Garden of Memory

This Critics’ Pick of a show at the Musee Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakesh appeared on artforum.com:

View of “Garden of Memory,” 2018.

Weaving together poetry, sound, and sculpture, “Garden of Memory” styles itself as a conversation à trois between artists who are bound by friendship and love. Poet and painter Etel Adnan serves as the link among her longtime collaborators Robert Wilson and Simone Fattal, both of whom she met for the first time in the summer of 1972 in Beirut. Her poem Conversations with my soul (III), 2018—here read aloud by Wilson over speakers and heard by Fattal’s sculpted angels—folds into another dialogue, this time between the poet’s different selves.

Fitted with a gray carpet that dulls the sound of footsteps and, from the outset, solicits the sense of touch, the gallery feels like an anechoic chamber, one that invites visitors to turn inward. Wilson’s looped, nearly ten-minute reading is set to Michael Galasso’s string music and punctuated by silences that contribute to an overall mood of contemplation. Galasso’s wistful composition, written for Wilson’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1888 play The Lady from the Sea—which resonates with the marine imagery of Adnan’s verse—adds yet another layer to the polyphonic whole.

Visually, the show is dominated by Fattal’s sculptures. Inspired by the encyclopedic writings of the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi and, in particular, by his discussion of angels in The Meccan Revelations, these works take many forms: hollow terra-cotta stelae inscribed with Arabi’s texts, displayed on plinths in sets of two and five; small and large humanoid figures resting on pillar-like legs; and a row of five glazed angels mounted on the circular wall diagonally, as if to convey their flight. Fattal considers the stuff of her sculptures—clay and mud—as living material, and thus a conversation partner in its own right.

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Franz Erhard Walther

This review of Franz Erhard Walther’s shows at Museo Jumex and Casa Luis Barragan in Mexico City appeared online in Mousse magazine:

Franz Erhard Walther “Objects, to use / Instruments for processes” at Museo Jumex, Mexico City, 2018 (Photo: Abigail Enzaldo and Emilio García)

Conceived and curated independently, these two parallel exhibitions—Franz Erhard Walther’s first in the Mexican and Latin American context—beautifully complement each other. One takes over the top floor of the David Chipperfield–designed Museo Jumex in the industrial district of Nuevo Polanco; the other is staged amid the clutter of Casa Luis Barragán, the final residence and studio of the revered Mexican architect, situated in the working-class Tacubaya neighborhood of Mexico City. Their respective settings result in two contrasting shows, despite the occasional overlaps, which, if anything, throw into relief what makes the shows different.

With its skylights, the lofty third-floor gallery of Museo Jumex is hardly a white cube: the museum’s distinctive sawtooth roof translates inside the building into a series of trapezoidal nooks that call for inventive display strategies. But in Objects, to use / Instruments for processes, these potentially dead spaces are animated by Walther’s Trial Sewn Pieces (since 1969) of disparate shapes and sizes, carefully arranged to form constellations of colorful fabric objects. Likewise, the height of the ceiling lends itself superbly to showcasing the more compact Wall configurations serieswhose rectangular component parts recall the layout of newspaper columns, mounted high on one side of a wall that carves up the gallery space into two communicating areas. Whereas the more confined of the two spaces, and the first that visitors access, contains series of mostly framed delicate works on paper in a range of media, the main space is dedicated to starker fabric sculptures, presented as floor and wall pieces.

The Museo Jumex survey exhibition, spanning six decades of Walther’s career, explores his abiding interest in language as an artistic material in its own right, from the Wortbilder series of the late 1950s featuring lone English and German words against monochrome backgrounds to the bulky, more or less easily identifiable letters of The New Alphabet (1990–96) or the more recent A Drawn Novel (2007–9), a retrospective autobiographical account, handwritten and illustrated in pencil by the artist. The fifty-eight elements that make up the First Work Set (1963–69) at the heart of the exhibition come with their own vocabulary of “contrasting sets of conditions”—“freedom-control,” “action-reaction,” and the like—suggesting divergent uses to which the elements can be put. For artistic director Julieta González, these binary sets, which she likens to digits (0:1) in a computer program, are “a sort of code for the communication between the bodies activating the pieces.”

Indeed, the cloth pieces neatly folded and laid out on the gallery floor in their dormant state (“storage form”) only assume their three-dimensional sculptural guise once they are unfolded and brought to life by pairs and small groups of visitors (“action form”), who are instructed by dedicated staff how to don them and tease them out. The stylized black-and-white landscape photographs documenting early outings of these works—actions performed for camera alone—do not begin to convey their tactile and physical quality, the feel and pull of the taut fabric, the playful yet strenuous nature of the exercise, the intimacy of what is more often than not a shared experience, binding one body to another or others.

The two shows have in common iconic pieces from the First Work Set, such as Channel of SightBody Weights, and Positions; invigilators sporting the hot pink-orange Halved Vests (2016), whose vivid hue and daring asymmetrical design are a comment on the drab uniforms typically worn by museum staff; the looped black-and-white video Determinations of Proportion I and II (1962/1972), which gives the exhibition at Casa Barragán its title; and the steel sculptures that double as platforms for visitors to walk sideways on, thus becoming part of the piece. Whereas Walking Path (1973) is installed on its own in the walled garden of Barragán, its twin counterparts at Museo Jumex are facing each other (and potentially other living sculptures) in the middle of the third-floor gallery.

