Friday, February 26, 2010

Esther Shalev-Gerz, Ton image me regarde !? Jeu de Paume

Esther Shalev-Gerz’ sophisticated video installations are perfect companions to Omer Fast’s exploration of memory, its formulation and evolvement through telling stories. After a matter of minutes in Shalev-Gerz’ latest exhibition at the Jeu de Paume, I felt as though I was back in the world of story telling and moving images, examining the process of remembering and making sense of memories through telling and listening to stories. And like Fast’s videos, Shalev-Gerz is interested over and over again in the immigrant experience of displacement. That said, the images of the two artists couldn’t be more different.

I can’t think of another film and videomaker who translates the immigrant experience into the production, aesthetic and reception of images better than Shalev-Gerz. Roughly speaking, her work falls into two main concerns: how to remember and integrate German history into our individual stories, and second, the search for a public understanding of the immigrant experience through personal memory. In what was, for me, one of the most captivating of the installations, First Generation (2004), one wall of a room is covered with the words of first generation, diverse nationality immigrants to a small town in Sweden. Shalev-Gerz has asked them a series of questions: “On your coming to Botykyrka what did you lose? What did you find? What did you get? What did you give?” On the wall are their poetic responses. At right angles, on another wall, we see a camera lovingly wandering over and around the faces of the same interlocutors in such extreme closeup that we find ourselves looking at the lines carved by wrinkles, individual eye lashes, pores of skin, blemishes, eyes. The image has nothing to do with reading the expression of the person in the image. In fact, the extreme closeup ensures that we cannot read their expressions – there is no knowing what they are thinking as we watch them listen to their own responses. In a typical Shalev-Gerz strategy, the image is mute, the sound playing off somewhere else, and we are left with the impossible task of matching the words on one wall with the images on another. This separation of sound and image is echoed at every level of the image and the relationships it sets up. There is a separation of text and image, sound and image, appearance and identity, that also creates a displacement or a disquiet in our reception process. Unable to look at the image and hear or see the words in the same moment, we, like the portrayed are left with a fractured, disquieting experience of what it means to be an immigrant to small-town Sweden. The first time I saw the installation, the young Algerian guard said to me – you can’t understand this piece unless you know what it is to be an immigrant. Certainly, the feeling of being displaced, exiled, moved from one place to another, destined to spend a lifetime trying to marry one’s self or selves in two countries, two languages, two histories, the past and the present, came alive as I watched First Generation. I can’t say if viewers who have never known a similar kind of displacement will or won’t understand the piece, but I can say that, for me, its power lay in an identification with the lifelong search to make sense of the unsettling process of integration. And this search is played out everywhere in First Generation, except on the landscape of the very faces we expect to disclose such secrets.

Another piece whose profundity is difficult to articulate is MenschenDinge, (2004-2006), a piece that might be described as a memorial to those imprisoned at the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Shalev-Gerz interviews a historian, conservationist, archaeologist, photographer and the director of the museum at Buchenwald about the objects that have been found over the years in the grounds of the one-time camp. The objects are photographed and digitally retouched in still images that adorn the circular wall of the room. Inside this wall, we sit at a circular bench and watch the professionals discuss their work as it is carried out with the found objects. Each of them brings the objects alive in a manner that is, all at once, fascinating, sensitive, profound, pragmatic. As the specialists tell what they know of the objects, what they ask of them, where the objects lead them, to what knowledge, to what identity, we are plunged back into the world of Buchenwald, imagining the daily activities of the one-time owners of these simple treasures. We imagine the man who fastidiously cleans his teeth with a reconstructed tooth brush even as his death is inevitable, we see the two users of a bowl inscribed with two numbers, two names, and we watch the tiny mirror as it is passed around from inmate to inmate as they (sometimes reluctantly) get a glimpse of their faces deformed by hunger, overwork and illness. The stories woven by the objects show how these prisoners kept their spirits alive and self-esteem intact even in the most grueling of circumstances. And each of the professionals allows the objects to lead us into a secret historical world: the objects bear the traces, sometimes the scars, of the identity of the owner, telling a little of his or her life. While we don’t always know who the owner was—even if there is a name or a number scratched on the surface, there are instances where no such person can be found in the records. But nevertheless, we feel a connection to the man or woman with a 5 digit number when the historian tells us via the bowl that the prisoner must have come from Auschwitz to Buchenwald because in Buchenwald the numbers didn’t go up that high. And we know that the prisoner came to Buchenwald to die.

