Saturday, January 16, 2010

Christian Boltanski, Personnes at the Grand Palais

As we stepped inside the Grand Palais last night, attacked by the deafening and unpredictable noises of what could have been an industrial site in full swing, or the engine room of an old train, James announced, “we are all off to Auschwitz.” And each step we took into the heart of Christian Boltanski’s newly installed edition of the Monumenta series, was like a step further down the ladder into the pit of Dante’s hell.

I am a big Boltanski fan, in fact, I would even go so far as to say I am a follower of his work. I have been touched by it, challenged by it, overwhelmed by it, and have even come away wanting to live inside the worlds he creates. See, for example, my thoughts on El Caso at K21 and Les Archives du Coeur at the Maison Rouge in 2008. Boltanski just about covers and has so often inspired many of my ideas on memory, photography and representations of time, trauma, and the search for individual identity in the midst of such adversary. But Personnes at the Grand Palais is disappointing. My expectations may have been too high, and I do need to go back during the day time, but Boltanski’s three-part installation does not hold the same beauty and depth of his work with photographs, barely functioning light sources, wires and aging archival structures.

The first of the three sections — which did not appear well-integrated — is a wall of rusting biscuit tins, each with a number, each suggesting a secret inside. On entering the Grand Palais, we are confronted with this wall, and have to walk along it and around it to gain entry into the nave proper. The second part is a series of rectangular spaces covered in used clothes, with four steel posts to mark the corners of the rectangle. Harsh fluorescent lights are strung up diagonally and vertically between the posts, and these are the only light source in the Grand Palais. I should add that it is not only dark inside, but by the time I had walked around the wall of biscuit tins, I was freezing. Apparently Boltanski had the central heating turned off to accentuate the alienating darkness of the installation. One advantage of this is that visitors don’t spend a lot of time milling around and so there is plenty of room to be alone with the work. And yet, unlike most installations, I had no desire to be alone with Personnes. The deafening noise which is different people’s heart beats recorded as part of his from the Archives du Coeur project were blaring from speakers attached to the steel posts. These were so loud, hostile, apparently technologized, that immediately, I wanted to get away from them. As James pointed out, the sound is everything we imagine people’s heartbeats not to be. Boltanski’s creations are cold, mechanical, alienating, harsh. As we put our hand on the steel post, we feel the beat of the heart as it ricochets down the post. But again, there’s no desire to hold onto this moment, no sense of an intimacy with the beating heart – the steel post is so cold that I quickly retracted my hands to put it back in my gloves.

Behind all of this is a pile of clothes which the accompanying program likes to Böcklin’s Island of Death (1883). But unlike Böcklin’s painting, there is no light breaking through into Boltanski’s mise-en-scène. It is impossible to look at this pile of clothes without thinking of the piles of confiscated belongings in photographs of the extermination camps. For me, this huge pile with a crane on top was all about death, loss, the absence of hope, humanity, our complete powerlessness in the face of machines, whether of the material kind or that of the totalitarian political variation. If there are memories in the threads of these clothes (as Boltanski is supposed to have claimed) they are so ignored by the crane that picks them up and dumps them dramatically at regular intervals, so drowned out by the deafening heart beats, that we never even come close to perceiving them.

Apparently, Boltanski doesn’t want his work to be seen in relationship to that of other artists. I will let him think that’s a legitimate desire! I couldn’t help seeing Personnes in relationship to Anselm Kiefer’s and Richard Serra’s earlier installations in the Monumenta series. Aside from the fact that it had none of the magic and wonder of Serra’s Promenade, none of the aesthetic challenges and philosophical richness of Kiefer’s Sternfallen, my biggest disappointment was the absence of dialogue between the structure of the Grand Palais and Boltanski’s installation. In fact, Personnes does everything it can to close us off from the wonder and possibility of this magnificent cathedral to early modern architecture and culture. The structure is one of the grandest, most exciting gestures of luminosity and progress along the river Seine. Boltanski’s dark, ice-cold, nightmare makes us feel as though we are trapped in a different world, a world where turn of the century Paris is irrelevant, as though we are likely to be counted among the anonymous lost souls whose identities have no matter in this harsh unforgiving world. Maybe this is just the point?

I have much more to say on the piece, so I shall revisit and see if my thoughts change…

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Nam Le, The Boat, Penguin, 2008

I don’t often write about seeing the world through Australian eyes, and neither do I make a habit of writing about literature. But, swept up as I have been in the applause for Nam Le’s The Boat, I can’t resist having an opinion about both. Le’s book has been celebrated internationally like that of few other first time writers. Of course, this applause was bait enough for me to read the work of a Vietnamese-Australian with an education not so different from my own: private single-sex school, Melbourne University, graduate school in the US, all of which buys to a ticket to wander the world.

