Monday, December 29, 2008

Franz Kline, Lehigh V Span, 1959-1960

I went to San Francisco MoMA yesterday on a mission to see Jasper Johns' Land's End, and as so often happens I got waylaid. Two rooms before the samples of so-called Abstract Expressionist and Pop Art sits this powerful late painting by Franz Kline said to represent the trestles of the Central Railroad Bridge in his home town of Leighton, Pennsylvania.

I am not so sure about the representation in this painting: I don’t see trestles and valleys and bridges and railroads. What I see is an extremely aggressive energy motivating the application of black and white paint to a canvas. It’s true that this energy is the product of industrialization — the geometricality of the black brushstroke, the highly defined lines, and the thickness and tactility of paint that, in places, has the appearance of being applied with anger all come together to represent a world in which the noise of machines deafens, it overwhelms the dreams and pleasures of life.

However, Lehigh V Span runs deeper than this. There is a tension between the definite, linear organization, the carefully planned or rationalized in the painting and the sense of impulse and spontaneity in the forceful, passionate brushstrokes. The same kind of tensions are everywhere present here, because as much as it is dynamic and aggressive, the painting is surrounded by a peace and serenity in its quiet attempt to catch the echo of the industrial din with which it is fused. These tensions are underlined by its placement next to a Rothko (Untitled, No. 14, 1960). While we characteristically want to fall into the luminous and tender world of Rothko’s orange, brown and purple composition, Kline’s becomes even angrier and more determined by comparison. Which is not to say that Rothko’s canvas is without tension, but it is of a different order to those of Kline’s Lehigh V Span.

In my mind, Kline's work is always and only ever black and white. I remember the Whitney Museum's exhibition of his work in 1995, and as its title indicated (Black and White 1950-1961) there was no color. And so for me, it was impossible to walk past Lehigh V Span without being caught by the drama and beauty of the blue and green that simultaneously merge with and are erased by both white and black on this canvas. In ways other than the obvious, the green and blue carry the painting way beyond its mere confrontation of black and white. They give the painting a sense of watching Kline’s mind at work – there are times when the colors are quite worked over (by both black and white) and others when it is as though he no longer has the energy to overpaint, and so he leaves blue and green to speak for themselves. Perhaps the presence of color also contributes to the harmony and peace this painting exudes.

Kline's is a practice of painting that is deeply American, deeply masculine and despite its loudness and aggression, deeply moving.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

On the Road with Werner Herzog!

Pilgrimage, 2001

It seems to me that if there is one subject for which Herzog's particular style of filmmaking is most perfectly suited, it must be the observation of pilgrims on the painful, suffering road to the adoration of their God. My first taste of these extraordinary pilgrimages made by the inconceivably devout was in his 2003 film, *Wheel of Time* Here we watch monks travel a road of up to 3000 miles to their ordination in Tibet. And they don't just walk the road, they travel it in protestations. That is, each step is taken through bowing and touching the ground with the face or the hands in a gesture intended to dispel arrogance and pride.

Tonight I saw an earlier short film, Pilgrimage in which the pilgrims make their way in protestation or on their knees to a variety of idols: the Virgin of Guadalupe, the tomb of Saint Sergei in Zagorsk/Russia and others. We watch in agony as the devout suffer physically to serve the depth and profundity of their spiritual and religious belief. The pilgrims are known to develop lesions on their hands and knees, making movement sometimes so difficult that they must be held up by someone on either side.

All the time, the music of John Tavener plays on the soundtrack. And what more perfect sound to accompany the pilgrims as they transcend the incredible affliction of the body in pain, in order to strengthen the spirit and acknowledge the profundity of their religious commitment.

Though he may seem a long way from the pilgrims crippled by their devotion, I am again reminded of Aguirre. Like them, he has a goal that is inconceivable to most of us - just not worth the effort. And he is so driven and committed to that goal, that nothing will stand in his way. As in *Aguirre, Wrath of God,* it is the task of the filmmaker in *Pilgrimmage* to watch these seemingly irrational behaviors with utmost respect, bestowing on its subjects a dignity and a faith in their motivations, their beliefs. And just like his great Romantic wanderers - Aguirre, Fitzcarraldo, Nosferatu, Kaspar Hauser - Herzog's religious pilgrims succeed in their journey, but at what cost. They reach their goal, that is true. Here, however the film makes it clear that the longing, and the desire, are the dream of a world always out of reach, a world and a life overrun by conflict, in this case between the body and the spirit.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fata Morgana, dir. Werner Herzog, 1971

