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There are mornings when language just isn’t of service to what is happening in the interior landscape. So it is ironic that in the language-centric world that is most online environments, the “out of language” still sneaks in. So thank you to my Twitter feed for taking me to an extraordinary site and the source of the images above, HiRISE, High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment: “Explore Mars, one giant image at a time” from the University of Arizona.
As for an appropriate language compliment to this feast? Quotes from Richard Tuttle. Consider it a kind of language version of a musical score for viewing.
In our culture, imitation-based experience dominates reality-based experience. I find this an awful thing. But there are artists who know from the bottom of their souls that art is about the experience of reality. The reason we have art is because you can’t get a real experience from the world.
Time and time again, the intellect robs the creative.
In our culture there is a job for art, because we can’t experience reality anywhere else.
The three things that interest me are the silence, the interest, and the invisible. The quieter side of things. The subtle emotions.
An artwork is actually an accounting of all four elements, though no artist, no matter how hard they try, can bring them in perfect balance. They are arranged subjectively, finally.
When I think of the particular similarity between my work and that of Matisse, I like to think that in both you see water washing away the tears of life, but in his case that brings you to earth; in mine, to the air. is literally the idea of a finite thing having an infinite range of appearance or expression because of its inseparable relation to other things, which is what water is — its relation to other things.
Where the wall meets the floor is a special kind of zone. It’s a de-militarized zone. I’ve always hated plug-in art, because, at its best, a Flavin piece, it implies a whole stretch of dependence and very interesting questions about the link: artwork and society. I’m not interested in this. It’s already been done so well. The question is, what the light is in a piece. In those pieces the key thing is “shadows.” Here, something inside the piece is making the shadows. It’s about having discovered another dimension into a piece. The solution here is to plug into something outside the artwork.
For someone to ask me what is beauty—I really don’t have any idea. Trying to do what it is I want to do, I think, eliminates, or tries to eliminate, beauty as much as possible. If it comes back or it happens naturally—the way you put a coffee cup on a table…. Beauty is somehow a trail you create through your work that’s left behind like a snail leaves its ooze. Where you’re going has absolutely nothing, nothing, nothing to do with beauty.
Rubble is the future. Because everything that is passes. There is a wonderful chapter in Isaiah that says: grass will grow over your cities…Isaiah sees the city and the different layers over it, the grass, and then another city, the grass and then another city again.
–Anselm Kiefer, courtesy of Neversmorgasbored
Sophie Fiennes‘ film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, features German artist Anselm Kiefer during a time when he was living and working near Barjac, France before moving to Paris. Kiefer purchased land that was once a silk factory and together with a band of swarthy assistants began constructing and deconstructing a landscape that is “a monument to the human will to self-annihilation and a rehearsal for the apocalypse” in the words of New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis.
From Dargis’ review:
Mr. Kiefer and his team burrowed into the earth, dug tunnels, constructed an amphitheater, painted (and threw dust and broken glass on) canvases and kiln-fired lead sculptures that look like books, turning the sprawl into a massive atelier he called La Ribaute…The movie offers the only chance that most of us will probably have to visit what he left behind, this strange, eerie Kieferland.
Kieferland IS a world quite different from my own. For anyone who is a maker and has seen any of Kiefer’s massive works—usually distressed into altered states that are visually stunning while also overwhelming—the how did he do it? question is always in the back of my mind. I have the same query when I approach the work of many of our most epic (grandiose?) art stars (“startists” like “starchitects”?) including Richard Serra, Donald Judd, Michael Heizer, Matthew Barney.
So yes, my maker’s curiosity would keep me in a seat at the ICA for several hours while Fienne’s camera wanders this oddly cinematic, unsettling landscape. She pans for 20 minutes before we encounter any of the humans who have created this under and above ground complex of grottos and postindustrial pavilions. And when we finally do see Kiefer and his assistants at work, the camera keeps its distance, neither invading nor engaging with anyone. The musical score is heavy and ominous, mostly music composed by György Ligeti and insistently dark.
The film is ekphrastic and as much about Fiennes’ sensibilities as it is about Kiefer’s. While I usually admire the ambient and the nonlinear, I wanted a better view into the nuts and bolts of Kiefer’s genius for fabrication. While I was surprised and oddly delighted to see Kiefer pouring molten lead by hand from a pre-industrial cauldron or watch him break pane after pane of glass wearing sandals and shorts, the glimpses into his process were few.
And encounters with his philosophical foundations as well as his personal life are kept to a minimum. At one moment in the film two young boys wander past the camera, but no reference is made to them.
