Art on the (not-so) Cheap: on friendship, wishful thinking and AIPAD

i have a friend that works for a prestigious photography gallery in manhattan. whenever we get together, i am regaled with tales of the unchecked purchasing power of the bourgeoisie, the wheelings-and-dealings of the owner (who for the purposes of anonymity i’ll just refer to here as “mr. burns,” but in reality we have made up a hip-hop alias based on his real name), and not least of all, we commiserate over the smack-you-in-the-gut intensity of some of the truly stunning images which pass through his hands, going on-and-off of the gallery walls.

mr. burns traffics in some of my most favorite image-makers, and i am usually quietly surprised by at least a few things that are hanging at any given time i have been able to make the trip. over a long dinner and a bottle of wine, we mused at what we would attempt to purloin from mr. burns, if money were no object and we could take anything in the collection. my friend asked me what my choice was and i said without hesitation: that roy decarava print of the dancers taken in the 1950’s. this one:

 dancers, 1956

roy decarava dancers, 1956

he said he knew that would be my answer, despite my loudly touted love for many of mr. burn’s other holdings, which include personal heroes bill brandt, harry callahan, aaron siskind and eikoh hosoe.

the qualifying event for what we would divest mr. burns of, in this conversation, was that it could not be an image that we wanted for “investment purchases” but instead for pure, unadulterated love of the image. it had to be something that truly knocked us out, something that maybe we couldn’t even explain. this was that image for me.

have i ever told you what i learned about that photo? i asked him, after naming my treasure (and learning that the going rate for this print by mr. burns was somewhere around 23K). he shook his head, said he didn’t know decarava’s work that well.

neither did i. before i saw this print i would have been hard pressed to identify an image of his in a famous-photographer-lineup. but this one immediately haunted me, and when i could i looked up information about it, stunned even more by what i found the photographer had said about this particular image:

This photograph was taken at a dance of a social club at the 110th St. Manor at Fifth Avenue. It is about the intermission where they had entertainment and the entertainment was two dancers who danced to jazz music. Thats what this image is all about; its about these two dancers who represent a terrible torment for me in that I feel a great ambiguity about the image because of them. It’s because they are in some ways distorted characters. What they actually are is two black male dancers who dance in the manner of an older generation of black vaudeville performers. The problem comes because their figures remind me so much of the real life experience of blacks in their need to but themselves in an awkward position before the man, for the man; to demean themselves in order to survive, to get along. In a way, these figures seem to epitomize that reality. And yet there is something in the figures not about that; something in the figures that is very creative, that is very real and very black in the finest sense of the word. So there is this duality this ambiguity in the photograph that I find very hard to live with. I always have to make a decision in a case like this– is it good or is it bad? I have to say that even though it jars some of my sensibilities and reminds me of things that I would rather not be reminded of, it is still a good picture. In fact, it is good just because of those things and in spite of those things. The picture works.

(interview published in Roy DeCarava: Photographs)

when i first saw this photograph, it haunted me without context. imbued now with the story of its making, i had all sorts of things to choose from among the many discomforts it elicited from me: complicities and complexities of racism in america, my own ignorances (which can be legion), the fact of my own participation in this by being drawn to an image of white people gawking at black people with a kind of garish nostalgia for something else that was never really there, never real at all. which is all just to say it made me love the image even more.

by happy circumstance, this two-ish day period i was passing through the city also happened to be the weekend of AIPAD, an international exhibition of many top-tier photography galleries peddling their wares. i have always wanted and intended to go to this event, but have managed to miss it year after year. i finally made it and i think i can safely say that for my purposes, AIPAD is almost all the gallery-going i ever need to do in a year–or at least the experience of all that rich photographic history in one place is so heady that it makes me feel that way. stumbling in an aesthetically drunken stupor from gallery exhibit to exhibit, i ran into so many beloved favorites which the delight i took in their viewing was matched only by the mind-boggling price tags affixed in discrete graphite handwriting on the backs of acid-free matte board. the first stunner was this nude by weston of his then-lover tina modotti, a veritable steal at $6000:

edward weston

(this has to be the hottest photograph weston ever made. while i love weston’s work, most of his nudes leave me totally, neurotically cold. that image of charis floating in the pool like a drowned ophelia…ugh! this photograph of tina modotti, however, has all the omph! that, say, john singer sargeant’s madame X had when it first was shown, with all the critics scandalized that the madam’s pink ears suggested an off-canvas flagrante indelicato with the painter).

then to be pleasantly surprised by this uncommon francesca woodman (image courtesy of james danziger over at The Year In Pictures–it was the only record i could find of this print):

francesca woodman

all angles and form, very crisp and unlike most things i’m familiar with by her. that pulling of flesh, a bent arm, bulging tricep and most of the body hidden from view. it’s very…restrained and taut at the same time. there is something both studied and sanguine about it, and all that negative space confuses my eye in a gracious and vertiginous way.

and while there were many others, that last one that made me step very very close into the space of the frame (in a misbegotten attempt to block the rest of AIPAD out while i communed with the ghost of harry callahan) was this favorite of his wife eleanor. taken in a room of peeling paint (check out that archway above the window) that only a photographer could love:

harry callahan, eleanor 1948

there was also one endearing conversation i had with a czech gallerist when inquiring about the work of vojta dukat, who laughed loudly and from the belly, telling me that it would be easier to get me the rarest of man ray’s prints than it would be to ever get a print from the infamously reclusive dukat. but, he conceded conspiratorily, he is a great photographer…

i talked with my friend of the experience of AIPAD, of the varied overheard conversations and agendas that are invariably present at such an event. while we can’t afford to own anything from that world, we both came to the conclusion that we are of that world. i said with a guilty conscience how much pleasure it gave me to see so much vintage work, and confessed that there were very few photographs taken since 1970 that matter to me as much as the ones mentioned above. getting to the bottom of our bottle of bordeaux, i worried aloud that photography wasn’t doing for me what other things were these days (more on that in another post), and as i continue to look, listen and make i have to ask myself for what, for whom and to what ends?