The workers at the museum are philosophical, they are profound, moving in their respect for the object as if it was the prisoner him or herself. They are careful never to idolize and mystify these treasured objects which are, at the end of the day, no more than everyday objects that served a purpose. Like the faces of the immigrants in Botykyrka, those of the passionate and sensitive workers at the Buchenwald museum are surveyed lovingly, up close, somehow erotic in the relationship between camera and face, they become beautiful. The passion and the gentleness with which these people approach the objects is caught in the tone of a voice, the unflinching tenderness with which they talk about the owner of the object, not, once again, in anything we see in the image such as the pores of their skin or the intensity of their eyes. Finally, the impact of the “interviews” comes from the fact that Shalev-Gerz invites the professionals to allow the objects to tell their stories, stories that, in turn, lead to the stories of their owners.

There are more, equally compelling works on display at the Jeu de Paume. A very powerful single channel video shows the view from the front window of a taxi as Shalev-Gerz travels the road between Weimar and Buchenwald. Again, like the workers in the museum, the taxi driver is profound, as he talks about how the road is bumpy because it was made by the prisoners, and how we must remember, "forgetting is no good." His narrative of orientation is interrupted by fragments of the texts of Walter Benjamin’s texts on Angelus Novus. Benjamin’s words and his figure of the angel of history hovers over the work as a whole when the taxi driver is further interrupted by narrated texts from Paul Klee, Gerhard Scholem, Heiner Müller. Throughout Anges inseparables (2000) the image is doubled, one awkwardly superimposed on the other as it reflects in the window of the taxi. As if the perspective is off, as if the image has been fractured and fragmented like the windows of the Jewish-owned establishments on Kristallnacht, like the contradictions of a Benjaminian history. The road between Buchenwald and Weimar is of course, well-trodden with its own palimpsestic history of literary, cultural, philosophical stories, all of which are in unruly conflict with the memories soldered into the surface of this same road, the memories of those who didn’t live to tell their own stories.

So what does this all have to do with Omer Fast? If Fast is concerned to show all of the things that get in the way of the story being told, Shalev-Gerz is determined to allow people to tell their stories, no matter what. Contrary to Nostalgia, there is much going on behind the scenes in Shalev-Gerz’ films that we are not privy to. Instead, we are left with a vision of Shalev-Gerz’ creation of the possibility for her “interviewees” to be profound, to go deep inside of themselves and to express their relationships to the material they work with, whether it be the past, the transformation of a landscape, or the relics of another life. To do this, she tears open what might otherwise be the comfortable relationship between image and sound, between talking and listening, past and present, viewer and viewed. And in the spaces between these deliberately forged schisms, come the lyrical and intimate stories that cannot otherwise be told.

More of her works can be seen on her website.

Omer Fast, Nostalgia, 2009, Centre Pompidou

Tonight’s “unveiling" (their word) of emerging talent in the Prospectif Cinéma series at the Pompidou Center was the young Israeli born film and videomaker Omer Fast. He presented his 2009 installation, Nostalgia which was shown at the Whitney Biennial and various other museums and gallery spaces. Before the projection commenced, I was skeptical of seeing a three part video installation on single screen projection in the big upstairs cinema at the Pompidou Center. But my suspicions were quickly allayed when Fast explained what an ideal (if didactic) viewing situation this was. Why, I wondered, did he make it for a gallery space: the South London Gallery?

Different viewers of Nostalgia will say it is about different things. For me, like all of Fast’s work, it’s about story telling above all else. Everyone has a story to tell: the Nigerian interviewed by the (fictional) Fast, the British asylum seeker at the Home Office in Nigeria (!), the refugee who wants to be an actor but doesn’t even have a place to live, and of course, the filmmaker and all his proxies in the film. And as the film proceeds, each story keeps coming back to the same kernel: the story of how to build a trap to catch a partridge. In the Q & A part of tonight’s event, Fast talked about his influences, cinematic influences such as the sci-fi film for its inversion of the aliens and the humans, the good guys and bad guys in the same way Fast performatively inverts the players in the drama at the Home Office – a white British guy from Surrey seeks asylum from a black African woman. Whether or not it counts as one of Fast’s influences, the film that kept coming back to me as I listened to him talk, with Nostalgia fresh in my mind, was Chilean exile, Raúl Ruiz’ Les Trois couronnes du matelot (1983). Everyone in Ruiz film has a story, and everyone tells his story in search of his identity in a world to which he will never belong. The only way to stay alive in Ruiz' surreal fantasy is to spin yarns, their veracity being irrelevant. And for all the eccentrics in the film, the story is not only their identity, it is their only possession.