From Dargis’ review again:
The boys, like so much in “Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow,” are never addressed by Ms. Fiennes, perhaps because to do so might force her to employ banal documentary strategies, like identifying people. Instead she tosses in some introductory text and sets her camera loose. And because she won’t or can’t engage the complexities of the art and the arguments that have long surrounded it (involving, for instance, Mr. Kiefer’s appropriation of Nazi imagery), she embraces a silence that nonetheless clamorously draws attention to itself through the cinematography and some of the same music that Stanley Kubrick used in “2001.” It’s unfortunate that in gliding through these ravaged spaces while dodging time and its traumas, she embraces the role of tourist rather than of the vigorous, questioning participant that Mr. Kiefer’s work solicits and demands.
The film did disrupt and provoke an ongoing struggle for me that also plagues most makers I know: The issue of large vs small in artistic expression. Epic vs lyric. Grandiose vs intimate. So I was bemused by a recent email declaration from my wise friend Harvey Roy Greenberg: “I have of late for reasons I know not why been much meditating on ‘infinite riches in a little room'”.
To be discussed further in a future post.
I’m of several minds when it comes to the oft-argued place that museums should/could/would claim in the cultural milieu of contemporary life. Beyond the obvious tensions—high brow vs low brow (in a world that is increasingly no brow), elitism vs art for the common man—it is daunting to create a meaningful experience of contemporary art. Unwieldy and uncategorizable, it is bit like herding cats and not a job I would want. No matter what you do, some of your stakeholders are going to be unhappy.
So yes, the Linde Family Wing for Contemporary Art at the MFA in Boston that opened last weekend pleases some and irritates others. As has been pointed out, the collection is not a comprehensive one. (Not surprising given how many years the MFA was not actively expanding their contemporary holdings.) The thematic approach to the galleries—each room of eclectic work is held together by titles such as “What’s it about?,” “Quote? Copy? Update?,” or “What’s going on here?”—is the increasingly common Art For Dummies approach to complex visual traditions. But to focus on listing the important contemporary artists whose works are missing or to roll one’s eyes at commentaries written for middle school level reading comprehension is to overlook what is extraordinary about a new and updated museum wing devoted to contemporary art and its issues. I’m for celebrating the rising tide that raises all boats, for increased exposure, visibility and comfort with contemporary art memes.
I grew up near San Francisco, and the only museum that showed contemporary work, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was housed on the fourth floor of the War Memorial Veterans Building on Van Ness Avenue in the Civic Center. While paltry and small, the SFMOMA still gave the adolescent version of me a chance to sit with a Rothko in person, to see Stellas and Motherwells and Diebenkorns. I didn’t visit New York City or Europe until I was 18 so this was my art world as a child.
That space was dinky and dingy when compared to Mario Botta‘s iconic five story museum that now holds a city block just south of Market Street. The new structure offers twenty times the viewing venues of its earlier incarnation, and the face of contemporary art in the Bay Area today in general is substantially improved. But thank god for its earlier incarnation. It changed my life.
It is a different world now of course. My kids grew up with the MFA just a 20 minute walk away and with frequent trips to New York City, Europe and Asia. The Boston area is now museum rich with new and improved versions of the ICA, the Fogg, Peabody Essex, de Cordova and the Gardner. But in a political landscape increasingly dividing haves from have nots, I have a heightened appreciation for institutions that are committed to universal access and to the common weal. During dark times like these, I just can’t be overly critical when gratitude is the more appropriate response.
One reason to visit the museum soon: Christian Marclay‘s The Clock. I have read—as have you no doubt—all the hype about this 24 hour long montage. I was curious but a bit skeptical. Well. I was and am completely intoxicated. I walked in and thought I would stay for 20 minutes. Three hours later, I was rapt and still didn’t want to leave.
This trancelike work flows from one scene to another, stitched together with references to time (in complete sequence with IRL time) and a deft weaving of haunting moments of human life. Using elements such as rain falling, the view from a window or a running figure to move from one sequence to the next, Marclay lifts you ever so gently into a transcendent sense of our own collective unconscious, a (mostly) Western dreaming that is breathtaking. Almost 24 hours later, I’m still caught in its magic. As Sebastian Smee wrote, it is a dazzling piece of work.
(Note: The MFA is mounting the full 24 hour showing on October 9 starting at 4pm and running through Monday. I will be out of town that weekend for a wedding but if I were in Boston I wouldn’t miss it.)