Displayed around the house and in the architect’s studio—a exhibition within an exhibition showcasing the artist’s drawings of plans for past shows—Walther’s works are, by and large, a discreet presence at Casa Luis Barragán. They blend in with the decor to the point of being at times hard to spot. Rather than serial works, which dominate the Museo Jumex exhibition, they tend to be singular small-scale sculptural objects, responding to the idiosyncratic features and the baroque sensibility of the place. Take the coiled rope of Space (1963), which, placed atop the breakfast table, strikes an ominous note, or the reddish-brown Forehead Piece (1963), consisting of five small, velvety squares sewn together and mounted on the wall in Barragán’s bedroom beside an Annunciation painting, whose dark tones it speaks to. Designed to be held in one’s hands, worn on one’s head like a cap, or staked out with one’s feet, the pieces brought together at Casa Barragán call for a more sensual engagement in keeping with their domestic surroundings.

Casa Wabi

This feature appeared in Dutch translation in the summer issue of Metropolis M magazine:

Image result for casa wabi images

Set up in 2014 by the Mexican, Brooklyn-based artist Bosco Sodi, Casa Wabi Foundation has since outgrown the original Tadao Ando-designed exhibition and residency complex on the Pacific Ocean coast in Oaxaca, Mexico. Directed by the artist’s sister Carla Sodi, the foundation’s offices are located in Santa María la Ribera, Mexico City, in a beautifully refurbished town house, which is also used to showcase furniture designed by Lucia Corredor, his wife. An adjoining exhibition space is aimed specifically at emerging local artists who are not represented by a commercial gallery and as a result have fewer opportunities to show their work.

Fellow Mexican artists now also have the possibility to stay at Casa NaNo, Sodi’s foothold in the Sendagi area of Tokyo, not far from his gallery Scai the Bathhouse. Three years ago, following a successful show with the gallery, Sodi seized the chance to buy a small house in one of the city’s more traditional neighbourhoods. What became Casa Wabi’s sister residency space is intended to give Mexican mid-career artists exposure to the Japanese aesthetics and artisanal know-how, in the hopes that they would pass this knowledge on upon their return to Mexico. Sodi’s own love affair with Japan began with a three-month residency at Tokyo Wonder Site, after a gallery in Kobe that showed his work recommended him for it. ‘There’s an interesting connection between Mexico and Japan,’ he says. ‘Every Mexican that goes there falls in love with the place.’

Long before he ever went to Japan, Sodi had been an admirer of Tadao Ando. In Sodi’s eyes, the architect’s practice in general and Casa Wabi in particular embody the Japanese wabi-sabi spirit reflected in the foundation’s name. Rooted in Zen Buddhism, the dual aesthetic concept allies rustic simplicity and understated elegance (wabi) with impermanence and the patina gained with age (sabi). Sodi’s choice of architect for the main complex out in Oaxaca was dictated by strategic as much as aesthetic considerations; he reckoned Tadao Ando’s name and reputation would lure people over to this part of Mexico. It took some perseverance to get the sought-after, Pritzker Prize-winning starchitect on board. ‘I asked him five times and five times he said no,’ Sodi recalls. But as the Mexican artist himself became better known, not least in Japan, one day Ando turned up in his studio and liked his work and the sound of the project enough to take it on.

Growing recognition brought with it financial rewards that enabled Sodi to realize his ambitions. Following a critically-acclaimed first solo show at the Bronx Museum in 2010, the artist signed with the Pace Gallery (which no longer represents him) and started making what he regards as indecent amounts of money. ‘I thought it was not moral to keep all that money for myself,’ says Sodi, explaining what motivated him to set up an art foundation. According to the artist, who has clearly assimilated the values of his adopted country, ‘for people who have done well, it should be an obligation to give back’.

Mexico has its own tradition of philanthropy and artist-endowed charitable initiatives, nowhere more so perhaps than in the state of Oaxaca. Following in the footsteps of painter Rufino Tamayo (1899-1991), who hailed from Oaxaca de Juárez, artist Francisco Toledo (b. 1940) has financed a spate of cultural and educational institutions – ranging from specialized libraries and ethnobotanical gardens to a photography centre, graphic art museum and handmade paper factory – located mostly in and around Oaxaca City, where he is based. Toledo’s generosity has in turn inspired a younger generation of artists, Sodi chief amongst them, who either reside or have family ties in the region. As it happens, Casa Wabi and its extensive gardens are built on land that once belonged to Sodi’s grandfather and the artist often stayed there when he was growing up.

The artist’s personal contribution amounts to about half of its annual budget, a relatively modest 300,000 dollars. The government of Oaxaca foots 20 per cent of the bill. The rest comes from donations. When the artist and his spouse were considering what form the foundation could take, they knew they did not want it to be dedicated to Sodi’s art, as is the case with a lot of artist-endowed foundations. That said, aside from the Sodi family living quarters, Casa Wabi proper houses Bosco Sodi’s open-air studio where sundry clay pieces, awaiting to be fired in a nearby wood oven, were on view when I visited.