Across the three parts of Nostalgia, Fast has his characters, characters that hover on the boundary between documentary and fiction, attempt again and again to tell their story. And their stories are passed on to each other, passed through the narrative of Fast’s film, all coming full circle to how to make a trap for a partridge. But in Fast’s world, something always interrupts—typically someone or some thing that has power over the one trying to spin his or her tale. In the second part, for example, the character which is a fictional Fast, won’t let the refugee tell his story, always pushing him to paint the picture he has in mind for his film. And for the man from Surrey, to tell his story is to betray his compatriots who will be smuggled via the tunnel he once used to migrate. And so, no one ever belongs, no one fully evades the impending death of having their story left untold. If, like the sailors in Ruiz' film, the story is the only possession and the only identity, then there is something very brutal, something not always shown in the images, about a world that won’t let its citizens tell their stories.

The most disturbing interruption into the narratives is that of the film itself. Because Nostalgia is also a narration of the way stories are made, the way film always searches for the truth of an ultimately impenetrable reality—in this case the past and the memories of the African immigrant community in southwest London. And as the film narrates this process of its own storytelling across the three parts, the quality of the image deteriorates, as though the camera is lost in its search for something it doesn’t really understand. The camera work becomes looser, the image quality more gritty. Experiencing this very gradual loss of orientation, and simultaneous contamination of the stories, particularly, that of the partridge trap, is the reward of watching Nostalgia I, II and III from beginning to end at the Pompidou Center cinema. Seen as looped videos, on multi-channel screens, having to navigate through a tunnel in the unique space of the South London Gallery would, I imagine bring a whole new, though not necessarily impoverished, experience.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Sarkis-Passages, Centre Pompidou

In the latest exhibition to open at the Centre Pompidou, Sarkis plants a work on every level of this vast space. Most of the Sarkis’ installations don't open until April, but three of them opened this week. This scattering of his work across the different exhibition spaces of the Centre Pompidou is innovative, and unsettling to our notions and expectations of a single artist exhibition. And indeed, the burying of his work in the midst of other exhibitions, in spaces that are used for other purposes, is a compelling strategy, precisely because of its novelty. I saw Au commencement 19380 (2001) on my way to the bathroom on level 2 of the Bibliothèque Publique d'Information, and like everyone else, I walked straight past it, thinking to myself – “oh look, they have a new sculpture,” not realizing what it was until I read about the Sarkis exhibition. This kind of integration of art into the everyday life of the multi-purpose cultural playground that is the Centre Pompidou has the potential to disrupt, distract and challenge viewers in exciting ways.

Tonight I went in especially to see Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs. Even though going to see one work of an exhibition that spans all levels and spaces of the Pompidou Center might defeat the purpose of the works’ strategic placement so we stumble upon them, surely going to see one work only still upsets the conventions of gallery going? Exhibitions are designed such that we go from beginning to end following a narrative trajectory laid out by the museum. In this case, it is more like going on an easter egg hunt for the hidden treasures, never really getting an idea of overall cohesion, getting lost on our path, and having no real context for what we are seeing and experiencing. And then, in an extension of this letting go of the rigid structures of reverence for the great artists work — that a single artist exhibition organized in a single space would incite — not only is Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs tucked away in the midst of the vast and unwieldy elles@pompidou exhibition, but the installation of brightly colored felt robes, slippers and shelved pieces of felt functions as an introduction to the mysterious, compelling, and unfathomable work of Joseph Beuys, Plight (1985). While I was taken with the humility of an artist of Sarkis’ stature effectively bowing down in homage to another artist, it was the Beuys work that held me. Despite the brightness of their color and the grandness of the ceremonial felt robes made by Sarkis, his creation paled in comparison to Beuys’ mute, grey understatement.

Plight (1985) is a moving experience indeed. The title of the Sarkis’ installation, Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs, is a direct reference to the multicolors of Beuys' felt rolls. Of course, because of Sarkis’ title, I was drawn to study the millions of colored flecks in the grey felt rolls that line the cave-like room into which we are guided by Sarkis’ overture. And on examination of the grey felt, with the bright colors of Sarkis’ felt objects still in mind, we realize that it is grey felt that carries the mystery of being able to contain every color in the rainbow and its variation. It is not just felt, but grey felt. And, of course, we know from Beuys’ biography that grey felt is indeed mysterious and powerful as it was the material (together with animal fat) that kept him alive when his plane crashed in Russia during WWII.