I am not sure why I have never seen this film, but what a treat. It must be the first, or among the first, of Herzog's sci-fi "camera in a love affair with a landscape" films. It's a genre which, for me, finds its most extraordinary articulations in *Lessons of Darkness*, Herzog's 1992 ode to the Gulf War. In *Lessons of Darkness*, the camera lands on this planet of burning oil wells, scouring the charred, scarred and devastated landscape in search of life and an answer to what inconceivable nightmare has taken place here - on this "planet" far from the reality we know. *Fata Morgana* doesn't have the polemical power of *Lessons of Darkness*, but it is classic Herzog serenade with a landscape, and a mythic tale of creation and flight into paradise. And like the spoiled oil fields on fire in post-war Iraq, filmed in the desert of Cameroon, Herzog's camera is again like a visitor to an unknown land, keenly watching, looking for and following it does not always know what. Every now and then, the camera comes across the out of place spoils of colonialism: such as dead animals and scrap metal from an airplane. The remnants of other intruders are so out of kilter with the awe inspiring landscape that one cannot help but scorn at whoever passed through before Herzog's camera.

There is one delightful moment where two men in extreme long shot beckon the camera to move to the right and into the distance behind them. When it disobediently stays where it is, one of the men runs away as if to pull it in his direction. But the camera stays put, and it is only when the second man guides it towards the horizon of wasteland by running out of the frame that it follows it. Such wonderful moments remind us that the camera is never at one in a seamless continuum with what it films, that ultimately, it never really intrudes into the space of the local people it meets. It never "sees" in the way an anthropological film might otherwise claim, preferring to remain on the outside.

The theme of blindness also runs throughout Herzog's oeuvre and finds its forte in *Land of Silence and Darkness* (a film about a community of blind, deaf and dumb people who communicate and express themselves emotionally through touch and their own impalpable language). *Fata Morgana* explores the blindness of the camera primarily through its constant use of tracking shots, varied only by the speed of the vehicle from which they are taken. As it races across the seemingly sparse, but always infinitely rich and fascinating landscape, sometimes it misses the activities or collectives of human figures. At other times, for example, when it stops to stare from above at a township of mud huts there is nothing to see but an abstract collection of shapes. Alternatively, the camera happens upon a human figure engaged in an activity such as the boy with the small white animal. It's unclear if the boy is posing for the camera or if the camera is watching the boy, the two become so locked in each other's gaze that it no longer becomes relevant. The point is, neither really seems to understand the behavior of the other.

While the voiceover by Lotte Eisner is poetic and Romantic in the aestheyic sense, in another typical Herzog technique, the music at times overwhelms the visuals. Here, the ballads of Leonard Cohen, and Mozart symphonies are so moving that they have the tendency to transport us to a dream world that leaves the wind sculpted dunes behind. The images of these Herzog films are so mesmerizing and transforming of our mundane, everyday thoughts, that they don't need the sound track to do that for us. Or maybe that is the point? But this is one of the treats of *Fata Morgana* in that it's like looking at an early Picasso: in it we can see the master at work, without the splendour and polish of the well-known works. That said, there is an immediacy and a roughness to the visuals of Fata Morgana that makes it clean and compelling in a way that gets lost in the magnum opuses of years to come.

Now that the Herzog retrospective is well underway at the Pompidou Center, it's worth doing battle for tickets with all the other Herzog hungry Parisian because some of these films won't be screened again, if ever, for a long time.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Thomas Struth, Audience, 2004, Kunstsammlung K21, Düsseldorf

Another of Nordrhein-Westfalen’s cultural treasures are the modern art museums in Düsseldorf. Though I went to the Kunstsammlung K21 (Kunstsammlung K20 is closed through 2009 for cleaning and renovation) to see the special exhibition of Lawrence Weiner’s As Far as the Eye Can See, as often happens, a wander through the permanent collection brought many wonderful surprises.

One of which was a series of four photographs by the local, ie from Düsseldorf, photographer Thomas Struth Audience. I find his work fascinating on a number of counts, but mostly because of his fascination with looking at us looking, in photographs which then invite us to look at ourselves looking - and to self-reflect on our own commodification by the art museum. As if this is not enough, the mise-en abîme continues as we also look at our objectification of the works we look at, or don't look at. If this sounds circular and confusing, that's the point, because when we look at Struth's work, it is like looking into a mirror that simultaneously does and does not reflect our own processes of looking. On that count, he's the modern day Velasquez - either that or the tourists in the Galleria dell'Accademia in Florence are the modern day members of the court of Philip IV. In which case, what a disillusionment we are. At least the members of the court were watching out for the Infanta, while we watch only to see ourselves and our mirror images.

