Friday, March 28, 2014

Bill Viola @ Grand Palais

Bill Viola at the Grand Palais. A New York video artist with no connection to France given the first video art retrospective at a French national museum. Who would have thought?  And this is the perfect exhibition space for Bill Viola’s enormous and enduring works. The extremely high ceilings, spacious rooms, and the general sense of scale that anything at the Grand Palais assumes. All of it is the is put in the service of Viola’s art. Twenty video works, the majority of which were exhibited like paintings, on plasma displays mounted on walls,  with no revelation of technical devices, no glitches, this exhibition is both technically and visually perfect. It is an exhibition to go back to again and again.

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Bill Viola, Passage Into Night, 2005
Those who read my blog regularly will know I am a fan of single artist retrospectives, usually because seeing all the work in one place creates resonances and rhymes, revelations and surprises that are otherwise hidden when seeing a single work, whether alone or in a group show. And Viola at the Grand Palais is no exception. In fact, even though I had seen all but the most recent works before, they took on deeper and more complicated meanings when experienced together at the Grand Palais. There is so much to learn about video art and about Viola’s art in particular from visiting this exhibition.
Bill Viola, Four Hands, 2001

Video for Bill Viola is always a journey, an enactment of a process of discovery, which can be physical in its movement across time and space, or more usually, a discovery at the level of consciousness, as the soul moves somewhere it has not yet been before. Viola is an imagemaker who understands, or is in the process of understanding, human being. Viola is interested in transposing the processes and cylces of life to the video medium. And so we see, for example, a man and a woman walk through the desert, in concert, but not together, walking closer together, but never meeting in Walking on the Edge and The Encounter, (2012). Landscape, heat, dust, and the sounds in their midst are the only link between them. And in the masterpieces, for example, Tristan's Ascension (2005), birth, death and the passing from one to the next are revealed across the video loop.

Bill Viola, Tristan's Ascension, 2005
There is a quote at the beginning of the exhibition claiming that Viola is interested in three questions: “who am I, where am I, where am I going?” And in the introduction to his exhibition at the Grand Palais, he begins by announcing that there are three things that are important:  the unborn, the people who come after us, the dead. We see these questions asked and their solutions sought, palpably, in the videos in the exhibition. We see people being formed out of water and disintegrate into fire, we see appearances and disappearances, and we see human figures moving through every nuance of intense human emotion. Often these same emotions are so extreme that the actors and characters in Viola’s art are, or become, visually unappealing because of their inhabitation of their own private self.
Bill Viola, Catherine's Room, 2001
Alternatively, if Viola’s work is not about consciousness, it is about the passing of time: what happens between here and there? How does change, through motion, through transformation, through consciousness, affect us? What will it reveal? This is why Viola’s medium can only ever be video. The video image, like the spaces and processes of nature, and equally, the rituals and rhythms of life, is transient as well as ephemeral. Viola’s image creates the spectre that becomes a searchlight in the journey of discovery in which we are all involved. The Veiling, 1995, comprised of nine scrims, two video laser disc projectors and players, one at either end of a large room, literally brings the search of video, nature, and humans together. Contrary to the questions Viola is quoted as asking, the endpoint is not important. It’s the “how will I get there?,” “what will my journey reveal?” are the questions in the fore of this exhibition.
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Bill Viola, The Veiling, 1995
Something always happens across the length of each video, transformation occurs.  People move, things happen, in slow motion across the course of a day and a night, as water turns to fire before our eyes, without us even knowing how it happened, just as it does in life. And yet, circularity and repetition are everywhere here, beginning with the video loop. In Catherine’s Room, 2001, for example, across the video monitors, day breaks, darkness (night) falls, and the woman in the monk-like cell performs her rituals according to the transformations of and in light. Perhaps it is the other way round? Perhaps life directs the video, the form and the medium that, as early as the 1990s, it was said, mimicked consciousness. Whichever comes first, Viola finds in video those behaviors, beliefs and rhythms that define who we are.
Bill Viola, Going Forth By Day, "The Voyage," 2002
Like any good artist, Viola uses video to discover something that has not yet been thought before. Again, to quote him: “The most important things human beings must do in their lives is to leave something behind … something special, it doesn’t have to be intellectual, it doesn’t have to be spiritual, just something” This experience of a world in which images disintegrate, narratives end in a whimper and people are real, is Viola’s “something” that he gives to us. 