At the other end of the high 312-metres long polished concrete wall, which spans the entire property and divides the mountains and the gardens from the seaside and the dwelling places, lie the six self-contained cottages designed to accommodate as many resident artists. Two closed and several semi-open studios located on the mountain side can be accessed directly through one of the rare openings in the wall Ando conceived for Casa Wabi. In practice, few artists avail themselves of the dedicated work spaces. Former residents and the artists I spoke to during my stay at Casa Wabi complained of not being able to splatter paint on the floor or nail anything to the walls in what are, after all, artist studios. The main wall is untouchable, in line with strict directives emanating from Ando’s studio. In this tug of war between the architectural practice, intent on preserving the purity of the original design, and the resident artists for whom the place was intended, the latter are losing the battle for now. And yet – for all its unfortunate associations, especially in the Mexican context – the wall does have its virtues; for one thing, walking alongside it from one part of this multi-functional building to another effectively slows one down and fosters a meditative state of mind.

A residency at Casa Wabi typically lasts between one and three months. For Salvatore Arancio, an Italian London-based sculptor and video artist, his prolonged stay there meant ‘time to switch off, concentrate and work on things’. Making work is by no means expected of those who are invited to do a residency at Casa Wabi, whether they be artists, writers, curators, chefs, filmmakers, dancers. At most they are encouraged to contribute something, not necessarily an artwork, to the collective

bitácora, a cabin log or diary of sorts, acting as a memento of their stay. Historian Gustavo Parra, who unravelled for me some of the log pieces displayed in different areas of the house, insisted that this is ‘not a production residency but rather a community project residency’. His role, in fact, is to facilitate exchanges between residents, who often come from outside of Mexico, have little or no Spanish and even less of an understanding of the local customs, and the 12 or so neighbouring communities that Casa Wabi works with.

A visit to some of these communities – in what is one of the most deprived states of Mexico – feels like a step back in time. El Venado, where horses can be seen going round and round a pole stuck in a vat filled with clay used to make bricks with. With no electricity, never mind Internet access, the village seems lightyears away from the stylish design and modern amenities of Casa Wabi. Arancio, who often works with clay, engaged two local communities in an activity of totem building that drew on their respective skills and materials each produces – namely bricks in El Venado and coconuts at Agua Zarca. This symbolic act was intended to bring closer together two communities who live next to each other but seldom interact, despite sharing their primary and secondary schools, which is in fact where the results of their joint efforts ended up.

While Casa Wabi’s various cultural and educational programs are not aimed at children and teenagers alone (the American artist Jens Siena, for instance, had designed labels for a women’s cooperative to help them sell their produce), school visits certainly keep them busy. That’s where Álvaro Siza’s clay pavilion comes into its own. Sheltered by another, this time semi-circular brick wall, more in keeping with the local building traditions, the open-air kiln and work area receive up to three school groups each week. ‘It’s a whole cultural day for them,’ says Sodi. When the children arrive they are first show a movie in a purpose-built projection room next to the exhibition space in the main complex; then they head over to the clay pavilion and, as the teacher shows them what to do with it, they listen to classical music often for the first time. ‘A kid has a totally open mind and we’re trying to show them that there’s another way to see, to understand life,’ Sodi explains. The school outing ends with lunch and a visit to the newly opened Guayakan Pavilion, a sort of plant nursery.

The artist sees Casa Wabi as very much a long-term project, one which he hopes will outlast him. The effects of the foundation’s work on the fragmented communities of this wild and remote part of Oaxaca, especially their youngest members, are just starting to be felt. ‘It’s going to take a long time because they’re just kids for now,’ says Sodi. ‘The beautiful thing will be in 30 to 40 years’ time – to see it’s a better community.’

Sounding out Idols

This essay was commissioned for Florian Roithmayr’s Aftercast, a Tender Books publication:

Image result for peplos kore cambridge museum of classical anthropologyPeplos Kore at the Museum of Classical Anthropology in Cambridge

In his essay Éloge du maquillage (‘In Praise of Cosmetics’), Charles Baudelaire advocates among other the use of rice-powder designed ‘to rid the complexion of all the blemishes that nature has outrageously strewn there, and to create an abstract unity in the texture and colour of the skin; a unity which, much like that produced by the leotard, instantly assimilates the human being to the statue, that is to say a divine and superior being. For Baudelaire, not only are women justified in their attempts at reforming nature, they are performing a kind of duty by attempting to make their beauty appear supernatural, even divine. Make-up, not unlike fashion, expresses a hankering after an ideal, one which is at odds with nature. On more than one occasion in The Painter of Modern Life (1963), the collection of essays to which his whimsical eulogy of cosmetics belongs, the poet likens women to (empty) idols who, as he puts it, must be adorned in order to be adored.1

The female idol should not hesitate to borrow from art the means to artificially enhance her appearance. Powdering the skin creates a blank canvas of sorts – albeit a three-dimensional one – in preparation for the face-painting proper, using eye-liner and blush. Just as with powder, their effect is calculated to improve upon nature, but they go about it differently. Where the one results in the uniformity and pallor of a death mask, the others bring out and animate the features by means of colour. ‘Red and black represent life, a supernatural and excessive life; this black frame makes the gaze more penetrating and individual, gives the eye a more decisive appearance of a window onto the infinite; the rouge which sets the cheek-bone on fire only increases the brightness of the pupil and adds to the beautiful face of a woman the mysterious passion of a priestess,’2 writes Baudelaire.

