Sunday, June 30, 2013

Ron Mueck, Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain

Ron Mueck, Woman with Shopping Bags, 2013

Walking down Boulevard Raspail over the past couple of months, people will have seen the long line up the top, the crowds waiting to get inside the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain to the Ron Mueck exhibition. I am always intrigued by the popularity of contemporary art in Paris, or at least, by the prominence given to contemporary art by a city that in so many ways is stuck in 1789. And I wonder if, in this case, visitors are disappointed by what they find at the end of the line? Ron Mueck’s work is complicated, deeply disturbing, filled with contradictions, and so enmeshed in the history of art since Ancient times, that it is impossible to understand it through casual encounter. The Woman with Shopping, the seemingly benign Couple Under an Umbrella are pieces drenched in enigma and irresolution. Inspite of their apparent accessibility, the longer I stood before these sculptures, the more troubling I found them, the less I understood what they were doing.

Ron Mueck, Couple under an Umbrella 2013
Contrary to David Lynch’s certainty regarding the narrative around the Couple Under an Umbrella, one of the most powerful things about this and other Mueck sculptures is the uncertainty that surrounds their narrative. Where is the woman going with the sticks? What is the woman with the baby thinking of? How did the young boy with the stigmata get the wound? And most curious and incomprehensible of all is the man in the boat – what is he doing there? Naked, in a boat that is so elongated, it diminishes him. The man is vulnerable because he is naked, and yet, he doesn’t seem perturbed. At least, he is not perturbed to the degree I was when I stood before him; his arms are folded, as though he is relaxed. He is looking at something in the distance, his eyes red, his face more curious than afraid. But why?

Ron Mueck, Man in Boat, 2002
When we walk into the light filled space of the Fondation Cartier, it is as though we walk into the bedroom of the Couple Under an Umbrella. There is a discomfort in being there, so close that we see the hairs on his arms, the pores in her aging skin. The humanness is so perfectly captured that we feel as though we are violating their privacy, intruding on their most intimate moment. And so much of the unsettling effect can be attributed to the scale, as all the commentators and critics point out. The figures are always larger than life or diminished in size, just like sculpture has been since ancient times. But unlike sculpture since ancient times, these figures are intricately and realistically represented, in colour, personal, empty of apparent allegory. These men and women are so lifelike, it is as though Mueck is engaged in a kind of genetic engineering, in which people are replicated – and yet, what destabilizes the viewer is that they are never the right size, human sized. And when we get up close to them, we see these men and women with a proximity, we study their faces, with a fascination that we would only engage to study the face of a lover. We share an intimacy with these perfect strangers that is otherwise inappropriate, disrespectful, in violation of their privacy.
Ron Mueck, Woman With Sticks, 2009
There are other figures that we do not have to look at for long, we see them as disturbing immediately. Woman with Sticks is almost terrifying. What is she doing with these sticks? Where is she taking them, and why is she naked? Her nakedness, like the man in the boat, makes her vulnerable, her flesh is soft and pale, but her pose, with her back bent awkwardly from the weight of the sticks is deeply troubling. Her slightly red eyes, the left one which could be blind, reveal a story of trauma, the content of which we can never know.

Ron Mueck, Drift, 2009
Drift is uncomfortable because the man on a blow up beach mattress is splayed like a crucifixion, and yet, he is relaxing at the beach. How are we meant to understand him? To see him we look up, straining to make sense of what he would be doing, hung on a wall, flat on his back. He is the only sculpture attached to the wall, and unlike the others he is hyperreal, making him no more than a sculpture attached to the wall. Similarly, like the eerie Mask II, he is not whole, we see he is a sculpture whose arms finish where the mattress begins.
Ron Mueck, Youth, 2009
The young boy with the stigmata is very beautiful – the connection is drawn by the catalogue to Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St Thomas, but I resist this link. Youth examines his own wound not incredulous at its existence, but, so I imagine, to know it more intimately.  

The exhibition of Mueck’s sculptures at the Fondation Cartier is first class: each is given a generous space, never interfering with the others. Unlike the works of some other artists, these sculptures do not speak to each other, but rather, are captured within a moment of self-contemplation.  Their privacy is fully respected by the gallery, making their existence and, dare I say it, their aura very powerful. I did wonder if this is something to do with the work itself because reproductions of other Mueck exhibitions would indicate that care is always taken to give each sculpture its own space, it’s very own world. Given this, I was interested to see how often the sculptures are reproduced with someone looking at them, a real human sharing the photographic frame with the “replicant”. This I find to be somehow even more grotesque than the figures themselves: looking at the crowds looking, huddled around a single sculpture, it is as though the viewers we view are ogling a real person in their most private, unguarded moment. 

