forms of contemporary art.  In combining drawing, design, graphics, print-making, sculpture and animated film, and performance art of a kind if we include his opera-based work, it is as if he offers too much and not enough at once. The show at Annandale Galleries offers a small taste of the oeuvre, familiar in form to previous recent work, but if the viewer is unfamiliar with that work it seems to make very little “sense”.  Should contemporary art make “sense”?  In the case of Kentridge, it feels as if he insists on sense-making with the many texts and ambiguous written statements, while defying any attempt to put the narrative together.  That is, perhaps, his key message: it is impossible to get past uncompleted gestures and uncertain endings.  Or, as Boer (2013) concludes in her essay, Kentridge is using his various forms of paper as a means of wrapping up South African social and political issues without attempting to resolve them. (2013: 1168).

References:

Benjamin, Walter. 2008.  The work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility: second version.  Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Harry Zohn.  In The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media.  Ed.  Michael W. Jennings et al.  Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. (See Endnote 1).

Boer,  Nienke. 2013. Taking a joke seriously:  Mickey Mouse and William Kentridge.  MLN, Vol 128, 5 1146-1169.

Christov-Bakargiev, Carolyn.  1998.  William Kentridge.  Brussels: Societe du  Palais des Beaux-Arts/Vereniging voor Tenstoonstellingen van net Palais voor Schone Kunsten.

Hansen, Miriam.  1993.  Of mice and ducks: Benjamin and Adorno on Disney.  The South Atlantic Quarterly 92.1: 27-61.

Krauss, Rosalind.  2010.  Perpetual Inventory.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

McDonald, John.  2014.  William Kentridge: SO.  Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 10 May 2014, accessed 14/6/14].<http://johnmcdonald.net.au/2014/richard-mosse-william-kentridge/#sthash.XmH48Y9P.dpuf >

Smith, Roberta. 2010.  Anger and Angst.  New York Times, 26 February 2010.

NOTES

[1] Walter Benjamin’s famous essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which is more accurately known as “The Work of Art it the Age of its Technological Reproducibility”) discussed the difference between early Disney cartoons as a form of mass entertainment and the role of Nazi spectacle.  This section of his essay was omitted from the well-known English version of the essay published in Illuminations (1969), a translation of the 1955 German version edited by Adorno and Podszus but included in the new edition of 2008 devoted specifically to his writings on media.  For more in this, see Hansen 1993).

[2] Boer’s long and elaborated argument suggests that Kentridge has chosen the medium of animation as a way of engaging in “developed play” since the rules of animation require the operation of visual perception in its relation to the unconscious.  The viewer has to be “trained” to read the arbitrary rules of animation, and Kentridge uses these rules in order to demonstrate their limits.

POLITICAL ART/ART AND POLITICS

POLITICAL ART/ART AND POLITICS: Part One.

Introduction:

 Political Art as a category or genre of art history in the West is generally associated with the 1960s. A Marxist theoretical agenda gave it shape, form and legitimacy even if many who practiced or experienced it were hardly experts in political economy or understood the fine points of communist ideology. In the 1950s the world entered an era of apparently suffocating conformity dominated by the triumph of US politics and economy in the post-war era. This produced a generation of children who had known comfort and security – the first generation to have done so en masse for some time. In response, they turned against the mode of life and ideologies of their parents. This phenomenon first crystallised in Europe, but the same processes emerged in the US, Australia and elsewhere. One of the outcomes of US post-war triumphalism was a series of vicious post-colonial wars (most destructively in Vietnam), the rise of consumerism and mindless conformity at home, and the struggles of non-whites against the position of subordination and exploitation they had experienced for generations. The legacy of slavery within the US, the position of indigenous people in settler colonies (Australia, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand) and the sense of revulsion against the imminent threat of nuclear catastrophe played a part in the emergence of new political movements around the world in the 1960s.

France was the hotbed of the new revolutionary consciousness and the idea of political art emerged from this matrix. Art as an expression “of the people” rather than “of the elites” linked to socialist ideologies which went back to the Russian Revolution and was inspired to a degree by the same writings: Marx, Lenin and others. Among the most famous of the Leftist students in Paris was Daniel Cohn-Bendit, generally known as “Danny the Red”. He took a leading role in articulating the relation between Western capitalist society and political and social oppression, and remains a vivid presence in French intellectual circles today, now known for his environmental activism.

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“Danny the Red” in 1968. Source: Haaretz, Israel, April 11, 2014. http://www.haaretz.com

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Daniel Cohn-Bendit, now “Danny the Green”. The Independent, London.  Saturday 13th June 2009.