Copyright of images, Bill Viola and Blain Southern Gallery London

Friday, March 21, 2014

Guido Guidi, Veramente, Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson

Guido Guidi, Veramente, Pesaro, Baia, Flaminia, 2005 

When I read a review of this exhibition, I heard of Guido Guidi for the first time. The little known Italian artist is fascinated with spaces on the periphery, walls that we would normally pass by, spaces with no apparent identity. In one of the series on exhibition at the Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson, Guidi travels from Poland to Spain, through Belgium and France, recording what he calls “peri-urban spaces,” making visible spaces that are undefined, apparent non-spaces. We are struck by the similarity of these spaces: what we see in Calais could easily be seen in a small town deep in Poland which could, in turn, be found in Venice or Trieste. There is no resemblance to the cities that tourists flock to, the places which we would usually associate with the names of the places photographed by Guidi. Guidi has consciously chosen trans-geographic, non-locatable spaces, and emphasized their barrenness with his camera. 

Guido Guidi, Polonia, Eblag, 1984
The subject of Guidi’s photographs can be said to be the texture of surfaces. In them we see perfect compositions, structurally very precise, and because of the sparsity of their subject matter, these are images that leave very little possibility for chance appearances and disappearances. The world photographed by Guidi appears static. The lighting is often very high key, adding to the silence and emptiness of the spaces and places. To some extent the lighting enhances the flatness, particularly when there are people in the image. However, where there are only walls, paths, surfaces, the surface is rich with texture and vibrant with a multiplicity of shades and coloured hues. This intensity is what, I think, makes them romantic visions of otherwise empty walls.

Guido Guidi
Apparently Guidi claims the influence of the Italian neo-Realists, of Pasolini, Antonioni as well as Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander. It’s true that Guidi’s work is in that vein of the world that is otherwise left invisible. However, I couldn’t help seeing Guidi’s work as romantic where his filmic and photographic predecessors do nothing of the sort. As I say, I attribute the romanticism to the richness and clarity of the colour film strip used by Guido. Not that the surfaces and empty spaces are warm, but the colours are nuanced, foregrounded and given personalities. Neo-realism was interested to put people in an environment, in long shot, leaving them to narrate a story that is more important than their individual struggle. However, when Guidi places people in these abandoned, or uninhabited spaces, they are given aesthetic qualities, not particularly identifiable as having a greater political significance beyond their individuality. Similarly, in the few portraits included in the exhibition, I thought I might find an August Sander typing, but the photographs tell us little about the people, their professions, their histories.

Guido Guidi, Silvia, Italy, 28.10.2002

As a body of work, I didn’t see much development across the course of Guidi’s career, and neither did I see a major statement inside the photographs, one that might ask me to mourn the loss or abandonment of these empty spaces. Some of the photographs create sumptuous spaces and places, it is true, but at the end of the exhibition, I was left wondering what the larger, more urgent intention of these images was.

All Images Copyright Guido Guidi

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Robert Adams, "L'Endroit où nous vivons" @ Jeu de Paume

Robert Adams, Longmont Colorado, 1979
Robert Adams’ photographs are about the American West, they are about space, about nothing, about silence and emptiness, the hot dry expanse of the American desert, a world where people are solitary shadows, standing like a stain on the vast open landscape. When people are in the frame, they are always alone in Adams’ phtoographs, quietly silhouetted, as if to give the merest hint at the presence of human life and activity. Even when people are full bodied, their function in the perfect composition is to emphasize the world that surrounds them, the intense heat that defines them, the space that owns them, a space opened up by a landscape that lasts forever.
Robert Adams, Pikes Peak,Colorado Springs 1969
Perhaps the most exquisite element of these photographs is the light. The silver gelatin prints capture every gradation of light, even when night has fallen. The light of the desert is then emphasized by Adams’ careful manipulation of the medium. The light is varied: it can be clear, the middle of the day, high-key, or late afternoon with long shadows cast, still cutting through the clarity of bright sunlight. At night, the pods of a circus ride light up, and the entertainment becomes an oasis in the middle of nowhere, in Longmont, Colorado, 1979. Adams also takes images in which artificial and natural light work together. In Colorado Springs neon signs, 100 watt globes and what must be the beauty of moonlight fill the night. Light in these images becomes a struggle between human and nature,, the light of a lonely, empty interior perfectly frames the space within the space of the translucent, if black, night sky. Light in all its possible variations and gradations is the subject of many of Adams’ photographs.

Robert Adams, New Development on a Former Citrus-
growing estate, Highland, California,
 Adams also manipulates light and his medium to capture the intensity of the destruction to the perfection of “the spaces where we live” when he gives them full exposure in a midday sun. In Highland California where development has begun, the landscape becomes flattened through light, a harshness that tells of what has been humanly destroyed. The devastation of the landscape is more pronounced when it sits next to the empty spaces with the shadows of low lying clouds dappling the world below, or the dignity of dirt, trees, and an untouched landscape, a landscape that is divine, proportioned, nuanced, made tactile in light. This contrast between landscapes made emotional and almost human with those that have been violated, robbed of all integrity, a contrast emphasized by Adams’ use of light is the strength of the exhibition.