the limits of photographic character: images you thought never existed

A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you, the less you know.
–diane arbus

so i lied earlier, when i said that photography hadn’t done anything for me lately.

i have seen quite a bit of art in the last year, and in several genres that are not my focus, especially: dance, performance, theater and new media. like my experiences with photography, some of it has been morbidly bad. some of it sublime (heiner goebbel’s eraritjaritjaka springs immediately to mind for the latter category). photography though, for all its hits and misses, is the mistress i return to, and will continue to write of.

there are images that once seen, you know will follow you; that certain ideas you maintain will be punctuated now by this new collective visual unconscious. that the word which sprung into your mind when you saw this image will be recalled by you whenever the image appears suddenly and unbidden. that such images are what form each of our highly personal and subjective inner galleries.

i would imagine that the images which fill my private gallery space contain a single continuous thread: those images which i’d like to imagine some other version of myself might have taken. which is not to say: images i wish i had taken or images that i wish i had the capacity to take. no, i mean the images which, given a different set of priorities or choices made, are those that i (perhaps delusionally) know are things i could have seen myself seeing. as if these images, when i encounter them, are an aha! moment of negated destiny.

alack and alas, we all choose (and keep choosing) who it is to be and who it is we want to become. and in the choosing, so many paths-not-taken fall to the side. this notion of self-identity and awareness of that self has got me thinking about a schematic construct i once encountered, thought was incredibly important, and over the succeeding years had nearly forgotten all about. considering my abiding interest in art, art-making and art-makers, it was alarming to me that it had nearly slipped through the cracks. i’ll get on more about it later, but as an initial tease-of-thought the idea i’m speaking about is that of photographic character.

it goes something like this:

Projects + Ideology + Temperament + Social Group + Psycho-biography
=
photographic character

to understand photographic character is to (1) enter a similar frame of mind [as the photographer’s]; (2) experience their photographic experience, and (3) understand it [them] in a total way. once you understand what a photographer would never do (e.g. walker evans would never make a nude), you can begin to understand the parameters of a given artist’s photographic character.

diane arbus. self-portrait, pregnant, nyc, 1945.

it seems like that at a certain age it is very fashionable to like the work of diane arbus. and that age would be a young, coming-of-age age, when her raw inquiry and love of a gritty new york–which arguably doesn’t exist anymore–finds in your impressionable youth a receptive and captivated audience member. if, as you age, you further develop an interest/practice in photography, the bell curve will complete itself and it will become equally fashionable to dislike the work of diane arbus. to claim her output as that of an exploitive, voyeuristic depressive, and to attribute her status among the art-elite as having something to do with how still, to this day, culture is intoxicated with the myth of the mad genius, the maker-of things. your attitude of her may fall within this framework, outside of it, or be of the persuasion to have simply never given the matter much thought.

my conception of arbus changed when i encountered the above photograph. i’d like to imagine that what i find in it goes beyond my own photograph-as-confession voyeurism, and that it isn’t simply the peak into the obvious personal that gives me pause. beyond my first flush of shock and thinking that this is a photograph i’d never imagined she’d make, i have come instead to see that this image is really a prelude to all the other photographs that i have come to know as arbus’s–touching, vulnerable, a little skewed–as if she made this one imprint of herself before she went out seeking the same in the world over the next twenty-odd years.

arbus is 22. pregnant with her first child, doon. her husband is in military service in india. it is 1945, and she is living with her parents. this will be one of a series of images that she will make and send to her absent spouse, and one of the only self-portraits of diane arbus that i’ve ever known.

the words that come to mind in looking at this image: tender. vulnerable. uncertain. firsts. spare. and that head of hers, cocked over to one side, as if in appraisal of herself, the fact of her first pregnancy, the oddity of taking a photograph of oneself naked in front of a mirror. as if in that look she gives herself she’s trying to get at some essential core, some thingness that differentiates her, or this moment, or herself in this moment, apart from all others and all other moments. this going within to extract and reveal something that will remain occluded, fantastic and a quiet secret. and i realized in looking at this that it’s the same feeling i get as her intention in any photograph that i had ever seen that she had taken of someone else.

Our baby is a girl…curious and even a little funny. I simply stare at her. I expected to feel a deep recognition but I don’t. She isn’t like either of us but lovely: very alive with very beautiful shoulders. I love our lack of connection: that she doesn’t feel anything towards me and i feel such an odd, separate way about her.

I expected great changes (first, I expected it from pregnancy, then when it didn’t come, I expected it from birth), but I’m glad I didn’t change or at least feel changed. I trust myself better as I am. It was very simple–I have forgotten most of the bad part because of the anesthetic–but I still know it was simple. I guess events are always simpler than people–which is good.
–letter from Arbus to Alfred Stieglitz

the retrospective show where I saw this image has been hailed as everything from landmark to overtly worshipful (“why are we in her panty drawer?” critic David Spiher wrote of the MOMA show). While I can appreciate the sentiment driving the latter criticism–that of turning the spectacle of photography into the spectacle of personality (or, more precisely, maximizing the dollar potential of the former by elevating the latter)–I believe that it is too easy to dismiss the value of the inclusion of the personal in a show such as this. Whatever the intentions of the curators–displaying cameras, collage-walls, notebooks and even a recreation of her studio–the inclusion does end up lending some insight to a particularly hard-to-get-at aspect of both the photographer and the critical process. having the ability to peruse this at leisure lends us fodder to contemplate arbus’s psychological biography, which in turn could further inform us about her work, processes, artistic project via her artistic boundary conditions. one could argue that the gallery or museum is no place for such inner critique, but i think that would be a mistake. for all that we have projected onto the work of diane arbus and what we think from that we can assume about her, having a sustained moment with her letters, diaries, jotted-down-dreams et al. lets her speak her psychology back at our projections.

