A Practice Without Center: the Work of Sophie Calle

The destructive character knows only one watchword: make room; only one activity: clearing away. His need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred. The destructive character is young and cheerful…it cheers because everything cleared away means to the destroyer a complete reduction, indeed eradication, of his own condition.
…The destructive character sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere. Where others encounter walls or mountains, there, too, he sees a way. But because he sees a way everywhere, he has to clear it everywhere. Not always by brute force; sometimes by the most refined. Because he sees ways everywhere, he always positions himself at crossroads. No moment can know what the next will bring. What exists he reduces to rubble, not for the sake of rubble, but for the way of leading through it.
The destructive character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.

–Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character,” 1931

Before I got irritated and said, “It’s not true, I never said that.” I now rub my hands, when I’ve found something wrong. It’s another way of taking care of myself, a way of turning things around. Instead of being upset about being misinterpreted, I go looking for it. I hope for it, wait for it. It’s the right method: turning things to my advantage in order not to suffer from them. –Sophie Calle in an interview with The Guardian, June 2007

© Trong Nguyen, 2007


I have spent an inordinate amount of energy and effort trying to determine whether who I am about to write about is worth all or any of this time and effort. Usually I use this space to write about what is stirring me most, what is making me think, getting me to look. And really, Sophie Calle‚Äôs work accomplishes all of those things–but the stirring, the thinking, the looking that it precipitates has been of the order that leads by stellar negation of every guiding principle in art or raison d’être that I possess. In short, she represents everything I maintain to be totally, totally wrong with photography and, by extension, the artworld-at-large.

What I want to write about is messy, provocative, full of quasi-moralistic and ethical slippery slopes. It will undoubtedly end up revealing many of my own prejudices, biases, and weaknesses, but in exchange for that it is my hope that it begins a dialog concerning some if not all of the following questions:

–For what, and whom, and to what ends does one make art?
–How important is it the question of ethical responsibility in the creation of art, and how subjective can that terminology be?
–How important are questions?
–Art or art-therapy?
–What is the difference between making work that calls into question an accepted Establishment, and working in service to perpetuate and celebrate that Establishment; or worse yet, state that you are doing the first, when in practice and by critical reception you are doing the second?
–To what degree is the Artworld (with a capital A) complicit, if not responsible for, privileging and celebrating solipsism as an artistic concern?
–How important is it that the artist be aware of the further extended meanings of their output and oeuvre, and how what they create ends up extending or limiting a genre, a protracted way of thinking about things, or informing/influencing a culture and emerging artists whose only prevailing mode is to emulate and imitate?
–More important: intelligence or cleverness? How much has art let the latter be confused, mistaken for, the former?

To begin, I’d like to revisit a schematic I brought up in an earlier post, that of Photographic Character. This is what I wrote on it before:

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.

So given that, what is the photographic/artistic character of Sophie Calle? What is her art?

From what I’ve gleaned from interviews and writings on her, Calle would delight in the apparent failing of language to describe just what it is she does, as testified by the far-ranging terms and labels applied when critics write about her: documentarian, voyeur, writer, photographer, social detective, conceptual artist, installation artist, performance artist, provocateur.

Almost a decade ago, when I first heard her name, I was told about projects in which she followed people across streets and countries on a whim and documented it, or took menial service jobs in order to spy on the people she was hired to work for, or found an address book in the street and called up all the people in it to get a portrait of the person who owned the book (and published these various recollections of the address book owner in a 28-day spread in Liberation), or the time she got different people to sleep in her bed every night and photographed them. In every case of those who spoke about her, there was a sense of an ungainly crush: admiration voiced for her seemingly endless clever output coupled with a desire to dream up a project as neat, witty and as precisely orchestrated as one of Sophie Calle’s.

It would be years before I’d come across her again, and when I did it was through the intermediary of Hervé Guibert, who writes bitingly about her in To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, giving her the not-so-graceful nom-de-plume “Anna-the-pain-in-the-ass.” Sleuthing around I discovered that the photographer he was referring to was Sophie Calle, and then I was stunned to find him cross-referenced by her–and in fact that entire earlier writing by Guibert reproduced, and then answered in turn, by Calle in Exquisite Pain. At the time I was pleased with the connection (and for having come to her by reading Guibert first; this first narration would become important later when I would be enmeshed in the complex and compulsive world of the self-editing that Calle does in her pieces). Exquisite Pain is the first Calle piece I’d ever seen, in the flesh–a seductive little object.

