Eric Fischl. Bad Boy: My Life on and off the Canvas

Bad Boy. My Life On and Off the Canvas.   Eric Fischl and Michael Stone. Crown Publishers, New York, 2012. 357 pp, Index.

 Bad Boy cover

Books about the life and times of artists are not always what you expect. Biographies are often so dense with detail that you lose the sense of the
story, or tiringly familiarity in tone and observation. In part this is because we already know so many artists’ stories from media, movies, magazines and elementary art history lessons: consider Van Gogh’s ear, after all. And hasn’t this become the high point of the story, the bit we always focus on?

Very few artists write their own story (that is, write an autobiography) and fewer still see it in print while they are still alive and very much kicking. This is just one of the elements which makes Eric Fischl’s Bad Boy such a surprise. The voice of the artist is close to us, in time and outlook and feeling. Reading it, you feel you could make a phone call and discuss things with him, and his responses would make perfect sense. Besides this immediacy, it is a really great read. Whether this is down to Fischl, or whether the excellent writing should be credited to Michael Stone who appears as co-author – or is it ghost? – is not clear. But, beyond its technical excellence – lovely sentences expressing complex ideas, genuine engagement with the processes of memory without over-dramatisation – we enter into Fischl’s story, a long arc which has taken place in our own era and goes from psychologically tortured childhood in the affluent suburbs of 60s America, through an art-obsessed young manhood with the regulation overconsumption of cocaine and alcohol, to his current world of relative affluence and international glamour as a Golden Senior of the contemporary art scene. And we go through the art alongside the life. The one illuminates the other, a rare quality in this genre.

This sounds like a story that shouldn’t be enjoyed. After all we aren’t supposed to admire white male American artists especially when they offer figurative paintings with a lot of naked flesh in them. When I first encountered Fischl’s huge canvases of unclothed bathers on the beaches of southern France (what he painted, not where I was) I thought this was a contemporary Norman Lindsay even if the bodies were more realistic and the flesh more recognizably modern. But a deeper exploration quickly shows that this is not what Fischl is about. His art has grown from his own experience, in particular his early traumatic exposure to a very odd domestic scene disguised as perfect normality, and a sense of engagement with a kind of realism which is always imbued with something more, something deeper, something disturbing even while it forces an aesthetic admiration. As he has grown older the vision has, if anything, lightened. But he still stands as an observer, a viewer, a voyeur, a critic. He pursues surfaces only to insist on what is beneath them. Following his art from its earliest beginnings to the present offers a vista of a society and culture twisting and turning around its own sordid mythologies, centred on its own misguided fantasies, narcissism and self-defeating representations.  Fischl puts it thus in his second chapter, “Childhood, 1948-1965” (p. 11).

I began to experience a profound, dizzying sense of disassociation. I became acutely aware of the disconnect between appearance and reality, between people’s emotional needs and desires and the status symbols and objects they surrounded themselves with …. I became increasingly aware of the differences between what things looked like and how I felt as my world spun erratically and dangerously off its axis. It would later form the basis for much of my art. Almost all of my early paintings deal with the fall-out from middle-class taboos, the messy, ambivalent emotions couples felt, the inherent racism, the sexual tensions, and the unhappiness roiling below the surface of our prim suburban lives.

 This is the context from which his early, famous and controversial paintings arose. He struggled for many years in the art school environment to find a way to express himself. The account of his entry into the art world is vivid and totally believable. He relates his emotional life to the work he was doing, and his search for a viable attachment to a female partner became part of that environment. The connection between his personal, emotional, inner life and the creation of his art is a consistent theme throughout the book, but especially compelling in the first sections.

It was extremely unfashionable to be a representational or figurative artist at Calarts, the prestigious California School of the Arts which at that time (the 70s) specialized in conceptualism and offered the now-familiar critiques of all representational art forms, in the hysterical early post-modernism transferred from late 60s France. His description of the teaching methods at Calarts are dramatic and very funny. He, and a few others, were pushing against the tide of conceptualism, in an environment where manufactured images such as photos, movies and stills merged with the study of Wittgenstein and the French structuralists. He could not accept that painting is an art form necessarily associated with white European males and therefore inherently elitist, antifeminist and racist. He went on painting – abstracts of course – but with increasing disillusion. He dropped his long-time girlfriend Lannie, fell in love with another student, Laura, and moved to Chicago. The affair lasted six months while he spent his days at galleries and was hired as a guard at the Museum of Contemporary Arts. The affair with Laura petered out, he reconnected with Lannie, and they married.

Unexpectedly he was offered a teaching position at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design. The focus there was conceptual art, but his own background seemed relatively unimportant – they urgently needed someone to supervise classes. He was now making large abstractions, working with oil and encaustic. He became increasingly anxious, swinging between euphoria and spells of black hopelessness. Lannie left him. However he soon met April Gornik, who was to become his wife and partner in an enduring relationship. He writes extensively and with deep appreciation about April, herself a talented landscape artist.

By 1977 he was working in a new technique, using glassine, a milky transparent paper on which he painted in oil. Its transparency allowed him to overlap several drawings at once. The glassine works became the foundation for his explorations into narrative: they seemed like photos, “thinly sliced moments of reality” (p. 100). They suggested rooms, and the rooms triggered an association which he described as being like the emergence of a soap opera. This was taking him back to his own traumatic life and offered a new way of painting narrative. The glassine drawings were depicting relationships within a fictive family, but it was soon apparent that his own family was going to provide the basis for a different kind of art.

Because of his scattered art education Fischl had no formal training in realist painting, but he was increasingly impressed by others involved in traditional portraiture and landscape. His friend Bob Berlind at NSCAD worked alla prima, drawing with his brush. The difficulties of this technique are many, but Fischl was excited by the ability to capture a luminosity and clarity of light and shadow. Bob was an artist completely outside the current trends, but the rich visual experience stayed with Fischl, and was further enhanced by a trip he made with April to Europe visiting the major centres and galleries. In Madrid he studied Velazquez and Ribera’s old men. In Florence they spent their time with Michelangelo and Donatello. They returned to Canada and set up a new joint studio and living space.

In the late 70s they moved to New York. The alternative art scene was centred in SoHo and spilling over to the East Village and TriBeCa at a dizzying pace. The post-studio artists from CalArts had a landmark exhibit in 1977 where Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were making an art of feminist protest, while Italians Sandro Chia and Francesco Clemente brought symbolist imagery and Julian Schnabel offered a neo-expressionist revival with his broken-plate works.

There was a downside to life in New York. Finances were tight, April worked at waitressing, while Eric painted lofts and became an art removalist. By late 1979 things were happening in the art world. Eric was alert to the changes in contemporary art but also was engaged with Manet, Degas, Bonnard, Beckmann and Hopper. He liked the enormous scale of the abstract expressionists and he wanted to do heroic work of his own. The glassines were not offering enough scale or scope, and in 1978 he made the first painting of the type he went on to produce for the rest of his life. Painted on four by eight foot plywood, Rowboat was a simple composition in bright primary colours. “The string of associations which led to Rowboat were mostly unconscious … They produced an image that surprised and transfixed me” (p. 117). He felt what could happen when a painting took off by itself from his own unconscious. It was the first of the “frozen moments”, a state where all the elements of a picture are balanced on a knife edge, harmonious yet about to change.

This was the beginning of his move into full-colour, traditional oil paintings. The next major work was Sleepwalker. On a six by nine foot canvas, an adolescent boy stands in a child’s pool on a suburban lawn at night, in a still darkness. Far from awareness, he is masturbating into the pool.

Sleepwalker ERIC FISCHL

This was the start of Fischl’s depiction of “taboo” subjects. At the time, the explicitness of his images was shocking and destabilizing. Paintings such as Bad Boy (1981) and Birthday Boy (1983) opened up a space which was then, and still remains, largely forbidden. Many of his themes arose directly from his family experiences, especially his deeply troubled relationship with his alcoholic and ultimately suicidal mother. Hypocrisy was to be stripped away, and the viewer was forced into a regime of Truth which modern life systematically obscured.

And much of my work was about skin, stripping away the layers of pretense in which my subjects clothe themselves, exposing the naked or unguarded truth of their lives, the posture beneath their meticulously arranged poses. (p. 199)

The eighties picked him up, along with many others, and swept them on a wave. The demand for new, young, or as we would say today “hot”, artists seemed limitless. Their work was snapped up, and by 1982-3 they started making good money. The early eighties were an amazing time in New York anyway: limitless cocaine, nightlife, restaurants, a whole city of openings, museum events, previews and screenings. The mid-section of the book conveys brilliantly the askew sense of urgency of the era, the narcissism it provoked, and the feuds which arose. Fischl had an especially difficult relation with Julian Schnabel. He was envious and upset that Julian had become the anointed one with an art which seemed to Fischl somehow full of fake emotion, operatic or theatrical in tone, too full of the existential heroic stance typical of the abstract expressionists.

However, he soon developed his own following and success and money flooded in. The economy was blasting through the real estate boom and the new global equities markets, and this produced a novel breed of collectors, moneyed and aggressive, tuned in to fashion and status, hosting movie stars and artists in lavish uptown homes. It was the dawn of the celebrity era. Eric and April now needed several thousand dollars a month for their expenses. He began paying in art works, and had a special budget for his cigar and cocaine bills. Success sharpened rivalries among the painters at the top of the tree. As Fischl says, for those who are ambitious there can never be enough success. The rivalry with Schnabel went on. But a reckless confrontation with a gangster after the opening of his show at the Whitney led him to stop all his drinking and drug use, which was no doubt a good thing considering what was coming.