In addition to being pleased to see works by Richard Tuttle, El Anatsui, Kiki Smith and Sigmar Polke, here are a few other personal favorites on view:
Another note: For a more in depth view of the new wing, see Greg Cook‘s review in the Phoenix.
Last summer The Atlantic featured “14 Biggest Ideas of the Year.” My response—as was almost everyone else’s I spoke to about that article—started out excited but quickly deflated. The “ideas” were more platitudinously ordinary than inspiring: “Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was”, or the number one choice, “The Rise of the Middle Class — Just Not Ours.”
Neal Gabler, scholar and author, wrote a response in the New York Times weeks later, extending his musings on what seems to be missing for us these days:
Ideas just aren’t what they used to be. Once upon a time, they could ignite fires of debate, stimulate other thoughts, incite revolutions and fundamentally change the ways we look at and think about the world…If our ideas seem smaller nowadays, it’s not because we are dumber than our forebears but because we just don’t care as much about ideas as they did. In effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.
Gabler points to our post-Enlightenment times when rational discourse has been replaced by a willful disregard for rational thought (incredulously for the rest of us, most Tea Party candidates believe that the earth is only 5,000 years old.) But the primary culprit is information itself:
It may seem counterintuitive that at a time when we know more than we have ever known, we think about it less…Courtesy of the Internet, we seem to have immediate access to anything that anyone could ever want to know. We are certainly the most informed generation in history, at least quantitatively…And that’s just the point. In the past, we collected information not simply to know things. That was only the beginning. We also collected information to convert it into something larger than facts and ultimately more useful — into ideas that made sense of the information. We sought not just to apprehend the world but to truly comprehend it, which is the primary function of ideas. Great ideas explain the world and one another to us.
While information was once the grist used to create ideas, that is no longer the standard supply chain. We are so overloaded with information that most of us don’t have the bandwidth to process it even if we would like to. And the reality is that most of us don’t really want to go that extra mile anyway.
We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information…We have become information narcissists, so uninterested in anything outside ourselves and our friendship circles or in any tidbit we cannot share with those friends that if a Marx or a Nietzsche were suddenly to appear, blasting his ideas, no one would pay the slightest attention, certainly not the general media, which have learned to service our narcissism.
What the future portends is more and more information — Everests of it. There won’t be anything we won’t know. But there will be no one thinking about it.
Reviewing a new show of architecture at the Victoria & Albert museum, Postmodernism: Style and Subversion, Guardian writer Hari Kunzru describes a movement that has its roots in the theoretical foundations of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and was epitomized by the iconic Philip Johnson‘s Sony building in New York (AKA The Chippendale building):
This is the essence of postmodernism: the idea that there is no essence, that we’re moving through a world of signs and wonders, where everything has been done before and is just lying around as cultural wreckage, waiting to be reused, combined in new and unusual ways. Nothing is direct, nothing is new. Everything is already mediated. The real, whatever that might be, is unavailable. It’s an exhilarating world, but uncanny too…The world of signs is fast, liquid, delirious, disposable. Clever people approach it with scepticism. Sincerity is out. Irony is in. And style. If modernism was about substance, about serious design solving serious problems, postmodernism was all manner and swagger and stance.
When approached playfully and from a distance, the complex of postmodern-inspired expressions—architecture, cinema, performance art, written word—could be entertaining. To a point. But if all this was sly and a bit witty, it was also unsettling. “In a friction-free world of signs, what happened to value?”
Tracing the arc, Kunzru points to its denouement:
For many, the events of 11 September signalled the death of postmodernism as an intellectual current. That morning it became clear that “hostility to grand narratives”, as Jean-François Lyotard defined it, was a minority pursuit, an intellectual Rubik’s cube for a tiny western metropolitan elite. It seemed most of the world still had some use for God, truth and the law, terms which they were using without inverted commas. Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair, was widely ridiculed for declaring that the attacks signalled “the end of the age of irony”, but his use of the po-mo buzzword proved prescient. If irony didn’t vanish (though during the crushing literalism and faux-sincerity of the Bush-Blair war years it seemed like a rare and valuable commodity), postmodernism itself suddenly seemed tired and shopworn.
Graydon Carter‘s famous pronouncement has been discussed a great deal over the last decade of post 9/11 living as has the constant reappearance of irony, snarky detachment and “empty calorie” artistic expressions. But I was compelled by where Kunzru takes that line of thinking. In his view postmodernism was a pre-digital age phenom, and its defanging has a lot to do with the internetization of our lives:
In retrospect, all the things that seemed so exciting to its adherents – the giddy excess of information, the flattening of old hierarchies, the blending of signs with the body – have been made real by the internet. It’s as if the culture was dreaming of the net, and when it arrived, we no longer had any need for those dreams, or rather, they became mundane, part of our everyday life. We have lived through the end of postmodernism and the dawning of postmodernity.
