Monday, November 14, 2011

From Beijing to Bergen

Those orange vested people on the other side of the lake were planting bulbs,
not attending to any kind of emergency
Two weeks and twenty five years after I left Australia, as the plane started on its holding pattern and I looked through the clouds, I saw land and water below me that filled me with a feeling of familiarity. I left Australia on a Norwegian cargo liner in October 1986 and on Tuesday, twenty five years later, I was on my way to Norway for the first time. I had understood it would be a beautiful country – but wasn’t really sure of what else was in store for me.
Public sculptures scattered throughout the city share  the
green grass with the fattest seagulls I have ever seen
My lasting impression of Norway will the ease of being there. After two weeks in China — which to be sure was exciting and fascinating, but at times, difficult, frustrating —Norway was the very opposite. From beginning to end it was effortless, relaxing and even though I was there for a conference, it felt more like a vacation. Of course, the fact that the Norwegians all speak the most perfect English is a good beginning to any trip to Norway. And beyond the ease of communication, everything is so familiar, especially for me who lived with their food, their customs and among them, albeit only for six months twenty-five years ago. And even if I didn’t always follow exactly what they were saying, even their own language has a familiarity. That it shares many words with German of course helped. 

Beyond the familiarity, there was much that makes Bergen at odds with the world I live in. Most notably, the silence, and the orderliness, the efficiency of day to day life. As I wandered the pretty streets I was reminded again and again of the deep silence that permeates the picture perfect worlds inhabited by Ibsen’s characters, as opposed to the silence that arises from their inner torment. Over my five days in Bergen I didn’t hear one car honk its horn, no one yelled at anyone else in the streets, no one caught on fire when a driver cut them off on the roads – well, they don’t cut each other off in the firt place: the cars stop for pedestrians to cross the road, the pedestrians wait at the traffic lights, everyone patiently waits their turn in line, and they even let each other go before them at times. I didn’t see one police car, though when running one night I did notice an emergency entrance to a hospital so it seems as though accidents do happen and crises do occur. But I never saw anything that came remotely close. One night I saw a demonstration in the streets behind the cathedral. If someone hadn’t told me it was a demonstration I would have mistaken it for a religious celebration with about 50-75 people holding vigil candles and chanting. The public expression of rage and dissent bears absolutely no resemblance to the hoards that stop the traffic and make deafening noises as they crawl down Bvd du Temple.
This was on a fjord boat trip
With all this perfection, I felt as though entering Bergen was like walking onto a stage. I kept waiting for the curtain to be pulled back to reveal an anguish and turmoil I know to be underneath Norma Helmer’s perfect life in A Doll’s House. Other colleagues from different parts of the world who attended the conference remarked on the gloominess of Bergen. However, in spite of the darkness, the coldness, the silence, I have to say, there is a part of me that finds comfort in an emptiness that as far as I could tell, didn’t hide too much social injustice and personal agony. It was nothing but enchanting and so restful for me who is surrounded by noise and commotion in my daily life.

I got not sense of underlying psychosis in the people. They were all very pleasant, in fact, they were delightful, and following the ease of being in their city, they were just as easy to be with. All of this said, Bergen didn’t entice me, it wasn’t a world I was itching to move to. Because the quiet and the orderliness made for a city that has no edge. With nothing out of place, with the air as clean as I have ever inhaled it, with the water so clear it can be difficult to determine reflections from reality on the numerous lakes, I wouldn’t trust myself not to go crazy one day. There were the odd drug users and beggars in the park and streets up behind the cathedral, a sign that is in itself surely the alarm bell to tell me Bergen has other sides still to discover.
A waterfall on the way to Flam

Nevertheless, I have to say, I came away from Bergen more rested than I have been in a long time. I can see why people would want to come here on vacation because it is so pleasant. I have some trepidation that its extreme equilibrium might turn someone like me into the Ibsen characters that don’t exist in the streets. But for a vacation? It has to be a great place to go. 