By 1990 many other artists were challenging him on his terrain, featuring themes of sex, the body, desire, relationships and identity. And the art-market had crashed. Shows had been panned, including one of April’s, and the two of them fell into a state of depression. On the positive side, Fischl was beginning to receive a lot of attention in Europe, and he had done a series of paintings based on his travels in India which had moved away from the personal/sexual/analytic field. In 1992 they decided to move out of New York and away from the art scene. Another wave of the global wealthy emerged, in Russia, Brazil and China, looking to diversify their investments. And the Internet opened up new ways for art to be seen. However Fischl did not join the ranks of those who found success in this new environment. Jeff Koons and Damian Hirst had become the darlings of the art world. The spotlight had shifted away from realist painting on challenging themes. The faddish new work was what was selling. Fischl had not “made the cut” in the art market, and “the art market had become the art world” (p. 280). The process whereby the value of art was determined by its place in the market had begun. Artists had to conform to the dictates of what sells. Fischl went on selling, but not as one of the “artists who matter”. The art world had become part of the entertainment business, and it “favoured product that was splashy, replicable, and attached to an A-list, brand-name artist”. (p. 281).

One of the most interesting aspects of this book is the extent to which other artists enter it. Fischl’s discussion of his relation to Edward Hopper is especially enlightening. He describes the mixed feelings Hopper raises in him. Fischl feels that Hopper lacks painting style. He describes a reductive technique, a kind of directness and honesty in an awkward kind of painting. “He’s not very good at rendering figures. They often seem overworked and turgid, and as such they reveal his puritanical anxiety about flesh; it’s as though he wasn’t in control of his medium”. (p. 299).

In spite of his critique of Hopper, Fischl was forced to accept that Hopper seemed somehow present in his own work. It was the same territory in painting. He had captured something about the experience of being American: “a bone-deep loneliness, a sense of alienation and anxiety that’s the flip side of self-reliance …” (p. 299).

Fischl then entered into a dialogue with two Hopper paintings, Summer in the City and Excursion into Philosophy. They embraced themes central to Fischl’s interests. These paintings were ten years apart but seemed to be telling the same story. They are about distance and abstraction, the gaps between lovers and life. His response was the painting The Philosopher’s Chair, a bedroom scene which enlarges the tension in the Hopper paintings.   This led into a series of paintings based on similar themes, “The Bed, the Chair …” . He used a theatrical or cinematic device to advance the themes. In each picture (eleven in all) he placed different subjects in the same room, so that space became the location of different dramas over time. The series’ principle characters became the bed and the chair, while humans engaged alongside, on, or in them. The discussion of the thought process which went into these painting is almost unique in contemporary art writing (see pp. 300-303).

Thephilosopherschair

This led into the Krefeld Project in 2002, a series of large paintings based on an unprecedented encounter between art and a kind of realism. Two actors, a man and a woman, were photographed performing different scenes in different rooms of Museum Haus Esters, originally designed by modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Fischl photographed them and finished up with more than 2000 photographs, which were digitized and uploaded onto a computer. Fischl then edited the photos into ten scenes which became the basis for ten paintings. Fischl gives relatively little discussion to this project, possibly because there is an excellent and extensive account of it published to accompany the exhibition. These two series brought together the storytelling devices he had been working on since the late 70s. They functioned like cinematic pieces using montage. Each painting worked on its own, offering an intense individual drama, but together they constituted a larger meditation on the nature of relationship, gender, power, place, intimacy and alienation – the themes which Fischl has been exploring throughout his career.

Krefeld Project 1

In one way, all of Fischl’s work can be seen as the construction of scenes within a series. The link between the elements of the series is not always evident, or can even be seen as deliberately obscured. Many paintings can be read in different ways and the relation between them is not necessarily temporal. If there is a sequence it is formed in the unconscious, so that the artist asks the viewer to make up his/her own mind about the narrative elements, the “what happened when”. Perhaps the pictures function together like a William Burrough’s writing sequence, reflecting back on each other while opening up new vistas.

It has proven very difficult to summarise this book. As in the narrative frame of Fischl’s paintings, the reader is constantly drawn forward into events, which reach a kind of soft resolution but then transform into the next phase. As we know, the full impact of an artist’s work cannot really be estimated until his death. Fischl remains very much alive and has a new show in London (October 2014), depicting sardonically the contemporary art “scene”. To read this book is to enter into a dialogue with art and life in contemporary America and beyond. It is also a philosophical and theoretical thriller, conveyed through wonderfully expressive writing and a sense of ethical engagement. It offers a treatise on the art world today, but more compelling is the sense of the person behind the art and the writing, a person struggling always with a level of truth even when it is distinctly uncomfortable and unflattering.   It would be hard not to admire and enjoy the company of this person.

 

 

 

Juliette Aristides. Classical Drawing Atelier.

Juliette Aristides.  Classical Drawing Atelier. A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice.  Watson-Guptill Publications, New York. 2006.

I had noticed this book several times on Amazon, while searching for works which addressed certain key technical issues which I felt were sorely missing in my own work. Drawing the figure is principle among them. Having had only the most rudimentary training in classical drawing, the idea of approaching it through a well-illustrated book written from the traditional perspective seemed very attractive. The reader reviews for the book ranged from quite enthusiastic to lukewarm. Coming across the work in a library gave an opportunity for a closer look, to assess whether it would be a useful manual or source of on-going training and study.

Aristides 1

This book is nicely produced and feels good in the hand. There is a great deal of text, many more or less compelling illustrations, and singularly little actual “training” detail. I have found the same with many other art books. It is often the case that a high proportion of the illustrative material is the work of the author, or of close associates, while outstanding famous examples which one would want to study closely are seldom included. Books with many drawings and colour plates are incredibly expensive to produce and it is understandable that publishers are reluctant to invest in these costs without being sure of recouping them. Since classical drawing and painting techniques more-or-less disappeared in the mid to late twentieth century it is only in a few circles that such works would appeal. However, when looking in more detail at the publishing history and availability of this work, it seems to be one which has been published in several variants and editions, sometimes with a slightly different title, and is now available on Kindle at less than $20. So there is a significant market for it.

The book describes itself as arising specifically from the Atelier context. Many today use this just as another fancy term for a studio. However Atelier refers to a distinct mode of art training, one which was more or less universal up until the twentieth century. Atelier training is rare today. There are some ateliers in the US, one of which is associated with Aristides, and many more in Europe. Atelier training involves not just a technical approach towards realist/representational art, but arises from a philosophy and aesthetic practice, even though this is not often articulated. There are hints of it in Aristides’ book, but no more than that. Her engagement with the deeper aspects of the “break” between classical and modern art is limited to an historical overview approach.

There are some reasons why this book could benefit would-be representational artists. Figuration has been undergoing a significant revival; and while many contemporary artists are perfectly happy to treat their figures with casual gestures, much recent work is moving towards a higher level of anatomical and visual complexity which might suggest that a knowledge of drawing is imperative for the complex large-scale figurative compositions which they are producing. Of course painting is not drawing, and the example of Lucian Freud suggests that the figure can be constructed in paint with no more than a few charcoal lines on the canvas for a drawing. The relation between drawing and figurative painting is an interesting subject for another time.

Aristides’ book begins by offering an historical perspective on artists’ training in recent times, where the idea of an established artistic heritage has been broken. Contemporary artists frequently repudiate any links to the art of the past, while education and formal training are considered “antithetical to genius” (p. xi). Aristides argues for the mastery of craft, and a focus on technical achievement, as precursor to individual self-expression. It is clear that for atelier-trained artists the knowledge and stylistic expression of art in the classical style, dating back to the ancient Greeks, is the bedrock of their art practice. That knowledge in turn was based on other ancient civilizations including Egyptian, Near Eastern and Aegean cultures. Ancient Greece became the standard-bearer for the highest levels of artistic expression, rediscovered in the Italian renaissance, where the humanistic perspective and the idea that man is the measure of all things flourished. Leonardo and Michelangelo remain the measure of great art of earlier times, although the idea of emulating or imitating their artistic practice might seem an anachronistic absurdity. Aristides rejects such a view, and focuses on elements of draftsmanship, for example the use of line in the expression of form. There are a number of useful diagrams and discussions, which lead to an understanding of the way lines are positioned in the earliest stage of a drawing, from which the key elements of composition and the visual hierarchy of various parts arise. The use of block-in in first stage drawing is clearly explained, which leads on to the examination of measuring to determine distances and relationships. The differences between sight measurement and relational measuring are explained.

The book goes on to examine other elements of drawing, including figure drawing from life, portrait drawing, and related matters. All of these discussions warrant close examination and a careful student would take the time to undertake sketches and copies of many of these, so as to get a sense of how the written text and illustrative examples “work” when being duplicated in real time.

Part Four promises to “put theory into practice” and unfortunately this is the weakest element of the work.   A very brief discussion of materials precedes some elementary notes on drawing spheres, for instance. The reader who has bothered to come this far is already likely to be very familiar both with materials and the drawing of spheres. A lesson on “Master Copy Drawing” again offers the barest account of how to go about copying from Master drawings, with only the slightest amount of detail at a most elementary level. Other “lessons” include “reductive figure drawing” in charcoal, and a simple approach to portrait drawing.

The book ends very abruptly, and there is no conclusion or any effort to link the practical elements to a broader consideration of how a revived interest and skill in classical drawing techniques is or might be playing a significant role in the emergence of new figurative/narrative drawing and/or painting. The very slight and elementary information contained in the “lessons” is so far from the aims and expectations of the kind of art student who is likely to be reading it that one wonders about the motivation for the project as a whole.