it seems there has always been the argument of “appreciate the art and keep the artist out of it,” but is that really viable? to consider the character of any given photographer seems hopelessly outmoded, anachronistic, but i would argue for this practice in any genre where we would exercise a critical model or mode of thinking. even of (perhaps especially of) critics themselves.

douglas nickel‘s notion of photography and photo-history as being a discursive, social practice based on an entire set of discourses and commentaries in our lifetimes can serve as a basis for understanding how to approach the notion of photographic character. photographic projects should be viewed with these questions in the back of our pockets: what were they trying to do with photography here? what of their character is evinced in their photography–what have they put of their person in here? what was their attitude? what was their disposition?

where one points the camera is where your psyche pointed it. if a photographer does not deal with that thing the psyche is putting forth, the psyche will in turn relentlessly keep pointing them there. an artist that is aware of what they are doing and what motivates their actions are serving the rest of us with tasks and life-lessons to follow: Know Thyself. ideally: be able to speak cogently about what it is you do and why, without having critics and curators proffer meaning in your stead. often when an artist fails at this, it is motivated by two cross-purpose actions: deferral and denial: defer the meaning and realization of what it is being sought in the work, and deny the reasons why it is being done through photography. noble projects versus neurotic ones.

a noble project can simply mean one in which the photographer is self aware to the degree that she knows what her tastes and predilections are and why, makes no apologies for them, and makes images based on what conceptual visions interest her. sometimes this can involve an agenda, sometimes not. either way, the approach will be open-ended in terms of strategy, with no pre-conceived notion as to what the final product will be. ideally, the work will not be viewed as a “product” at all, but in terms of a means by which to better understand something.

the image above of arbus pregnant is not such an image. it is instead a photograph taken by someone so known to my image-repertoire that the existence of this image stretched my understanding of what i thought i knew about her work. it actually ended up expanding it. the pregnant artist is not the culminating work of an open-ended teleology or practice, but this particular image is, i would argue, the beginning of her starting to think like one who could posses such a thing.

that which moves and shakes

while trained as a photographer, and while i largely use this space as place to meditate on Things Photographic, truth be told i do partake of other genres, other modes of representation and visual thinking. in fact, there are many times when the spate of photography i take in, grouse and ruminate over will be like so much inelegant sputtering, a hacking cough of hackneyed notions and cobbled or predictable presentation, when compared to the quality of making, question-having and solution-seeking that i am blessed enough to stumble upon from time to time, often in genres that i have less of a frame of reference. is it ridiculous to feel like i’m cheating on photography when i find myself swooning over something that is decidedly not? does photography care that i’m ignoring it for a time, because it hasn’t done anything for me lately, and meanwhile i’m having drinks and long, meaningful looks in a corner with this something else over here?

one of the most influential mentors i have ever had was a drawing instructor . well, to be precise, he taught and knew how to do all manner of media and things–so much so that it scared the shit out of his peer faculty members during the faculty biennials, when he would exhibit finished, accomplished works in no fewer than five media while the rest struggled to pull something together in a month or so because they had failed to make much over the previous two years (that in itself was a kind of important lesson). but what he really excelled at in teaching was getting to mold minds at the “fundamentals” stage. help you unlearn preconceptions that you brought with you into the classroom haughtily, in ways that only eighteen and nineteen year old aspiring art students can. i remember that he had a universal ban on pencils of any kind, and taught us to use the magnificently messy vine charcoal and pastels instead; that we were never allowed to turn anything in that was drawn on less than 16×20″ size sheets (and that he encouraged us to buy big rolls of drawing paper); that he was a master at teaching our eye how to see and prioritize; that in drawing it became important to realize that the center is not everything and consequently everything outside of it of less importance–that instead intention and deliberate consideration should be given to every mark, to the weight of each line. through hours and hours of my drawing badly, i learned that drawing is done with the entire body, standing up: that you draw with yourself in a sometimes-dance, sometimes stand-off to your canvas, or torn off sheet of oversized paper. that there is relation and negotiated space between body, arm, instrument and media.

i am reminded of this formative, humbling experience, and its twin memory of being in proxy to a charismatic maker-of-things who cannot stop making, stop drawing, as i have been trying (for months now) to find the words to best describe the astounding work of artist william kentridge.

i wish that i could show you, in a
cupped hand, the single most moving piece of art i saw in the last
year. in a dark, hushed room in a cramped banking space; i wish i
could take you to the slack-jawed wonder that is kentridge’s black box .

I am interested in a
political art, that is to say an art of ambiguity, contradiction,
uncompleted gestures and uncertain ending – an art (and a politics) in
which optimism is kept in check, and nihilism at bay.

and:

The drawings don’t start
with ‘a beautiful mark’. It has to be a mark of something out there in
the world. It doesn’t have to be an accurate drawing, but it has to
stand for an observation, not something that is abstract, like an
emotion.
–william kentridge, quotations from william kentridge by carolyn christov-bakargiev (1998), societ√© des expositions du palais de beaux-arts de bruxelles (with thanks to art throb) .

and one more:

I once did take some advice. I was told by many intelligent people who
only had my best interests at heart: “Do one thing only. If you do
everything you will always be a dilettante, unable to master any field.
Either be a filmmaker, or an actor or an artist, and you will do it
better.” For many years I tried to keep to this good advice. I sold my
etching press when I went to acting school. I stopped doing theatre
when I started working in film. It was through hard work and good
fortune that I escaped that advice.

