Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Vivesector, Patrick White

I picked up a copy of The Vivisector at St Pancras last month, more on a whim than out of any great desire to get lost in the well of Patrick White’s angst-ridden consciousness. This is not to criticize White’s impalpable worlds, but to acknowledge that to enter is to accept a contract, a contract to engage with the profound depths of what it means to be human, really. And once there, there is no opportunity to leave. 

The Vivisector may not be a book that is objectively great, and despite the sophistication of the language, in many ways it is rambling, in places obscure, its protagonist memorable but not likeable, he is eccentric and mostly repulsive. Hurtle Duffield might be a great and recognized painter, but like kindred spirit Kathy Volkov’s friend, too afraid to fetch her ball from Hurtle’s front yard, I too would pick up the pace or cross to the other side to avoid Hurtle as he walks down the street. He smells, has the stains of yesterday’s, even last week’s dinner on his shirt, his flies are undone, his shoes have holes, his teeth going grey. But he is also brilliant, a gifted artist whose extraordinary talent necessitates a sacrifice of everything else in his life to the imperative to paint. He may not be so likeable, but White doesn’t ask us to like him, he asks us to understand him and empathize with him, and entangled with a deep ambivalence, to revere him.

As much as The Vivesector is about Hurtle Duffield, it is also not about him, but rather, it is an intense and powerful representation of the anguish and ecstasy of the process of painting, and even beyond that, creating. Although it is Hurtle’s calling in life to translate the world, translate himself into drawings, sketches and huge slathers of paint, it is his process of transformation and creative materialization of that transformation that is made magical, mystical and brutally painful through White’s extraordinary command of language, of writing, and his laser-like insight into what we all know, but have no means to express. I would even go so far as to say that White is not interested in images, in the same way that a painter loses sight of himself and his own work in the finished product. We do get colorful descriptions of Hurtle’s paintings, but they are not why we read The Vivesector. In fact, what I see on Hurtle’s canvases, I don’t particularly want to look at. As a reflection of this, for a painter, it is so mesmerizing to watch Hurtle as he navigates the world through his other senses, touching and smelling the paintings on one of his first visits to what will become his adopted family home, up close, in a gesture of sensuousness than could never be had by the eye. And as the book draws to a close, on the night before his major retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Hurtle goes for a private viewing with the exhibition’s curator. At what he knows will be his last opportunity to be with the paintings before they are “attacked” or bought by the pariahs who “know nothing about painting,” Hurtle touches their surfaces. As though in the dense and hardened movement of paint he will feel the vibrations of his own soul, the tremors of his own emotions, he finds “some consolation to be able to touch the surfaces of paint and take refuge from the immodesty of words.” It is through touch that Hurtle is stripped naked, his thoughts and emotions exposed.

Even the relationships he has, the relationships that feed his creativity, are physical and sensuous, somewhere beyond language and the agony of vision. Perhaps the most troubling relationship of his long life is the one he has with the young pianist, Kathy Volkov, and as the two unlikely lovers become embroiled in each others’ brilliance, they pursue their spiritual connection through “implication and silence.” Despite his own unkempt physical appearance, like his relationship to painting, Hurtle's way of being in the world, with others, is sheer and corporeal. Even his poverty-stricken birth mother is portrayed with such physicality: her hands swollen, red, cracked, chaffing, bilious from a life spent washing other people’s laundry.

Hurtle destroys the world he touches, and especially the women, he “vivisects.” He ruthlessly tears them apart to release the blood that will become the inspiration and material of his art. We never see what it is that these women would like about him, but perhaps they do not like him. Perhaps he draws them, addictively, uncontrollably mastering their desire for the dangerous, life on the edge. That said, there is also something special about these women, about Nance Lightfoot, Hero Pavloussi, Boo Hollingbroke, even his step-sister Rhoda, because their sacrifice to the power of the imperative that pulls Hurtle without choice to paint is conscious. They all know what they are doing, and they do it with grace and unusual self-possession. The ex-prostitute Nance Lightfoot is the most well-drawn and compassionate of the women in his life, even though she is perhaps on the surface, the one with which he does not belong. Perhaps it is because she enables the transition to his life as a master painter she still has the space to be independent of him.