The first incarnation of this work was a book. A book that was fifteen years in the making, or, more precisely, fifteen years in the putting-off. in an interview with Bice Curiger in 1992, Calle was asked:

BC: Did you ever start a project from an obsession which didn’t work out, that you didn’t end up exhibiting?
Calle: There is a project I’ve been trying to do for five years. Every time I have a new idea, anything, I do the new one quickly to postpone this one. But I’m sure there will be a day soon when I have no ideas and I will have to do this one. It’s a project about unhappiness…There is a medical term called ‘exquisite pain.’ When you break your arm, if you put your finger where it was broken, they call the pain you feel exquisite pain. And I could put my finger just on the second of my pain. This was the thing that interested me.

The book itself is a refined little thing. red-foiled pages on the edge, narrow, novella-length. in what i would become familiar with as her typical reportage/diaristic writing convention, the “story” told is that of a count-“up” to and a counting-away from Calle’s unhappiest moment, that precise time at which the pain she felt was, to her estimation, “exquisite.”

She had won an art grant. She decided to use it to go to a place she would never normally choose to go, a place where she in fact did not want to visit. It was a three-month award. her lover at that time threatened that he could not be faithful for that long a separation, and that he would leave her. She made arrangements to meet him at the end of the grant at a hotel in New Dehli, India. She goes to Japan for the appointed duration, flies to India, and on the evening of their reunion she gets receives a message that he is not coming. When she finally reaches him by phone many hours later, she is told that he has met someone else.

The second half of the book is an exercise in revisionist autobiography. On the left side of each facing page is Calle’s recounting of her moment of greatest suffering, beginning with how many days ago the day of suffering occurred. Each recounting varies to greater or lesser degrees, sometimes telling more about the day, sometimes more about her personal history as it led up to this day. Each photo on this page of her describing her unhappiest moment is the same, the photo of the bed and the red phone on which she received her bad news. as the book nears its end, the text that is written by Calle about this day begins to diminish in tone, blending in with the black of the page. on the last day of her recounting, there is nothing there that is visible to be read. Contrasted with this repeated (with variations) narrative, on the adjoining page is the story of someone else, someone that Calle has found and asked to tell her: What in your life has been your moment of Exquisite Pain? Each of these narratives are different, and if pain were set on scales, the bias quickly becomes that the anonymous storyteller is oftener a tale of a weighter and more devastating degree. The act of placing the reader in the position of evaluating which pain is the greater, or even more precisely: that of presenting them on facing pages as Equal, is one of the central conceits of this project.

© Sophie Calle, Exquisite Pain

I would later encounter this piece in installation form at the Powerplant in Toronto, and then learned still later of its next planned iteration and (possible?) final resting place as a collaborative work between her and Frank Gehry. Clearly, Calle knows how to get the most mileage out of recycled materials; the most bang for the buck.

And then, in 2007, would come her single most legitimizing art moment to date: Her inclusion–twice!–in the Venice Biennale, with the main exhibition curated by Robert Storr. She was also chosen to represent the country of France in their national pavilion. This last piece, “Take Care of Yourself” is another take of hers on the theme of the jilted lover, in this case she uses an break-up email she received from a recent beau, given it to over a hundred women to dissect and denounce, all according to their life’s work and craft, and then in turn documented by Calle. The press for this installation was overwhelmingly positive–shades of the glib artworld crush come back to haunt us here–and of everything shown at the Biennale that year, was arguably the slickest, most put-together of anything else on display.

Gender difference, female solidarity, humorous revenge and female empowerment are all cited as the artistic concerns of the project. Equally lauded is the unifying, collaborative effort that Calle used to create the piece, culling the reactions, responses and creative efforts of 107 women of varying nationalities, ages, backgrounds and occupations. Sounds good, right? At least good enough to be a successful Benetton campaign if not the selection for the French national pavilion. Speaking of advertising campaigns, one of the pavilion’s official corporate sponsors was Chanel, which, according to the press release, the venerable fashion house concluded that this latest work of Calle’s was: “…firmly rooted in a feminine universe that is passionately attached to freedom and daring, it is a perfect echo of the brand universe and the pioneering spirit of Mademoiselle Chanel.” But what of it: culture, commerce, sass and class?