Copyright Hauser & Wirth/Anthony d'Offray/the artist

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Mike Kelley au Centre Pompidou

A Band playing in the Serbian Cultural Centre 
As I sat listening to the mélange of rock and roll being played out in the streets last Friday night for the annual Fête de la Musique, I wondered if my cultural experience for the evening could have been more different. Fête de la Musique is a fun, happy, popular event when amateur bands, performers, choirs and musicians of all kinds set up in whatever space they can find on Paris streets and start playing. In the Marais, the music tends to be rock and roll; so it is loud, not always refined, but in true Paris style, people of all ages come out to join in the fun.

In my favorite space of the Centre Pompidou, the South Galleries that give onto the plaza on one side and the Niki de Saint Phalle sculptured pool on another, I had spent the evening at the Mike Kelley “retrospective” put together to mark his untimely death.

The more I think about Kelley’s work, the clearer and more disturbing it becomes. To the point where, after a few hours, on reflection, I want to say that a lot of the pieces on display at the Pompidou Center are frightening. Whereas, when I was in the exhibition I was more perplexed than emotionally affected by the work. It’s the lingering effect of seemingly benign, or hastily put together conceptual installations, that make this work so powerful. Kelley’s art is an onslaught — of sounds, images of all media, objects, lights — all of which somehow come together into some of the most searing political statements made by contemporary art.
Mike Kelley, Exhibition View @ Centre Pompidou
Perhaps the most disturbing works are those that figure children’s very worn, soft fluffy toys, arranged into perverse, sexually suggestive positions. They are often dismembered, placed on the wall as though they are paintings, on the floor like sculptures, photographed as portraits. A number of the series feature these stuffed toys and other references to childhood  Half a Man, 1987; Ah … Youth, 1991). These are usually discussed by critics as embracing a nostalgia, with a sentimentality of reminiscence. To me, these works are more sinister, and more disturbing than the idea of a lost innocence might suggest. The mere display of these assumedly once loved toys is unsettling, if only in its turning of the private lost world of childhood inside out to become a public performance. Many of the stuffed animals and toys are physically distorted, often suggesting sexual activities. Whether this is ironic, or critical or simply good old fashioned fun, whether the sexual connotations are sublimated or unconscious, the display of very worn children’s toys, having been dismembered, sometimes sewn together with the next one is, for me, incorporating a violation of all that is meaningful in childhood. Similarly, there are gestures towards corruption, pain and a lot of misunderstanding.
Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, The Poetics Project, 1977-1997
One of the most striking and brilliant of the series in this retrospective is that of The Poetics Project which Kelley did together with Tony Oursler, exhibited at Kassel in 1997 for the Documenta X. Oursler’s contributes his familiar video projections in shocking colours over talking heads, and other footage on screens, objects, mirrors, paper cut outs. Together, the artists have designed musical soundtracks that overlay the images. The music is apparently the creation of Kelley and Oursler’s rock band from the late 1970s and 1980s, “The Poetics.” Once again, the experience is one of bombardment with music and image, the perspective and effect changing as the visitor walks around the series.
Mike Kelley, Kandors
I think my favorite pieces were the Kandors series; oversized belljar chambers on LED screens, sculptures, videos that are apparently inspired by Superman’s home kryptonite city. The city itself is miniatiarized, just as Superman believed it to be, and placed inside the bottles, like a precious, carefully crafted object. However, it is not Superman’s lost city that is the delicately crafted art work here, but the huge bell jars that are surely extraordinary glass objects that were so difficult to fabricate because of their scale. The installation is colourful and tongue in cheek, moving from the deeply moving to the light hearted LED screens on which the jars breathe as if the otherworldly realm of Kandor is still alive, laying low as it waits for the future to arrive and set it free.

Mike Kelley, Memory Ware Flat
Kelley’s work is rarely aesthetic, and often I found myself looking dazed at the collages, assemblages, sculptures, videos and so on, trying to work out what was happening in each piece. This said, the two pieces that faced the glass façade that overlooks the fountain were extremely beautiful. Memory Ware Flat, # 18 in which beads, jewellery, watches, buttons are immersed in resin, reuse treasures filled with meaning and memories are framed to create what Kelley called “paintings.” Of course, because it is Kelley, there is also a strong derision of practices of collecting, keeping, and the accompanying nostalgia. In an otherwise very cerebral exhibition, the two Memory Ware Flat pieces were anomalies.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