kentridge is an artist who has found work-around solutions for many things that defy the logic of how things progress. what i mean by that is this notion that there is some prefabricated map or plan of way of getting to somewhere or something, of getting to become something, and that kentridge’s m.o. in life has been to do ten or ten million other things than those prescribed tasks, and arrive at That Place, whatever and wherever it is, with more authority and finality than most. his primary working media is drawing, specifically charcoal drawing, considered a “minor art” of the traditional variety. these drawings, while sometimes fodder for other things, do not exist solely as preparatory work for something Else, often they are the finished product. His drawings are huge, messy things with histories. his mark-making describes his subjects as having made choices, as things which move within the white space of the paper, and settle back down again. i don’t know that i have ever seen a drawing of his that did not show a characteristic pentimenti, traces of movement or suggestions of a previous movement that has been overlaid with another choice, another more final line.

drawing from Felix in Exile, 1994.

the son of lawyers, a student of politics and african history, and an artist who does not believe in sole, dedicated practice to one media or medium only (he has training in puppetry, theatre and film), kentridge is the living embodiment of getting to one’s destiny despite the good intentions and advice of everyone around you. kentridge actually gave some words of advice on the act of getting and giving advice. he said:

We do not hear advice. We do not want advice. We particularly do not want advice we haven’t asked for. The only advice we register is when something is said that we already know but need someone else to confirm…I am wary of advice. But more than that I am wary of the certainty that lies behind most advice. I am mistrustful of certainty.

which is not to say that kentridge puts stock into uncertainty either. his process, both in his writing and his visual work, is one that resists binarization. he prefers open-endedness, and his position, as has been ventured forth by some, is rather a non-position, a “negative critique of a lived and unresolved contradiction.” (ashraf jamal, co-author of art in south africa: the future present)

black box/chambre noire is a work commissioned by the deutsche-guggenheim and exhibited in 2005. the space in berlin is a smallish-gallery room housed in a larger building which is a bank. i was chagrined by my own expectations being subverted, realizing that i had come with a preconception of what a “guggenheim” space was supposed to be like. on the walls hung drawings that were used in the production of the finished piece, which was set in the center of the room, with a few small rows of chairs in front of it. the “black box” was a mini-theatre, like a puppet show box except that it had several (six, to be exact) receding tracks. and each layer was heavily worked, with drawings and media affixed and waiting for you to begin to unpack and absorb. when the lights dimmed and the “show” started, a projection began to play onto the theatre, and hand-made “puppets” began to move across the tracks through a rigging in the black box. music that at turns were 19th century recordings of mozart’s the magic flute were interspersed and overlaid with traditional namibian songs, and the “play” itself was at turns part history lesson, part cultural critique, part freudian psychoanalysis.

kentridge at work on black box/chambre noire in his studio in johannesburg

there are characters in kentridge’s piece, and their manifestation turns the viewer, no matter what the age, into a child learning how to make associations and meaning from the abstractions they see in front of them. kentridge has said of his cast :

The six characters are a Megaphone man
who’s the narrator; a transparent Herero woman defined by the
head-dress: she’s actually a spring with a piece of transparent gauze
on her head. A mechanical running man: a cut-out piece of paper that
runs; a pair of dividers, that’s the measuring arm, measuring skulls
and geography; an exploding skull that makes a brief appearance; and a
second Herero woman based on a German postal scale from 1905, a scale
for weighing letters.

and what of the content?

that is a little more of an involved answer, and one i will have to rely heavily on the artist to explicate. put simply, kentridge was commissioned by the deutsche guggenheim to produce a work of art which dealt with germany’s colonial history in africa. kentridge was given this commission as he was entrenched in a project about mozart’s the magic flute. part of the work he was doing involved a 1:10 scale of the stage setting for the opera, which he transformed and incorporated for the purposes of black box. the specific history that kentridge chose to deal with was the german massacre of the herero tribe in southwest africa, which is now namibia. the massacre, conducted by general lothar van trotha, was a retaliation for the tribe’s uprising against the increasing encroachment on their land, seizing of cattle and livestock, and the continual breaking of treaties. the herero had carried out a directed attack on the ruling germans, killing about 150 farmers and reclaiming their cattle. the german solution was to enact what some historians conclude was the first genocide of the twentieth century, nearly annihilating the tribe by killing over 75% of its population.

of the intersection of his magic flute project (which was recently on view at the marian goodman gallery) and black box/chambre noire, kentridge writes:

Transforming shadows, the early cinema, the vaudeville of the time, which was practiced throughout Europe and even in the United States–these are some of the forms I’m going to examine in Black Box. But I will consider these early forms with hindsight, looking back on them as if they were an Enlightenment project. I will ask: What knowledge do we have today, and what lessons have we learned–now that it is no longer 1791, when Mozart wrote his opera, but 2005? (from Kentridge’s forward to the exhibition text)

and of his specific sets of references and associations for the commissioned piece in berlin:

…I’m playing with three sets of associations in Black Box. The first is the black box of the theatre. The installation consists of a model of a theatre, which houses projections and characters. The characters are small automatons–mechanized (and not necessarily anthropomorphic) objects that perform, together with the projections, within the theatre space. So the first reference is to the “black box” of the performance realm.

The second association of the black box is the chambre noire–the central chamber of a camera between the lens and the eyepiece, into which light enters and where a kind of meaning is created. Here, the infinite possibilities of the outside world come in, but a single image is chosen, fixed upon the plane.

The third reference is the flight-data recorder that is used to trace the last moments before an airline disaster. And the disaster I will be referring to–although I will not necessarily describe it nor didactically enumerate its stages–is the German massacre of the Herero people in Southwest Africa.