Struth took the Audience photographs in the Galleria dell'Accademia, and though it is nowhere indicated in the images, the tourists with their cameras and their guide books are all looking - or not looking - at Michelangelo's David. For some the guide book is more captivating, for others their own camera's view, and still others are mesmerized by Struth's camera - presumably not knowing they would appear in such high profile photographs as they looked into his lens. Clearly, everything about the audience in the photograph - and by extension we who look at the photograph - speaks a full immersion into the wiles of the tourism industry. Similarly, the postures, the facial expressions, the mouths agog, the utter reverence (and irreverence) shown the absent sculpture that nevertheless overwhelms these images, speaks David's cultural capital. Given the insistence with which these people look at Michelangelo's famous sculpture as an object of utter adoration, the question becomes what exactly are they looking at? Or not looking at? And then, inevitably, what exactly are we looking at? Or not looking at?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ruhr Valley Secrets, Richard Serra's Bramme für das Ruhrgebeit

One of the richest experiences of the Ruhr Valley has to be Richard Serra’s Bramme für das Ruhrgebeit (1998) in Altenessen. Somewhat difficult to find and to get to, Serra’s 14.5 meter high, 4.2 meter wide, 67 tonne steel plate sits atop a 30m high former slag heap from the coal mines in its environs. As such, it is defined by the identity of the Ruhr, and simultaneously functions to create a site in the Ruhr landscape. So typical of Richard Serra’s sculptures, the Bramme creates a site where none previously existed, literally, on the crest of a slag heap of the past. And simultaneously, Bramme, cast in steel, erect, but slightly at an angle, in the spirit of the horizon of chimneys below, overlooks an industrial landscape that is otherwise all but a spectre. The steel plate draws us to it, we are pulled into its magnetic-like field, and then as we reach it at the top of its hill, we turn away, it deflects attention away from itself, becoming something other than it is. As we stand before it, next to it, this majestic steel sculpture is transformed into a pointer that instructs us to look outwards, away from it, over the Ruhr from a position above, but fully integrated into that which is below. Once we have moved beyond its icon-like attraction, its angled stance entices us to look at it in relationship to what sits next to it, but only as these objects appear in our line of vision. It is solitary, alone on the hill, but as soon as we see it, we put it into a visual force field in which it becomes one component in a relationship to that which surrounds it – smoke stacks, chimneys, the hulks of former steel mining glory. Thus, it draws attention to the landscape of the Ruhr as a work of art. And likewise, this landscape defines it: it is made of steel, shaped like any other steel plate, its proportions, its placement, its identity are all integral to the world surrounding it.

Again, in typical Richard Serra style, this productive conversation between the steel form and its environment is experienced through more than one of the senses. It is not a relationship that is relegated solely to visual perception and deception. Bramme sheds a blanket of silence over the region, not just Essen below, but across the whole Ruhrgetbiet. And having done this, our attention becomes drawn by the silence it casts, to the sounds in the immediate environment as they echo across the 30m slag heap: a dog barking, his owner whistling to him, a child crying, boys exploring the landscape with a pickaxe.

Like a Greek temple at the top of the hill overlooking the city, we pilgrim toward it, compelled to know it and discover it and bask in its insights. And yet, unlike the temple, once we reach the Bramme there is nothing to see inside. In fact, we are prohibited from doing so, and our senses – visual, aural, tactile — are diverted such that we begin to contemplate the world outside, the world below, around and beneath it, the world that it nevertheless binds together.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

A Generation Later and Still Unrepresentable, The Baader Meinhof Complex, dir. Uli Edel

Before even seeing this film, the first obvious question is "why now?" and the second, "why in this form?"

The Baader Meinhof Complex comes at a time when "terrorism" is on the mind. So that's the simple answer to why a narrative film that follows the events of the rise and fall of the RAF in the late 60s and 70s in Germany would be made twenty years later. But this is also where the problems with the film begin. Because, as the RAF themselves insist when they are being trained in Jordan, they saw themselves as urban guerillas, with very different goals, and different actions, than the terrorist actions of the twenty-first century. It is true that the German State labelled the Baader-Meinhof group and successive generations as terrorists, but it's a term that is highly problematic in this context. And The Baader Meinhof Complex makes no attempt to address, or even reflect on this.