 

The young people caught up in the revolutionary sentiments of the 60s and 70s regarded a new popular form of art as an integral part of their revolutionary commitment. In Paris where politics was being played out daily and dramatically in pubic places students took over art studios and printing shops and produced a range of posters which appeared overnight on streets and buildings.

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“Workers Unite: French and Immigrant”           “Be Young and Shut Up”

 

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Students riot on the rue Gay-Lussac, Paris, 23 May 1968. Photograph: Gamma-Keystone/Getty Source: The Observer, McKenzie Wark Review.

View an 8 minute video from French National Archives summarising the key elements of the confrontation between police and students in May 68.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BcDCsCGdOm4

Following the failure of the revolution, the political movement in France splintered. Ideology, tactics, and the mysterious role of particular individuals (especially Louis Althusser, prime theoretician of the student Left movement) resulted in the loss of any coherent platform or any means of continuing the struggle. The difference between political forms in the late 1960s and the mid-1970s was remarkable. Many subgroups and movements quickly emerged. Some attempted to overthrow the system through violence – including the first terrorist movements such as the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Brigadi Rossi (Red Brigades) in Italy.

Later, peaceful groups maintained opposition to the system through cultural processes.   The “Situationists Internationale” (The International Situationists) took their inspiration from the earlier cultural movements of the twenties and thirties, especially the dadaists and surrealists. They developed a contemporary style of communication which used cartoon and graphic novel styles to try to analyse why the revolution had failed. They did not want to “épater la bourgeoisie” (shock the bourgeois classes) but to work out what had gone wrong with Leftist theory. They combined a Marxist-style political analysis with a libertarian commitment. Theories which emerged from this movement included those of Guy Debord, who wrote presciently of The Society of the Spectacle, and Jean Baudrillard, who focussed attention on how media created reality, especially in his best-known early books The System of Objects (1968), The Consumer Society (1970) and Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (1972).

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Other forms of art which became popular in the sixties and afterwards included abstraction, pop art, installations and happenings. These challenged the conventional gallery-based form of art, almost by definition, but political art needed to go further and directly challenge oppressive and anti-revolutionary social forms.

An enduring result has been a continuing tendency to identify and support forms of art which can be clearly understood as anti-normative. Social movements of the 70s and 80s led into some clearly articulated programs aimed at raising consciousness of moral and ideological issues otherwise suppressed or hidden by social normativity. One of the most powerful and pervasive was the rise of feminist art, or rather, forms of art which challenged the idea of patriarchal domination and demanded recognition and legitimation of feminine experience from a woman’s point of view. Art of course had for centuries been mainly the preserve of men, and women (and children) appeared as subjects of art, not creators of it. The feminist art movement demanded not just the inclusion of women as artists in their own right, but the recognition of women’s experience as a legitimate topic of art. Gay and Lesbian rights movements, the rise of AIDS, the position of immigrants and people of colour and recognition of the rights of the disabled also provided the ground against with a politically committed art could emerge. These elements remain today.

However the question of what is political in art has become far more complex. Theories of the 60s and 70s for instance identified all activities associated with warfare and militarism as an aspect of patriarchal class domination. War and violence were seen as part of masculine culture, to be challenged and rejected by all who sought a more just society. Those who experienced the expression of US imperialism, in particular, were cast as victims and if they were to play a role in this social construction of morality, it would be through their suffering. But the black and white clarity of such a view has faded to Fifty Shades. Contemporary art has moved beyond the simple dichotomies which made it so easy to identify “political art” in earlier decades. The question “What is political art” today is very hard to respond to.

Our analytical understanding of the image world, for instance, might suggest that now there is never anything but political art. Advertising offers an endless cornucopia of imagery directed at constituting our collective self-identities as consumers rather than citizens. Consumption and material signs of affluence have become central to the idea of art itself. Even if we reject the idea of advertising as a form of art (but how can we, when we consider for instance the fantastic creativity which goes into the photographic representation of luxury goods) the meaning of art, especially for its practitioners, has become relentlessly commercial. Artists are graded according to what their work will fetch in the market. A complex and immensely valuable infrastructure supports the circulation of fine art especially. (Isaac Julien explores this issue through his own art (below) and I will discuss the commodification of high art in a later piece].

To clarify the transformations in the concepts of political art from a feminist viewpoint it is interesting to compare the work of two very different women artists working across the period from the 1960s to the present. Nancy Spero throughout her long career created art works which directly challenged the injustices and insults suffered by the victims of US aggression in Vietnam, but went on to express, in dramatic forms, the cruelties and unfairness experienced by women throughout Western history. In contrast, An-My Lê, originally a Vietnamese refugee, focusses on military might and images of warfare from a much more nuanced point of view, creating remarkable images of the aesthetics of militarism.