On balance, this is not a work which needs to be in one’s library. It would be good to ponder, and copy, many of the illustrations, and to be able to apply principles of measurement and ratio as they are explained here, but the ardent art student would be just as well-served by the purchase of less expensive drawing manuals, even if they are nowhere near as informative or well-written regarding the background of classical drawing. Finally, the availability of the book on Kindle may make it more attractive to those who want an introduction to some of the matters raised above. But the limitations of art books in electronic form are notable, especially if you want to use illustrations as a source of study and copy material. This is one of the best arguments for the value of the traditional artist’s library, although other kinds of art books especially biographies and memoirs may be preferable in e-form. This goes especially for the blockbuster biographies which are so thick as to be hard to open and so heavy that you can’t read them in bed. More on these later.

 

 

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…

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 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.

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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

 

Isaac Julien: PLAYTIME

ISAAC JULIEN: PLAYTIME

Roslyn Oxley9, Soudan Lane, Paddington, Sydney.

15th March – 12th April 2014

isaac 1

Isaac Julien: Publicity Still

Tucked away at the base of a majestic sandstone wall in Paddington, Roslyn Oxley’s gallery is a long-standing attraction for Sydney art-lovers, reputed for discernment without pretension. Established in 1982 and showing many rising stars, the gallery has moved to an exhibition program largely focussed on Asia-Pacific art, especially new arts of Australia, New Zealand and Japan. Prominent among the gallery’s represented artists are Hany Armanious and Michael Parekowhai (who represented Australia and New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2011) as well as Patricia Piccinini, Bill Henson and Tracy Moffatt.

This regional focus goes alongside a commitment to internationalisation. Artists such as Pierre et Gilles (1995), Robert Mapplethorpe (1996, 1997, 2000), Young British Artists Group Show (1996) and Moriko Mori (1997) led this trend in the 1990s, followed by Tracey Emin (2004) and Yayoi Kusama (five shows in the 2000s, most recently in 2012).

The recent installation by British film/video artist Isaac Julien continues it. However, Julien is not just an artist from another place, but an artist whose entire oeuvre has been concerned with the crossing of spaces, boundaries, identities and cultural forms, while exploring the relation between aesthetics and politics.

Image Isaac Julien, King’s Cross, Sydney, March 2014. (Photograph: Annette Hamilton)

Born in London in 1960, of French Caribbean immigrant background, Julien embodies a bold transnationalism in life and work. Educated at Central St Martin’s School of Art with a BA in Fine Art Film, he went on to postgraduate study in audio-visual art in Brussels. Film, audio and photography in themed installations have become his signature mode, although the traverse to the present has been idiosyncratic at times. His art is well-known in film/video/politics circles, and he was nominated for the Turner Prize in 2001.

He began his work presenting intellectually engaged exercises in pop-cultural analysis which sustained the dynamism and sexy vitality of the era. Drama-documentary Looking for Langston (1989) gained a cult following with its exploration of Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.

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His next major film was Young Soul Rebels, which won the Semaine de la critique prize for best film at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Movie Poster

Julien’s work crosses the lines between film, dance, photography, music, theatre, painting and sculpture. He creates powerful visual narratives which draw on elements of these varied disciplines. His earlier art films such as Three (1996-9), Vagabondia (2000) and Paradise Omeros (2002) explore issues in race, class and sexuality, sustaining within his video-art strong allegoric narrative elements. The same elements guided his exploration of mythic images of the cowboy in the context of gay culture and the West, in The Long Road to Mazatlan (1999). Restaging scenes from films by Martin Scorsese, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, he created a three-screen video installation mixing documentary with fiction, starring the Venezualan dancer and choreographer Javier de Frutos (see published conversation with B. Ruby Rich, 2002).

Few viewers of his recent projects would guess that another of his major works was a documentation of US Blaxploitation movies of the 1970s.  BaadAssss Cinema: a Bold Look at ‘70s Blaxploitation Films was released in 2003 by the New Video Group Inc studio, an independent film channel. It included interviews with Quentin Tarantino, Pam Grier and other actors and filmworkers of that era, and artfully intercut clips and segments from some of the famous films of the time. The DVD of the film is still commercially available.

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The same year he showed an art-film version of this project in a lush multi-screen projection Baltimore, which added a sci-fi twist to the blaxploitation conventions. Shot on 16 mm film, transferred to DVD and projected onto three big screens, the piece featured Melvin Van Peebles, director of the seminal film Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAssss Song (1971), in a tribute to black urban cinema. Street scenes of a ghetto neighbourhood are presented with a soundtrack including fragments of dialogue from Sweetback, while the real Van Peebles and a Foxy Brown-looking black woman walk through city streets. They arrive at institutions such as the Walters Museum, where they view Renaissance art. They walk through the hallways of various storehouses of artifacts and social styles creating a metaphorical journey through representations of temporal experience in the city. In a central passage of the show, Van Peebles confronts black heroes from the wax museum including Martin Luther King Jr and Billie Holliday (and himself) positioned in a painting gallery full of historical paintings. The film captures both a nostalgic sense of the vitality of black urban life, a perceptual funk scene, alongside a curious conversation between fantasies in historical space and time (Reid, 2004).

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Murray (2004, p. 92) comments that Baltimore is “a continuation of Julien’s cinematic engagement with the contemporary exigencies of art history and the importance of the museum as a battleground for cultural legitimacy”. Technically, Murray also identifies one of the distinguishing features of Julien’s work, a visually intoxicating quality produced by the sense of “floating” as the camera moves through spaces creating layers of impressions, clusters of conceptual relativities. His use of multiple screens creates the viewer as individual editor of the text, so the chain of meaning is constructed from the flow of images.

Three films in the mid 2000s offered reflections on journeying across continents and cultures. These included True North in 2004 and Fantôme Afrique in 2005. A third, Small Boats, made up a trilogy which was screened in various venues such as Metro Pictures gallery in Chelsea. These films work from “real” backstories, and then elaborate on the themes raised through the split-screen camera technique. True North concerns the African-American explorer Matthew Henson who was the first man to reach the North Pole, although the white Robert Peary has always been credited with the achievement. Filmed in Iceland and Northern Sweden, the imagery grew progressively frozen and the icy wastes enfolded the narrative. Fantôme Afrique was filmed in Burkino Faso, the heart of the film industry in Africa, mostly taking place in the searing golden light of the desert. Small Boats links dance and film, shown in a single stage-wide screen. The three were shown as a trilogy at BAM in 2007, and an excellent interview with Martina Kudlacek illuminates much about his thinking and techniques (Kudlacek with Julien, 2007). To a degree, this phase of Julien’s work can be labelled “post-colonial”, although he distances himself from association with the label, while acknowledging the deep theoretical engagement which characterises his approach.

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In 2008 he completed a film which surprised his fans and dismayed many critics. Titled Derek it offered an homage to noted British film-maker Derek Jarman, who had died in 1994. Critics commented on the extent to which this film lacked the stylistic elegance and subtlety evident in his earlier works. The film was seen as a conventional hagiographic documentary. Actor Tilda Swinton was a close friend of Jarman’s and hers is the dominant voice in the film, which seems to be a didactic exploration of the position of the gay filmmaker in contemporary society.

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http://www.zimbio.com  Sundance Portrait Session

Roger Cook (2008) offered a very negative commentary on the film’s political position, describing it as suffused with an “atmosphere of defensive ressentiment” (p. 38). Its “imperious political rhetoric” especially offended him, and his published critique in Art Monthly includes a particularly vicious unattributed quote about Julien himself: “It’s a spoilt bloke making spoilt films for spoilt people” (ibid). Nonetheless this piece does raise questions about the inextricability of politics and aesthetics (following Rancière) and suggests comparisons with Pasolini.

Julien moved from engagement with a single-screen cinema technology to the diverse potentials of multi-channel video installation (see Wu, Gough and Wall, 2012.  His most striking exploration of this form is in his work Ten Thousand Waves (2010), a 55 minute installation designed to be viewed on nine double-sided screens, allowing eighteen different views of the installation. The audience can move around and view from any vantage point. The work moves between China’s ancient past and present, exploring the movement of people across countries and continents, engaged in permanently unfinished journeys. Its primary inspiration came from the Morecambe Bay tragedy of 2004 in Britain, when 20 Chinese cockle-pickers drowned on a flooded sandbank in northwest England. Maggie Cheung, famed Chinese actor, portrays the Chinese goddess Mazu from Fujian Province, the home province of the cockle-pickers. The film recounts the story of 16th century fishermen imperilled at sea. In a reenactment of classic 1930s film The Goddess, actress Zhao Xiaoshi plays the sea goddess who leads them to safety. The film is staged on the streets of modern and old Shanghai and uses music and sounds that fuse Eastern and Western traditions, with contributions from London-based musician Jah Wobble and the Chinese Dub Orchestra. The film took four years to research and create, and has been widely screened and praised around the world (MOMA publicity for installation, November 2013 – February 2-14).