For me, the overwhelming seduction of The Vivesector lies in the portrayal of the imperative to paint. I cannot remember having read so convincing a description of the disappearance from life as the artist enters into the mysterious, inexplicable, world of the unconscious as he prepares to paint. And when Hurtle gets to that place, we become powerless over the temptation to fall into it with him. This immersion into an other world of creativity where what happens is beyond human control is the experience of all great artists, great not because of what they produce, but because they have the courage to go to that place. So as deft as this character portrayal is, in the end, Hurtle's physical repulsion is not the point, but rather, where he is going, how he gets there and our inability to follow him, is the desire of this book. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Tacita Dean, Craneway Event, 2009

While Dean’s film installation is, as it’s subtitle claims, “a film with and about Merce Cunningham,” I also want to insist that it is a film with and about Tacita Dean. Filmed on location in the craneway of an abandoned Ford motor factory in San Fransisco bay, Dean’s realist film aesthetic is so perfectly suited to Cunningham’s choreographic minimalism. To give one example, if Cunningham’s life’s work results in a de-objectification of the human body of the dancer, then Dean’s observational practice echoes the anonymity and formal precedence over narrative development, thus desire, in film. In what must be one of the most articulate embodiments of the realist aesthetic in documentary film today, Dean’s long takes and long shots fuel a work that, over time, becomes transformed into a lyrical treatise on the ethereal elements of water, time, motion, light and space. Over the course of the 108 minutes of Craneway Event, Dean’s film and Cunningham’s dancers in motion in the breathtaking hangar structure thus become synergetically fused.
Despite my conviction that Dean’s film is about light, movement, the ethereality and anonymity of the human body in its interaction with the camera, I am prompted to consider what it says about Cunningham, the master choreographer because it was billed as a “portrait” of Cunningham when it screened at the Frith Street Gallery in London. There are some very poignant shots of Cunningham as he sits reflective, sometimes perhaps dozing in the afternoon warmth of the sun and light as they stream through the magnificent hangar space that is the setting of the rehearsals. Of course, we are mesmerized by his alertness at the age of 89, as he moves in a wheelchair that glides quietly like the sailboats that drift in the bay outside the windows. However, these shots say very little about Cunningham and everything about the inability of film to capture a person. Put another way, Cunningham’s image in this film becomes another element in the beauty and serenity of a world in quiet motion. He too is given the delicate insubstantiality of his dancers. Perhaps that is, in itself, the most profound claim about the work of the great master: his ability to choreograph a workplace so harmonious, fluid and ethereal that even his presence gives over to an otherworldliness in which the trials and tribulations of being human and living in the world no longer matter? And it is an otherworldliness that is so perfectly reflected in Dean’s aesthetic.
Lastly, I must say something about the carefully crafted soundtrack that completely undoes the lightness and liveness of the image track. My American friend thought that the near on two hours of Craneway Event would have been “easier” to watch with the John Cage music that usually accompanies Cunningham’s pieces. However, Dean’s decision to film the dancers in rehearsal is just the point. The exaggerated shuffle of feet, the thud of a dancer landing on stage, the creak of the floor, the dulcet tones of Cunningham’s voice as he communicates the transitions, directions and synchronization of the dance are exquisitely held by the silence that otherwise surrounds them. And because Dean manipulates the sounds, they interrupt the dreamlike image, with their matter-of-factness and, at times, raucous echoes through the huge open space. Ultimately, the sound prohibits us from falling headlong into the dreamworld of the stage, ensuring our attention to the reality of two hours of film.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