This kind of unself-conscious narrativization of the RAF story is typical of the film, and it's what, ultimately, makes it troubling throughout. Perhaps most problematic is the fact that it is never makes clear what the point of this film is. What is it that we can now learn from this historical moment that we have hitherto been too close to see and know? Or, to put it another way: why do we need to re-look at the RAF and its activities? Thus, at the most basic level, this film fails to do or say anything political.

Its indecision around the RAF's violent actions as a response to the political and social injustices of the West German State in particular, and the West in general is also troubling. It's true that the most admirable representations of this dark period in German history have been those with an ambivalent, undeclared stance towards the highly complicated issues of the RAF vs. the German State. See, for example, R.W. Fassbinder's contribution to Germany in Autumn, or the Andres Veiel's Black Box BRD from 2001, in which the respective filmmakers' refusal to take sides opens up the space for the spectator to take responsibility for the continued thinking about the events. But The Baader Meinhof Complex oscillates uneasily between sympathizing with the cause of the young radical extremists - usually through quotation of their philosophical and political beliefs - and horror at the bloodshed that was their response to the perceived injustices. This material is way too charged, and way to important, to spectacularize without a sustained interrogation of the issues at stake.

The film draws heavily on Stefan Aust's authoritative Der Baader Meinhof Komplex, 1985, mainly for the historical details - all of which were very accurate in the film. However, what the film doesn't manage to do, and therefore, does injustice to Aust's indispensible volume, is to convey this history with detachment. Objectivity is not "untranslatable" on the screen, but unfortunately, Edel and his team have chosen audience entertainment over responsible reflection, or dare I demand it, a polemical statement.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Iraq in Fragments, dir. James Longley

Most of the documentaries I have seen on Iraq have been made for television, usually by television journalists, with lots of hand held camerawork, found footage taken by journalists, often material that was never shown on television. What I loved about Iraq in Fragments was that it was photographically stunning. It captures the vivid colors and textures of life in Baghdad, as well as in the Kurdish North and the Shiite regions of Moqtada Sadr, the vast desert, and the drab world of the war that goes on in its present. It's a documentary that has won a slew of awards, and the beauty of the country and the people it depicts must have something to do with that.

The fragments of Iraq are not only these three segregated regions, all struggling for independence, even if only from the Americans, but also the fragments of the past that still emerge around corners and behind the doors of the present turmoil, and the fragmentary dreams of the future. Similarly, the three parts of the film are fragmentary in their vision of the trauma of living in a country ripped apart geographically, historically, politically and socially by the invasion of America. If we are to believe the voices of those who speak in this film, the only apparent reason for American destruction and colonization is oil.

What binds all these fragments is perhaps the most powerful element of Iraq in Fragments. Namely, again and again, what Mohammed Haithem, the 11 year old boy who the film follows in its first fragment, the Sadr followers in Najaf who comprise the second fragment, and the elderly farmer, Mahmoud, whose thoughts on family, people and God are the centrepiece of the third fragment, all have in common, is they belong to a country, and a culture whose people and history are not just misunderstood by America, but wilfully ignored.

The focus on children and the old man in the north make for appealing subjects, and clearly, Longley has chosen his characters carefully, especially given the apparent absence of scripting. However, what I kept wondering throughout the film - how can this be a balanced vision of the many Iraqs and its people when there is not one woman interviewed, and only a handful appearing throughout the 90 minute film? Is this indicative absence of women another of those elements of Iraqi lore and life that we will never understand? Or is it the filmmaker's decision making?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


I just came home from seeing Steve McQueen's (not the Hollywood one, the UK installation artist) first ever feature film Hunger. WOW. What pleasure to see a well made film that actually shows a thinking man behind the camera with an aesthetic sensibility.

There is lots to recommend this film, not the least of which is McQueen's familiar power to immerse the viewer in the experience on the screen. The first half of the film is all but silent, and through this silence we are plunged into the hell of the Maze Prison in which the IRA prisoners were incarcerated in 1981. I remember the countdown (or up) of Bobby Sands' hunger strike on the nightly news in Australia. I had no idea at that time of what it might mean to be in the notorious H Block. But McQueen brings it all back to life. The smearing of the cell walls with faeces, the maggot-ridden food, the slops in the corner, the urine streaming down the corridor before it is swept by a guard, are all shot in long takes - prolonging the agony of looking at the image, in order to capture the dehumanization of being locked in those cells. In the most excruciating scene to watch, the prisoners are made to run the gauntlet, being beaten by the truncheons of the riot squad brought in specially for the occasion. Here we learn how Bobby Sands received the battered and bruised face that he sports in the first half of the film. It's terrifying to watch, and even more so to imagine. And another difficult moment to watch? As well as the wasting away, the growing lesions and painful deterioration to death of Sands' body which is graphically depicted. It's the realist moments such as when the doctor who cares for him strips the bed of the bloodstained sheets, and underneath the stains are as intense, and so the doctor, pausing for a moment, turns the mattress over to its other side. A practical solution to a very disturbing reality.