These lines from Baudelaire’s essay Éloge du maquillage could have been written about the painted, reconstructed version of the Peplos Kore, one of the standout pieces in the cast collection housed at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge. What makes it stand out among the more or less white plaster casts displayed all around the purpose-built cast gallery are its brilliant colours: blue, green, burnished gold and, above all, a crimson red applied not only to the eponymous outer garment but also to the tresses, the lips, even the irises of the black-rimmed eyes. The fact that the female figure holds out in her outstretched left hand a fruit resembling a pomegranate, painted that same shade of red veering towards purple, made me leap to the conclusion this must be Persephone, the goddess of the underworld whose symbol it is, when I first saw the polychrome cast.

It turned out not to be the case. Kore may well be Persephone’s maiden name (in ancient Greek kore simply means ‘girl’), it is also the generic term for a type of Archaic Greek sculpture depicting clothed young women – the female counterpart of the widespread kouroi, except that these were naked – and thought to have served as gravestones or votive offerings. The original Peplos Kore, sculpted from fine Parian marble and dating to ca. 530 BC, was excavated near the Erechtheion temple on the Acropolis in 1884 – incidentally the year when the Museum of Classical Archaeology was founded. When a second cast of the Peplos Kore joined the collection in 1975, the museum staff supplied the missing bits – adding a headdress here, a fruit there – and painted it to give an impression of what the original marble statue might have looked like, based on traces of pigment found on its surface and sheer speculation. Thus decked out, the new cast took its place beside the old ‘white’ plaster cast – to startling effect.

The ghostly twin of the painted cast, it must be said, completely escaped my notice when I visited the cast collection. The coloured effigy steals the show in a room full of nearly white statues, making its neighbour somehow fade into the background, like a shadow. Besides, the stark contrast between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of the colour treatment makes it hard to conceive that the two figures originate from the same source.

Putting the two Kores next to each other turned out to be an inspired decision. Back in 1975, the then museum curator Professor Robin Cook was well ahead of the game. In terms of display, it anticipated the dual presentation adopted for the groundbreaking Gods in Color exhibition, which started life as Bunte Götter – Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur (‘Painted Gods – The Polychromy of Ancient Sculpture’) at the Glyptothek in Munich in 2003, and has toured around Europe and North America ever since. The brainchild of classical archaeologist Vinzenz Brinkmann, an exponent of ancient polychromy which has been the focus of his research since the 1980s, Gods in Color boldly confronts the bright-coloured reconstructions with the faded originals to impress on the visitors how different the reality of ancient sculpture and architecture would have been from what the bare white marble or bronze statues that people museum galleries lead us to believe.

The Peplos Kore, to whom Brinkmann dedicates an essay in the catalogue accompanying the original show at the Glyptothek,3 comes in alternative colour versions (completely different to the one dreamed up by the staff of the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology), bearing new attributes and ornaments each time, as if to illustrate possible readings of the mystery female figure and her identity. On Brinkmann’s view, rather than a mortal girl making an offering to a deity, the ‘Peplos Kore’ is herself a goddess.

This brings us back to Baudelaire. For the ur-Peplos Kore, now at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, does indeed look kind of homey and youthful, owing perhaps to the warm glow of the Parian marble and the occasional splotch of surviving colour pigment; the spotless plaster cast version, glaringly white, in the Cambridge cast gallery has the ‘abstract unity’ that Baudelaire attributes to a statue; only once the Peplos Kore is made-up and wearing the full regalia of a goddess (Brinkmann argues that the peplos is something of a misnomer, in fact, since the type of dress the figure sports tends to be associated with deities), does her whole mien and expression evince ‘the mysterious passion of a priestess’ the poet speaks of.

White as a swan and with a heart of snow to match, Beauty is likened to a ‘dream carved in stone’ in a sonnet thus entitled of the ‘Spleen and Ideal’ section of Les Fleurs du mal (1857).4 In The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Friedrich Nietzsche speaks of the god Apollo in connection to sculpture and dream, setting apart ‘the Apollonian art of sculpture’ from the ‘non-plastic, Dionysian art of music’.5 Baudelaire’s allegory of Beauty is thus Apollonian through and through. It harks back to the neoclassical idealized vision of white marble statues that has shaped our own understanding of ancient sculpture and architecture, and is proving hard to shake off.

The alternative, polychromatic view of Graeco-Roman statuary championed by the curators of the travelling show Gods in Color is not exactly new. In Das griechische Musikdrama (‘The Greek Music Drama’), the first of two public lectures Nietzsche gave in 1870 – two years before The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (its full title) was published – the then professor of classical philology at the University of Basel mentions in passing a growing recognition of the true nature of ancient sculpture:

until recently it was considered to be an unconditional axiom of art that all idealistic sculpture had to be uncoloured, and that sculpture in antiquity did not permit the use of colour. Quite slowly, and encountering the resistance of these ultra-Hellenists, it has gradually become possible to accept the polychrome view of ancient sculpture, according to which we should no longer imagine that statues were naked, but clothed in a colourful coating.6

A century and a half later, the resistance he speaks of has not entirely been vanquished. While scholars may have come round to ‘the polychrome view of ancient sculpture’, the wider public of museum-goers still balks at it. With talk of ‘ultra-Hellenists’, Nietzsche no doubt targets purists of the Winckelmannian persuasion. The archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) was held responsible for the enduring myth of a white antiquity, until an essay he wrote on the subject of painted Greek sculpture came to light in 2008 and qualified that view.