…If The Magic Flute suggests the utopian moment of the Enlightenment, Black Box represents the other end of the spectrum.

the entire production was 20 minutes long. in one visit, i sat through it twice before the museum closed. and when i returned to berlin a week later, i attempted to see it again, banging on the closed bank doors like a… well, like someone who knew that the most extraordinary thing she’d ever seen was on the other side of that door and she was going to be fleeing 7,000 miles away from it without getting to see it again. that’s what it was like.

what was so extraordinary about black box was that it managed so many things that art usually so stupendously fails at dealing with: things that have to do with politics both past and present; cultural guilt and grief; memory and forgetting; the evocation of universal themes and then the subsequent questioning of what those themes are, what their validity is in the face of changed contexts, agency or audience; and it did all of these things while still managing to be startlingly, breath-gasping-and-all beautiful. it doesn’t try to do or invoke any of the above tropes or themes, but it fully realizes them all. seeing this piece set me about a mad rush to find, see and ingest as much of kentridge’s words and works as i could find.

what i found was a dearth of production that continually builds on its questions; a rare clarity of purpose and intent which belies an artist who is fully aware of his artistic project (and i don’t mean that in the same way that m.f.a. programs plague students with the assignation of a “project” that is to be their life-long noose) and his own existential boundary conditions. kentridge is wildly smart: well-read and with a wide berth of interests across the field of the humanities.

in a rather fabulous interview with bell hooks kentridge and she discuss race, history and particularity, with hooks asking poignant questions which elicit thoughtful responses from kentridge. an excerpt:

bh: I grew up in a small Southern town where there were certain places black folks couldn’t go. in fact, one of the lingering memories of my childhood is of this place that made wonderful hamburgers, but we knew black people would not be served there. and when we walked by as children, those burgers smelled so delicious, and the smell awakened longing, but as a black person you could not satisfy this desire. what’s interesting about the u.s. is, people have so quickly forgotten the intensity of that legislated apartheid here.
wk: that forgetting is already happening in South Africa, too. the system in South Africa is only four or five years old, and memory is gone. In many cases, it’s already difficult to hang on to what we were. there is sort of a willful amnesia, a refusal to accept accountability, that comes from the naturalization of outrageous systems in the world. but i’m more interested in the question of historical memory–of what happens when people forget so quickly.
bh: an intriguing aspect of your work is its immediacy: you use popular forms–cartoons or poster graphics–and defamiliarize them. at the same time the pain is more accessible. it becomes an intimate trauma. in the installation ubu tells the truth, a narrative of daily life unfolds that is ordinary and mundane, and then suddenly traumatic events happen, transforming the experience.
wk: a question i eventually ask is, how does one relate a private experience of a public trauma? for example, when we see images on television now, of people killed or starving, it’s not that they aren’t shocking, but that they fit into a sort of bank of images and are dulled. the hard part is to try to get back to the first sense of shock one had…the hard part is to try to hold onto that sense of outrage because that is the truest response. all the other ways of living with it dilute and normalize.
bh: a willingness to receive the truth of images has to be there as well. when i read about your childhood it was evident that actually witnessing cruel acts gave you a heightened sense of awareness. lots of other little white boys saw these things. what enables one person to resist while many other people collude?
wk: a whole constellation of facts. for me it actually has to do with the house i grew up in. i was raised to be aware of the nature of the society we were living in. kids i went to school with grew up in a world where hatred and terror were normalized. what are the things with which people blinded themselves to find all that acceptable?
bh: they have to construct a wall inside. your work exposes the layers of these walls. for example, there is a recurring image of someone turning their back. whether you are white or black, the demand of white supremacy and apartheid is always that one split oneself–to normalize. a white person like you, who resisted normalization, stands out.
wk: i always assumed that splitting was just the way one exists in the world.

something bell hooks says about kentridge in the preface to her interview sticks. she says that kentridge is always “…acknowledging that we are always more than our pain.” a major–and moving–theme of black box has to do with what one does with such pain. the narrator megaphone man rolls out into the stage area, with a torn-sheet placard affixed to it reading trauerarbeit.

the word refers to freud’s conception of grief work, conceived of as a necessary labor, a mourning one undergoes which has a finite endpoint (mourning and melancholia, 1917). with the introduction of this word and, indirectly, this historical peer working on these themes at the time of the massacre, kentridge opens up a dialog about what it is to be guilty, to be complicit, to be the inheritors of psychic pain. maria-christina villase√±or, the curator of black box, wrote that among kentridge’s questions are:

…does trauma ever really recede? can it be contained?…the history that looms largest in kentridge’s work is the complex, deeply intertwined relationship of between Europe and Africa, the rhino in the room, so to speak, a presence that can never be ignored…there is no standing outside in kentridge’s work. black box implicates us in our belief and disbelief, in our wonder and cool knowingness, in darkness and in light.

notably, after wwi, freud radically revised his work about grief in ego and the id, asserting that grief is continual and ongoing, a sisyphean labor without end.

with all the issues kentridge skillfully touches upon in his work black box/chambre noire, with his address and redress of western white history at the bequest of the penitent authors of such histories, kentridge has given us a work that is implication, absolution and everything in between. black box is full of pointed, unanswered questions; the practical realization that nothing can be done to recover or correct the excessiveness of a punishing past; that we are always more than our pain but never without it; and that, like the multi-part media chosen to depict it, history and its retelling is messy, overlapping, conflicted and consisting of multiple voices.

though his animated films are rare and hard to come by (shown mostly at festivals and rare museum screenings), a short 6-minute excerpt of the documentary art from the ashes can be seen here. black box/chambre noire is currently being shown at the johannesburg art gallery through july 9th. hopefully then it will tour to at least one of the guggenheims in the u.s. a production of kentridge’s full-length stage opera of the magic flute will run at the brooklyn academy of music in the spring of 2007.

the thing of the thing

a blog is a funny thing.

in the beginning, it is a tabula rasa, a place where you can project onto all that has needed a very particularized and niched space to simply be. because of its newness, you are able to create and alter at will the tone, the subject matter, the seriousness and the obsessiveness of your own little piece of the self-publishing cyberspace pie.