It's not a film that's really concerned with the politics of the IRA and their fight for Independence, though it is a film that rails against the iron fist of Margaret Thatcher through snatches of her ruthless refusal to give political status to the "terrorists." Yes they came before Al Qaeda, but weren't the first! It's also not a flawless film, in many ways, it's uneven. The film's set piece is a long conversation in the middle when Sands reveals to a catholic priest that he plans to go on a hunger strike as a final protestation. This scene is all dialogue, and sitting in the middle of the overwhelming silence of the film, it feels intrusive. What remains so powerful about this film is its vision (both literally and imaginatively) of a nightmare that might otherwise have been forgotten. And it achieves this through what is, in the end, a realist camera that takes its time to watch what words cannot describe.

Is this enough to have a political impact? I don't think it really matters, the point is, it's what McQueen has chosen to do by way of political statement, and it's what he does best.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Another Theatrical Adventure

Toshiki Okada's Five Days in March
Théâtre 2 Gennevilliers

I have never seen anything quite like this piece of theater. A group of young - late 20s/early 30s - disaffected Japanese people, on an all but empty stage, talking to themselves and us about an encounter between a man and a woman and the next five days they spend together. The meet in a night club, go to a love hotel and never know each other's names. We are told the events take place on March 21, 2003, the eve of the British and American offensive in Iraq. Outside the love hotel, on the streets below, a demonstration against Japan's involvement in war for the first time since 1945 takes place.

The actors looked and dressed no different from the young people we see on the street everyday in Japan. And their behaviors, gaits and expressions reminded me of my students: slouched, not looking each other in the eye, and so on. Identical. However, their body movements were distinct. Tiny gestures that seemed to be independent of the narratives being woven by their conversations, like nervous tics and slight contortions that reveal their awkwardness with themselves and each other. Somehow, at the same time, these body movements were also exaggerated, if understated. Of course, the movements were carefully choreographed so that by the end of the performance, I recognized how difficult these movements must have been. Apparently they were talking in colloquial Japanese - I had to rely on the French surtitles which didn't capture any colloquialism.

Nevertheless, the piece captured the aimlessness and the seeming inconsequence of these youths' everyday lives and concerns. Even though it was specifically Japanese, not speaking the language, as I say, it spoke way beyond Japan, about a generation living in the midst of war and other crises, in a precarious and hesitating reality.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Postmodern Profundity? McDermott and McGough "An Experiment of Amusing Chemistry"

As a fan and defender of the artistic and conceptual significance of Mike and Doug Starn's photography, I was enthusiastic about the recent exhibition of photographs by McDermott and McGough at the Musée Européenne de la Photographie. However, despite the fact that the pair are celebrated by the contemporary art world, and have been for some time, I didn't see any great insights in these works. Many of them are aesthetically pleasing photographs, especially with the wealth of colors made possible through the nineteenth century processing techniques - witness, for example, the four different colored versions of The Last Supper. However, what was unclear to me was what the deeper significance of this work might be. There is a lot of quotation and appropriation of nineteenth century technique, as well as nineteenth century photographs themselves. Are these photographs then a case of postmodern pastiche at its best, and thus, its worst?

Some of the Bichromate Gum prints are interesting for their painterly appearance, which maybe warrants thinking about the images as blurring the lines between painting and photography. But again, it is still unclear as to what the larger point is

The final room of the exhibition is the most interesting: inspired by the book, Les Récréatinos Scientifiques by Gaston Tissaudier, (1881), the recrete and photograph magical scientific experiments from the book. These photographs are more interesting because of the association of the photograph with magic tricks at this time in the nineteenth century. It was a moment when science, art and magic all came together to create visions of awe and wonder. However, this euphoria a moment of innovation from the past, does not seem to be the concern of the photographers. Critics insist that they are continually challenging the lines between the performance of the past and the everyday of the present. However, I am still left wanting more, for example, to know what of the capacity of photography to travel through time, both backwards and forwards?

So I would say, skip the McDermott and McGough, and go down to the basement to see Mutations II/Moving Stills - way more provocative and interesting.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Why are we still in the 18th Century?