In the same lecture, arguing that ancient drama was a hybrid artistic form (‘music drama’), Nietzsche goes on to challenge the widely-held ‘aesthetic principle that a union of two or more art forms cannot produce an intensification of aesthetic pleasure, but is rather a barbaric error of taste’. The colourful statues and temples of antiquity represent just such a union of art forms, namely of sculpture and painting. Pliny the Elder reports that Praxiteles, when asked which of his marble statues pleased him most, responded it was those in which the painter Nicias had a hand.7

The Greek sculptor’s oeuvre is represented at the Museum of Classical Archaeology by a fine reproduction of Hermes and the Infant Dionysus, also known as Hermes of Praxiteles, which joined the cast collection (then still housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum) soon after the statue dating to the fourth century BC was discovered amid the ruins of the Temple of Hera at Olympia in 1877. The hair of the original life-sized sculpture made – just as the Peplos Kore – from a block of choice Parian marble displayed faint traces of cinnabar used in preparation for gilding.8

Next to the full cast of the upright Hermes cradling in his left arm the infant Dionysus, stands a truncated version of the statue familiar to me from my childhood. A white plaster bust of the god Hermes graced the top of a tall wooden cabinet in my grandparents living room in Nowa Huta, a district of Kraków. I remember running my fingers along its smooth plaster surface, painted and waxed to match the appearance of weathered marble. Salvaged from the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts, where my grandfather taught, the cast joined the growing number of unwanted ‘antiques’ that filled the crowded flat to my grandmother’s despair. An architect by training, my grandfather was drafted in for the planning of Nowa Huta, a model social realist town that went up in record time in the aftermath of World War II to accommodate the workers of the nearby steel plant. The heroic effort that went into the building of Nowa Huta is the subject of Andrzej Wajda’s 1976 film Man of Marble, whose tragic Stakhanovite hero Mateusz Birkut is celebrated in the propagandist marble statues made in his likeness before the tide turns against him.

The preface to The Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer, written in 1888 and published the following year, is where Nietzsche formulates his method of ‘sounding out idols’, a handy way of putting all values to the test. If you strike an idol with a hammer, it makes a hollow tell-tale sound, such as bloated entrails emit.9 But it is equally the sound of a mould chipped away to reveal the cast or the void inside – quite unlike the noise a block of marble would yield. For her durational work ‘Doing’ (1998/2015), staged at Palazzo delle Papesse – Centro Arte Contemporanea in Siena and more recently at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, sculptor Lara Favaretto originally hired masons to pulverize three blocks of Carrera marble (the kind that Michelangelo’s masterpieces are sculpted from) using hammers and chisels, precisely to extract sound from them. The masons themselves perceived this demolition deed, which necessitated three months of steady work, as a regrettable waste of quality marble. ‘Wasting’ is an integral part of the casting process since, in order to free the cast nested inside, the mould must needs be destroyed. Yet such is the material humility of plaster that no one mourns its sacrifice.

1‘La femme est bien dans son droit, et même elle accomplit une espèce de devoir en s’appliquant à paraître magique et surnaturelle; […] idole elle doit se dorer pour être adorée.’ (Éloge du maquillage)

2The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays by Charles Baudelaire (Phaidon Press), translated by Jonathan Mayne, pp. 31-32.

3Vinzenz Brinkmann, ‘Mädchen oder Göttin? Das Rätsel der “Peploskore” von der Athener Akropolis’, (‘Girl or Goddess? The riddle of the “Peplos Kore” from the Athenian Acropolis’), in Bunte Götter. Die Farbigkeit antiker Skulptur, Staatliche Antikensammlungen and Glyptothek, Munich, 2003, pp. 53-60.

4‘Je suis belle, ô mortels ! comme un rêve de pierre / […] J’unis un cœur de neige à la blancheur des cygnes’ (‘La Beauté‘, in ‘Spleen et Idéal’, Les Fleurs du mal, lines 1 and 6).

5See Babette Babich, ‘Nietzsche and the Sculptural Sublime: On Becoming the One You Are’, www.nietzschecircle.com/AGONIST/Agonist-Spring2012/Sculptural_Sublime.pdf, p.2.

6Friedrich Nietzsche, ‘The Greek Music Drama’, translated by Paul Bishop, http://www.nietzschecircle.com/AGONIST/2011_03/GMD.pdf, p.8.

7Pliny, Natural History, book 35, 133.

8See Mary Beard, ‘Casts and Cast-Offs: The Origins of the Museum of Classical Archaeology’, p.8

9‘Preface’, The Twilight of the Idols, translated by Anthony Ludovici, in The Project Gutenberg eBook, pp. xvii-xviii

In conversation with Katerina Gregos

This interview with Katerina Gregos appeared in Mousse magazine:

Annaïk-Lou Pitteloud, Neo-Logos, 2017-2018, The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia (Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Seiler Gallery, Zürich Photo: Andrejs Strokins)

Agnieszka Gratza: You curated RIBOCA, the inaugural Riga Biennial in Latvia, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, as well as the group exhibition The State Is Not a Work of Art, which opened at the Tallinn Art Hall in Estonia back in February. Where does your interest in the Baltic region come from? Is it a coincidence that you should be curating two shows so close in space and time?