 

NANCY SPERO

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“Fuck you/Merde”. 1960, gouache and ink on paper.

Photograph: Nancy Spero @ Pompidou

 “I have deliberately attempted to distance my art from the Western emphasis on the subjective portrayal of individuality by using a hand-printing and collage technique utilizing zinc plates as an artist’s tool instead of a brush or palette knife. Figures derived from various cultures co-exist in simultaneous time … the figures themselves could become hieroglyphs – extensions of a text denoting rites of passage, birth to old age, motion and gesture … Woman as activator or protagonist dancing in procession, elegiac or celebrator a continuous presence engaged directly or glimpsed peripherally; the eye, as a moving camera, scans the re-imaging of women.”

Nancy Spero from an unpublished 1989 statement by the artist entitled “The Continuous Presence”.

http://www.artnet.com/awc/nancy-spero.html

Nancy Spero (1926-2009) was a well known New York City artist whose career spanned the years of the 1960s and 70s and stretched into the 2000s. Throughout this time she expressed a consistent political awareness and, working mainly in more ephemeral forms, remained an active participant in an art world which over time moved on beyond her primary commitments. Like a number of other women artists, she was married to an artist, Leon Golub, with whom she on occasion collaborated. His profile was at first far higher than hers and as was customary for the era from the 1940s-1960s she took second place to him, ran his home and looked after the children. But in later years, Leon Golub has been almost completely forgotten, whereas Nancy Spero went on making her remarkable and challenging art works into old age. She was a well-known activist strongly engaged with contemporary political and cultural affairs. She was also one of the pioneers in the representation of women’s personal and intimate experiences, including the delerious pleasures of birth and the cycles of life. Throughout her career she mostly worked on paper, using not only gouache and ink but also handprint and printed collage. This seems to have been a deliberate rejection of the oil-on-canvas forms of art, perhaps repudiating patriarchal conventions.

In the late 1950s-1960s she and her husband moved to Italy. She began to express interest in modernist representations of the human form, using narrative and art historical themes, even though Abstract Expressionism was then becoming the main trend in contemporary art. She was also exposed to and interested in the format, style and mood of Etruscan and Roman frescos and other antiquarian objects. She painted a series titled Black Paintings, depicting mythic themes including lovers, prostitutes and hybrid human-animal forms. In the 1950s she worked on a series on the theme of mothers and children. These heavy, blocked works look strong and contemporary today.

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                                                  Mother and Children, 1956.

Returning to New York she was influenced by the images of Vietnam on television, and this led to her War Series (1966-70). These were small gouaches and inks on paper, showing the obscene destructiveness of war. The published pictures of her work of this period is fascinating in its simple schematism and sketchy mark making. While some images were over-blown and unsubtle (Peace, Helicopter and Hanging Christ 1968), others expressed a tentative grasp of the suffering in Vietnam without preaching (Helicopter and Victims 1968).

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Peace, Helicopter and Hanging Christ     Helicopter and Victims

By the 1970s she, like most other politically active women, switched her attention to women and their representation in various media. Torture in Chile (1974) and Torture of Women, 1976 – a long scroll 125 feet in length – wove oral testimonies with images of women through history. Notes in Time on Women was another long scroll (210 feet), and again in The First Language (1979-81) she created a series of hand-printed, painted and collaged figures as a kind of “cast of characters”.   By 1988 she developed wall installations, where printed images were moved directly onto the walls of museums and public spaces. Her wall paintings in Chicago, Vienna, Dresden, Toronto and elsewhere continued to focus on the validity of female experience.

Spero Victimage to Liberation

Victimage to Liberation

By the 1990s her style had undergone a complete turnaround. Rich and complex, sometimes reflective of art of the ancient world (e. g. The Flautist, 1995) her work in the 90s took on more certainty and determination.

Nancy Spero Flautist                                                               The Flautist, 1995

 

In older age, her work continued to focus on themes of power and war. One recent project created installations based on small images of headsblown up and printed on aluminium, the metal prints then being cut out and suspended.

She died in 2009 at the age of 83. Her political commitment was expressed in the US press after her death, especially her anti-war activism and commitment to raising the status of women artists in a male art world. A retrospective of her work was shown at the Serpentine Gallery in London (6 March 2011), featuring a lifetime of work which questions the artist’s duty in response to violence and suffering.

