Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Donka: A Letter to Chekov, Written and Directed by Daniele Finzi Pasca

I haven’t stopped thinking about Donka: A Letter to Chekov since I saw it last Saturday night. I had never been to Aulnay-sur-Bois, in fact, I had never thought of it as anywhere other than a stop on the way to Charles de Gaulle. I forget that it’s often in these out of the way, difficult to get to suburbs that Paris hosts some of its most exciting experimental theatre. Donka was one of those memorable performances that I would travel much further than Aulnay-sur-Bois to see again and again.

I recently saw Cirque Eloize’s latest production, I.D., at Chaillot, so the genre of the “new circus” — a hybrid form that brings together circus acts, dance, music, spectacular lighting shows and theatre to create a form of contemporary entertainment that integrates high and low forms, appeals to young and old, and leaves its audience mesmerized — is not new to me.

While I make the connection to Cirque Eloize, Donka is a cut above – for me at least – because of all that is signified in a subtitle that sees it embrace one of the most solemn writers of the 19th century. Donka is a letter to Chekov. So as well as being visual and sensory, dreamy and filled with yearning, Donka is both a eulogy to and a dialogue with Chekov that, unlike his plays, does not hinge on language or words. I was worried at the beginning of the performance that I was missing something as it opened with a man and a woman telling a story in heavily accented French of a Russian nobleman who builds a castle at the lake of Lugano. I was lost. I was convinced I had missed the point, that there was a reason and a context for this discussion that I had not heard. But infact, Lugano is simply the place where the writer/director, Daniele Finzi Pasca, has a house. And so, while Donka is for Chekov, and constantly turns around to look at the 19th century, the performance is also a letter written by the reality of the performers lives —musicians, clowns, actors, acrobats—on stage, in the present. In the sparse, yet poetic dialogues and monologues, they call each other by their real names, at times they break into their own language, and erupt into the talents and tricks of their own bodies.

Donka is a letter to Chekov that uses words sparingly. The result being that what is more important than words is what happens between the words, in the tone and the silences of the long Russian summer afternoons, on the boat, in the hospital beds, and drawing rooms that Chekov finds, inhabits, and in which Donka’s performers cavort. For in these spaces, and in the spaces between words, Donka captures the mood (in the French sense of humeur) of Chekov, and all the melancholy and angst of those in his fictions.

Again unlike Chekov’s men and woman who are trapped and limited by the social roles given to them, in Donka, the performers glide between men and women, between doctors, nurses and patients: there is nothing fixed, nothing limited by the forces of language, costume, or social form. There are moments of hilarity, moments of tenderness, struggle, and wonder shared between performers and the children and adults who filled the audience. And neither are the actions and movements, the roles of the body in command of the acts and story vignettes performed. Motions are unfinished, carefully crafted mistakes are made, the actors lose their nerve, clowning around, being gregarious with each other, with themselves, with us. And so, Donka is much more than a series of fragments demonstrating the mind-boggling manoeuvres of the human body. Although there is plenty of that, Donka is a true merging of theatre and circus, in which clowns become servants, patients are transformed into contortionists, the doctor becomes a juggler, and dancers slide effortlessly into their own audience.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Taysir Batniji, Le Monde n'est pas arrivé, Galerie Eric Dupont

Taysir Batniji, GH0809, 2010. Detail
Taysir Batniji is a name worth remembering. He has exhibited often enough in the wide range of media in which he works —photography, drawing, installation, sculpture — but the exhibition at Eric Dupont gallery in the Marais was my introduction to his work, and a delight to encounter.

As my friend Dore so rightly pointed out, so much of the work done in and about Gaza, the occupation and Palestinian settlements is repetitive and one dimensional. With a lot of focus on the destruction caused by Israeli military, the film and photographic work done about the conflict asks its viewer to empathize, pity, mourn, and bewail the neverending violence and injustice. And I would add, so much of the work propagates the same message: why can’t we all just get along as people and leave the politics behind? 