given time and diligence, some of the reasons you carved out your little niche begins to come manifest: you receive responses to posts, emails and find through your statistical log that other people, other blogs, are discussing your posts. sending people your way. creating community, audience and critics in a seemingly fast amount of time.

it is when this above mentioned occurs that something about how you think about writing takes a subtle shift. before response, we’ll say, you wrote thinking that maybe somewhere someone might be reading, but it wasn’t a given. after response, you know empirically that people are, and you might even know, in that indirect way of the internet, who some of them are. it’s like heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: the observation of the experiment begins to change the quality of the actual experiment such that you cannot know if, or to what degree, the observation taints the experiment being observed.

i bring this up not because i have become stymied and inconsistent in my writing due to the fact that i know someone is looking, but because i find it worth mentioning that when one hesitates in the face of their experiment, and then when something outside of that niched out, projected-place she created fundamentally shifts–say, a job, a relationship, a move or all three–the blog is the first thing to go.

at least, that’s what introverts like me do. i become exhausted at the thought of producing the very sorts of things that it gave me great satisfaction to produce not for you (solely), dear reader, but for me. and like the garden in my yard which is slowly being prepared to weather the brutal winter that will undoubtedly be coming soon to my new locale, i have had to take a long meditative breath away from this space and communicating these things which i ponder on a greedy, constant basis. my neighbor is laying cardboard on the ground, and then hay on top of the cardboard, so that the ground underneath stays warm, moist and fertile through the frosty, biting winter. i feel i have been preparing myself much the same.

so, with renewed purpose and a clearer mind, i return to this too too neglected space. perhaps some redecorating is in order. since i would like to be more frequent in my musings here, it may be appropriate to open up the floor to writing that is not only the full-length artist psycho-biography–though i do adore that and will keep writing them–but some more fractured and fleeting writing. sometimes i forget about the gems that can be found in fragments; truer thoughts which rise so quickly to the surface because you imagine you care about them less.

speaking of fragments, i offer you this one. it swept all the art pretense from underneath my feet and knocked me sideways:

at the met this month i was rushing back and forth between galleries trying to get my one-day-in-the-city special exhibitions fix. i had gone to look at the the spirit photography exhibit that was showcased, and was excited as i’d never laid eyes on these types of photographs in the flesh. the show was packed with people, and i seemed to be eternally in line behind these two loud women that kept pointing and saying things like, how could anybody ever think these things were real, anyway?” over and over again. anxious to leave and visit another part of the museum, i rushed between the hallways which connected their photography wing to their painting wing. the hallway that has the oft-changed permanent collection of photographs, and, as you near the exit, a gallery of drawings. i almost missed it, and then i stopped.

it was a drawing of hokusai’s the great wave at kanagawa, copied by van gogh. his familiar ink stroke, those wobbly lines on yellowed paper. next to the drawing was an excerpt printed from a letter by van gogh, discussing it. the image of this wave, which has been co-opted by every new age purpose known to man, has been commodified to symbolize an experience of serene zen calm. it used to be the advertising symbol for a holistic health care place i worked for in grad school. to van gogh, however, it did not embody any of those fuzzy warm things. look at the foam, he wrote, you can see that they’re really claws, they’re clutches. and that they’re coming for the fisherman in the boat. i’m paraphrasing from memory, but that’s the gist of it. and it was astonishing to me. this ubiquitous image, this famous woodblock print that i’ve only ever glanced at, apparently. how could i have missed the danger inherent here? the vulnerability and tinniness of those wooden boats caught underneath the crest of that great–as in inspiring fear and awe–wave? those clutches?

i wasn’t even looking to catch a moment like that, and out of all of the ones i was seking in my art hiatus weekend, this was the most stunningly felt and realized.

less talk, more looking

the manner i’ve been looking, lately. and what i’ve been looking at.

birdholes, chattanooga, tennessee

century plant, backyard, savannah, georgia

the house next door used to be a strip club, savannah, georgia

dog person pic, atlanta, georgia

cat person pic (or, the cat that loves me who will not go away), savannah, georgia

i’d like to go back and tea stain some of these, and that’s something i haven’t engaged in in a long while, anyway. it always seems like so much more of an overwrought process in my mind before i just actually go in and do it. come to think of it, many things are like that: taking photos, reading/writing for a thesis, having a hard conversation, making a meal. is growth really just learning to accomodate a will-to-action?

i took all of the above over labor day weekend, which was spent in part in three places: here, atlanta and chattanooga, tennessee. some i did are in color; i haven’t posted any of those yet. staring at so much black and white work of late, color has begun to startle me in an unsettling way.

and i entered two pieces in the atlanta photography group’s juried show only in 2004, juried by Anna Walker Skillman, the owner of the jackson fine art gallery in atlanta, georgia. it is my favorite photographic space in the city: it is a tad more intimate than traditional gallery spaces–maybe this has something to do with its being a little cottage house situated on a quiet neighborhood street that you could easily imagine yourself living in. quiet and happy and lush with green all around. aside from that, she shows kick ass work. it was where i first encountered masao yamamoto’s work, and there’s currently a sally mann exhibit showing. she stages thoughtful shows, and you get the feeling she only puts on the walls things she cares about. i could (and probably am) be entirely projecting that sense, but for what it’s worth, that’s the sense when you’re there and when you return for a new show.

and reading. and reading. more posts to come about musings on more japanese photographers. one recurring theme that visited me today were these photographic elegies that seem to be composed about the relationships of wives and artists. masahisa fukase and yoko fukase, and their split that gave birth to his most known work the solitude of ravens; nobuyoshi araki and his wife (also named) yoko, pictures including their honeymoon, life together and her death; and then the strange strange work of seiichi furuya, who emigrated to graz with his wife christine gossler. i remember seeing his work in chicago, on a tour of the revco collection. the photos are so memorable because they horrifingly show the photographer–step by step–returning home one afternoon to finding an open window, with her slippers carefully placed beneath the sill. as you go with him to the window to look out, he shows you her very dead form on the pavement below, as he mediates his responses and actions through the camera. the pictures–or maybe, more precisely, the act of having not only lived the event but photographing it as one lived it–made me wonder if this was a kind of emotional photojournalism. what else could it be? or could explain the compulsion to photograph such a moment–when that moment is you, your wife, your loss, right now? i still haven’t waded through my thoughts on his images, and will sit down with some of them tonight.