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Baselitz Sculpteur, Musée d'art Moderne de la Ville de Paris

Georg Baselitz, Ohne Titel, 2009
Nothing I have to say about Georg Baselitz’ sculptures will do justice to their magnificence. And from the start, it must be clear that much of their magnificence has to do with the way they are exhibited at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Each monumental sculpture is given its own space, a space it devours with the intensity of its emotions, a space into which we are invited to become embroiled in this intensity. Though it is difficult to privilege any of the sculptures above others, walking around the curvature of the museum space to be met by the Dresdener Frauen was an unforgettable experience. Sat at the top of the steps, and further raised on their pedestals, the monumental heads and the power of these women of Dresden are overwhelming. I stood still at a distance: their faces are frightening, deformed by a chainsaw to be made unrecognizeable. Painted yellow, in contrast to the works up until this point in the exhibition which are tainted with red, their colour emboldens the women. Their oversized heads are imposing, apparently towering over us, monumental. They look down on us, not to belittle us, but to remind us of the depth of their suffering. Dresdener Frauen is one of the only series of Baselitz sculptures that makes direct reference to German history, though of course it is everywhere present in the tragedy and violence of his sculpted figures. Made in 1989, these women remind us that the bombing of Dresden is still playing on the German conscience when the Berlin wall falls 44 years later.
Georg Baselitz, Dresdener Frauen - Karla, 1990
Up close the women’s faces like those of other sculptures are lost to abstraction. The trees from which they are cut, and into which they are carved, hacked, and slashed are mutilated to make faces, torsos and body parts, that are just as violently and aggressively deformed, permanently scarred by chainsaw and chisels. And all of the aggressivity and anger makes for wounded giants that are both monumental and fragile, a contradiction that, in turn, makes them so moving. They are gentle giants who, although they loom over us, are perfectly at peace, and in silent acceptance of their own immobility and fragility.
Georg Baselitz, Männlicher Torso, 1993
 The layers of complexity are always unfolding as we study the detail of the incisions in the wood, like the marks left by a painter caressing his canvas with a brush. But these “gestures” also present as wounds of self-mutilation, they tell of an anger that has no other way of expressing itself than to attack the body that imprisons it. The anger and violence scar the surfaces, usually going against the grain of the many different types of wood used by Baselitz: birch and beech, ash, maple, and the inevitable German lime tree. While there are many different trees, the sculptural work doesn’t change much over the years; but yes, the subject matter changes, color changes, the deformities change, but the basic method, technique and devastating outcome of Baselitz’s sculptures remains consistent.
Georg Baselitz, Volk - Ding - Zero, 2009
The exhibition closes with three “self portraits”, child like figures, exhibited together, facing each other in a circle. What is most curious about them is the fact that Baselitz turns to the self-portrait in 2009 at age 71. Most artists and writers typically begin their life long devotion to their art with self-portraits, and some might repeat the fascination with self throughout their lives. Not Baselitz. Even though these figures look young, innocent and childlike, they come in the latter years of his life. This is made more interesting by the fact that they are child like: their "hats," the oversized “shoes,” where some earlier figures didn't even have feet, the pink nipples and bare chests, and the awkwardness of genetalia that have been hammered on afterwards.
Georg Baselitz with sculptures of Dresdener Frauen
Unlike Michelangelo’s figures of perfection, these people are not found inside the stone that incarcerates them. Baselitz’s figures are chiseled and hacked out of the wood, formed if you like, by the knives that render them. There is so much tragedy here, the genitalia, the mouth, the eyes, the breasts of the torsos and heads, that is, those places on the body that give us identity are not carved out with care, they are hacked away. These are deformed bodies: the feet cut off, the breasts cut off, and red paint in their place as though the wounds are still bleeding. Even at a quick glance, Ding mit Arm 1993 is a war wounded soldier who has been so maimed, mutiliated, amputated and made androgynous. And though this “Ding” has no specific reference to Germany’s history, I see it creating the pain evoked by the piece. The suffering of the Ding reminds me immediately of the World War I heros left to litter the streets in Otto Dix’s drawings in particular.
Georg Baselitz, Modell für eine Skulptur, 1979
When I am with these sculptures I think, or am reminded of how deeply ingrained the trauma of WWII is in the German psyche. It’s easy to forget this in a post-1989 world in which Germany is the only contender to lead the Eurozone out of trouble. When I first studied Baselitz’ work in the late 1980s, the paintings, often of doubles and dissected bodies, were understood as a reflection of the chaos of German division. While I would want to see the paintings as much more than a simple expression of recent German history, there is a level on which the sculpture cannot be unraveled from twentieth-century German history. I can’t imagine these works coming out of any other country: the engagement with the monumental, together with their evocations of violence, the intensity of expression, the emotional fragility, their sadness and melancholy. Together with this, as I say, up close the serrations are abstract, and thus, the work pushes up against the possibilities of modernism. While some of these elements might be found in American art of the late twentieth century, altogether, they could only be found in the work of a German.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Lasting Memories of China