There is a simplicity to this world, “the place where we live”. It is a world in which four walls = a home, a church, a movie theatre. Again, we immediately think of the same spaces in the city. The quiet, I want to say, gracious four walls in the desert represent everything they are not in the city: how complicated we make the definition of space and location when we live in the city. Here, in the desert, there is isolation everywhere and yet there is no loneliness, company is always kept by the heat, the vast open spaces, and of course, the light.
Robert Adams, Colorado Springs, Colorado, 1969
It is Adams’ ability to have each space reflected and bathed in a different kind of light, his capturing by implication, of what is not in the frame, his characterization of the desert and all of its mystery in contrast to the uncessary complications and destructions of the human world, that Adams’ works are landscape photography at its most exciting. 

Images copyright Robert Adams. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francsco and Matthew Marks Gallery, New York

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive, dr. Jim Jarmusch, 2013

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) Poster

Last night I saw the new Jim Jarmusch film, Only Lovers Left Alive. It is beautiful. 

Only Lovers Left Alive filled me with nostalgia and lament for a world that has now been lost. Even though Jarmusch shot his vampire film on HD, the images bear witness to the fact that this is a man who understands the cinema. Jarmusch understands how to use a camera, how to create meaning through engaging in the medium’s history, in its substance, aesthetic, in all of the things that the cinema can do that no other medium even begins to approach. Among the most gorgeous of images are those of a ghost town so perfect for a vampire movie that it must have been used many times before, but it has not: Detroit.Through Jarmusch’s camera, Detroit resembles a vision that it might be more likely to find in a Werner Herzog film, such as Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979), a world so empty but so beautiful to look at that we want to dive into it. However, unlike Herzog’s Wismar, no one brings the plague to Detroit, the plague has already passed through by the time we meet Adam and Eve. I know: vampires called Adam and Eve doesn’t really make sense. Until we go inside the logic of Only Lovers Left Alive.

Another of the most mesmerizing aspects of Jarmusch’s film, besides its Romantic painting of Detroit, is that this city is the backdrop for a whole other world, a world in which lovers stay together for centuries — Adam and Eve are vampires who had their third marriage in 1848 and, we rightly imagine, their first took place on expulsion from the garden of Eden. Not only are they still together, but they cannot get enough of each other. How unusual. This is also a world in which words, and literature, history and thinking, science and nature, the hand made and the touch of fabrics are sensuous, meaningful, delightful. It’s a world in which obsolete musical instruments, wooden bullets and a nineteenth century dressing gown are given beauty. Jarmusch underlines the esotericism of this world for a young generation who only knows history as far back as John Coltrane, and then, only through Youtube.

I went with a young American friend who just didn’t get it. He thought the film was boring because “nothing happened.” This is precisely what makes Jarmusch’s film brilliant: he is one of those filmmakers who knew a time when cinema didn’t depend on action packed cause and effect narratives, a time when just being was enough for a character to pique an audience’s interest. In revolt of the demands of Hollywood and its audiences in search of utopian entertainment, Jarmusch chose independence. He made films deeply rooted in the generic codes and structures of Hollywood that also embraced the freedom and existential being of European art cinema. The result is the creation of worlds that Jarmusch is in love with. And they are worlds I want to exist.

True to Jarmusch’s habit, Only Lovers Left Alive adheres to the codes and values of the vampire film. The sucking of blood as a sexualized hunger, the choice to turn, rather than consume the blood of the human to whom they have an emotional attachment. And the constant threat faced by vampires, the threat of extinction at sunrise, is almost comic in Only Lovers Left Alive. After a narrative of drinking blood of the highest quality, procured from hospitals and pharmacies, from the most elegant of glasses, the lovers in the title rapaciously feast the old fashioned way on unsuspecting prey. Though we are left to wonder about their fate, we assume, like Herzog’s Jonathan Harker, they will find their way to life in the light, a life stolen from others, driven by the vampire’s instinctual tenacity to survive.  But what gives this film its beauty are all of the ways that it departs from the expectations and demands of a conventional narrative: its gorgeous images, meandering narrative, characters so carefully drawn that their appeal is in their creation, and the infinitude of references to a learned, esoteric world of books and culture that are unknown to today’s generation. Most of all, what makes Only Lovers Left Alive so compelling, is Jarmusch’s love of the cinema: the angles, the camera movements, even as it watches from a car window as the lovers drive through the ghost town of Detroit, the movement of creatures of the night across impossible times and spaces. This is a film to comfort all those of use who feel alone in a world of blockbusters, special effects and empty, if linear, narratives.