and a big beaming thank you to those who’ve sent the assorted emails and comments i’ve been receiving regarding this site and my thoughts. it is astonishing to me that anyone wants to read what i’m processing in my head concerning photography and art, and gratifying to hear words and experiences and encouragement from those i’ve never met or had a conversation with. it’s wonderful that writing here becomes its own kind of conversation, and i like how it’s pushing me to think more fully about what i encounter, look at and read. i strive to be engaged in a full way, and i’ve found that writing here has been vastly fulfilling in that regard.

Pt. 2, Thoughts on Chinese Photography (and other thoughts)

It’s simply a fact–there are only a few images left.

When I look out here I see everything is cluttered up. There are hardly any images to be found. One has to dig deep down, like an archeologist; one has to search through this violated landscape to find something. Naturally, there is a risk involved, one that I wouldn’t avoid. I see only a few people who take risks in order to change this misery–the misery of having no images left, none that are adequate. We desperately need images, those images that are relevant and adequate to our level of civilization–ones that correspond to those deep inside ourselves.–Werner Herzog, from Tokyo-Ga, a film by Wim Wenders, 1984.

i’ve been sitting on these thoughts of mine a good long while, waiting to see if they would turn and change into something else, have something more to say than just this. i saw the chinese photography exhibit at ICP while there a couple weeks back. i was greatly looking forward to it, and forward to it openly, meaning: i had no context for an expectation. i thought that this meant that i had no expectations, but, one finds, one always has expectations. the exhibit would be the first exposure i had had to contemporary chinese photography on any scale, and i was interested in what artists of the same generation as me had to say about the very different world they experienced from mine. what was it like to be a member of the largest nation in the world? what was it like to be living during a time in which long-held cultural norms were having to be redefined to fit in with a sometimes contradictory desire for cultural change? what about growing up as the first generation post-chinese cultural revolution? as the inheritors of that psychic pain? how would concerns of modern day china be addressed? what were the concerns of modern day china?

it began on a promising note. one of the first works you see at the ICP location (half of the multi-themed exhibit is being shown at the asia society) is this one by lian tianmaio:

lin_tianmiao

it is an immense and quiet piece, with threads piercing the self-portrait of the artist in the face, and coming out of the back to form one impossibly large braid, which then fizzles out to be wound as a single thread around a spool. much is made on the wall blurbs of the chinese penchant for large and monumental art, a graphic loved left-over from a life built up around oversized socialist art murals and public sculptures. but this is one of the few pieces in the show which manages to successfully weave the personal and the cultural aesthetic (if it can be called such), and to gracefully nod to a chinese tradition of intense and intricate craft. a self portrait that, in the pure sense of the term, actually reveals something of the maker. which to me is a kind of risk, that by extension, is inherent in any definition of mine concerning art. something which risks one’s vulnerability accomplishes this.

others not so much. others to which, in fact, i roll my eyes long and high towards the ceiling, imagining the first-friday cocktail conversations had in front of “the work.”

ma_liuming

(i tried here to imagine that conversation, but it was immediately so insipid i had to throw cheap champagne in viewer 1 and viewer 2’s face.)

part of what annoyed me with this work was that it seemed so obvious and easy of how this got into this show, and why this artist is popular with curators and those who write about art. exhibitionists almost always make good copy, or at least good gossip, and it helps too if the artist-as-model has a “startlingly stunning androgynous body” (an actual quote from a recent review of this show in this issue of Asia Pacific Quarterly–in what other context than one gay man talking about another gay man could this sentence even find its way into print in a serious review? can you imagine this same being said about an exhibiting female artist?). i am reminded of advice given to an attractive, charismatic colleague of mine in grad school that was having early success with his work, “the only thing that could make you more successful at this point and get you more high level recognition is if you were to come out and announce that you were gay.” (he wasn’t, and while it’s a cheap shot, it’s oftner than most would admit to a truer generalization than others.) another thing that bothered me was that it was so obvious. man walking naked along the great wall of china. and there’s an accompanying video of “the event.” what does it mean to walk naked along the wall? does it mean that a curator is happy his show is balanced because he got to include a “reinterpretation of a major historical site” (quote from the catalog)? if it is a reinterpretation, is liuming “reowning” the wall for his own personal use, or is he commenting upon the individual finally surmounting (and thus conquering) the political? i could go on and on, but i don’t believe for a second that it is any one of these off-the-cuff critical tropes. i think these are merely self indulgent self portraits that happen to include the great wall of china. it says nothing; it risks nothing; it is one of the many pieces of visual clutter that herzog spoke of in that quote.

another piece that baffled me was this one by artist (cum-masochist?) sheng qi:

sheng_qi

the image by itself isn’t so disturbing (except that it is, but the fact of it being so isn’t what i mean here). i had the reaction to this piece that i did to many in this show, in which i may have responded more positively to it if i had completely ignored any corresponding information that provided context, and merely let myself project meaning and intention onto it. without reading the text on the wall, i had looked at this image and assumed something unfortunate and horrible had happened to the artist who holds a picture of a young boy in his chinese cultural revolution outfit. maybe the terrible thing, one reasonably begins to assume, that happened was in fact the chinese cultural revolution. well, in this case that assumption is wrong. the terrible thing that happened to this artist was the artist to himself. with very little reason why, we are told that the artist, upon leaving china for where we are not told, presumably here, he severs his pinky finger and plants it into the bottom of a flower pot. and then takes this picture (and probably others, i mean, if you’re going to start severing body parts, you might as well go for a whole series). i’m not totally adverse to the idea of body-as-stage, i mean, i’m with orlan or chris burden, but this? was this worth a finger? if there was a point, or a deeper meaning, could it not have been conveyed somehow? what is the point that i am supposed to get? is this just throwing the assumption of the limits of cultural understanding in the viewer’s face? am i terribly declass√© if i admit my defeat and say what the fuck?

