Monday, May 21, 2012

Daniel Buren, Excentrique(s) Travail In Situ, Grand Palais

Self Portrait in a mirrored circle under the cupola

The Sun arrives in Paris

 I have never really understood the excitement over Daniel Buren’s stripes. I like the pillars in the Palais Royale because they break up the weight of tradition. And I love their accessibility: my students enjoyed jumping from one to the next when I took them on a walk from the Comédie Française up to the arcades. Beyond the fun factor, I am not convinced there is so much more to say about Buren’s stripes.
footprints on a mirror made to look beautiful

Natural Light as the sun sets in the West
Daniel Buren has taken up the invitation to fill the space of the Grand Palais for its annual Monumenta event with Excentrique(s) Travails in situ. A sea of colored Perspex circles are placed on wooden supports like umbrellas at the beach on a hot summer’s day, touching each other, holding in the warmth and reflecting light in the color of their invention. At about ten feet in height, depending on the sun, the colored spheres reflect, absorb, capture and filter the light as it streams through the latticed iron ceiling and roof of the Grand Palais’s nave. In the middle, under the great dome, Buren has filled the dome with a checquered blue glass and placed a series of mirrors on which the public are encouraged to walk at ground level. It’s a colorful and joy-filled experience, but not one that invites serious contemplation. As you can see from my photos Excentrique(s) Travails in situ is at its best through the camera lens.

Reflections on the underside of the circles

The materials of Buren’s installation are cheap, ephemeral, to the point where nothing exists once the exhibition is taken down. This apparently makes it like land art in that it has no existence without its environment. But to call Buren’s Excentrique(s) Travail in situ land art would be overstating the case. Typically, land art redefines and articulates the landscape such that it will never be the same again. I can’t imagine how the same could be said of Buren’s colored circles. The materials will be thrown in a skip and that will be the end of it. And, unlike the transformation of our whole thinking of the Grand Palais that was enabled by Serra’s Promenade, I can’t imagine looking at the Grand Palais through post-Buren eyes.

There was one perspective – on film in the café inside the installation – from above. The camera looked up the length of the nave, and down onto the colored perspex giving the impression of a floor covered by a carpet of lilypads. Unfortunately, visitors were not allowed to see this perspective as the stairs leading to the viewing balcony were closed. So while it may be that different perspectives of Excentrique(s) Travail in situ create different installations, I was disappointed not to be able to discover these different perspectives and thus, different dimensions to Buren’s work. 
The view on leaving the Grand Palais
And so, I have to admit that I found this year’s Monumenta to be disappointing; I came away wondering when they are going to invite a woman to fill this magnificent space. I will however probably go back to Buren's installation for two reasons. First, the coffee in the café inside the installation is excellent, and second, there’s a peaceful calm that fills the Grand Palais that never ceases to draw me back again and again. To be sure, this isn’t thanks to Excentrique(s) Travail in situ, rather it is a feature of the structure iteslf. I spent three and a half hours in the café, just enjoying the stillness and the energy of an urban structure that feels so removed from the freneticism of the city outside. Whatever else Buren does or doesn’t do, he manages to set the stage for one of Paris’ greatest places to sit and be.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Gerhard Richter Painting, A Film by Corinna Belz

Corinna Belz, Gerhard Richter Painting, 2011

In the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist in the DVD extras of Gerhard Richter Painting, Richter announces that the importance of the “Color Charts” — his 1990s paintings that resemble the same charts used by interior decorators — lies in their resemblance to reality. This, he thinks, rescues them from adulation by a reverent public. As we have come to expect from Richter’s paintings themselves, he then proceeds to muse that they are anything but a representation of reality: he sees and understands the color charts to be closer to the infinite possibilities of abstraction than they are to the everyday world. The colors proliferate uncontrollably to infinity, giving them lives of their own, placing them beyond human comprehension. And he’s right, any attempt to escape adoration is dashed in the very same moment that the paintings appear mundane, of the material world.
Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (911-4)
I don’t like the idea of a prophet of painting, but Gerhard Richter Painting convinces me that something magical happens in this artist’s presence. Something comes to life in the air that surrounds him, his paintings, and the silence that fills the space between him and them. Richter is a visionary, in the most Romantic of senses. He is able to see the world, a world, in a way that does not exist before or without his paintings. Richter and his paintings take us somewhere beyond language, to a place where something happens, a something that invites us to know the world in a different way. Corinna Belz’s film takes us to this place, a place that can only be experienced in the daily practice of Richter’s painting.
Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (911-4)
On one of the few occasions when Belz speaks to Richter, preferring to preserve the silence of the working studio, she asks him how to explain his “maturity,” even as a young art student. Richter is surprised, as though he has never thought of this question, as though he is still learning how it is he sees so much, so deeply. “Keine Ahnung” he replies after a period of reflection. I could have answered the question for her, but again, that’s the point of this film: Gerhard Richter Painting shows there is no explanation for Richter’s magic. Rather, in the silence that surrounds him, as if holding up a mirror to the ambiguity of his paintings, the mystery lies in the unending process, of rethinking, repainting, refiguring.
Gerhard Richter in his Studio