William Kentridge, Five Themes, Jeu de Paume

When I first saw William Kentridge’s work at the Documenta X in Kassel in 1997, I was mesmerized. I was fascinated by the seemingly endless layers, both literal and conceptual, of images that were always in the process of transformation, being drawn, changed, erased, added to. The process of inscription and erasure, and the animation of the inanimate through stop motion technique reminded me of the early animation of filmmakers such as Emil Kohl, who, like Kentridge was engaged in the meticulous creation of narratives out of charcoal lines. And as spectacles of magic and wonder, Kentridge’s worlds were as fantastic as those of perhaps the cinema’s greatest animator, Georges Méliès. In Kassel, I was also struck by the self-referentiality, not only thanks to Kentridge’s omnipresence throughout his films, but as Tom Gunning has discussed, in the visualization and thematization of looking, processes of perception, techniques of observing, the mechanics of the cinema and its predecessors. In all of these Kentridge seemed to be involved in an examination of the distortions of images and the worlds they create, and the eternal process of setting right those distortions. While today, the lines between media are so often blurred in contemporary time-based art, even rendered indistinguishable, in the late 1990s, such innovations were only just beginning. So the fact that Kentridge was a painter, a drawer, a photographer and filmmaker all within a single frame of moving images, made his work radical, while the complexity of its concerns was provocative.

As if that was not enough, the substance of Kentridge’s narratives was also powerful and urgent: discourses on South Africa, its history, and all its troubles were represented by Kentridge at a time when it was still too soon to know what the impact of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings would be. All of these, as only the most obvious of the layers in films such as Felix in Exile (1994) and Ubu Tells the Truth (1996-97), made his work compelling and exciting back then.

Over the years I have followed Kentridge's career, and though I have never seen one of his operas, one of the most interesting developments for me has been the extension of his creations into a whole spectrum of media. In the same way that he paints, draws, engraves, sculpts, photographs and films within a single frame, over the past ten years his films have spilled over into the worlds of opera, installations that might be sculptural, or perhaps they are miniature theaters (it’s difficult to say) or cinemas even. A number of works in a variety of media are on view at the recent exhibition of his work at the Jeu de Paume, Five Themes. Included here is Black Box/Chambre Noire (2005), which I have written about elsewhere, as well as his latest work Learning from the Absurd: The Nose (2010).
In Spring 2010, Kentridge staged Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose with Valery Gergiev at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The moving images for the production have been transposed to a room in the Jeu de Paume, as a multiple screen, surround work that expands through shadow plays, poetry, shadow plays, archival film re-usage, images in process that come together as an the ode to Russian constructivism, all mixed in with Nikolai Bukharin’s 1937 testimony before the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party, and a blaring of communist marches all repetitively looped into infinity. In characteristic Kentridge style images, music, hastily drawn charcoal lines, immediately erased and replaced, are cacophonic, assaulting, and yet, they evoke a gentle absurdity, that reminds us of the energy and ambiguity of the extraordinary events of the Revolution, particularly, as it has been theorized in its influence on creativity in post-Revolutionary Soviet Union.

Kentridge’s works are outstanding, if for no other reason than that they do something art and film today struggles to do: they work on so many different levels, appealing as well as being accessible to a everyone. Audiences who know about the German colonization of Namibia and the slaying of the Herero people in turn of the century West Africa will see a whole different level of meaning in Black Box/Chambre Noire. Similarly, visitors to Five Themes familiar with the pre-history of cinema and processes of animation or discourses on structures of looking and modes of perception, will be equally challenged and captivated by these video installations. However, what is so impressive about these creations is that even as they challenge intellectually, culturally, historically and politically, audiences who lack the political, cultural and artistic references will also sit mesmerized before the works, taking them in from beginning to end.