i suppose what was the most disheartning was the lack of attention to any of the questions i would have thought that contemporary chinese artists might have been addressing (see: expectations and assumptions always raise their head). that is not to say that they are not being addressed at all, but that they are not in this show, and not (with little exception) by these artists. divided into four “themes” that could be the theme of any show at any time in any gallery in new york, themes of “history and memory”; “people and place”; “performing the self”; and “reimagining the body”, what i gleaned was that perhaps china has learned too much from the west already, and perhaps all of it bad. our way of curating, marketing and exhibiting art is not the only way to do things, and i would be delighted to have our sterile and commodity-oriented manner of considering art to be challenged by something thoughtful and new, instead of something emulating something that pretends to be the ideal.

considerations in two parts: a love letter to caravaggio and some thoughts on chinese photography, pt. 1

this past weekend i kept a promise with my eighteen-year-old self and spent a few days on an art pilgrimmage in new york. when i was eighteen, i traveled to new york city for the first time. i was the kind of child that had always idealized the city, and had fed myself on a diet of writers that described, in doting and unaffected detail, growing up a child of new york. i absorbed unabashedly as many museums, galleries, people watching, language listening as i could, and vowed that i would return at least once, every year. i thought: though i don’t know what it is i am to do with my life, i know that whatever tasks i give myself, i want an awareness of things that this city makes you aware. i want to be fed on the art of this city, and to know it. and so i have made the trek, and kept that promise to me-at-eighteen, for most of the last decade.

and this weekend i was excited to go because the premise of this pilgrimmage was to view the not-often-travelling caravaggios that are on exhibit at the metropolitan museum of art. i have been a person who has measured optimal aesthetic experiences by how many times i have been able to stand in front of one of this man’s canvases. i have seen him in florence, in rome, dublin, paris and now in new york, and my count is at 23. his supper at emmaus was the one i was holding my breath for this time around, and it did not disappoint.

supper

there are two versions of this painting by caravaggio, but this one is the most moving to me. the image is spectacularly dynamic, and peter (it is peter, isn’t it, with the shell pinned to his shirt?) has his arms wide and i don’t know why–will he embrace christ in a moment or is he expressing surprise and awe?–and the other disciple is sitting down or standing up; i like being on the precipice of wondering if this is the moment christ has revealed himself as the resurrected to those in his company, or if it is the moment where it is realized before he says anything, and then having said it, vanishes (and thank you burke for the refresher on the story–a wonderful reference to have as i was actually looking at the painting).

i’d been reading leo bersani’s book caravaggio’s secrets prior to going up, and he has a section where he examines where the subjects of his paintings are looking, and what it means to rest one’s gaze where one does–and where one doesn’t. an excerpt:

it is as if everyone around the ambiguously centered christ of caravaggio’s work knew, as caravaggio himself seems to have known, that no one has the authority to center our gaze, to define its primary relation. that caravaggio knew that, and principally painted religious subjects in which relational primacy could not by definition be questioned, is immensely moving.

it is always difficult to tear myself away from such moments; it is a selfish wish of mine to be all alone and immensely quiet and reverential in front of such paintings. maybe this is why it is easier for me to view his work in places of worship. not because of the subject matter so much or that i adhere to the beliefs that commissioned the work in the first place, but because what i want more than anything in such a moment is to encounter it fully, personally and without distraction. i want to place myself in direct relation to the painting, and i sometimes will move around it, trying to find what spot i would have to be in to make a mark on that canvas. is this how far he stood to paint this ear? is this how close? there is no other painter i can think of that felt his paintings so thoroughly as he thought them into being.

i was lucky enough to be in florence at a time when two of his last (and largest in scale) paintings were brought to the city to be cleaned. before the restoration the city held an exhibition of just the two paintings, and i stood in the same space with one of the most moving images i have ever seen:

stjohn_malta

(shown here in situ, at the alter of st.john’s cathedral in malta.)

it is immense, even in the tall-ceilinged halls of the palazzo vecchio, where i saw it. 12 by 17 feet. i was moved because it didn’t look like a religious painting, that it looked like a common street killing. had he stolen a chicken? i was moved because the death of a common man set upon by those seeking vengence for a petty crime was as revelatory and meaningful in my looking upon it as imagining the subject portrayed as a saint or martyr. are we all of us saints and martyrs? is this one of caravaggio’s fractured fairytales? is either portrayal less valid than the other?

the only disappointment that i experienced was that one of the six paintings i had come to see had already been sent back the week prior, as it was coming upon the closing week of the show. but if one is to miss a caravaggio, then it is best that the one missed would be the painting that lives in the same country that you travel from to see them (i am speaking of his early painting, the cardsharps, which is housed at the fort worth museum of art in texas. yes, texas has a caravaggio painting. don’t ask me how).

and though i wanted to be full only of caravaggio (and leonardo da vinci’s beautiful little drawings of misshapen faces, also on display), it is hard to turn away from things at the met, and so also rushed through rooms full of rodin, chinese gardens, and stumbled, almost accidentally, on the stunning august sander exhibit that is there. and there were other galleries, and many photographs seen (writing on china coming up) but thoughts on photography will have to wait until the next post, because while i could not be full of caravaggio in that moment at the met, i reserve the right to do so here at the space in between.