Robert Storr had it right back in 2003, when he wrote in Art Press that she was “decidedly bourgeois rather than bohemian,” and moreover a “downright annoying…embodiment of the unreliable narrator” and finally, that, “Hers is a labyrinth with a walled-off chamber at its center, a maze of mazes without a core.” One of my (many) issues with Calle’s work (which Storr astutely refers to as overly preoccupied with her “sentimental education”) is her bullish confusion of universal experience with literary tropes. She has said that her materials are the banal experiences of everyday life, and that what she makes art out of is no different than the French luminaries that came before her, writing about their private lives: Victor Hugo, Paul Verlaine, Charles Baudelaire. But, of course, there is a difference. What Calle loves is the general, of being without content. It’s the page itself she’s interested in, not the page as materiality, or the page as it exists, but the blank of it, the lack of it. She is not aware of this, and what she is working through is not the Lacanian “lack.” Her lack isn’t the white of the page, but the blur: what is indistinct. She is utterly solipsistic: in her work she continually refers to the self, and then mistakes and exhibits her experiences as universal feeling. Sophie Calle is the subject, a spectacle of generality, a tautology of never escaping the circle of the self.

Calle is the unhealthy art equivalent of the hegemony of shelter porn: frothy, light, easily digestible, clever and rich. She prides herself on being controversial and provocative, but who is she ever really at the risk of offending? Who in her audience is in possession of sensibilities, culture, education or tastes that are different from–or in opposition to–her own? Her artistic project overlooks the existence of difference or the Other, and using 107 different women to comment upon a a break-up letter she’s received doesn’t begin to address that all of those whose participation she sought she considers (perhaps unconsciously) her equals. She never examines the limits of her world-view, and has a complete myopic disregard for the social. Some people would claim that’s her charm. A wealthy, Europeanized, cosmopolitan audience is to whom her work is addressed and that which comprises her artistic boundary condition.

It’s my own conceit that art has an ethical responsibility not to manufacture experiences, but to manufacture thinking, what Walter Benjamin refers to as the “call” of the art work, i.e. to respond to the call of thinking. In my estimation, Sophie Calle is not an artist, but an editor. In an interview given about her project Exquisite Pain, she said that, “…when you edit things from your life, one moment becomes more specific than another. It’s all in the editing, not in the life.” While she edits, what she practices is an edit without questions, without premise, only formula. She calls the premise for her projects her ideas, says that she is full of ideas, but Ideas they are not; these are parlor questions. She frames herself through the references of repetition and disappearance, but doesn’t use them in an authentic or true way. What she does is manipulate these references to distill and create an affect. What she creates isn’t related to thinking; what she creates is affectation. As an editor, she is also a greedy one, taking and taking and taking. Instead of trafficking in ideas or thinking, she takes other people’s thoughts and experiences as her art supplies, and then calls it collaboration. Hers is ultimately a cynical view of the world, one in which we continually push one another’s buttons. She escapes the criticism of being jaded and cynical by couching the boundaries of her projects as a joke. Her notion is that the joke transcends the trauma, so that one is not owned or consumed by it, but healed in spite of it.

In terms of her artistic reception and acceptance, it discourages me greatly that the Art World is so charmed, so titillated, so utterly taken with her. There is little if any criticality, no questions–just a lazy acceptance/complicity to be entertained by her solipsism. What does Calle’s artistic project reflect back and say about the so-called Art World? That this is an entity in love with its own image, that flatters itself, creates affectations and deflects attention away from wondering why does one create affectations, and in so doing, deflects meaning.