When all the movies at the MK2 were sold out last night, I counted my losses (which ended up being more than I could anticipate as my bike seat was stolen while I was in the movie) and went to see *The Duchess* It will probably be one of those films nominated for a bagful of Oscars, and well it should because Keira Knightly is ravishing, as are her dresses. Is it a great film? Not really, but you need to see it for the sheer pleasure of looking at Knightly for two hours in a refined, gracious and extraordinary performance.

Though at first glance, Woody Allen's latest film, *Vicky, Christina, Barcelona* might seem worlds away, it reminded me. Not only because Penelope Cruz was at her fiery best, but, yet again, we find a film extolling the need to be more flexible, embracing, and adventurous in our approach to sex and love. *Vicky, Christina, Barcelona* encourages exploration of polygamy, three-way sex, and eschewal of the sexual strait-jackets that typically enslave us to committed, monogamous (heterosexual) relationships. I came away from Allen's film thinking it was a welcome change from the stolid and stuttering films he has churned out over the past few years. But on reflection, its ultimate proclamations are no different from those of *The Duchess.* Well, they are different, on account of the fact that Woody Allen thinks he is being transgressive and liberal in his representation of twentieth century relationships. Whereas Saul Dibb who made *The Duchess* has us outraged and weeping at the forced sexual repression, violent misogyny and corrosive social mores of the eighteenth century.

Both films represent the pleasures and pluses of men's sexual experiences and expressions. Men are represented as sexually and romantically polyvalent, they are shown to desire and deserve multiple women as a way of confirming their identities as men with needs to be fulfilled. However, where Woody Allen's film waxes lyrical about such male escapades, Saul Dibb offers a searing critique of 18th century society's approval of the same. Ralph Fiennes as the abhorrent Duke, obsessed with the procreation of a son, is given not the slightest whiff of redemption. Javier Bardem (of *No Country for Old Men* fame) is, contrarily, a hopeless, dreamy romantic who we are encouraged to identify with.

So why is it that we still live in a world in which the perversions of men's erotic lives be sanctioned as socially acceptable while we women must continue to be sexually compliant and complicit? I don't understand this, and have no answer to the question. It's true that the women in my life are generally exciting and gorgeous and they make the world a different place with their feminine energy - sexual and otherwise. I also know many men who live happily, fulfilling sex lives without ever even thinking they are too virile or passionate for one woman. Why should either these women or men be subjected to such sexual politics? But that's not really the point: if we continue to ignore the blatant misogyny and the effective abuse of women, albeit candy-coated, on the big screen, we run the risk that it will continue to be the reality for your daughters and mine.

I am off to see *Two Lovers* - I could be wrong, but my suspicons are not good.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Gerhard Richter

I went last week to Bochum and to give me courage to face the German bureaucracy that is worse than Kafka could have imagined, I stopped off in Cologne to see my favorite German painter on exhibition at the Museum Ludwig. See what I thought at And then I stopped in at the cathedral to see the window that everyone is talking about:

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

People - that means my American friends - kept telling me about Gilead and that I absolutely had to read it. And then when I saw on Facebook that it is one of Mr Obama's favorite books, I was sold. By the time I put it down, I knew full well why those who either took it on themselves, or were indeed entrusted to express Mr. O's views on everything from literature through movies and music, all the way to politics (?) had nominated Gilead as a favorite novel. 
The most morally dubious character in the book - a white son of an Iowa Presbyterian minister in "Gilead" - a town that burnt the "negros" out of town before he was born - turns out to be hiding a black wife and child in the ever-racially segregated 1950s South. And so this prodigal son is redeemed, but not before his story is used as a foil to that of the dying  narrator's 7 year old son. Mr. O may not have campaigned on the basis of race, but let's be honest, race is everywhere in the anticipation of the next administration. 

Gilead is, to be sure, a very American novel. It is American in its sensibility, American in its story - spanning the country from Kansas to Tennessee, from the Civil War to the late 1950s - and its literary allusions, most notably Ralph Waldo Emerson. What remains so powerful about the book, and indeed so universal, is its spiritual dimension. Not only because it takes the form of a letter from the dying father to his 7 year old son, and because the father/protagonist is a Minister, but it is spiritual because even in its literariness, the language  is seemingly powered by a spiritual wisdom and Romanticism. The protagonist, John Ames with his religious vocation, living  in his biblically-named Iowan town, sees the world as a poet - this, despite the essayistic style of the narrative. He looks at the moon and captures its light as a "metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence." Ames sees what we already know but have never had the words to express. He writes, for example, of the miracle of water as he watches his son and friend Tobias hopping in and out of the sprinkler. The joy and the freedom of the two boys is captured so perfectly on the page without having to use words as pedestrian as joy and freedom: "you two are dancing around in your iridescent little downpour, whopping and stomping as sane people ought to do when they encounter a thing so miraculous as water." 