World Apart, Temples old and New in Shanghai
 A rainy day in Shanghai: it doesn’t seem fitting as my final day in China, but then again, it was the perfect headline to my stay in Shanghai: perhaps it was Shanghai’s final warning that this is not a city for me.As I wandered around, attempting to orient myself in this money making metropolis, I was reminded of a question I had in Beijing. Secluded within a Buddhist monastery around the corner from the Yunan Gardens, I was reminded of a wonderful afternoon I had spent in the Lama Temple in Beijing. Apart from being havens of peace in the middle of these bustling noisy cities, the temples fascinated me because of the reverence shown them as national treasures by a political system I thought was vehemently opposed to religion. And if the strange brand of Communism that rules China is open to Buddhism, how to explain the hostilities towards Tibetan monks and their protests in the form of self-immolation? How is it that Buddhism still has some voice in China, if not one that is raised in political forums? I can’t claim to understand the complexities of the Chinese government, but I do know that it is filled with contradictions. Everytime I asked one of my contacts or friends about the particular brand of Communism that seems to be flourishing in China, the answer was the same: “it’s complicated.” Not one person ever attempted to help me make sense of a dictatorship that allows private industry, free trade, and yet, enforces media censorship that is, nevertheless, able to be circuited.
Creatures at the Lama Temple
While I can’t report with any accuracy on Chinese politics, what I do know from walking the streets is that China is a country filled with contradictions: between old and new, wealthy and poor, and surely that which permeates the pride of monuments such as the Lama Temple in Beijing and the monastery in Shanghai, between a religion open to all Gods and a government open to none.  And it’s the existence of these contradictions that, on the one hand, makes it possible for me to travel to China and be made to feel so welcomed, and on the other hand, ultimately keeps me on the outside ….

… I wrote the above paragraphs on the plane on my way home, and I have now forgotten all the contradictions. All I remember of China is the warmth of the people, how hard they work, their when a woman in a store of the Monoprix genre helped me buy stockings. When I had finished my grocery shopping I went downstairs to buy stockings as it had become obvious that even in the heat, Chinese women never go bare-legged. The shop assistant was so helpful: she obligingly answered my queries — in sign language — about thickness, size, colour, because of course, everything on the packet was written in Chinese characters. She showed me other pairs with different toes, of different deniers, undid packets, stretched them out, and went to great lengths to make sure I had the stockings I was looking for. As she walked me to the cashier, tapped the price into a calculator, showed me how much I owed, and bid me goodbye, I knew exactly why the Chinese hate the French. Where in Paris would the Chinese find such courteous, patient, and obliging assistance, all with understanding that not everyone speaks French?
A rainy day in Shanghai's old town
Even though Shanghai was not filled with great memories, there were moments like this that were magical. It doesn’t make Shanghai exotic as the myth goes. But it does mean that even in the razzle and dazzle of a city fighting for dominance on world markets, in among the contradictions and disenchantment, I found the stuff of memories to serenade me back to China.   

Patrick Hourcade, La Puissance D'Aimer, Chapelle de la Salpêtrière

Patrick Hourcade, Barbara, créé le 10 août 2010
For those of my faithful readers who have never ventured into the wiles of the Gare d’Austerlitz neighborhood in the 13th, you need to plan a trip to hospital. In the gardens of the Hôpital Universitaire la Pitié Salpêtrière is the 1677 L’église Saint-Louis, the hospital Chapel. You won’t find any tourists here. True to its function as a place of worship for the sick, their families, and the staff in attendance, in the 17th century, the classical structure — a rotunda under a domed cupola with four radiating naves and a chapel tucked in between each nave — the space is heavenly.