I first heard Sophie Calle’s name while in an MFA critique when I was studying photography. My linking of her to established art institutions is intentional, as through my own experience of her and in my research of the available press on her demonstrates that she is at once everything that MFA programs teach their students to aspire to in their practice and also everything that people who have thought deeply on the matter believe is what’s intrinsically wrong with MFA programs today. In an important conversation about the state of art education today, Art In America published an exhaustive critique of its academic and studio traditions, written by its practitoners and educators. Following are a few excerpts from the May 2007 article:

  • We teach artists both a litany of names and the fashioning of individuality. Instead of working on a practice, it is the artist who is worked on, pushed to internalize the art world, to take it seriously and to produce an identity in its image. –Howard Singerman, Univ. of Virginia, Charlottesville
  • …students in American MFA programs are educated in an environment that all too often replicates our country’s debilitating isolation from global diversity and ideas. –Lawrence Rinder, Calif. College of Arts, SF
  • …everyone ignores the real need: to resuscitate a way of talking about art that recognizes the value of art as a theory in itself, a thing that is impractical and politically useless…the best art students…need to learn imaginative ways to step outside their own historicist subjectivity in order to understand the extent to which they are unwittingly trapped by it. –Laurie Fendrich, Hofstra
  • The European approach is entirely based on charismatic figures and the myth of “free education.” –Bruce Ferguson, Columbia Univ.
  • In the present moment, artists are better off training themselves at home and acquiring the benefit of a good liberal arts or art historical education. This, because the model for graduate art education, established in the early 1970’s by John Baldessari and others (myself included), is 40 years old and virtually obsolete. –Dave Hickey, Univ. of Nevada

The emphasis on selecting and committing to a critically appealing personal project that was, at least in my educational experience, the mantra of the MFA program, is the space that Sophie Calle inhabits totally, and in her example are the lessons that are internalized by those academies of artistic training. Where we should read a cautionary tale we are instead entreated to emulate and imitate, and where we should be creating work that compels thought we instead are told to come up with clever ideas.

Goethe once wrote that at the age of 18, German literature was as old as he was. And a century or so later, Walter Benjamin said that what Goethe was to German literature, he aspired to be to criticism. In his essay “A Small History of Photography,” (1931) Benjamin writes something that, in my reflections on the subject of Sophie Calle and by extension upon the notion of Photographic Character, is as bitingly relevant as ever, and is the thought I’d like to end this essay with:

The camera is getting smaller and smaller, ever readier to capture fleeting and secret moments whose images paralyze the associative mechanisms in the beholder. This is where the caption comes in, whereby photography turns all life’s relationships into literature; and without which all constructivist photography must remain arrested in the approximate. Not for nothing have Atget’s photographs been likened to the scene of a crime. But is not every square inch of our cities the scene of a crime? Every passerby a culprit? Is it not the task of the photographer–descendant of the augurs and haruspices–to reveal guilt and to point out the guilty in his pictures? “The illiteracy of the future,” someone has said, “will be ignorance not of reading or writing, but of photography.” But must not a photographer who cannot read his own pictures be no less counted as illiterate?

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.


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
–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.


so it’s more of a visual thing than a lengthy-esoteric-discussion thing, but i’ve been most intrigued by the effect that the institute of design (and, more precisely, its golden-era mentors) have had on the aesthetics of early post-war japanese photographers. i know that yasuhiro ishimoto was studying with siskind and callahan during the heyday, and took his artistic armory back with him to japan, but i’ve just loved looking at the following homages made in respectful nods to callahan by nobuyoshi araki and masahisa fukase (i was certain there was a furuya one, but i think i was just hoping it existed):

the original:

eleanor, chicago, 1949

and those who wish to treat the matter through their own filters:

yoko araki, undated

yoko fukase, izu, 1973

in the introductory essay to anne wilkes tucker’s encylopedic tome the history of japanese photography, the author asserts that araki and fukase both became known to the japanese because they were the first to show the “intimate homelife and personal emotional state of their subjects.” as i read more and more about the environment from which contemporary japanese photographers emerged, i see (though as a westerner cannot fully comprehend) more and more how this work must have come as a shock to the viewing public. i also can’t help but meditate upon how, in absorbing eastern men reinterpret the tones of callahan’s portrait of his wife, they show something else of themselves, of the woman in front of them, and of east contemplating west. it’s amazing and a little humbling to consider just how revolutionary something so simple as an unguarded moment of one’s wife, captured on film, could revolutionize how an entire generation of photographers began to see, and it’s something i’ve loved thinking about ever since i came across these photographs.

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:


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.”


(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:


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.


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:


(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.