As well as the wonderful language, I was moved by the feelings the father writes about his son, feelings, one imagines Ames has never expressed elsewhere. I identified the old man with my own father - a man who was never able or allowed by cultural mores to express emotion. But more realistically, Robinson's ability to go deep inside the human soul, make sense of everything otherwise unavailable to touch, to smell, and to sight, and then to translate it for us into the calm, yet vivid words of John Ames, makes me realize something else. To be able to find a harmony between words and what doesn't live in language - the spirit - is a gift given only once in a lifetime. Robinson finds transcendentalism in the material and empirical reality of an ordinary life in Iowa.  

Sunday, October 26, 2008

DV8 - To be Straight with You

I continued my adventurous Friday nights by going out to the theater at Creteil (there may be an accent in there somewhere), and another wonderful experience it was.

Lloyd Newson's To be Straight with You was the best of the performances I have seen so far at the Festival d'Automne. A series of vignettes in which the stories of 25 characters are performed over the course of 90 mins. All of them are gay - with a handful of lesbians - and all of them muslim, from the Indian sub-continent, North Africa and the middle east. 

What struck me about the piece as a whole was its success on all levels. Not only were the stories moving and frightening and daring and cowardly, but the dancing, the narratives and the music worked to draw me in to the stories emotionally . I have often struggled with the intention of dance to state the direct correspondence between a movement and a particular emotion or array of emotions. But I was so impressed here by the logical and legible expression of sexuality. Gay men and women in London with immigrant backgrounds express their sexuality in many different ways, and the individual dancers of DV8 managed to echo whatever the given relationship to their sexuality: frustration, celebration, repression, fear, and so on, were so perfectly captured by the movements and debilitations of the body. 

The use of new media and fancy technology on stage is unquestionably de jour in the dance and theater world. I saw a performance by Simon McBurney's Complicité last month which used all the TV screens, digital imaging, creation of sets through lighting and different times, spaces and realities through the use of different media - much in the vein of Piscator. But the difference between McBurney's *A Disappearing Number* and DV8's *To Be Straight with You* was a difference in politics. *A Disappearing Number* was a love story, well told, but not much more. DV8, however,  used all its presentational and representational resources - projected text, lighting, speech, music, scrims and sets to drive home an urgent political question: gay men and women may in theory, by the law, be able to express their sexuality in public in England, but there's a long way to go, a lot of fighting to do before equality can be claimed.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

America Deserves Obama

Being ill in bed for six days has given me the perfect excuse to read my favorite papers from cover to cover - The NYT, The Huffington Post, the Herald Tribune. Actually, there would be others, but I also read novels and watched movies.... sidetracked.

Obama. Yes, America deserves Obama. After eight years of a man who was ignorant, inarticulate, at times, even illiterate - did we ever get an answer to the question of what papers he reads on a regular basis? - America and Americans deserve to listen to a man who is articulate, eloquent, and above all else, intelligent. There are so many Americans who deserve someone who they can identify with, and that doesn't just mean socially and economically. For anyone with a brain deserves to identify with the intelligence, poise, compassion and respect of Barack Obama. Eight years is too many to have to look in the mirror and not see someone they admire, and feel themselves less-than and ashamed, without moral, ethical or political anchor in the world. 

And he delivers his conviction with absolute unflappability. After four years on the public stage, he has never lost it, always remains poised and articulate. As a politician who never loses it, especially someone who has so much to be angry about, so much to get emotional over, but never does, he's to be admired.

Though it's kind of schmolzy, as a non-American who is one of those people he referenced in the DNC speech toward the end, the ones who look to America, not for its wealth, not for its might, not for its brain power, but for its opportunity and belief in "anything is possible", I believe him. I believe that the dream can come true in America. And I believe that is what makes it the most energizing and exciting country on earth. And I believe that it is time once again for Americans to accept that mantel and to be able to stand on the world stage with self-respect and intelligence at the core of their collective identity.

Vote for him.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Gallery Hops in Chelsea

Today my friend James and I did that very Chelsea activity of "the galleries." Of course, the whole time I was fascinated by the attitude of the galleryists. A friend in the business commented that the worse the art, the ruder the people who work the gallery. It's true. For some reason, those lucky enough to work in Chelsea Galleries have been given the license not to be pleasant to the rest of the human race. I have to say that George Henoch of Gallery Henoch on West 25th St was absolutely delightful. He came out of his office, introduced himself and generously offered his own and his assistant's knowledge and ideas on the paintings exhibited. As a result, being the sucker for social pleasantries that I am, the exhbition of Simon Nicholas' paintings get my no. 1 vote of the "must sees" in Chelsea. See my review at next Tuesday.