The austerity and clarity of a space without chairs, without altar, with bare walls, and a circularity lent it by the octagonal structure, together with a luminosity thanks to picture windows around a 360 degree exposure makes for an experience of fullness and unity when at the centre, under the cupola. The space is apparently used for concerts today because its acoustics are perfect, and as Georgia and I entered to see Patrick Hourcade’s La Puissance D’Aimer, the deep sonority of the grand organ filled the church. It was as though we had entered a hermetically sealed world from which we might never emerge.
Patrick Hourcade, L'Idole, crée le 11 november 2009
Hourcade’s photographs are as mystical and ethereal as the world we had entered. 14 recent works were organized in the transept and the side chapels in herringbone form, three on the left, three on the right, with a saint watching over them in between. The first image we saw, L’Idole, créé le 11 novembre 2009 resembled a very early daguerrotype, perhaps an even earlier photographic invention. We kept wondering “how did he do it”? The Winged Venus was like a bird at the end of the long hallway in the Louvre, the familiar crowds haunted her, and made her seem as far away in time and space as she in fact is. To return an icon as clichéd as this armless beauty to the shrouded and mysterious reality from which she has emerged is a difficult task. Incessant reproduction has made her trite, and like all icons, she is a household image who has been stripped of all ambiguity. But Hourcade makes her once again a thing of beauty and wonder through likewise obscure photographic processes.
Patrick Hourcade, Le Lit créé le 24 mars 2008
The similarities to other media became a theme of the images, though what was so surprising was the number of different directions in which Hourcade pushes the photographic medium. Hourcade takes photography to its edges until it spills over into other media: painting, pastels, photographs without cameras, and then, within those liminal spaces we find yet more extratextual layers. A photograph such as Le Salon (2008) is clearly reminiscent of a Jeff Wall photograph, and yet, an almost surreal glass on the table in the foreground, tips the image over into the world of a Chardin still life. And an image such as Le Lit créé le 24 mars 2008 moves on a 200 year continuum, across oceans between the unsettling composition of Van Gogh’s bedroom and the chaos of Jeff Wall’s Destroyed Room. Thus the photographs take up diverse art historical references to make meaning within horizontal as well as vertical historical axes: as images they shift between photography and painting, and as paintings they freely travel between centuries and continents. As the photographs dissolve, the only thing that remains stable when we stand before the images is the date of their creation, a date that is given us as a part of the titles.
Patrick Hourcade, L'Autre créé le 6 août 2010
The title of the exhibition, or selection of photographs, adds yet more complexity to the images: La Puissance d’Aimer. And it’s often the absence of visible representation of love that makes this collective umbrella intriguing. L’Autre, créé le 6 août 2010 depicts a head and shoulders either facing towards or turned away from the mirror in which the camera finds the figure. The mirror might be placed at the top of a staircase with the beginning or end of the old banister in the foreground. The figure might look out a window, the door might just have been opened as indicated by a shadow on the left, or perhaps a curtain is drawn back? And who is the other? Is it that of the mirrored subject, or is the figure caught in the mirror the other itself? In among these psychoanalytical obfuscations, we cannot help but be reminded of Van Eyck's The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434, its obscurity and simultaneous transgressions. In all of Hourcade’s photographs, like the art historical precedents he quotes, love is anything but easy. And neither is it permanent, but rather, it is pictured to be as fleeting as the (im)materiality of the photograph.
Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage, 1434
In turn, the status of the photograph varies from one image to the next. Not only are they pushed to the limits of their boundaries with other media, other centuries, these oversized photographic images don’t always evaporate, or dissolve into the ether of the spiritual oasis of the church. In some cases, Hourcade pushes photography to a kind of hyperreality, where they come to look like paintings of photographs. A photograph such as Renée, créé le 7 mai 2009 is all at once an Andreas Gursky abstraction, an Edward Hopper landscape, and a Gerhard Richter painted photograph. Thus, these mysterious images also seem to travel the distance of the history of photography.
Patrick Hourcade, Renée, créé le 7 mai 2009
I did come away with one niggling question. I kept wondering whether they would start to mean something different, or even lose their power, if they were placed somewhere else. Even though they are isolated from each other, in alcoves, separated by statues of the saints who watch over them, they work together with the space, and become inseparable from it. I wonder how much of their power and mystery can be attributed to their context? This is not to assume they will be impoverished elsewhere, indeed, their meanings may even proliferate in a different context. But it would be interesting to know if the same power and complexity survives outside of the ethereal perfection of L’église Saint-Louis.

All Images Courtesy of the Artist