Taysir Batniji does something altogether different and infinitely more complicated than most of the work on the occupied territories that we usually see. He makes us laugh, provokes our desire, he seduces us into the world of his photographs in inconceiveable ways. And even worse, we are horrified, at the same time as we are mesmerized and our viewing practices mocked. All of this is achieved through photographs, drawings, sculptures and installations that are all at once, documentary, conceptual, experimental and pop culture. The layers of complexity, the high and low culture references, and our seemingly infinite array of responses to this work are what make him someone to watch.
View of GH0809 section of the Exhibition
The exhibition at Eric Dupont is in two parts, the first, GH0809 (Gaza Houses 2008-2009) sees a series of photographs replicating the form, language and presentation of real estate announcements. Just like the announcements in storefront windows in Gaza, the properties are presented with a view from the outside, some text waxing lyrical on the features of the goods on sale, and an accompanying set of images representing the bathroom, kitchen, bedroom and living room respectively. Each “advertisement” is fixed behind perspex, each image is rimmed by a red border that includes a reference number. Despite the fact that the descriptions could be mistaken for an ordinary real estate announcement, in most (but not all) cases, the house has been destroyed. To varying degrees, the featured space can range from a pile of rubble to an intact living room that, without the scars left by a missile, might be a place we would want to inhabit.

As I walked through, I shifted from art viewer to apartment hunter. It’s difficult not to be seduced as the language used by Batniji is already familiar to anyone who has ever looked to buy or rent an apartment. I found myself thinking “wow, great space” and marvelling the light, the double exposition, the beautiful blue sky seen through the rubble. The photographs triggered my desire, my habits of consumption, my willingness to dive headlong into the trap of consumerism. Like the photographs we see in the window of every real estate shop, the spaces of GH0809 have been emptied of personalized touches, leaving the generic carpets, window fittings, and so on. They are empty of everyone else, welcoming us as the potential buyer. Similarly, the text plays on the language of real estate advertisements.  I find myself echoing it: “look, this one is near the beach,” “oh and this one is close to the local school”, while this one has great potential for extensions. And so I slide into the fantasy of my dream home – just as real estate announcements want me to do.
Taysir Batiji, Socle du Monde, 2011, Stones
While Batniji ironically manipulates the real estate announcement is if it were a genre of images, presenting houses as attractive and desirous, I found myself not only starting to imagine life in some of the spaces, but in awe of the aesthetic composition of the images. The perfect blue skies, the sun beaming in, walls that tell the story of the layers of history that have past inside of them, the imitation of the principles of landscape photography all inside perfectly balanced frames, make the images seductive in a different way. Until, I catch myself: I am not just looking at, but I am admiring the aesthetics of bombed out buildings, the debris of missiles that have no doubt killed all on their path. This self-conscious realism, in turn, gives the images an ironic distance that underlies our ability to recognize and reflect on the horror of what has happened in these spaces.
Exhibition View at Galerie Eric Dupont
Batniji didn’t take the photographs himself, but rather, had a journalist take them. Batniji was not able to cross the blockade, and so he gave the journalist Sami al-Ajrami the exact specifications of the photographs he wanted him to take. The journalist takes the same photographs from the same perspectives, just different houses. The result reminded me of Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of the industrial heartland of the Ruhr valley. This reference to the Becher’s gives Batniji’s work a claim to a reality that it, nevertheless, announces it does not access through the very same reference. That is, it takes on the contradictions of the Becher’s photographs and sees them through the eye of a twenty-first century conceptuality and aesthetic. This is just one of example of the many layers woven together in Batniji’s complex photographs: they are at once conceptual art, documentary photography, mnemonic archives, avant-garde re-presentations, all of which are undergirdered by the ironic (and very seductive) real estate announcement. 

All images copyright the artist. 