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Maggie Cheung in Ten Thousand Waves: publicity still

PLAYTIME

The project bears the same title as Jacques Tati’s 1967 film which offered a lightly constructed expression of dismay at the wreckage caused by modern capitalism (below, left: still from Tati’s Playtime)

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PLAYTIME is a much more serious look at the same theme and is by far the most direct and articulate exploration of contemporary politics Julien has attempted. Although comments on the film frequently refer to it as exploring current debates on the relationship between capital and the art world, this theme is only one element in the piece. PLAYTIME and KAPITAL are shown simultaneously on endlessly looping screens in different but adjacent spaces. It is possible to move between them at any time, an illuminating viewing strategy. PLAYTIME consists of three elements, or chapters, set in three different cities defined by their relation to Capital: London, in the wake of financial deregulation; Reyjkjavik, where the 2008 crisis began, and Dubai, home of one of the world’s major financial markets. The main characters are played by actors enacting roles of The Collector, The Auctioneer, the Housekeeper and the Reporter, played by actors whose scripts are based on interviews between Julien and people affected by the financial crisis of 2007/8.

 KAPITAL, viewed in a dark room with just two chairs side by side and two sets of headphones, offers a documentary-style film of a real panel interview intercut with a variety of scenes reflecting the comments in the panel discussion. David Harvey, author of The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2010), sits on the stage with Julien at the Hayward Gallery in London, along with an audience of critics theorists and curators.

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David Harvey, from  http://www.wideopenschool.com/class/Choreographing%20Capital

What occurs is a reprise of a 1960s Marxist discussion, somehow dislocated by the inability of the classic theoretical apparatus to accommodate the bizarre nature of contemporary global capitalism. This is the terrain Julien wants to take us through, but it is an uncertain journey.  Entering debates so ethically charged and politically problematic is a dangerous manoeuvre.  In his earlier works, which could be interpreted as aesthetic ventures into post-colonial worlds, viewers would not be disturbed from their ideological comfort zones. PLAYTIME and KAPITAL demand a different awareness and cannot be shoeboxed in the same way. Julien is talking about late global capitalism and the operations of the art market as an element in the transnational economy, run by dodgy financiers, fast-talking auctioneers and vaguely stupid collectors, where art fetches stratospheric prices and finishes up being dusted on the walls of luxury high-rise apartments in Dubai where nobody lives. Of course not everybody is going to like it.

Richard Woodward, in New York’s Collector Daily (December 4 2013) doesn’t, and doesn’t pull his punches.

 It takes chutzpah for an artist to satirize the art market while fully benefiting from its largesse.  Isaac Julien’s show is full of this double-talk.  He is apparently upset at the gulf between rich and poor but views clueless collectors with disdain unless, of course, they happen to be shopping for one of his pieces … the artist manages to exhibit many of the hypocritical values his work wants us to abhor. 

The work in PLAYTIME is complex and interweaves thematic elements in unexpected ways. It begins with a vast empty office-space in London. Two men walk about in random patterns, speaking the kind of financial-speak we have come to expect in contemporary discourse. In fact, some of their speech comes directly from David Harvey in the KAPITAL section of the installation. The city is spread out below them: the idea of Distinction depends on the maintenance of Greed. The Boss (played by British actor Colin Salmon) speaks of his need to employ only the top PhD graduates from Universities such as Harvard and Yale. With them he can keep the wheels turning. He explains hedge funds in bizarre terms, using an analogy with men’s underpants. In several strangely beautiful scenes we see a vast airconditioned warehouse full of computers, which is all you can actually see of capitalism: the lights blinking on and off as markers of the market. At the end of the segment the Boss walks about playing the trumpet, perhaps sobbing.

In the Iceland segment, the landscape occupies the entire screen, with plumes of smoke rising and hovering over the water. The central figure is a man who lost his self-designed ultra-modern home in the financial crash. He seems entirely overwhelmed by an irresolvable tragedy, expressed physically through his tortured physicality and desperate expression. How is the vImageiewer to respond? At first the viewer seems invited to identify with his pain. But soon one begins to ask, is it really such a terrible tragedy that a once-wealthy man lost his dream home? Isn’t his anguish and distress absurdly OTT? Why should people devote such passion to the building of “Their House”? What made it possible for him in the first place to acquire the capital which would allow him to engage in such a project? The vast empty premises of the Landsbankinn – one of the first banks to collapse – seems somehow appropriate to the icy wastes beyond.

 

 

The next London segment verges on satire. Actor James Franco plays a stereotypical art advisor extolling the value of contemporary art as a perfect investment for the diversification of a portfolio. As he walks up the stairs in a blank white-painted building he calls out numbers: 95, 100, 110, and for a moment you wonder what these figures refer to – but of course, they are millions, which is what the wealthy elites are now payImageing for art. At auctions the investors have advisers and agents on the phone, pushing prices up to astronomical levels supported by the insanity of the global economy. They can bid for and buy art from anywhere in the world, and they do: they come from Russia, from China, from Brazil. We meet the Auctioneer, in this case playing himself, Simon de Pury. He becomes anxious and excited before each major auction, eating an apple for luck.   One “painting” which consisted of a written text on a wall sold for 1.2 million, a super-modest price compared with the 42 million paid for a Roy Lichtenstein in 2011. Art and antiques became part of the equipage of the wealthy class in the post-crisis mistrust of esoteric financial instruments. The Global Financial Crisis helped the art market beyond anybody’s expectations. During the GFC only 50% of items offered for sale were sold: now it is nearer 90%, springing back after the huge Christie’s auction in Paris in March 2009. Chinese star Maggie Cheung, who appears in Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, plays the role of an eager interviewer. In reality, the two never were together and each segment was filmed separately and intercut artfully.

Meanwhile, in Dubai, the financial capital of the Middle East, a beautiful but sad housekeeper in a black and white uniform walks sadly back and forward through an empty luxury apartment.

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Mercedes Cabral as The Housekeeper: publicity still

 

Played with a sensitive but unemotional demeanour by Mercedes Cabral, Filipina actor best known for playing in art house and independent films, this sector seems oddly out of adjustment with those preceding it. At times we seem to be overhearing an ethnographic interview, as she explains that she had to pay an agency 150,000 pesos to get the job in the first place. She needs the money to support her family at home. The inhabitants of the vast elegant apartment with its art pieces never appear. She dusts, and gazes. Long periods of silence accompany empty visuals of the vast city outlook with its lights and vehicles stranded in the midst of an empty sand desert, where she stands staring into the distance in the closing scene.

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How can we understand contemporary capitalism: is it the same as it was, or are we seeing something  altogether different? Analysis of something so invisible and intangible seems an absurd venture. Images of riots, computers and banks of neon numbers as well as talking heads and actors who may or may not be playing themselves make it hard for most viewers, who may not be able to take in the theoretical issues being debated here, many of which go back to bitter political fights of the 1960s. But is a video installation the right place to be asking these questions?  Or are there other questions lurking behind which we haven’t yet asked?

Some commentators appear bemused. Others, such as Searle (2014) pick up on the uncertainty produced by Julien’s method while appreciating its strengths.

There is brilliance and disappointment in Playtime. A hybrid of fiction and documentary, the film makes it difficult to know what is real. I wander between the screens, lost in Julien’s cinematic subterfuge, and that, I think, is the point. 

Hybrids of documentary and fiction are common in literature, much less so in cinema, although re-enactment has become a common strategy in commercial television of recent times. Still, the breaking down of barriers between reality and imagination seems particularly challenging. For an art film-maker to be giving us a lesson in Marxist theory seems strange today although it was hardly unknown in the 1960s especially in the Latin American revolutionary context. For that lesson to be couched in the method of a hyper-developed media technology and elevated aesthetics is harder still to accommodate. It is hardly surprising If it proves almost impossible to say something which will be widely understood on a topic which is, for most people, entirely ungraspable.  What is fascinating is the extent to which Julien is willing to push the boundaries even while maintaining a certain tongue-in-cheek distancing from them. Unlike Searle (ibid) I didn’t find any longeurs in this work but I would have liked to see a bit more speed and directness in the Dubai section which seemed to link only vaguely to the direction of the other elements.

In terms of strategy of presentation, the use of two separate linked spaces, both lit only by reflected light from the screens, separated the viewer’s intellectual and aesthetic engagement. At Roslyn Oxley9 the main viewing area featured a long wide bench, on the edge of which viewers had to perch. Or, in some cases, lie down. When there were more viewers, they had to crouch on the floor.

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This was an odd viewing experience, emphasising a kind of static loneliness in the encounter with the work, unlike previous projects which required active mobility from the viewer in constructing imaginative connections.   Its ability to connect with the intended audience is necessarily compromised by the peculiar position it opens for them. There is a quality of introspection which takes precedence over the usual sense of delerious enjoyment found in his work. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the great majority of consumers in the art market really do not want to discuss the urgent issues surrounding global capitalism, and Julien’s desire for them to reconsider does not make for a comfortable engagement.  Notwithstanding such critiques, the film is undeniably provocative and very beautiful.

 

REFERENCES

Art iT 2013 Isaac Julien Part 1.

<http://www.art-it.asia/u/admin_ed_feature_e/n6fMcR3eJU52sQuiTPqF >[Accessed 3 April 2014).

Cook, Roger. 2008. Isaac Julien’s Derek. Art Monthly, April, p. 315.

Harvey, David. 2010. The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism. London: Profile Books.

Harvey, David. N.d. Reading Marx’s Capital with David Harvey. <http://davidharvey.org/reading-capital/> [Accessed 6 April 2014)

Julien, Isaac. 2008. The way I see it: artists tackle ten existential questions. New Statesman, June 16,Vol 137 p. 40.

Kudlacek Martina and Isaac Julien. 2007. Isaac Julien. BOMB No 101 (Fall pp. 72-79. [Accessed 26/03/2014]

Murray, Soraya. 2004. Isaac Julien: Baltimore. Journal of Contemporary African Art, Summer, 92-93.