Very quickly, I realize that being inside Plight is not only a visual experience. It becomes claustrophobic being in that space, surrounded by felt rolls, alone. The silence that results because all sound is absorbed by the felt is so extreme that I begin to hear my ears listening. It doesn’t take long before I begin to feel as though I am in a Joseph Beuys happening, the weight of the silence, the warmth and closeness of the atmosphere wraps tightly around me. And then, just as quickly, the pressure is released when someone else walks in the room. Within seconds, even if I don’t speak to them, their presence starts to affect me. In the middle of what feels like a hermetically sealed cave sits a grand piano, locked shut. The piano, like the felt, is often present in Beuys' works, because he was a pianist. And the presence of the piano is like the felt, a protection, offering a kind of safety, just in the idea of it, even though there is no chance that a sound will be emitted.

Beuys’ world is one where communication is impossible, but nevertheless, its impossibility shows us the force of a different kind of connection with other human beings, one that results from the very essence of our physical existence, together. And although I might not have needed Sarkis to mediate between me and the power and mystery of Beuys’ installation, I came away with an appreciation for the contemporary artist who lead me through the maze of the Centre Pompidou to this unfathomable experience. This may not be the response Sarkis or the Centre Pompidou intended, but it's a response that surely comes from the ceding of control that motivates both the artist and the museum to experiment with strategies of display.

NB. Image above is Les 12 Kiriegsschatz dansent avec le Sacre du Printemps d'Igor Stravinsky (1979-2001). There were no available images of the pieces in Le feutre contient toutes les couleurs

Monday, February 15, 2010

J M Coetzee, The Master of Petersburg, 1994

My love of art and the trajectory of my life’s work on still and moving images notwithstanding, I often feel as though my great challenge is to find the novel that will change the way I see the world, the novel that will live with me for years to come. And even though it is rare to find that needle in a haystack that will completely alter my reality, every so often I find a piece of fiction that comes close to satiating my voracious appetite for literature. J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg is one such piece of literature. It was a novel that did not review well when it was first published, it is, afterall, esoteric, slow and changes course at the end in a way that disturbs the narrative force. The narrative tapers off, and doesn’t maintain its melancholic brooding across its 250 pages. Still, until it loses its momentum (or lack there of) The Master of Petersburg is compelling.

Lover that I am of everything Russian, and enamored as I am of Dostoyevsky, Coetzee’s book is both already off to a good start, and setting the bar high for a reader like me. Coetzee is a writer who is interested in the process of writing, but unlike most of the self-obsessed navel gazing that goes on in contemporary fiction, Coetzee writes about writing, the status of writing and the identity of being a writer in a way that challenges the very form of his literature. The so-called master of Petersburg is in fact Dostoyevsky who has come to St Petersburg to inquire into the death of his beloved stepson, Pavel. While Dostoyevsky, both the historical and the fictional figure, is the impetus of Coetzee’s book, the Russian master’s writing is also the style into which Coetzee places his own writerly identity. And so from the opening pages we are plunged into the melancholic world of a Dostoyevsky novel, asked to suffer the burdens, the physical impoverishment and the spiritual search of his characters. Fyodor Ilyavich himself, and stepson’s landlady Anna Sergeyevna with whom he shares a passionate, yet fraught, relationship, think, feel and behave as though they have stepped out of Crime and Punishment. In addition, their same Spartan living quarters have all but the yellowing wallpaper of Raskolnikov’s room. The dark Fyodor Ilyavich as he journeys into self, and reveals his motivation as a writer via confrontation with grief for his stepson could be the same process of spiritual questioning undertaken by the brothers Karamazov. And at the very same time that Coetzee’s fictional world mimics that of Dostoyevsky’s, the biography of the two become intertwined, imperceptibly: Coetzee’s son died at twenty-three from a falling accident, but Dostoyevsky’s did not. To imitate another writer, from another period, who writes in another language, to capture all of the desolation and torment that is the signature of this one writer only, and to do all of this with a creative subtlety that produces a uniqueness contemporary fiction, is quite an achievement.

There are of course differences from Dostoyevsky’s worlds. For The Master of Petersburg, spiritual survival comes in the form of sexual encounter, the image of late Tzarist St Petersburg in which totalitarianism is on the brink of disintegration is played out with a haste and given prominence in a way it would not be in Dostoyevsky. The impending revolution is filtered through a group of young idealists lead by the nihilist, irrational and violent Nachaev who appears as a more modern construction, even though he is based on the historical figure. And then there is the contemplation of the role of the writer in this nervous political world, and the process of writing independent of it. And so, the meobius strip continues, as I am reminded that, once again, it is only the existence of Dostoyevsky’s fictional worlds before him that enables Coetzee to be singularly creative through repetition.