London: A City Behind Closed Doors

A Typical View from an English Window - cold, rainy and glum outside
Time spent in London is always eye-opening, never the same as the last time, and usually mixed in with some frustration. It’s a city I have lived in at various times over the past 26 years. Despite my familiarity with its streets, its history, its “corners,” as the Germans would say, London is a city from which I have always felt estranged, a city that has always held secrets it would never disclose to me. And I have always maintained that I don’t ever fully understand London because I am not English. Even though its history is supposedly my history, I have no history here. As an Australian, I grew up playing monopoly, competing to buy houses in Mayfair, on Park Lane, hotels on Leicester Square, and a stake in King’s Cross Station. As children we sang English nursery rhymes, we dreamed of riding in double decker London buses and at school, when we learnt history, we learnt of beheadings in the Tower of London, the lives of King’s and Queens, and dead bodies found in the Thames following the plague. In literature classes we learnt Chaucer and Shakespeare, Johnson and Eliot, both George and T.S. were assumed central to a respectable education. As a result when I first stepped foot on British soil, I knew it better than many who might have lived there all their lives. Still, I had no access to the people, their secrets, what makes them who they are.  I could ride my bike through Lincoln’s Inn Fields and imagine Martin Chuzzlewit striding down the street, or even see Little Dorrit on a boat headed down the Thames, but I had nothing to say to the real Londoners who haunted these streets. We may have all spoken English, but I did not know their language.
English Roses
It was when I lived in London in the early 2000s, immediately following September 11, when the world was filled with suspicion and prejudice, that I was most struck by the need to be an insider. London is a club, and to get in anywhere after 11pm, you had to be a member. I was Australian, I was never a member. I enjoy London most when I am not living there, when I am not commuting there and when someone else is paying for me. The cost of living, particularly housing in London, is, as the French would say “hors de prix” I don’t know how I thought I would ever have a house on Mayfair when the reality could not be more different: a shoebox in Shoreditch would be out of my price range today. The cost of living is only the beginning of what makes London in accessible. It’s a city for members only.
St Pancras Train Station
In my recent trip to London, I saw the blanket of secrecy that is permanently thrown over London from a very different perspective. London today is so much more open than it ever was when I lived there, most recently, ten years ago. Restaurants now have glass facades, the plethora of cultures and races that make up the fabric of the city appear to live together with a healthy degree of integration. And staying in Dalston, London was surprisingly experimental and creative. Coming from conservative Paris, I was heartened to see that pink hair, tattoos, platforms and piercings were not merely acceptable, but de rigueur. And yet, the secrecy, the hidden world of authentic London is frustratingly inaccessible to the casual tourist that I was in May.
Lost in London
I was shocked to see that Time Out no longer exists in any recognizeable form. While once it was expensive and filled with information on every cultural event, shopping secret and off-piste titbit, now it is free. This must not be mistaken as making the weekly what’s accessible to all. Now that it is free, Time Out is best used as scrap paper for scribbling reminders, doodling while on the telephone, a wrapper for used chewing gum. Not only is there nothing of interest to make it worth the effort to bend down and pick it up from the tray, but the lack of listings makes it mere clutter on the kitchen table. I asked various friends and strangers how they know what’s going on in London now that Time Out might as well not exist, and the answer was always the same “oh, you hear about things”. No one was ever able to explain how a visitor like myself would ever “hear about things.”

Taxidermist on Essex Road, Islington
London has changed so much since I left seven years ago, and it’s now a cool and happening place. I asked the woman in the neighborhood coffee joint why they closed at 6pm. Her response was so typically English: “I know, we are like that” When they don’t know they answer, because they have never been taught to admit as much — a habit that makes asking directions of anyone other than a black cab driver, a nightmare — they either make it up, or with a smile, announce “it’s always been like that”. I asked if people in London drank coffee after 6pm – “oh yes,” she brightened up “we just do it in secret.”
Topiary creatures at the Hayward Gallery
Another big secret that I found extremely frustrating: as a biker who didn’t know my way so well around north east London, too often the street name was posted 20 metres in from the corner, if at all, meaning that by the time I found it, I was already on the wrong (usually one way) street.  What for me was the obscure logic of this placement of street signs prompted a conversation with an American friend. I bemoaned that street names were posted too late, and oddly amused at my naieveté, my friend said, “I think that’s the point; they don’t want anyone to know.” Feeling too much the foreigner by this point in the conversation, I nodded and agreed, but really, I had no idea why the British would want to keep the names of their streets a clandestine affair. Unless of course, it is just another ploy to keep us foreigners out of their club.

With all the secrecy and hidden world of London, I chuckled to see some of their attempts at openness. On the Thames, just behind the Tate Modern, sits what has been called “Neo Bankside: An innovative, award winning and iconic new residential development" with apartments starting at £1.2m. If you are looking for a view of the river, you will be spending closer to £4m. Historically, the Thames is not a river that has been known for its picturesque qualities, its romantic overtones or seductive draw. Neither is the idea of a river view in keeping with the spirit of the "real" London. This is a city that has built a reputation, an appeal and a steady stream of tourists and immigrants on the promise of revealing its secrets, but ultimately ever does. But, as my American friend would say, “perhaps that’s the point”. Perhaps London’s pretense at, and our belief in openness is a convincing distraction from the reality, and thus, a convenient camouflage for a secret door to which I will never have the code.