Katerina Gregos: It’s entirely coincidental. I generally work within Europe and at its borders. I’m not one of these globe-trotting curators who’s working all over the place. It’s not that I’m not interested, but I think there’s enough to talk about in Europe—enough history, problems, paradigms, and complex issues that one can dig one’s teeth into here. I’m also tremendously interested in history, and of course Europe has played an important role in world history, very often in a negative way. I’m pleased to work here, particularly at this moment in time, because it’s an interesting geopolitical region of the world, symbolic of different pushes and pulls, conflicts and paradoxes, and fundamental changes. But why I found myself working here? Frankly, it’s a coincidence. I was invited to curate The State Is Not a Work of Art, and then I received an invitation to make a proposal for the Riga Biennial so one event organically followed the other.

AG: Why did the chosen theme for RIBOCA, which is change, strike you as apt?

KG: This is a region that has experienced successive, traumatic, systemic and often violent changes, most recently in 1990, shifting from one political ideology to another, from one economy to another, from one ethnic dominance to another. The Baltic region is a lens for looking at change and how a society reintegrates globally, restructures economically and re-negotiates its identity after having suffered occupation and oppression from a foreign power. I wanted to work with a subject that also has global implications and a more ecumenical significance. I’ve been preoccupied with how our lives have been accelerated through technology, the internet, and social media. All of this has been thrust on us without much thought or room to pause, let alone understand the implications of it for personal and existential issues, practical as well as psychological. It’s not a coincidence that for the first time in human history so many people are getting burnouts. People are overworked, and so overwhelmed by work that they can no longer function, and they have to take six months to a year off because they’re unable to operate.

AG: What about the laboring classes in the nineteenth century, the kind Émile Zola describes in his novels, or else slaves? I’m sure they had burnouts too, and maybe not the luxury to acknowledge it. If you look back on the history of work—

KG: If we’re to make a distinction, that is that this phenomenon is accelerating, and perhaps more widespread – extending beyond the working class – than it would have been at that time. I think we’re really in a moment of monumental shifts. And if you consider human evolution in the last thousands of years, or at least since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet, we’ve always had the chance as human beings to adapt very slowly to new realities, whereas now, things are changing and are becoming normalized so fast that we don’t have time to process them.

AG: I found Katarzyna Przezwańska’s diorama Early Polishness (2017), which is featured in both shows, interesting in this respect because it brings in a very different temporal dimension, as she tries to imagine what Warsaw might have looked like two hundred million years ago, during the Triassic period: a lush landscape complete with palm trees. Is the Anthropocene a frame of reference for RIBOCA in particular?

KG: It’s become a very fashionable word now, the Anthropocene. There’s something very hubristic about it as a term, it’s like: “We have come to the mastery of the planet.” I prefer to speak of ecological change and the huge question of sustainability versus the problem of incessant growth. That said, the biennial is not dealing only with ecological issues. A biennial in my opinion should not be too narrow. It should allow for different narratives and subtexts to be put into play, complementary to one another. So in the case of RIBOCA I’m looking at social, political, historical as well as ecological change.

AG: I was intrigued by the term homo deus that you use in your essay for the biennial. Could you explain what you mean by it, what it’s referencing?

KG: It’s basically a situation where humans feel that they have mastered the planet, to an extent that they seem to be playing ‘God’, and it is an idea discussed by Yuval Noah Harari in his new book of the same name. We’re not only playing with fire—there’s something very Promethean about it—but we have the illusion that we can play God without consequences. And there’s a lot of writing right now about how scientists are looking into prolonging life considerably, even contemplating the prospects of immortality (which to me seems ludicrous), which I don’t really believe in because it’s completely unsustainable. There’s talk of how maybe even in this century people will go live beyond 100 to 120, 130 or 140 years of age. I don’t know if you’ve read the novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013)? It’s quite chilling. It’s like a metaphor of Google and Facebook, and all these tech giants. All they see is a brave new world facilitated by social media and technology, how it’s going to help make democracy paradigmatic and how the planet is just going to strive to this incredible future of progress. I find this is also an example of homo sapienshubristically playing homo deus.

AG: When it comes to the Tallinn show, why do you feel the notions of nation, nation-state, and nationalism need rehabilitating?

KG: Because I think that the actual model of the nation-state—this kind of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century model of the nation state—doesn’t correspond very well to the new social and demographic realities of today. The concept of nation, as many people still understand it originates in the nineteenth century, when the world map was very different and many countries in Europe were colonial powers. We live in an entirely different geographic and geopolitical landscape at the moment. Former empires have collapsed; we have the question of the legacy of violent European colonialism to come to terms with; and we’re also living in a world where borders and mobility are not what they used to be, where societies are much more pluralist and where we have to face challenges that were not present two hundred years ago. That’s why I believe the needs to be revisited in a manner that’s more inclusive while acknowledging Europe’s historical mistakes or misdemeanors.

AG: Which ones in particular?