Her recurrent themes were evident in this show. Iconic feminist figures: Lilith, Medusa, the siren, the harpy, the Celtic fertility symbol with its open vulva were torn from their time and place and placed in conjunction in a delirious feminist chorus of “we are all here now”.   One of her more recent works, Azur, consisted of an entire wall covered with panels assembled in a massive frieze showing vestal virgins, Egyptian goddesses, porn stars and women being tortured.

 Spero Azur

                         Azur, Centre Pompidou Museum Publicity October 2010

She is sometimes compared with Louse Bourgeois. Both were married to more famous men, and both were rejected by the mainstream. Spero was not just an outsider, but much of her work looks like “outsider art”. The thematics of anti-war and pro-feminism are pushed very far in her work, although there is also demonstration of great subtlety and intelligence.

One critic, Laura Cumming, commented that her less overtly political work is her best. Perhaps this is because overtly political work itself no longer has a positive place in contemporary art, at least in comparison to its earlier dominance.[1] Assessment of work so clearly connected with a life-long political commitment, anti-war and pro-feminist, is difficult today especially as the work itself seems rather obvious and its themes generally outmoded or at least by-passed. While there are many admirably aesthetic and socially interesting elements, it becomes increasingly difficult not to turn aside with a degree of irritation at the obviousness of the imagery and its implications. The viewer today is inclined to say: well yes, obviously…

P

 

 

 An-My Lê.

An My Le with camera

An example of a very different form of political art, although with some common sources, is the work of Vietnamese-American photogapher An-My Lê. She was born in Saigon in 1960. Her family managed to leave Vietnam in 1975 as refugees and were resettled in the US. Today she identifies as Vietnamese-American and lives and works in New York, but has continued her connection with Vietnam. Her work is stimulating and unexpected. She examines war and its consequences, using elements of traditional documentary photography, frequently in conjunction with re-enactment. At first it is hard to see just where she is coming from with her work. On the one hand she seems to be looking at war as an historical event, showing the full panoply of military power through hardware and organisation, but in another way she forces a kind of beauty and aesthetic pleasure out of this normally severe and patriotic topic. In her on-going series “Events Ashore” – begun in 2005 and continuing – she documents her travels with the armed forces as they move to different sites of operation.

An My Le desert with tanks

“Tanks”  from Small Wars 2001

From jungle warfare training in Indonesia to shipboard scenes her images remind us of the immense global circulation of people, resources, power and capital which continue unabated from year to year. Her eye captures strange moments and juxtapositions: a soldier in uniform sits patiently next to a Buddhist nun in Patient Admission, US Naval Hospital Ship, Mercy, Vietnam (2010). This brilliant shot shows their equivalence in spite of their divergence. Both are bald, or almost so. Both sit facing the camera with their hands crossed in their laps. Both are silent – because no doubt they cannot speak to each other, yet there is a companionable kind of communication going on here.

Hospital Ship

Patient Admission, Hospital Ship, Vietnam 2010.

Although she shows military images which can be recognised at once as part of the canon of military representations in modern warfare, she also documents humanitarian missions such as those to Ghana and Senegal, relief efforts in Haiti, an aircract carriers deployed to Afghanistan and eventless days on a passage through the Suez Canal.

Beach Landing Site Haiti 2010

Beach Landing, Haiti, 2010

Her earlier work consists of careful and very traditionally shot photographs – relying on old style cameras using film resulting in the kind of picture which harks back to the golden days of black and white and to the visual or topographic documentary function of the photographer. Her work is now widely shown in the US, although there is little information available about her current reception in Vietnam.

01-Small-Warsambush-2

Small Wars (Ambush 11) 1999-2002

Her photographs range from expansive to intimate, with machines dwarfed by vast landscapes in an expressive beauty. Her work has a debt to old-style landscape and portrait photography, expertly printed in a middle-gray scalereminiscent of Robert Adams. Returning to Vietnam in 1999 she expressed ideas of a lost homeland, evoking smell, memory, childhood stories and connection to war in the landscape. The alarming beauty of modern warfare, experienced by combatants wherever they are, is never far from her lens.

 An My Le Tracers

 Small Wars: Tracers                                                                                                                Source: http://www.aperture.org/shop/books/small-wars

Her Vietnam images do not document relics but engage the viewer with Lê’s own struggle to reconcile memories of her childhood in Vietnam with the landscape which now exists. In many of her photographs, calm tropical scenes are intersected by disturbing images which might be dive-bombing planes but are instead birds, while fires in the fields and structures on construction sites recall the presence of massacres, graves and napalm. In this way, Lê is using photography to trace a memorial landscape which does not any longer exist but which has left its traces as much in her mind’s eye as in the camera’s lens. This is an imaginative creation of a different kind of war photography.