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Paris in January

On rue Saint Honoré looking at Nicolas de Staël's La Seine à Paris in a gallery window
In January, Paris can test our patience. The days are so short that by 3.30pm-4pm the cars begin to turn on their headlights. This winter has also been wet. Even on the days when it is not raining properly, a mist and a drizzle has filled the air, as if Paris had decided to be and look like London. There has been so much water that the Seine is now overflowing and I cannot run down through the sculpture garden in front of the Institut du Monde Arabe. And the Seine even looks more like the Thames than usual – it is churned up, dirty, as it flows west towards the channel it tows with it refuse, natural and man made alike.
Nativity window at Ste Elisabeth's on rue du Temple
And for those of us lucky enough to find sun in the winter as many of my friends have, vacationing in Thailand, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, the difficulty of coming back to the cold, drizzle of Paris is compounded by having holidayed with happy people, people pleased to serve and to step aside as we pass on the street. In Paris, the pride, the pushing and the arrogance on the streets are hard pills to swallow after a week or two in the sun and surf, surrounded by personalities that complement the weather.
the creatures on display at the gallery downstairs
I was feeling gloomy about Paris until the other night when I walked my friend Irina home through my neighborhood and into hers. This is why I love having visitors to Paris. Because they remind me that I live in not just the most beautiful city in Europe, but one where the importance of aesthetic presentation filters through into every aspect of life. I showed Irina the shops and storefronts in my street: the hairdresser, Cizor's, that might be mistaken for a museum, it is so elegantly decorated; the gallery with ornaments and design objects that are the fantasy of adults and children alike; the florist whose windows are displayed with the arrangement of the day also sent out to companies and offices; one of Paris’ best loved restaurants that used to be a Pharmacy and has kept the original façade and some of the accoutrements of the early 20th century pharmacy it once was. A little further along, there is the man who makes shoes – he doesn’t just sell them, he makes them; and the nativity scene in lights at Ste Elisabeth's Church which embraces all of the subtlety and taste of Christmas lights all over the city. And the list goes on.
I walk past these shops and storefronts every day. And some days I look in them and wish I could afford what they sell, or at least, justify spending the money to buy what is on offer. But usually, I know, most things look better in a Parisian shop window than they do anywhere else, including my home. It takes a visitor to show me how elegant and beautiful even the street that I live on can be. And it takes a visitor to reflect back to me a view of Paris that reminds me, inspite of the wintry weather, the tourists, the long lines and the gruff Parisians, it’s still the most beautiful city in Europe.
My favorite nieghbor - he belongs to the Boulangerie downstairs

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Shame, dir Steve McQueen, 2011

Over and over the reviews of Steve McQueen’s Shame bemoan the fact that we don’t ever get to see Brandon’s trauma. They all want to know why Brandon and his sister are like they are. But of course, not knowing, is just the point. Brandon is driven by a desperate need for sex, a compulsion he cannot control, and that can only be relieved temporarily. This is the reality of addiction. It doesn’t matter why the addict has got this way, what matters is that the obsession be lifted by another hit of the drug. Brandon’s need for sex is no different from the next drug. And the fact that we don’t ever know why he got that way makes the fact that he did all the more convincing. He is cold, out of touch with his emotions, and to give him an original trauma would be to give him an excuse.

Michael Fassbender’s performance is chilling. Indeed, it seems to be a character that suits Fassbender’s style of acting: in the power of the actor, the character is detached, uncaring and prone to unpredictable bursts of anger. I am glad that I saw Fassbender as Brandon before I saw him as Dr Jung in A Dangerous Method. Because as the arrogant and confused Dr Jung, he is also cold and distant, but I was not as convinced by Dr Jung. As the sex addict who struggles throughout the film with his emotions, and indeed, when emotion is aroused, the fantasy falls apart, Fassbender is perfectly cast. He passes as a normal guy in a successful job. Another critic complained that we never get to see what he does for a living – this is just the point again. Brandon is so focused on the next “hit” that work is just what he does for a living.