Le’s stories move between Tehran and Columbia, Hiroshima and small-town Australia, spanning the second half of the twentieth-century, roaming through different realities, seen from different perspectives, taking place in the past and the present, in the imagination and the concrete, undeniable world of emotional reality. Many of the book’s supporters marvel at Le’s extraordinary gift of bringing so many different voices, of all ages, of all personalities, surrounded by diverse political and historical situations together onto the same page, into the shared space of a single story’s reality. This skill is without question worthy of the awe and praise that it has received. What strikes me about this same aspect of Le’s work is a peculiar kind of Australian nomadism

Le describes his work as “all over the shop”, a more humble description for the easy wandering of these stories across nations, generations, decades and points of view. This sense of nomadism is all over the page, it’s not simply something that comes through in the different character’s lives across different stories. On a single page, Le moves effortlessly between places and times, subjectivities and modes of language, with abandon. This is both his youthfulness as a writer — it speaks an energy and a carefreeness that an older writer might not have in reserve — and, for me, it is also about being an Australian living in other worlds.

I asked him about this aspect of his writing last night at the Village Voice and he rejected my claim. He sees himself as writing in English, he’s not Vietnamese and he’s not Australian. He’s a writer working with the English language, or so he says. While every word, every sentence of his stories is mature and adroitly constructed, his sense of his own writing expresses a certain naivety. Le is adamant that he will not be put in a box, that he avoids all efforts to categorize his presence in the writing and on the literary stage. This may well be so, however, I would argue that his freedom is the privilege of being Vietnamese-Australian on the world literary scene. It’s difficult to imagine these short stories by a writer who does not have the immigrant experience. And it’s equally difficult to imagine, for example, a Chinese-American writing about the immigrant experience, but not referencing Chinese culture in America. And Le is surely naïve if he forgets that while the prestige accorded his work has come with prize money from the Australian government that will support him as a writer, young American writers don’t have such luxuries: they are all teaching and editing and making a living to support first themselves, and then their writing. As a result they are under increasing pressure to have a style, a genre, a recognizeable trademark that can be used for marketing purposes. While I certainly don’t want to imprison Le and his book, the freedom to write as his characters and their stories write him, seems to me to have everything to do with being an Australian of Vietnamese origin who continues to wander, both within his imagination and around the world. The liberty to say what he wants, to have opinions on such diverse worlds, peoples and cultures is the privilege of an expatriate who is not called to observe the social and moral form of one who lives in his or her culture of origin.

All of this said, ultimately, these stories are about so much more than being a 14 year old Columbian assassin or an aging New York artist with anal hemaroids. Their power and immediacy lies in the relationships, usually within families, often abusive or eclipsed by trauma, relationships that unfold when Le puts his characters in extreme circumstances. There is a darkness and a tragedy that pervades these stories, even if it is delicately placed behind a veil of unpredictable circumstances amid the semblance of normality. Even this has something of the Australian in it, the hiding of vulnerability and emotions behind the “A-grade attitude” that is the cultural expectation. Thus, on every level, Le is, despite his own protestations, every inch an Australian writer.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Le Peseur d’or et sa femme, Quentin Metsys, 1514

In amongst the religious paintings of the Flemmish school, this wonderful painting “le Peseur d’or et sa femme” by Quentin Metsys (1514) is, in every way, at odds with those that surround it at its home in the Louvre. At first glance, it is a painting about the secular activity of counting money that sits between much larger religious oil on wood paintings. Similarly, its domestic interior seems far from the landscape backgrounds to Christ and his followers in other paintings. And again, unlike their neighbors, the man who weighs gold and his wife are realistic human figures with worldly desires. Indeed, as figures, there is something innocent and endearing about the fresh-faced Dutch couple engaged in a common activity of the day.

However, prolongued viewing of “le Peseur d’or et sa femme” reveals that it is about much more than the simple activity of weighing money, and they are anything but innocent. The fact that the wife cannot keep her eyes focused on the bible before her, eagerly overseeing, perhaps instructing, her husband’s work is the first indication of the painting’s gesture towards allegory. A preoccupation with counting money as a distraction from biblical studies is surely the bell of avarice, greed, desire and materialism. The two figures in the background, glimpsed through the open door most immediately appear as town gossips, again telling the tale of a fascination with worldly judgments and the power of knowledge, especially as it relates to the activities of the neighbors. The label of the painting in the Louvre goes even further when it declares the painting to be about vanity, its transience, and of course, with the symbols of the scales of justice, the denunciation of avarice and the celebration of honestv. And so the domestic scene branches outwards to embrace a moral lesson.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the mise-en-scène is the enigmatic mirrored object in the foreground. It is apparently a common case for the weights, and featured more than once in Dutch painting of the period. Again, it is both realist and metaphorical: at close range the mirrored surface depicts another man reading by a window. What he reads is obscured to the viewer, however, I am sure, like the mirror in the background of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding (1434) the image in the reflection has kept art historians busy for years. Even without knowing the significance of the man reading, the opening up of the canvas to another spatial plane is extraordinary in 1514. And with the obvious reference to Van Eyck, the painting starts to speak about the relationship between the man and woman, the expression of love (here depicted through a common fascination with money) and the political and ethical opinions this raises.

And so, before long, what was at first glance a realist depiction of every day life becomes an allegorical lesson on mortal vices, a critique of materialism in the eyes of the church, and a subtle revellation of unstated desire.