In the film, Richter tells us what we already know about the paintings, but perhaps, have never had the language with which to articulate it: painting is an act of destruction he says, “the basis is green, that’s why there’s so much red”. This perplexing “explanation” is the very core of what he does, of what painting means to Richter. In the film we watch him dragging paint across canvases with a giant squeegee, scraping, painting with a brush, concealing and revealing, creating and destroying the conversations of colors. And we see the contradictory narratives of Richter’s process left present on the finished canvases. On the one hand, there’s nothing secret or mystical about the journey these paintings have gone through: it is all there in the layers, the pulling away of one to reveal others, the retouchings, the scraping, the violence and love of the painter’s affair with his medium. And yet, even after spending 97 minutes inside his studio, watching him work, everything remains a secret. Belz talks about the studio as Richter’s inner sanctum, the only place where he seems comfortable and quiet. And the secrecy of what he is doing is suspended in between the layers of the huge abstract works we see him create in the course of the film. The unfathomable of the paintings, whatever it is that lifts us up to a place where we can’t help but revere is made palpable by Belz’s film. This oscillation between the ethereal and the practical reality of paint is the magic of Richter’s work.

Gerhard Richter working on Abstract Painting (910-2)

Perhaps the most intimate moments in Gerhard Richter Painting come when Richter or his assistants prepare the paint. The near absence of voiceover, with sparse musical accompaniment draws us into the sounds of the studio. And the most seductive of all is that of paint as it is poured, cleaned, spread on the squeegee with a spatula. The sounds are so luscious, sensuous, and as the camera moved closer, I was filled with the distinctive smell of wet paint. This, together with the most exquisite moments in the film: when the camera watches Richter applying paint, and he turns on the canvas.  It is the most beautiful, lyrical moment on the canvas, giving depth and dimension to an abstract image, and yet, the turn, like a change of mind adds ambiguity, makes the paintings into a realization that never takes place.

Gerhard Richter, Selbstporträt (Self Portrait), 1996

Inside the studio we see that no one comments, let alone passes judgment on the paintings. Richter’s assistants are as quiet as he is, shrugging their shoulders, smiling wryly, holding close to themselves what it is that makes these paintings work, what makes them great. One of the assistants explains that if you tell Richter his painting is good then he will destroy it. He explains this as though the reasoning is logical to everyone “you can’t influence the painting by saying something about it. If you say it’s great leave it like that, he’s more likely to consider changing it”. Thus, those closest to the master become like the master in his presence: silent, gracious, listening as if for a wisdom they know is in the air breathed by Richter’s paintings. Marian Goodman arrives at the studio one day, and she too is enveloped by the Richter grace: listening, seeing, quietly looking at what Richter has prepared for her exhibition. And then, when he goes to openings: the Abstrakte Bilder exhibition at the Museum Ludwig, the National Portrait Gallery’s Portraits, and a 2009 opening at Marian Goodman’s New York gallery, we squirm with discomfort on his behalf as the curators, visitors and museum directors pay him every compliment in the world. It’s no compliment to pay Richter a compliment. Rather, like his paintings, he functions in the silence of listening and looking, where praise lavished in words has no place. 

For its ability to capture all that is secreted in and by Richter's paintings and the process of their execution, Gerhard Richter Painting has the effect of an exhibition: we come away in the certainty that the world will never be the same again, that thanks to Richter, we have been given the opportunity to see the world in a way we could never have otherwise imagined.  

