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.