KG: The situation in the Middle East, for example. When you consider the refugee crisis that broke out in 2015, Europe and the United States are not without fault in this respect, and the West, of course, has a huge responsibility here; or the military expeditions into Iraq or Afghanistan. We created a mess, and now we’re looking the other way, when in fact we’re directly or indirectly responsible for what is happening to people in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

AG: In your essay “The State Is Not a Work of Art?” you mention “more benign forms of nationalism” that would be more inclusive. I wonder which works on display reflect that kind of nationalism?

KG: My text is not necessarily a reflection of every single work in the show and cannot be; it is illustrative of my own point of view. It has been rather challenging to find works, in all honesty, that deal with all these issues complex issues in an more unexpected manner other than the usual (and justifiable) critique of nationalism and populism. “Civic nationalism” would be a better formulation for more benign or inclusive forms of nationalism. Marta Górnicka’s piece Constitution for the Chorus of Poles (2016) is a work where people from different ethnic and minority backgrounds are interpreting, reinterpreting, and performing the Polish constitution according to what it could be, or what it professes to be but isn’t (more inclusive.) We can’t have people working as precarious laborers in Europe or being born into families coming from different countries and then creating obstacles in giving them nationality when they contribute to the economy and society at large.

AG: I was trying to put myself in your shoes, and imagine how it works if you have a concept and then artworks that don’t quite illustrate it. Obviously, you can’t cast them into a ready mold.

KG: You can’t. And you can’t instrumentalize artists. This is also the challenge of being a curator: to try and create something that is coherent, that corresponds to a certain argument, but also allow the artists freedom and breathing space. I would never say to an artist, “Can you make a work about civic nationalism?” But you can and should be in discussion artists. Besides, half of the show is newly commissioned, and when you commission new work you don’t know what the result is going to be, there’s always a risk you have to take as a curator. There are also two other projects that in some way answer your question: Jonas Staal’s project New Unions—this idea of a trans-European democracy based on criteria other than economy, which is what the European Union is based on—and Marina Naprushkina’s campaign on broadening the pool on who has the right to vote in Europe. I think these constitute good examples of a civic understanding of nationalism.

AG: So these are examples of new models you would like to encourage.

KG: Europe certainly has to be more inclusive. It cannot be based on homogeneous ethnic identifications because that’s not possible any more. Every exhibition that I make has a strong personal parameter. I’m interested in identity issues from my own personal perspective because I’m also a migrant, coming from a different country, living in a host country. I’m also negotiating these difficulties. For the first time this year I’ve considered applying for Belgian nationality, after twelve years of living in the country.

AG: Why is that?

KG: Well, because the future of my own country (Greece), in Europe is uncertain and far from guaranteed. Nothing is given. Who could have conceived Brexit a few years ago?  From the moment that there is a precedent of a country that has left, other countries may well follow suit. Let’s hope that’s not going to happen. I consider myself a European citizen, and I would find it tragic if I were not able to move around or work freely any more in Europe. When enquiring about the process and criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to be granted Belgian citizenship, I received a surprisingly strict set of parameters to which I had to respond. This was not the case 10-15 years ago, for example I’m a European, I speak French, I contribute to the culture and society of the country and the continent in which I live, and yet I have to go through a really stringent process of being ‘re-Europeanized’, so to speak. It became even more clear to me, even in the most benign way, how xenophobic policy making and bureaucracy can affect a person’s destiny and life.

AG: But you are a European.

KG: I’m European, but I could at any point stop being European.

AG: As a fifteen-year-old I gained Canadian citizenship and had to swear allegiance to the British queen.

KG: I have Canadian citizenship as well.

AG: Oh, you do? You’ve spent time in Canada, then?

KG: Never. My father was a Canadian citizen, so I inherited the passport. This poses a really interesting question: I have a passport, but does that make me Canadian? No. I’m not partaking in that culture or country at all. What makes you a legitimate citizen of a country, not only in terms of legal logistics but also cultural ones?

AG: So you consider yourself European.

KG: I feel totally European. And I feel also very Greek at the same time as well as having elements of England and Belgium (the two countries where I’ve spent half my life) in me.

AG: I am interested in the notion of cosmopolitanism, which crops up in the essay “The State Is Not a Work of Art?” as well as in the wall panels. You speak of a “haughty cosmopolitanism” that you oppose to the more populist forms of nationalism. Socrates never left Athens, and yet when asked where he came from, he would say, “The world.” Isn’t there scope for stepping outside the bounds of Europe and thinking of ourselves simply as humans? Perhaps if the space race had taken a different turn, people would be more apt to see themselves as inhabiting a single planet.

KG: Unfortunately cosmopolitanism has come to mean something that is the privilege of a globetrotting professional class as opposed to an open understanding of the world that’s also an understanding of how we’re interconnected now, so that what happens in one part of the world affects what happens in another, certainly in terms of environmental questions, and what we share in common. But I do agree that we need to reevaluate this cosmopolitanism as a shared responsibility for a planet that we co-inhabit and we now have to share. You can erect borders and define nation-states, but are you going to be able to control water, air, or oceans that are polluted? This cosmopolitan understanding you’re talking about can very well have an environmental parameter to it.

AG: Absolutely. This September I was traveling in Siberia, where you can see it very clearly. For example, if Mongolia decides to erect a dam on its own territory, it will affect the level of water in Lake Baikal and upset its unique ecosystem, which is our common heritage. It doesn’t just concern Russia and Mongolia.