All images courtesy of Gerhard Richter

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A la croisée des images, vidéos de la Collection Neuflize Vie

Zhenchen Liu, Under Construction, 2007
I had never heard of Neuflize Vie, and I had never heard of any of the artists whose works were selected from the Neuflize Vie collection for what was the pick of the current exhibitions at the Musée Européene de la Photographie: Vidéos à la croisées des chemins. I went to the MEP to see the Paolo Pellegrin exhibition of apocalyptic nightmares in Kosovo, Palestine, Afghanistan, and so on. But as often happens when I see photojournalism in art galleries, I was disappointed. I promptly surveyed the all four floors of the museum and it was only when I reached the contemporary video works from the Neuflize Vie collection that I felt I was on familiar ground. Just having finished teaching the avant-garde cinema, and as the lone voice among my colleagues to show any dismay at the university’s blithe decision to do away with all 35mm projection on campus because it is apparently “out of date”, I was, all at once, relieved and affirmed to see that someone else in this world believes in the necessity of experimental photographic based art. And moreover, that it matters to exhibit experimental art in the medium in which it was made. There was a total of seven videos from the Neuflize Vie collection, loosely grouped to include images, all of which were displayed in the format of production.
Hugues Reip, Dots, 2004
The first piece I saw, Hugues Reip’s Dots (2004) reminded me of Hans Richter’s Rythmus films with its articulation of the space of the screen, differentiating foreground and background, left and right, through the movement of abstract shapes around the screen. When it morphed into dancing shapes, cartoons and optical illusions the piece reminded me of Norman McLaren’s works. Like McLaren’s, Reip’s images take up the questions that are at the heart of moving image media: the parameters of the filmed image, the deception and persistence of vision, for example. Were the dots doing anything that we have not seen before? Probably not, but in a cultural climate where abstract images have so few channels of distribution, I am happy to be able to see Reip’s video in the flesh.  

A handful of other pieces caught my attention: Under Construction, a 2007 video work by Zhenchen Liu. A camera moves through what feels like spaces of destruction, all the buildings having been demolished, as opposed to being in the process of being built as the title would suggest. The sky is completely grey, and the sheer size of the image together with the fact that the camera is placed so that we are sitting in the cockpit of a plane, flying through this ruinous space, I began to feel nauseous. And as we fly, the ghosts of former inhabitants appear superimposed on what resembles a bombed out landscape. Washing appears on the line, a wall, a woman still in her bed, chanting that she was not allowed to leave when they came and emptied out the city. The video tells of the destruction of old Shanghai and the lives cut short by the development of the city, the river, the skyscrapers reaching high into the sky, proud as the city boasts its move towards the centre of the Asian capitalist world. The nausea I experienced as the camera led me through the destruction thus took on a political value when I recognized where I was.
Ali Kazma, Clerk, 2011
 The soundtrack for Ali Kazma’s unsettling Clerk (2011) filled the exhibition, as a clerk routinely stamped a series of documents at lightening speed such that the rhythmical sounds became music. The piece both echoed the mechanization of the human workers that we first met in Modern Times, and at the same time, it embraced a major difference: unlike Charlie Chaplin, the worker never falters in Clerk. The focus of his fingers, as well as his mental focus is challenging though as we are never allowed to romanticize him, despite his perfect completion of his task. The rhythm of the clerk’s motions, the ever-quickening pace of the stamp was translated to the soundtrack and induced (in me at least), once again, a nausea that ensured my disgust at the institution that makes machine-like men so perfect and so efficient. The harshness of the digitally manipulated image also serves to underline the confrontation of the world that makes him. 
David Claerbout, Untitled (Single Channel View), 199-2000
David Claerbout’s Untitled (Single Channel View), 1998-2000 took me back to the 1970s with its focus on the single element of an image, in this case, movement. The photographic image of children in a classroom remains static while the misshapen shadow cast on the back wall by two trees that interrupt the sun’s stream through the window of their classroom draws our attention. Even though the leaves in shadow are a small part of the image, the are the focus and the fascination of the piece. The shadows of the trees’ leaves gently move, scarcely, but just enough to fix our attention as we wonder: how are they moving when everything else is static?  Claerbout works at the interstice of movement and stasis, photography and film. And what is so interesting in Untitled is that we constantly shifting aspects between the two media, never seeing both at the same time. The fact that the piece is on a loop also contributes to the sense of stasis – like a photograph, there is no clear indication of when to begin and when to stop looking.
Emily Richardson, Aspect, 2009, 16mm
All of the videos in A la croisée des images are in the tradition of experimental film at its most essential: they all explore the fundamental properties of the moving image: the relationship between light and dark, between seeing and how we see, what we see, what we do and don’t look at – drawing our attention to things we otherwise might not notice. The persistence and deception of vision, the properties of the filmed image and its difference from, or overlap with the photographic. Because the opportunity to see such works is rare today, these glimpses into the Neuflize Vie collection are a must.