I was struck - but not sure why it was such a surprise - at the amount of bad art. The show at Pace Wildenstein, Lee Ufan's paintings, were so empty and pretentious, I began to wonder if there was something I was missing. He took a stencil of a round edged square, swept the paint brush across it, three times on every canvas, again and again and again. And there you have it: "A successful dialogue ... characterized by the fact that it keeps activity (one's own utterances) and passivity (taking in, following, responding to one's counterpart) in a dynamic balance." So said the press release. It is all, apparently, influenced by Merleau-Ponty, with a philosphical and phenomenological complexity way beyond my level of dialogue.

There were a few exhibitions worth writing about, so stay tuned. In the meantime, don't bemoan the horror of the suddenly falling stockmarket, and start mulling over how profound your thoughts are, put them on canvas, and go make your own millions on the wave of the Chelsea scams.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Giorgio Morandi (1890-1964) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What a strange body of work! Most modernist art has a somewhat obsessive quality to it, but this is something quite extreme. The content of the works varies little across the fifty odd years of his career - always bottles, pots, cartons and containers of some sort. But where the typical modernist takes different subject matter and applies his or her stylistic concerns - often in a repetitive fashion - Morandi uses the same content and explores every possible style and technique of representation. Despite his isolation, the early works are clearly exploring similar stylistic and representational concerns as those in his midst - cubists, surrealists, and realists. Then, the more he develops his own oeuvre, the further he shifts from the outside world. In the end, there is little to no connection between the exquisite water colors of the final years of his life and the abstract expressionism in his midst. Morandi's shapes may verge on abstraction, but the delicate studies remain secluded within the isolated artistic world he cultivates across his career.

The still lives are reminiscent of Chardin, but not really. As I say, they are in a world unto themselves. It would be accurate to say that these oils and watercolors are more like studies of light, shape, color, paint, and how all of these come together on a canvas. He is interested in verticality, horizontality, how different shapes effect the space around them and the space of the canvas. And as far as I could tell, the phenomenological dimension is pretty much absent. One of the major differences between Chardin, or other well known still life painters, and Morandi, is the sense the former have of spilling into the space occuppied by the viewer. Again, my overwhelming sense of Morandi's works is one of self-containment. They don't seem too fussed about us.

Very curious indeed.

Monday, October 6, 2008

I love America and Americans

I have just spent five days in upstate New York and I am, as always, baffled by the reputation America and Americans hold the world over. Conversations over the long weekend ranged from how new technology can be used to airlift us out of the mire of political complacency, corporate corruption and  ideological brainwashing ... through increasing our commitment to and presence in Darfur ...and needless to say, because I was in Syracuse on Thursday the 2nd, there were animated discussions about how Sarah Palin may well be a maverick - but  even with the combined intellectual brain power of professors from all over the country, no one was able to understand what she meant. 

I know, I know, I know ... I am one of the privileged few who never went to high school here, and who don't have to hide when their fellow country folk are being "unAmerican" out there in the world at large. And I know only too well that there is a whole swathe of this country that I never meet ... the ones who will vote for that man, what's his name... I can't bear him?  But, as an outsider who has always been  embraced, inspired and challenged on these shores,  I do feel that at least on this side of the country, there are interesting, brilliant Americans who care deeply about the state of the union and its role in the world out there. If only they were the majority ....

Standard Operating Procedure

S.O.P. *finally* made it to Paris, and though it was - as everyone told me it would be - very disappointing, I am happy I rushed out to see it. The problem with all of Morris's mediocre films is that they don't know what they want to be. So is this film an interrogation of the reality claims of photographs in general? Is it an indictment of the upper echelons of US military and government? In particular, the complete refusal to take responsibility for the war in Iraq? Is it a portrait of the people behind the cameras and in the photographs taken at Abu Ghraib? Or is it about something else? I don't know. But if it is about one of the above, it doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. S.O.P. looks just fabulous. With his fancy digital equipment, Morris comes up with some wonderful images and images of images. But I can't say the big budget would not have been better spent on supporting a more political film. Go see it, if for no other reason than to engage in dinner party conversations about the Abu Ghraib. A conversation that should be had at ever dinner table until the troops are out of there.