That’s a provocative viewpoint and one that makes sense, particularly for those of us who have watched this cultural trajectory from the distant vantage point as laborers gleaning the field for what is essentially human, “hot” (as opposed to cool) and authentic. While a conspicuous and consumptive culture may have “dreamed” the net, other visions and other imaginings are migrating through at the same time. Less arc and more horizon, those envisionings unfold in a form that is ambient and yet stealthy, personal and yet shared. It is another kind of cultural dreaming, but a dreaming nonetheless.
I’ve posted a few Jane Hirschfield poems on this blog previously (here and here) and continue to explore her body of work. In the meantime I have been savoring her volume of essays about poetry, Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. As is often the case, musings on poetic invention are usually very apropos for visual art making as well.
Hirschfield’s first essay is about concentration, a term she uses to describe a particular state of awareness: “penetrating, unified, and focused, yet also permeable and open.” She describes concentration that may be “quietly physical—a simple, unexpected sense of deep accord between yourself and everything. It may come as the harvest of long looking and leave us, as it did Wordsworth, amid thought ‘too deep for tears.'”
Here are a few more insights into this idea:
Violinists practicing scales and dancers repeating the same movements over decades are not simply warming up or mechanically training their muscles. they are learning how to attend unswervingly, moment by moment, to themselves and their art; learning to come into steady presence…Yet however it is brought into being, true concentration appears—paradoxically—at the moment willed effort drops away…At such moments, there may be some strong emotion present—a feeling of joy, or even grief—but as often, in deep concentration, the self disappears. We seem to fall utterly into the object of our attention, or else vanish into attentiveness itself. This may explain why the creative is so often descried as impersonal and beyond self, as if inspiration were literally what its etymology implies, something “breathed in”.
Great art, we might say, is thought that has been concentrated in just this way: honed and shaped by a silky attention brought to bear on the recalcitrant matter of earth and of life.
There is much more to share which I will over the next few weeks.
I have referenced my favorite description of artists here before, but it bears repeating:
Artists are continually torn between the urgent need to communicate, and the still more urgent need not to be found.
—D. W. Winnicott
As intimately as I know that paradoxical space that Winnicott describes, I have also come to see that it possesses other features of polar extremes. State of mind, for example, is a fragile entity no matter what you do with your day. But it looms as a particularly large issue for anyone whose work is the pulling of fine angel hair threads from thin air—threads that weave themselves into poems, music, art.
Like someone with adult onset food allergies, I am much more cautious about what I read and see. While the line is a fine one between being an isolate and a person who practices thoughtful selective neglect, I am getting better at monitoring when I have been over exposed to the negative and the dark view. Each of us has our own water level. Perhaps mine is changing.
Here’s some tests of your tolerance: This excerpt is from a recent review of two books, Anna Porter‘s The Ghosts of Europe: Central Europe’s Past and Uncertain Future, and F. S. Michael‘s Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything, written by Jessa Crispin on The Smart Set, a thoughtful site from Drexel University:
Twenty years after the Velvet Revolution, Havel gave a public speech in which he assessed the current state of the free Czech Republic. “On the one hand everything is getting better — a new generation of mobile phones is being released every week,” he said. “But in order to make use of them, you need to follow new instructions. So you end up reading instruction manuals instead of books and in your free time you watch TV where handsome tanned guys scream from advertisements about how happy they are to have new swimming trunks… The new consumer society is accomplished by a growing number of people who do not create anything of value.”
The artistic and literary scene that flourished paradoxically under censorship and repression has died off. The public intellectual is, for the most part, no longer invited to the most important parties. Anna Porter writes, “Now that everyone can publish what they want, what is the role of the intellectuals?” and she can’t find an answer. It’s no longer the police state that’s attacking the intelligentsia — it’s disinterest and boredom. It’s distraction. It’s a trade off. And it’s one that we should be able to acknowledge and be allowed to mourn. When the historian Timothy Garton Ash visited Poland in the 1980s, he admitted to an envy for the environment there. “Here is a place where people care, passionately, about ideas.” The people of Central Europe traded in ideas for groceries and for not being beaten to death by the police. No one could possibly blame them, but at the same time, Havel and the other leaders had no sense of the true cost of democracy.