MOMA. 2013.   Isaac Julien: Ten Thousand Waves. The Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium. MOMA, New York: Publicity Materials.

Reid, Calvin. 2004. Funk Renaissance. Art in America. March, p. 92-95.

Searle, Adrian. 2014. Playtime. London. The Guardian.

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jan/29/playtime-james-franco-power-money-isaac-julien-capital

[Accessed 4th April 2014]

Woodward, Richard. 2013. Isaac Julien PLAYTIME @ Metro Pictures. <http://collectordaily.com/isaac-julien-playtime-metro-pictures> [Accessed 4th April 2014)]

Wu, Ge, Phillip Gough and Caitlin de Berigny Wall. Multiple-channel video installation as a precursor to transmedia-based art. 2012. Technoetic Arts: a Journal of Speculative Research, Vol 10, 2/3, pp. 329-339.

 

On post-colonialism in Julien’s art:  (Interview with ART iT)

ART iT: When you were starting out as an artist was post-colonial theory an inspiration for you, and did you actively use it in constructing your works?

IJ: Absolutely. I couldn’t have made my early films like Territories (1984) and Looking for Langston (1989) without it. Along with my peers I read Stuart Hall, Gayatri Spivak, Paul Gilroy, Richard Dyer and, of course, Homi Bhabha’s famous essay “The Other Question” (1983). Then in 1988 I was on the editorial board of Screen journal with the cultural art critic Kobena Mercer. But I wasn’t exclusively interested in post-colonial theory. I was also interested in film theory and psychoanalysis and a translation of those ideas across media. In 1995 it was really exciting to attend the “Frantz Fanon and Visual Representation” conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, which coincided with the making of my film Frantz Fanon: Black Skin White Mask (1996) in collaboration with Mark Nash, who was also an editor of Screen and a curator for documenta11. Steve McQueen made his first exhibition there and artists like Glenn Ligon and Lorna Simpson were also present in an exhibition that coincided with the conference, “Mirage: Enigmas of Race, Desire and Difference.” Retrospectively, you could see it as part of the formation of a conceptual Black arts movement – some might call it “post-Black” – in which there were these different nuances that developed in different practices.

But of course as an artist you evolve in different directions and engage with other discourses. In 1999 I made the film installation Long Road to Mazatlán, which was ostensibly about two cowboys in the American West and was nominated for the Turner Prize. It was a deliberately Warholian-type work and through it I think I was already challenging what I saw as the post-colonial paradigm. I purposely cast two white protagonists, one of whom was the choreographer and dancer Javier de Frutos, who collaborated with me on the project. Of course, they were queer, and there was this Warholian play with desire and the quotational Pop-art element, but I think I was already conscientiously trying to upend post-colonial expectations. Some of my friends saw the piece and told me, “Oh, that’s a bit odd for you to make, Isaac.” And I thought, “Well, that’s exactly my point!”
That said, I take it for granted that post-coloniality might be one of the themes in my work. It simply won’t be my sole theme of interest. Unfortunately, that’s not everybody’s point of view.

 

Christian Boltanski: Chance

CHRISTIAN BOLTANSKI: CHANCE

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Christian Boltanski’s art patrols the borders of an existential philosophy exploring randomness, memory and death. He works through large-scale installations which have been seen at many prestigious art events around the world, including at the Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris,  Künstalle Wien, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and many others. The installation Chance, consisting of three elements, Wheel of Fortune, Last News from Humans and Be New (2011) was presented at the French Pavilion at the Viennale, and later shown in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, and in Brazil before its presentation at Carriageworks as part of the Sydney Festival (Carriageworks 2014).

Boltanski left formal education at the age of 12, seemingly suffering from something like autism. Self-taught, he began painting in 1958 when he was fourteen years old.  He came to public attention in the late 1960s with a series of short avant-garde films and the publication of notebooks in which he reflected on his childhood. All of this work combined reality and fiction, offering doubtful evidence about his own and other people’s existence.[1] In the 1970s he turned to photography using objets trouvés as subjects. Then he began creating marionette-like figures from cardboard and scraps, transposed into large picture formats. Mysterious shapes of silhouettes in movement emerged (Fox 1998).

But the kind of work for which he is best known emerged in the mid 1980s when he began making installations from different materials and media. His installations rely on the ephemera and off-casts of human experience.  He has used obituary photographs, lost property, and forms of memorialisation of unknown people. In one work he used portrait photographs of Jewish schoolchildren taken in Vienna in 1931 as a reminder of the mass murder of Jews by the Nazis.  In another he filled rooms and corridors with items of worn clothing as a reminder of the clothing depots at concentration camps.   Objects were used as testimony to human experience and suffering (Franzke, n.d.).

Contemporary trauma theory would suggest that he, like many other artists, was using his art to “work through” some specific elements in his personal biography.

Melvyn Bragg, in the video interview directed by Gerald Fox (1998) repeatedly attempts to return to the idea of a traumatic kernel at the centre of Boltanski’s art, something located in his own biography.  He was born in Paris in 1944. The war in Europe was almost over by that time.  The events of the war, the persecution of the Jews, the realities of the concentration and extermination camps, would have long ended by the time he became old enough to be aware of social and political matters. His work on themes related to extremity, memory, suffering and chance seems to have this origin but apart from brief comments in interviews it is difficult to be sure of “the facts”. Even the text often referred to as his “memoir” (Boltanski and Grenier 2009) is entitled “The Possible Life…”  which leaves its basis open to interpretation.[2] Nevertheless something in the conditions of his childhood similarly influenced his brother, about whom he hardly ever speaks.[3]

His brother, Luc Boltanski, is an eminent Professor of Sociology in France’s most prestigious Insitute of social sciences, the École des hautes études  en sciences sociales, in Paris, and is the leader of a new “pragmatic” school of French sociology, known for its political and moral framework. His work lies broadly in the field of biopolitics.  In his book Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics hedescribes a politics of pity based on the spectacle of suffering.  Viewing by the fortunate who do not share the suffering of those they observe is the basis of this politics.  Mass media in particular television has spread this mode of perception and public reaction to the rush of uncontrolled events in reality.

Victimhood provides a particular identity and the politics of pity demands that the observers find a way to urgently assist them.  This is not a matter of formal justice: there can be no question of who is “at fault”, merely a recognition that those who suffer must be assisted. “The development of a politics of pity thus assumes two classes which are not unequal by reference to merit … but solely be reference to luck” (L. Boltanski, 1999: 5). It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the works of both brothers may arise from a common strand.

C. Boltanski likes to present himself as trangressive or even shocking. In the 1980s he spoke of the artist’s life as like a Hasidic tale or a Zen story.  He claimed that artists are like saints who live in the desert on top of columns, but at the same time are crooks. He wants to make a moral work, speaking of universal things, life and death, being and not being. He claims he, and other artists, are like preachers, believing in their art and yet being somehow false. Works of art are like relics, he says, and the more you create, the more you disappear and so you are in a way invisible or dead.  This article is extremely revealing regarding his philosophy at that period, with useful comments on the relation between his work and the Holocaust, especially on the large piece The Children of Dijon (Borger 1988/89, p. 24).

Impermanence, transience, and loss is reflected in the works themselves, which cannot be “collected” in any conventional sense.  The vast installations are destroyed after exhibition. This highlights one of the most puzzling questions about artists like Boltanski. Their work is entirely conceptual. They do not “make” their art. All of their exhibits have to be constructed and managed by others. In what sense is the creator an “artist”? Can art be separated from the physical action of its creator?  Does the contemporary, or perhaps it is post-modern, obsession with conceptual art and installation arise from an ethical insistence on the priority of idea over form and of collective effort above private individual labour?

There have been other, deeper, critiques of Boltanski’s oevre. For example some have questioned the ethics of his position.  He seems to apply an almost complete lack of differentiation between individuals and types or groups of people.  This is very evident in Chance.

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The Polish newborns are located within a “space” –  Poland – but out of time. They might have been born in the 2000s or for that matter in the 1940s.  Their fates of course would be totally different, and this is the central point Boltanski is trying to make. His modes of representation do not distinguish between the origins and consequences of the operation of random fate. In another work, Les Archives: Detective (1987) he drew no distinction between victims or murderers. As Solomon-Godeau suggests, “it implies a bottom line equivalency from which ethical distinctions are banished. This means we are unable to cast judgment on those represented.” (2012: 8).  A counter-argument could be offered: that there should be a basic equivalent respect for all individuals, regardless of their deeds. This seems a view quite consonant with much contemporary ethical philosophy, which undermines the traditional expectation of ethical judgments arising from collectively recognised justice and morality. It is a form of postmodern relativism in the field of ethics.

Other critics express disgust with Boltanski as one among many others whose fundamental preoccupation is with an empty euphoric-apocalyptic hysteria disguised as a form of politics. Charlesworth, for example, says:

But it’s everywhere — from Allora & Calzadilla’s United States of Self-loathing, to Mike Nelson’s anxious simulation of an alien  Middle East, to Christian Boltanski’s crazed machine of speeding overpopulation — the nervous breakdown of a politics of crisis suffuses every pavilion. It’s like being in a room full of manic-depressives who haven’t had their meds, all sobbing and               babbling. (Charlesworth 2012, p. 56)

While this is over-stating the case, there is nonetheless a certain force to this view, raising questions about the forms of political engagement possible for the contemporary artist.

“Chance” at Carriageworks 

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It is a warm humid day in Sydney. The sun streams down from a vivid blue sky.