A O Scott as one of the only critics who gets the nature of the obsession and doesn’t want more cause and affect narrative, also points to one of the film’s flaws: as always with McQueen’s films, there’s something out of kilter when a nightmare is packaged so beautifully. The tracking shot that follows Brandon across midtown Manhattan on a night run is, quite simply, breathtaking. It’s the kind of long take that McQueen excels at, and here, the energy and adrenaline that Brandon needs to burn having come home to find his sister having sex with his boss, is so perfectly captured in this scene. But, like A O Scott, I wonder if New York through tinted lenses and cinematic virtuosity is the way to represent an affliction as grim and unrelenting as Brandon’s sex addiction.

The final descent into desperation which finds Brandon having sex with a man in the back room of a club is another scene that can’t be excused. The straight white guy so desperate for sex that he has to resort to having sex with a gay man in a back room? This reeks of homophobia. And then there is the predictability of Sissy’s attempted suicide: the scars of self-mutilation that we are shown are too obviously set up as the prelude to her grand statement at the end of the film. But for all these problems, it’s a film with integrity and worth it to see Fassbender, his body, and some great shots of NY.

Allan Sekula, Polonia and Other Fables, Galerie Michel Rein

Allan Sekula, Farmer threshing grass at abandoned airport used by
the CIA for transport of clandestine "high value" terrorism suspects.
Szymany, Poland, July 2009
My first impression when I stepped inside the intimate space of the Galerie Michel Rein was the sheer beauty of Allan Sekula’s photographs from the series Polonia and Other Fables. And perhaps the most beautiful of the very slickly produced images are those in which the subject matter is at its most disturbing: a farmer working at a CIA site, a sign aggressively placed in water indicating a military testing site in Kiejkuty, Poland, and preparation of an F-16 pilot at an Air Force base. Often the only indication that all is not right is the skewing of the image. Otherwise, I could look at these photographs all day: the deep rich colors, the peace that surrounds the moment of violence, the shallow focus closeups, and the finesse of the image itself, make them so inviting. Sekula’s photographs are often referred to as challenging the boundary between documentary and fiction, but the high quality aesthetic produced by inkjet prints on Dibbon, in turn placed behind glass, are more interesting for the stories they tell than for whether or not they are fact or fiction.

Allan Sekula, CIA Black Site seen from the bushes,
Klejkuty, Poland,
July 2009

Included here are some touching photographs of Sekula’s parents and others of blacksmith tools in motion, all in black and white. These images see the introduction of Sekula’s personal history into the series with his parents from Poland, and the references to his blacksmith grandfather. Thus the personal and the political are merged on the gallery walls if not within each image. In addition, and perhaps most curious of all, are two photographs taken in Chicago, one of a woman at the commodity futures exchange, the other of Ornette Colemen. Sekula has used garish colors in the process of printing through inkjets, and the result is images that might have been taken in 1980s Poland, a time when life behind the iron curtain wanted to imitate the West, and garish colors were a way of symbolizing glitz and glamour.
Allan Sekula, My Father with his List, Sacramento, December 1979
Perhaps the most touching image is that of Sekula’s father, My father with his List, Sacramento 1979. Of course, we know all about the relationship between Jewish-Polish emigrants and lists. And here, all of those historical resonances are held in the elder Sekula’s hand as he holds the list of four family names for the camera. Two of the names have “Rabbi” inscribed next to them, making the names even more profound for a post-World War II viewer.
Allan Sekula, Art student working on commodity futures exchange
Mercantile Exchange
, Chicago, August 2007.
If I had one disappointment about the exhibition it was its size. Obviously, the small space of the Michel Rein gallery does not make it possible to have a larger selection of the Polonia series photographs. But the fact that there are so few, makes the show as it is exhibited here, seem fragmented and incoherent. I was not able to make the connections between the images without the explanations of the man in the gallery. Otherwise the relevance of images, such as, for example, Europa 2011 in which a homeless man lies on what appears to be a radiator, in what looks to be an airport somewhere in Europe, was lost on me. I just didn’t see the connection between the homeless of today, the military exploitation of Poland and Sekula’s immigrant family. In its entirety, I like to think that these connections are more salient.