So Central Europe gave up one monoculture and installed another. It also happens to be the presiding monoculture of nearly the entire world: the economic story. But perhaps it’s easier to see the monoculture through the filter of Central Europe because the transition was so quick and total there. The economic story of the United States came on creeping, subsuming our culture so pervasively and gradually that it’s almost difficult to believe things here ever worked any another way. But East Berlin became West Berlin with the crumbling of one thin wall.
From another article on The Smart Set—A Question of Timing: The resonance of destruction past, manufactured, and yet-to-come, by Morgan Meis:
Everybody is talking about ruins these days. That could be a bad sign. Detroit, in particular, seems to have captured the fancy of the ruin enthusiast. Detroit has experienced a 25 percent reduction in population over the last 10 years or so. Whole areas of the city have been abandoned. You can see entire neighborhoods in ruin, skyscrapers in ruin, a vastly depopulated downtown area. Camilo José Vergara, a photographer specializing in urban decay, once suggested in the mid-1990s that large sections of downtown Detroit be turned into a “skyscraper ruins park.” It would be a testimonial to a lost age, preserved in stone and metal and glass. Today, people sometimes travel to places like Detroit and other Rust Belt locations for the sole reason of gazing upon the ruins.
Our existence is caught between competing vectors, strong forces driving life in completely different directions. Who could have calculated the cost of democracy on the cultural vibrancy of Eastern Europe? And how do we come to terms with the fact that ruins ARE fascinating, that a voyeuristic prurience in us does make “ruin porn” an apt term. Anselm Kiefer, one of my most admired artists, has built a staggering artistic oeuvre grounded in a foundational concept of ruination, writ large and small.
The life force you need in the “rag and bone shop” studio needs protection. It needs shoring up. A diet that can balance the dark with a healthy serving of the light. I’ve gotten better with time at figuring out which of my friends are the leaven in my loaf and which ones require a more limited exposure; which writers and musicians feed the maker in me; what practices—even the simple ones like a moment of quiet before starting to work—bring me into balance. And after all these years, I still feel like I am a beginner at being a guard at the gate. But getting proficient at gate guarding is more important to me now than ever before.
Two of the most compelling shows I have seen over the last year were curated by artists. The first was Robert Gober‘s inspirational show of the work of Charles Burchfield (which was first exhibited at the Hammer Museum before coming to the Whitney). It was a revelation, completely transforming my view of this easily overlooked American artist from every day regionalist to transcendent master of mystical landscape. (I wrote about Burchfield in more depth here.)
The second demonstration of artist as curator success happened this weekend in Philadelphia: Physical Graffiti, at the James Oliver Gallery, curated by Pam Farrell. I hope my enthusiasm is not dismissed as a gesture of self promotion—my work is included in this show after all—but this is the first time I have seen a group show where I responded to and respected every piece included. And an extra bonus: The artists who was able to attend were as engaging and genuine as their work. Every single one. What are the chances of that? With her astute eye working hard, Pam chose well on so many levels. (For more information about Pam’s process, Leslie Avon Miller—one of the artists included in the show—has posted an interview with her here.)
It was a great evening and a terrific turn out. Thanks to Pam, James Oliver and his staff, and to all who were able to join us for a memorable night. The show runs through October 15.
Heading down to Philadelphia for the opening of Physical Graffiti: 13 artists transform time and materials. Curated by artist and friend Pam Farrell, the show brings together a number of artists I admire. Show mates include:
James Oliver Gallery
Philadelphia PA 19106
Friends, family and several art shows are also on the docket. I’ll be back on Monday.
It Was Like This: You Were Happy
It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.
It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.
At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent — what could you say?
Now it is almost over.
Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.
It does this not in forgiveness —
between you, there is nothing to forgive —
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.
Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.
It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.
Your story was this: you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.
My weekend was spent remembering the life of Budd Hopkins—artist, UFO abduction expert and father to my friend Grace. Budd’s life was particularly complex, starting out focusing on art making and then shifting to research in the extremely surreal world of abductions and extraterrestrial intruders. Some of his friends were open and credulous to his pioneering work, some were not. He continued on undaunted, authoring some of the first books documenting the horrifying experiences of abductionists, many of their accounts eerily similar.
The following stanza from Hirschfield’s wonderful poem kept coming to mind this weekend as I listened to the memories that were shared about his life:
It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days: they will be wrong,
they will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.
That “blessed rage for order” in us is not a force strong enough to truly unravel and reveal the real mysteries of a life. Yours. Mine. Budd’s. And in Budd’s case, I am willing to settle for just the roasted chestnuts and persimmons.