Carriageworks offers an amazing visual space.  Its vastness and clear panels of roofing create a mobile tableau of lights and darks. The walls have been preserved, or rather paused in their process of decay.  Rust gathers along the chrome yellow girders, No L 64, high above the floor level, announces LOADING TO EXCEED 10 TONS.  This girder, its depth and solidity, anchors one end of the building. Two smart-looking fellows are perched at tables, staring at computer screens.  Cutlery gleams inside shiny tin cans.  The napkins are made of brown heavy paper. Light illuminates brick-red pipes which support interior lights.

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Boltanski’s gigantic work Wheel of Fortune is easily contained here. Sunlight illuminates the bright silver scaffolding, eight metres high, weighing twenty tons. Its intricate assembly creates a layered perspective through which the endless line of enlarged black and white images of newborn baby faces pass.  They move at a steady pace, until a bell rings and the loop of grainy images comes to a halt, the camera capturing one child’s face which is displayed on a screen.

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These are photos of newborn babies, taken from the birth announcements of Polish newspapers.  They could be from any age, any place.  Seeing them at the far end of the installation, they are now reversed.  It makes no difference. The intent behind the display is simple: all people are the product of a chance moment, of the specific moment when their parents made love; had it been before then, or afterwards, each person would have been different.  A technical and temporal flash creates us all in our apparent difference and uniqueness.

An employee has to be present at all times to make sure that the machinery governing the movement of images through the vast scaffolding is not interrupted by some mechanical failure. When after the first installation it proved too hot for the glue holding the screen of images together it was necessary to find skilled artisans with large machines able to sew the canvas materials on which the images were printed together (personal communication, staff member, February 2014).

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At each end of the piece, the second element of the exhibit is located high above the heads of the viewers. Last News from Humans displays two digital tallies in real time showing births and deaths around the globe.  The yellow/green shows the number of births, the red the number of deaths. Through the flashing lights we see how quickly lives are created and end.

green nos red nos

It’s sobering to consider the discrepancy between the numbers being born and the numbers dying. At the time of my viewing, 176,000 were born and a mere 66,000 died – or had died at some specific time, although this was not well explained.  My immediate thought:  more people should die. I mention this to the young man overseeing the operation of the machinery.  He seems shocked.  We are supposed to think that fewer people should be born.  There are deep existential and philosophical issues here.

To one side is the third part of the exhibit, Be New. This consists of three disparate photographic sequences, images of the Polish newborns intercut with images of deceased elderly Swiss people.  The latter images came from another Boltanski installation. There are potentially 1.5 million combinations from the three segments.  The viewer presses a button and produces a new human face. This is meant to remind us that we are all composites of our ancestors.

 

I get this exhibit, in a way I hadn’t expected.  It is disturbing and beautiful at the same time.  But it is also quite banal.  It looks “lovely” in this space, but that’s largely due to the space itself.  The aesthetic pleasure offered by the walls is stunning.

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Cross-hatched concrete fills in corners; white brick is rubbed back and scrabbled over with dirt and rust. This is a real monument to generations past – to a lost way of life, a time when human labour alone created spaces like this with real human muscles, sweat, blood and optimism. The net of connections across the state of NSW depended on this place, without it there would have been no railways. I find this thought far more compelling than pondering Boltanski’s anonymous Polish babies.

His sensibility is that of old Europe. There is a place for that, and we should be reminded.  But we are in the south, the humid air of the Pacific washes through the doors, the sun shines. There are definitely too many people in the world, and yes, chance seems to allocate some to here and some to there, a process which is truly “random”.  It is true we would be different – a bit different – if our parents had carried out the reproductive act at a different moment.  Would that matter?  Larger, more urgent, questions seem occluded or disguised by this seemingly philosophical work.  The focus on the individual – on the idea of being “somebody” – pushes the broader historical and political issues aside.  Boltanski’s entire oeuvre has been obsessed with memory and the traumatic residues of twentieth century history. Questions of human existence explored through a post-Holocaust aesthetics may seem at one level to be an ethical stance, but where can it go from here?  Boltanski’s installation is surprising and strangely beautiful, but it made me think far more about why we have no properly functioning railways any more, a question of huge political and ecological significance for the future of this beautiful land, which could provide the basis for a more relevant work of art. This calls for a form of ethical judgment which takes into account the broader role of art. As Nowak comments:

…judgment in general should be understood as intrinsic to the task of art criticism. I argue that judgment is under-theorized in contemporary visual art critical circles and that the ethical judgment of art is of particular importance. My position is something of a departure from dominant understandings of judgment in these circles, for since the end of modernism, judgment (of whatever type) has been widely held to be either outmoded or inappropriate. (Nowak, 2012, p. 8).

Work such as Boltanski’s pushes the viewer directly into a world where judgment is invoked and ethical perspectives are invited.  For this we should be grateful, while recognising that there are historical and cultural factors requiring urgent consideration of the role and value of art today.

References

Boltanski, Christian with Catherine Grenier, 2009.  The Possible Life of Christian Boltanski. 1st ed. US: MFA Publications.

Boltanski, Luc, 1999. Distant Suffering: Morality, Media and Politics.  1st ed. New York: Cambridge University press. First published as La Souffrance a Distance, 1993, Paris: Editions Metaille)

Boltanski, Luc with Chiapello (Ève), 2005. The New Spirit of Capitalism, London/New York, Verso.

Boltanksi, Luc. 2011. Une étude en noir. Tracés. Review des Sciences Humaines, 20, 2011.  On Line 16 May 2013. http://traces.revues.org/5049. [Accessed 1st March 2014].

Borger, Irene and Christian Boltanski. 1988/1989. Interview.  Bomb, 26, 22-27.

Charlesworth, J. J., 2012.  Boltanski. Art Review, 56, 52.

Fox, Gerald (Dir). 1988. An Exploration of Art on Film.  English, Pal, VHS.

Franzke, A. n.d. Christian Boltanski. Artist biography. Tate Modern.

http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/christian-boltanski-2305

[Accessed 15 Feb 2014].

Nowak, Jolanta, 2012. Judgment, Justice and Art Criticism. Contemporary Aesthetics,10, 8.

Solomon-Godeau, Abigail, 1998. Mourning or Melancholia: Christian Boltanski’s Missing House. Oxford Art Journal,21, 2, 20.

 Catalogue Essays:

Christian Boltanksi, 1978. Reconstitution. Exhibition Catalogue, ed. A. Franzke and M. Schwarz, Karlsuhe, Bad. Kstver.

Christian Boltanksi, 1984. Exhibition Catalogue, Ed. B. Blistene, Paris, Pompidou,

Christian Boltanski: Lessons of Darkness, 1985.  Exhibition Catalogue, Ed. L. Gumpert and M. J. Jacob; Chicago Ill: Museum of Contemporary Art.

Photographs: All photographs taken by Annette Hamilton at Carriageworks February 2014 unless otherwise credited.

[1]  The casting of doubt in artistic works is highly characteristic of many forms of art in the late twentieth century, often with reference to the Holocaust and its aftermath.  In literature an outstanding example is the long writing – novel, memoir, fantasy? – Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald (2001).  In Austerlitz, Sebald not only writes about somebody who might or might not exist telling the story of someone else who might or might not exist, he presents series of photographs which the reader is invited to take as visual evidence of the “truth” of his narrative, even though the source of the photographs is unacknowledged. This profound unsettling of the boundaries between “truth” and its representation is very evident in Boltanski’s work, as is clearly evident in his strange insistence on obscuring his own identity and taking on guises such as “the Preacher”.

[2] This tendency to self-mystification, or at least to obscuring elements of biography, contrasts with the usual pattern of self-disclosure common among fiction writers and poets.  The insistence by “the public” on knowing everything about their artistic heroes does not recognise the legitimacy of such distinctions.

[3] His self-construction wavers but he often claims the conditions of Nazi occupation in Paris as a source of his artistic themes. In conversation with David Walsh, owner of Museum of Contemporary art in Tasmania, he spoke of himself as “a sort of survivor”.  He describes how his Catholic mother hid his Jewish father under the floorboards although this feels as if it could be an apocryphal story. See http://www.au.timeout.com/sydney/art/features/12957/christian-boltanski-on-chance

 

Elisabeth Cummings: Slow Art

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 [Photograph:  Annette Hamilton 2012]

 Elisabeth Cummings (b. 1934) is not well-known among the general art-going public.  She has been devoted to her art practice, mostly painting, for over fifty years.  Few of her works appear in any public gallery collections in Australia.  Based in Sydney and its bushland outskirts, she has travelled and painted in outback towns and in remote Western and Southern Australia.  In 1996 she was given a survey exhibition by the Campbelltown City Bicentennial Art Gallery, but at that time she had only one painting in the collection of the Art Gallery of NSW, while one work in the National Gallery of Australia had been transferred to Artbank. Nothing had changed six years later.  Recently her work has been receiving more recognition.  Several smaller public collections hold paintings, and she is increasingly sought by avid collectors. She has won a number of prizes, and recognition of her importance as an Australian landscape painter has grown.  The 2002 Art Collector Magazine list placed her in the 50 most collectible Australian artists.

In 2012 she received a major survey exhibition at the S. H. Ervin Gallery titled Luminous: The Landscapes of Elisabeth Cummings.  One of her largest works, Edge of the Simpson Desert, was a highlight of the show.