This is partly to do with the way the maquettes are arranged by the Jeu de Paume so that we are invited to sit before the films and installations, viewing them as a performance, and partly because of the way Kentridge constructs the pieces. Black Box/Chambre Noire for example represent parts of Mozart’s Magic Flute which is itself one of the most accessible operas, and the fragments that play on the soundtrack are the most popular and widely known. Added to this, Kentridge includes computer-operated puppet figures dancing across screens, as drawings and even as objects on a miniature theater stage, and these figures are a sheer delight to watch. This all, together with the element of magic and the animation of the inanimate gives all these works a lightness and a joy that is all too often missing from the esoteric works that comprise today’s experimental and avant-garde art.

So all in all, I think these works are layered and challenging and complex, but what I am still left wondering is, once we have seen one installation by William Kentridge, do we need to keep going back for more? Does he incite new and exciting revelations with each new installation? I have not yet decided. But I will say, with Five Themes, for example I was delighted by two bronze sculpture scenes that I did not previously know: Bridge (2001) and Promenade II (2002). Like the films, Kentridge has turned bronzes into something ephemeral, in process, infused them with the unpredictability of a parade in motion, while all the time foregrounding their sumptuous tactility, the beauty of the material in which they are cast.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Why Italy should never leave Italy

As I wandered the streets of Turin, sat drinking coffee, ran along the River Po, basked in the sun, shopped for shoes and ate pasta to refuel, I was charmed by the Torinitos and their city. Again and again, one question kept coming back to me: Why did they ever let anything Italian out of Italy? Growing up in Australia at a time of large waves of immigration from Italy, things Italian were either labelled ethnic — and in those days ethnic was a derisory term — or they came from a way off land of glamour, style and romance. The well-to-do women of Adelaide society went to Italy to buy shoes, bags and belts so they could come back and lay claim to a place among those unreachable social upper-echelons. Their men aspired to drive Ferraris, but would settle for Fiats or Alpha Romeos for the parade of their sophistication. But they would never eat pizza or pasta, or deign to be seen side by side with a “dago” or “wog,” let alone venture to those outer suburbs where the people from that same glamorous country actually lived. The well-healed and well-oiled white Australians behaved as though the culture was theirs, in a land that they had nevertheless stolen themselves. With this very warped, mythical view of Italy and things Italian, how could I not be surprised and charmed by the beauty and elegance of Italy?

Then as a student of English literature in the 1980s when the likes of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes were transforming our understanding of culture, I was fascinated by Roland Barthes' essay, "Rhetoric of the Image" in which he talks about how the Italian is coded as Italian for a French society, and consequently, unrecognizeable to an Italian. Italy and the Italian became something that could be bought in a French supermarket, designed for French people, and had no resemblance to the original. And then there was the cinema: Italy was the mysterious, far off other world where the Corleone’s had their family home. And later, I saw it as more nuanced, more complicated, somehow a mixture of Antonioni’s wastelands, Pasolini’s perimeters and populated with the colorful, the wistful, the troubled characters of Fellini’s fantasies.
And so in Torino, with all these images of Italy, I was struck to find images that I had not yet seen. Because Italy is such a household phenomenon, I anticipated a city I already knew. However, nothing that leaves Italy in anyway prepared me. Everything in Italy, from the light at dusk, the elegance of young and old as they promenade the streets in the evening, and gather in the squares to eat, drink, be seen, the stillness of the late afternoon as everyone waits for the sun to go down, in preparation of the long night ahead, their ebullience and warmth towards each other, their respect for anyone who is not them, none of this could be anticipated from an indulgence in things Italian in other countries. As soon as Italy and the Italians travel to another country they might become vulgar. Melt in the mouth pizzas becomes fast and cheap food, coffee becomes diluted and unpalatable, style becomes pedestrian, cheapened by those of us who have no history of knowing how to make and use these cultural icons. Whether it be coffee, icecream, pizza, shoes, hand bags, fiat cars or light fixtures, in Italy these things are elegant, tasteful, simple and unreproducible. The pretentious claims to authenticity, style and taste of socialite Australians, are just that: claims on a reality that couldn’t be further away from its replication and exploitation. I guess Roland Barthes told me so all those years ago and I just needed to see it for myself?