All Images Copyright Allan Sekula

Friday, January 6, 2012

Arnulf Rainer/Victor Hugo, Surpeintures, Maison de Victor Hugo

Arnulf Rainer, Van Gogh Series (Enough of Overpainting says Van Gogh), 1977
I have often seen Arnulf Rainer’s paintings in my peripheral vision in museums in Germany especially, but never spent much time with them. Peter Kubelka’s film however is a different story. Annette Michelson first introduced the film to me as “the most brilliant film ever made.” Arnulf Rainer (1960) has no image recorded on its film material, but instead the light creates a flicker effect on the screen, the sort that has today has me warn students who may be prone to epilepsy. Arnulf Rainer is film at its most brilliant because it is, effectively, a phenomenological experiment that reduces the medium to its most fundamental components: light moving in time.

It may be my enthusiasm for Kubelka’s film that has always left me luke warm in front of Rainer’s paintings. But the exhibition of drawings and overpaintings at the Maison Victor Hugo new perspectives on his work were opened up, and I am now even beginning to like it. And what was perhaps most enjoyable about the exhibition was the opportunity to see Hugo’s drawings and sketches in their originals. The title of the exhibition, Victor Hugo: Arnulf Rainer, Surpeintres only indicates half of what the exhibition contains. As well as Rainer’s overpaintings of Hugo’s sketches and drawings, as I say, there are some exquisite Hugo illustrations. In addition, examples of Rainer’s other overpainting series – van Gogh, Odillon, Corot, Friedrich — are also included.

Victor Hugo, Paysage, 1850
The images that engage with Hugo’s drawings do fill the first two galleries. Typically overpainting is a visual discussion of reflections, doubled images, interstices, revisioning, crossing out. It is a form of graffiti that effaces what lies beneath it, and in so doing, turns what it over paints into a secret. Apparently, all of these issues are inherent to Hugo’s drawings. His interest in landscapes emerging from a horizon, dreamlike cities in the throes of dissolution, all become exaggerated by Rainer’s “revisioning” of them. There are also images in which Rainer is clearly inspired by Hugo, and takes off from where Hugo left off, making it difficult for us to determine where one begins and the other ends. In these images, a work of struggle between two artists, what might be understood as an obliteration of the master (Friedrich, Corot, but also Hugo) and his era, his world view, becomes a “co-authored” and there are now two masters, two eras, two world views.
Arnulf Rainer, Untitled, 1998-99   
In the first rooms, Rainer’s typically aggressive and sometimes violent aesthetic comes together with Victor Hugo’s more gentle, reflective and intricate drawings and ink illustrations. There is an anger towards the originals, but then as I wandered through, looking at more and more of the images, I found inspiration, and even a tenderness towards Hugo’s drawings. In all of them, there was a very passionate relationship between a whole series of images, reproductions of images and reproductions of reproductions.

Arnulf Rainer, Sans Titre, 2000
Victor Hugo, L'Hermitage 1855

Rainer also turns Hugo’s works upside down and back to front before he overpaints. And even before this, Rainer makes a laser copy of a reproduction of the Hugo drawing or ink wash presumably found in books. Rainer deliberately keeps the elements of his process obscure, but I did keep thinking, if only I knew where Rainer found Hugo images, then another layer of meaning would emerge. But I was left thinking about an anonymous reproduction of a reproduction, in itself a form of repetition, being transformed into a manipulation and appropriation that somehow becomes so far removed from the original. And then, when we thought level of respect for the original couldn’t sink any lower, we notice that the reproductions are crooked on their backgrounds. At times Rainer enlarges the prints, to completely distort the original. And yet, at the same time, as I say, it accentuates everything about Hugo’s drawings.
Arnulf Rainer, Serie Friedrich, 1979 
The relationship to other artists’ work is completely different, particularly, when Rainer turns his hand to overpainting Corot and Friedrich paintings. In these examples, his brush not only appears to flay all respect for the master, but it takes on ironic and satirical proportions. On one image by Friedrich, Rainer writes his initials in red like a piece of graffiti over the face of the most revered of German painters. Like any piece of graffiti, Rainer’s disfigurations are also enhancements that draw attention to that which they erase.