 Image

Edge of the Simpson Desert, 2011.  Oil on canvas, 175 x 301 Private Collection

 This is hardly conventional landscape art.  It is edgy, figurative only in places, filled with spaces and lines which demand patient scrutiny before the forms reveal themselves. It is something like Slow Food.  Hers is a slow art: slow to be painted, and calling for close engagement and patient appreciation from the viewer.  She works with the local, and paints where she is.  Whether travelling through the remote deserts or sitting on her verandah in her studio at Wedderburn, or inside with the light pouring on the mud-brick walls, her faithful black dog at her feet, Cummings is resolutely there in the moment.

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Inside the Studio.  Photograph: Annette Hamilton 2012

 She has been called The Invisible Woman of Australian Art (Frost 2002).  But she doesn’t really care about visibility, or profile, or her “career”.  Now in her late seventies, she continues to work and live as she has always done.  She paints, and teaches these days in the occasional workshop (see for example Champion 2012).  She hates being interviewed especially about her personal life.  One journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald insisted on an interview while she was confined to a wheelchair following an operation on her right ankle. He tried to force her to reveal elements of her emotional life, on the grounds that this is  “the fundamental raison d’etre of any artist”. She found this an absurd proposition, and managed to be so unpleasant to him that he left with his irrelevant curiosity unsatisfied (personal communication, and see Meacham 2012).  Cummings is the last person to want to be a celebrity, although she has many close friends in the art world and always has invitations and events to participate in, if she wants to.  But she likes a quiet life, and loves her “bit of bush”, even while mourning the fact that it is being encroached on by the endless march of suburbia.

Image

Sydney Morning Herald art critic John McDonald has been one of the few vocal supporters.  In Art Essays, January 21 2012, he pleaded that a new show from the National Gallery of Australia of landscapes to be held at the Royal Academy London should include those artists who are making an outstanding contribution to Australian landscape art today, the foremost of whom is Cummings.  He deplores the short-sightedness of Australian public collections.

“While galleries have been queuing up to buy works by a handful of fashionable artists, they have treated landscape painting as if it were a purely historical phenomenon.” (McDonald 2012)

Cummings herself has nothing to say about the “fashionable” contemporary arts. Her positive frame of mind does not dwell on endless comparisons or bother to condemn the fetishization of certain forms of current art-making and the implicit rejection of the unfashionable genres.

An excellent video interview in Wedderburn, with Peter Pinson, puts a frame around many elements of her life and art (Pinson 2012).  Her father was an architect (as is her son now) and her family supported her interest in art as a profession – unusual for a woman in those days.  She attended the National Art School in Sydney, and won a Travelling Scholarship in 1958 which allowed her to spend time in Europe, staying in a villa with friends near Florence.  In 1961 she studied under Oskar Kokoschka, a late German expressionist associated with Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt.  Kokoschka established his “School of Seeing” at the Internationale Sommerakademie für Bildende Kunst in Salzburg, thus re-establishing his ties with the Austrian milieu in which he began his career, and Cummings was able to spend time there exploring the highly distinctive, and disturbing, post war European sensibility.

Image

Oskar Kokoschka.  Bodegon with Affair and Rabbit.  161 x 118.  1914.   www.wikipaintings.org

Cummings is often referred to as “reclusive” (Frost 2002).  Her Wedderburn studio is the site of an artists’ community established in the early 1970s.  Two of its founders died in 2013, Roy Jackson of cancer in July,  John Peart in October, a sudden and wholly unexpected death at the age of only 67. Other artists who have worked and lived there include Joan Brassil, Sy Archer and David Fairbairn.  A strong community living on land donated by art lovers Barbara and Nick Romalis in the 1970s, the Wedderburn artists’ “colony” continues to offer a refuge and resource almost unique in contemporary Australia.

In the bushfires of 1994 Cummings lost her studio, a blow which might have stopped a lesser person.  But she soon built a bigger and better structure which served as both studio and home.  The house and bushland around often apear in her work,  as though the whole life-space is part of a continuous still-life.

Her large oils are notable for their heavily worked surfaces and colouring surprises.  They offer secrets:  spend enough time with them, and there is the reveal. The forms of the natural world appear through the scraping and marks on her surfaces.  Her palettes seem tasty.  Some, especially those reflecting the bushland around Wedderburn, are full of delicious soft pales and shadowy greens and browns. Others, in remote and outback places, are bright and hot, like a hit of chili and vinegar.

She isn’t immediate, or obvious.  Comparing her visual impact with another little known but successful Australian landscape painter, Jason Benjamin, we see two aspects of the Australian heritage.

Image

Jason Benjamin.  This is Love.  Oil, 434 x 291.  www. Artistsandart.org

Benjamin works on a vast scale with immediately recognisable subjects, in a style securely located in European classicism (albeit with a strange surrealist quality).  Cummings, on the other hand, hovers between the gestural demands of post-war European modernism and the meditative mysteries of the Australian vision imprinted with an Asian sensibility.  There is Ian Fairweather in her slippery calligraphic marks, and Fred Williams in her itchy surfaces.

Image

Ian Fairweather.  Outside the Walls of Peking, 1935.  Oil and pencil on board, 49 x 57 cm.  Private collection, Perth.

Cummings has long been represented by King Street Galleries, now in William Street Sydney.  She feels strong loyalty to the gallery, which has supported her work with well-mounted shows for decades (personal communication, February 2012). She has exhibited in some competitions and group shows, but most of her professional output has been sold through the gallery. Current listings at King Street have some of her recent works available, for instance Sir John Gorge Mornington, 2013, oil on canvas, 135 x 150;  $48,000.  The recent oils are quiet reflections on landscapes visited in the past.  A beautifully delicate work, The Pink Outcrop, 213, 105 x 130, presents a lyrical pastel shaded landscape, tender and responsive.  It sold for $35,000.

Image

Photograph: King Street Galleries.

Her works from the middle 2000s show a strong sense of line and composition.  Studio in the Bush (2006), 115 c 130, is a striking work based on her perception of the context of her life-space at Wedderburn. Journey Through the Studio (2004), 150 x 300, likewise offers a stunning meditation on the process of inhabiting the artist’s world, with its red and orange cadmium hues, the outline painting of a dog in the foreground, and the heavy dark wood-stove at the lower right.  A strangely disturbing painting, it repays long scrutiny and engagement.

Image

Journey Through the Studio (2004), 150 x 300. Photograph:  King Street Gallery

Cummings also works in prints and etchings.  Her 2009 Hill End Glimpses is an artful tracery with several images seemingly hidden in the surface busyness.  A woman stands, washing her hair.  Two dogs trot along in the foreground.  A large bird perches on a fence.  Another woman lies reclining, perhaps in her sleeping bag.  The square dark building with its enigmatic figure at the opening could be anything: a shed, or a house, or a storeroom.  These are the painters, on their plein air excursion, taking the measure of the town of Hill End, made famous by the paintings of Russell Drysdale, John Olsen and others (see Australian Government, Hill End painters, n.d).

Image

Hill End Glimpses. 2009. Etching, set of 25.  Image: King Street Gallery.

Arkaroola Landscape (coloured etching, 2005) uses a limited, traditional desert yellow to great effect. This remarkable piece was not hung in the Wynne Prize to which it was submitted that year, but towered over the other works in the Salon des Réfusés (McDonald 2012). Flinder’s Farm depicts the overwhelming quality of the semi-desert landscape and the futility of human efforts to farm there.

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Flinder’s Farm.  Coloured Etching 2009.  Photograph: King Street Galleries

 She speaks more about her etching and print-making in an interview, during a residency at COFA and work with Cicada Press (Butler, 2012).

She is always seeking new inspiration.  Recently she has spent periods in India, working with children in a remote village, offering informal art training.  She seems to accept no limitations: age, physical health, the effects of arthritis, the death of her close friends – she dwells in an intensely felt but manageable world, living through her own time and in her own places, which you can share through her art, if you so choose.  What a privilege that is.

Image

Real Still Life in the Studio.  Photograph: Annette Hamilton 2012.

 

References

Australian Government.  Australian Stories.  Hill End painters – Donald Friend, Russell Drysdale, John Olsen, Margaret Olley and their legacy.

http://australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/hill-end-painters

[Accessed 22nd February 2014].

Butler, Angela.  Interview: Elisabeth Cummings. November 27, 2012.

http://cicadapress.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/interview-elisabeth-cummings/

Champion, Stephanie.  Pushing the boundaries with Elisabeth Cummings. http://www.bluebanksia.com/artworkshop-reviews/168-review-elisabeth-cummings.html) [Accessed 22nd February 2014).

Frost, Andrew.  Elisabeth Cummings: The Invisible Woman of Australian Art.  Art Collector.  Issue 22, October-December 2002.

http://www.artcollector.net.au/ElisabethCummingsTheInvisibleWomanofAustralianArt. [Accessed 20 February 2014].

McDonald, John. Elizabeth Cummings. Art Essays, January 21 2012.

http://johnmcdonald.net.au/2012/elisabeth-cummings/#sthash.14IbTk1z.dpuf [Accessed 22 February 2014].

Meachem, Steve.  Landscapes and private views.  Sydney Morning Herald, January 4, 2012.  http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/art-and-design/landscapes-and-private-views-20120104-1pl1i.html

[Accessed 22nd February 2014).

Pinson, Peter.  Peter Pinson Interviews Elisabeth Cummings. Wedderburn, February 2013. http://www.cultconv.com/Conversations/Cummings_Elisabeth/HTML5/testimonybrowser.html [Accessed 21st February 2014].