At the end of this project she became aware of the existence of Vietnam War re-enactors in North Carolina who restage battles as well as the daily life and training of soldiers – both ex-Viet Cong and US forces. She photographed and participated in Vietnam War battles for four summers. Both documentary and staged, the work is conceptually rigorous and fascinating. Re-enacting soldiers sit for portraits and battle compositions reproduce classic war photojournalism. [2] These men have a passion for military history and take a formal approach to the precise re-enactment of specific battles and situations. Obviously guided by deep-seated psychological motivations, Lê found this a way to enter her own experiences of war “and adolescent fantasies about soldiers in uniform”. She says:

The re-enactors and I have each created a Vietnam of the mind and it is these two Vietnams which have collided in the resulting photographs. Here I experience Vietnam in America as I experienced America in Vietnam: worlds of conflict and beauty.

(Lê 2001 np).

small-warsexplosion

An-My Lê. Small Wars: Explosion.  1999-2002. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of Murray Guy Gallery, New York.

Her series 29 Palms (2003-7) documents a military base of the same name located in the California desert. Soldiers train here before being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. This then is a rehearsal for war, rather than a re-enactment of it.

The importance and uniqueness of her vision is receiving increasing recognition. She will have a solo show in Baltimore in 2014, with twenty-one pieces selected from four of her series, “Vietnam” (1994-98, b & w); “Small wars” (1999-2002, b & w); “29 Palms” (2003-4, b & w); and “Events Ashore” (2005-present, colour).

Her work highlights the role of artist as observer, using artistic freedom to engage with the topic of military action which many would have rejected as complicit with a masculinist ethos. Of course today, with women participating equally in the military at every level, it is hard to maintain that war itself is anti-female. She is exploring a kind of politics, but one well beyond the conventional understandings of political art. Without doubt her identity as Vietnamese-American gives her a subject position which allows the development of this vision. What might seem, coming from another artist, to run the risk of being American hooray propaganda is in this context a kind of meditation on the meaning of war beyond the crude idea of national sovereignties. It reflects connections between past and present, and often opens up the sense of common humanity between those in combat and those they are working among. It is a shame she was not permitted to work in Iraq; the kind of documentation she might have provided would have given a dramatic balance to the conventional war images from television and movies. She gives a profound sense of “Being There”, no matter where that is.

le family photo Hue 1961

Lê Family Photograph, Hûe, 1961. This Long Century.

References:

 An-My Lê. 2001. Small Wars: Landscape Stories. Cabinet, Issue 2, Spring, np. <http://www.landscapestories.net/issue-13/ls_13-019-an-my-le-small-wars?lang=en> [Accessed 17/4/14]

An-My Lê. nd. This Long Century. Photographs. <http://www.thislongcentury.com/?p=4254&c=120> [Accessed 4/4/14]

Centre Pompidou 2010.   On Nancy Spero@ Centre Pompidou. December. <http://artkritique.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/on-nancy-spero-centre-pompidou.html> [Accessed 14/4/14]

Bui, Phong. 2008. Nancy Spero in conversation with Phong Bui. The Brooklyn Rail. July 16th.<http://www.brooklynrail.org/2008/07/art/nancy-spero-in-conversation-with-phong-bui> [Accessed 5/4/14]

Falby, Mac. 2013. The military is not simply the military. Bmore<Art>, December 23.

<http://bmoreart.com/2013/12/the-military-is-not-simply-the-military-an-my-le-the-bma-by-mac-falby.html> [Accessed 12/4/14]

Ivry, Benjamin. 2010. Nancy Spero and Leon Golub: a politically relevant artistic couple. Jewish Daily Forward, 16/4/2010. Retrieved: 7/7/2011. <http://blogs.forward.com/the-arty-semite/127345/nancy-spero-and-leon-golub-a-politically-relevant/> [Accessed 12/4/14]

Mathews, John. 2010. On Nancy Spero @Centre Pompidou. ArtKritique, December 20th.http://artkritique.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/on-nancy-spero-centre-pompidou.html [Accessed 17/4/2014].

Vine, Richard. 1997. Where the Wild Things were. Art in America, May, pp. 98-111.

Walker, Joanna S. 2009/10. Nancy Spero, 1926-2009. Art Monthly , 332,

[1] Source: http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/mar/06/nancy-spero-serpentine-azur-review. See also: http://www.artnet.com/awc/nancy-spero.html

[2] This description comes from the bookshop site at: http://www.aperture.org/shop/books/small-wars#sthash.cel7dHmY.dpuf