The New Shock of the New

THE NEW SHOCK OF THE NEW

robert hughes b and w

Robert Hughes, eminent Sydney-born art critic, published his highly acclaimed book The Shock of the New in 1980. His longstanding position as art critic with TIME magazine gave him unprecedented access to artists around the world.  His criticism was often contentious and he was viewed as a “conservative”, although he had no particular philosophical axes to grind. In this DVD, he offers a revaluation of what has happened to both “shock” and “newness” since that time.  You can view the video at:

http://art.docuwat.ch/videos/the-shock-of-the-new/the-shock-of-the-new-09-the-new-shock-of-the-new/?channel_id=0

Hughes died at age 74 in New York in 2012 after a series of tragic events including a terrible car accident in Western Australia, which resulted in serious injury to Hughes and the three young men in the other car, and a court case.  It seemed Hughes’ position as an expatriate Australian and a high profile intellectual were enough to make the Australian press furious and accusatory. Details about the accident and the case are contained in the interview with Jana Wendt here:

http://sgp1.paddington.ninemsn.com.au/sunday/cover_stories/transcript_1445.asp

No doubt this terrible experience sharpened his perceptions and focussed his mind on issues of Being, life and death, and the moral obligations of the artist.

It is clear from the way this video is constructed, and from many of his interview questions, that he regarded much of the work of the contemporary art world darlings as a degradation of art, aimed at making the artist into a marketable commercial celebrity.  The kind of “shock” the art world produces today is mostly absurd, ugly and pointless, from his point of view.  He gives fascinating examples through interviews with stellar figures in today’s art world – Jeff Koons for one – and then offers examples of contemporary artists who in his view carry on the essential virtues of art.

His interview with Jeff Koons is really brilliant.  What comes through so strongly is that Hughes is teasing or sending up Koons,  who, in his well-tailored suit, is so sure of his own significance that he doesn’t realise it.  Hughes draws attention to the fact that Koons regards himself as a direct descendant, or perhaps even reincarnation, of Michelangelo, and looks at his Pieta-like sculpture of Michael Jackson with a very jaundiced eye.  I found this sculpture actually quite fascinating, and not horrible at all, although a lot of Koons’ work does seem to me trite, overblown and ridiculously overvalued.

Jeff Koons Pieta

Some of the other artists he considered included the little-known Paula Rego, b. 1935 in Portugal, whose brilliant disturbing images seem rich with narrative and engagement in a scarily familiar universe.  The idea of a “discreet undermining” and the confessional/psychiatric tone of her work opens a different kind of viewing. The violence of folk tales and the terrors of childhood, the truth of families and the fear of never knowing what is under the bed (a pig, in one case!) envelop her works.  Her work is political, traversing the line between private conscience and public responsibility.  Her paintings especially of the 80s and 90s seem to some degree close to Lucien Freud’s, but I see her real affinities to be with the German figurative post-socialist Neo Rauch.  She is a very fine painter technically, her figure work and composition is outstanding.  It is clear why Hughes would want to contrast her with the vapid posturing of the Britpack artists; on any measure she is so much the better artist, yet she has been almost entirely “off the radar”.  Her images are too deep, her vision too disturbing, and she is a figurative painter and a woman.  At least three strikes against her.

Below:  Celestina’s House.  2000-2001.  Pastel on Paper: 200 x 240 cms.  Look closely at the details of this amazing work, go to:  http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/artpages/rego_paula_celestina_house.htm

celestinas house

Other painters discussed by Hughes included Anselm Kiefer.  Another political artist, it is much clearer to see his politics than in the case of Paula Rego.  One work discussed, Den Goldenen Haar Margarethe, is based on the poem by Paul Celan, Death Fugue,  which includes reflection on the phrase in the poem “Death is a master from Germany”. The inmates of the death camps will rise as smoke and their graves will be in the clouds.  The lines are:

He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany

he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air

then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined.

For the full poem, see:

http://www.english.txstate.edu/cohen_p/postmodern/Literature/Celan/Hamburger.html

kiefer-dein-goldenes-haar-margarethe

Kiefer’s painted images are dense and complex.  In many of his paintings he seems determined to pull the viewer into the recognition of perspective, even if it is only of railway tracks heading for the death camp, or some empty barracks stretching to the horizon.  Kiefer and Rego represent the need for an art which refutes the sterile irony of contemporary representation and asserts the primacy of a moral imagination.

Kiefer railway

Other better known artists discussed include Lucien Freud and David Hockney. I enjoyed these discussions less than the earlier ones, and felt Hughes himself had been drawn into a kind of hero worship. It was particularly odd to me that he went on to include such a long discussion of Sean Scully.  Scully is an Irish-born New York based printmaker and artist working from a downtown studio.  He has been nominated for the Turner Prize, and has had exhibitions all over the world, including in Australia.  Best known for his huge abstract colour field images he seems to me a kind of overblown Mondrian.  For his exhibition Colour of Light at the National Gallery in Canberra in 2004, he was quoted as saying of his paintings:

There’s a lot of physical force to them, a lot of tactile sexual energy, a lot of sensuality.  But there’s a lot of uncertainty about what the relationship between the parts actually means and I think that that’s a very important aspect of my work. I mean if I have to choose a course between Puritanism and extreme romanticism, I think it’s clear than I’m going to choose extreme romanticism. But I think what I can contribute is something that has both in it, something that has the possibility of both in it, and it’s that extreme stretch that I want to try to achieve in my work. That’s my ambition.

http://nga.gov.au/Exhibition/Scully/Default.cfm

Sean Scully 1

Scully seems to be well-regarded by fellow Irish expatriates and admirers, but the case for his art seems much less strong than that of others in this discussion.  What Hughes liked about it was the sense that it was meditative and contemplative, with its opaque and stone-like surfaces, density and lack of space.  His art looks like architecture, Hughes asserts. Without standing in the same space with these gigantic works, it is almost impossible to grasp them.  Yet, with a Rothko, you can look at almost any reproduction of one of his colour field paintings and feel immediately what it is doing, how it is drawing you in, what it means to think about meditation and contemplation.  To some degree this is true even of the great “black” paintings in the Rothko Chapel, Houston, although to see any image of them is nothing like standing or better still sitting in that mystical space and watching the apparently black surfaces begin to breathe, move and emanate the life force.

Rothko_Chapel_1

Hughes closes his revaluation with some very strange remarks, as if someone scripting his show has insisted that he make some comments on very banal and boring issues.  Can Art create Revolution?  Or just social change?  Is it enough to be “beautiful”?  Do people need beauty?  Are Museums (Art Galleries) the new Cathedrals?  Closing with images of the Weather Project in the Tate Modern, the suggestion that this represents a new Sun God worshipped by art lovers below seemed tacky and almost stupid.

weather project Tate Modern

I felt deeply sorry for Robert Hughes by the end of this show.  One of the greatest art critics of his era, a highly individualistic and sensitive man, Hughes seemed to be struggling against the very forces which he was condemning at the beginning of the film.  It would be so interesting to have a documentary showing the “behind the scenes” of the making of the New Shock of the New.  It might even be very shocking.

Hermann Hesse’s Art

hesse village 4

Hermann Hesse’s painting has long been neglected and remains little known, although recent exhibitions have raised awareness of his visual expression.  In 2008 (5-24 February) an exhibition at Maison Heinrich Heine in Paris, “Hermann Hesse- Leben und Werk im Uberblick” offered photographs, watercolours, quotes and poems rarely before seen.  This was followed in 2012 by an exhibition at the Kunstmuseum, Bern, Switzerland, where Hesse had lived for many years, experiencing an oscillation between a harmonious existence and severe anxiety attacks.  The publicity statement said:

Hesse did not see himself as an author or painter and instead considered himself an artist. His comprehensive notions of art kept the dividing line between the various arts fluid. As a poet Hesse was long seen to be a controversial figure despite the fact that he was given the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1947. Also as a painter Hesse had to wait a long time before art criticism no longer ignored him.

http://www.kunstmuseumbern.ch/en/service/media/media-releases-2012/26-03-12-hermann-hesse-542.html

He worked only in watercolour – never a popular medium among art critics – and because of the lack of formal art training his “style” did not seem professional.  During the twentieth century, artists were mainly associated with one medium only: they were poets, or painters, or writers, or musicians.  But in the very early part of the twentieth century many of the best-known figures in Western creative arts worked across numerous mediums.  Photographers such as Man Ray worked with painters such as Marcel Duchamp and other artists (Rene Clair, Frances Picabia) to make some of the most striking early films.  Take a look at the 1924 film Entr’Acte.

Picabia as ballerina entr'acte

Francis Picabia as a ballerina in Entr’acte, 1924, a film by René Clair. (Scenario : Francis Picabia, Music : Erik Satie , 35 mm black & white, 20 min).  The whole film is available at:

Part of the outburst of creativity in the transition from pre-modern to modernist art-making grew from the refusal to accept pre-set boundaries about what kind of “work” people could do.  Looking at Hesse’s stylised and seemingly simple paintings, his respect for nature, and for a harmonious human place within it, moves us with its clarity, humility and directness.  Most of these paintings appeared alongside his gentle and sometimes deeply anxious poems, many of which remain untranslated into English.  The problem of home and identity moved him deeply. He loathed the certitude and comfort of the German middle-classes but found a sense of home in nature.  He travelled “friendly paths” to find it.

”One never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect the whole world looks like home for a time.”

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962), German novelist, poet. Frau Eva, in Demian, ch. 5 (1960).

Hesse vista 5

[Accessed 16/2/14: Sources:  above:  Terrassenhuegel, painted 21/9/1926, http://www.form-legal.com:  below: Village, date unknown, http://www.hermann-hesse.de]

Hesse painting 2 tree

Australian Perspectives