KG: To go back to this idea of cosmopolitanism, a true cosmopolitan is someone who is open to other cultures, who does not look condescendingly upon them, who does not consider his or her own culture superior. It reminds me of Turkey in the times of the Ottoman Empire, when Jews and Armenians and Greeks and Turks were coexisting together, before Ataturkism and nationalism. These ethnic groups had their cultures and their communities, but they were citizens of the world and of Turkey. What has come to replace this is a situation that is mono-cultural and hence impoverished.

AG: Well, I’m picking up on what you said. I personally think cosmopolitanism as an ideal could and should be rehabilitated.

KG: I too subscribe to it as a worldview, but it has also become the premise of an elite that’s disinterested or disrespectful of local issues, identities, and cultures. What do I mean by “haughty cosmopolitanism”? You might be sitting at a dinner next to someone you don’t know, and you want to start a conversation with the person—

AG: —and so you ask, “Where are you from?”

KG: Right. This is not an ethnically presumptuous question, as some people interpret it. “Oh, it doesn’t matter where I’m from. I’m a citizen of the world.” Well, I’m a citizen of the world too, but I actually come from Greece, which gives me a certain culture and historical perspective. To say “I don’t come from anywhere” is like saying “I don’t have a mother or a father; I don’t have any history; I came out of nowhere.” We all come from somewhere and we all have a certain linguistic, cultural, family upbringing that shapes the way we are. I’ll argue back with a metaphor. Orphaned children, for example, or adopted children, nine out of ten times want to find out who their parents were.

AG: If I can draw an analogy, André Gide said that one chooses one’s friends but not one’s family, and in the same way nationality is something that’s not of your own choosing; it’s foisted on you by birth. Not long ago I heard Francis Alÿs say, “Mexico is my chosen country.” I find that appealing, too. For a long time the UK was my chosen country; it was a conscious, adult decision to move to that particular place. Coming from somewhere, and your ideal projection or conscious choices, are different types of identities.

KG: You and me and Francis Alÿs have had the privilege to be able to do that.

AG: I don’t know about you, but I was wrenched out of my country at the age of eleven, at a time when people weren’t free to leave it, so I wouldn’t consider myself privileged in that respect.

KG: Well, I was also wrenched out my country because of the economic crisis and the prospect of being jobless. I had to restart my professional life from scratch in a country where I knew no one because I knew that I was doomed to unemployment if I stayed in Greece. And when I say “luxury,” don’t get me wrong; what I mean is that the situation is such in Europe that I can work in Belgium because I have a European Union passport. That’s the sense in which I consider myself privileged.

AG: And I feel much the same. I marvel at the fact of all these artists from Poland being able to travel freely and having their horizons expanded in such an extraordinary way. It wasn’t possible for my parents’ generation, nor for my grandparents’ generation, for different reasons. And then there’s the dread that it all may be coming to an end.

Collectors as philanthropists

This text appeared in the “Collectors as Philanthropists” catalogue for the RazemPamoja Foundation-initiated charity auction held at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw:

Philanthropy and collecting stem from opposite impulses. Collecting amounts to acquiring things for one’s own private enjoyment; philanthropy, on the contrary, consists in giving away money or other valuable assets for the public good. The one is self-gratifying and wrapped up in itself, the other selfless and outward-looking. Whereas the collector bestows his affections on objects, the philanthropist is by definition animated by the love of mankind. The auction Kolekcjonerzy filantropami (“Collectors as Philanthropists”) sets out to prove that you can be both.

For a benefit auction to consist solely of artworks donated by collectors is virtually unheard of. While artists are routinely approached with requests for gifts in kind, and indeed their generosity has made live and online auctions organized by the Razem Pamoja Foundation possible in the past, it is much less common for wealthy art collectors to pledge works they own to a worthy cause. Why would they part with pieces they once cherished, which reflect their tastes and often have memories attached to them, when they could give money instead? Apart from anything else, this would have the merit of speeding up the whole process since the aim of any charity auction is ultimately to generate funds.

The founder of Razem Pamoja Foundation, Bartosz Przybył-Ołowski, whose brainchild this alternative type of fundraiser is, does not see it that way. “We could, of course, gather money instead of motivating collectors to donate works from their collections. Even from the very same people. It might have been simpler,” he concedes. “But we also set ourselves the goal of building a unique community of collectors, of connecting individuals, encouraging them and giving them the opportunity to share something they consider significant.” For Przybył-Ołowski, a fundraising event on this scale, which brings together some of Poland’s most prominent art collectors, aside from creating the opportunity for them to showcase a fragment of their personal collections, is primarily an exercise in community building, or strengthening rather. The fact that friends’ associations of Warsaw’s foremost modern and contemporary art museums – the Friends of the Museum of Modern Art, of the Zachęta Fine Arts and the Center for Contemporary Art Zamek Ujazdowski societies – have rallied behind the “Collectors as Philanthropists” auction attests that such a community already exists.

Conceived as a meeting place, this charity auction offers a new breed of philanthropically-minded collectors the chance to join forces and pull resources together, a concept that is at the heart of the Razem Pamoja Foundation, reflected in its very name. Philanthropy typically involves some form of sacrifice and parting with an artwork among many is a small price to pay for contributing to building something other than one’s own collection.

The proceeds from the sale will be used to resume the construction of a school in Jacmel, Haiti and to build from scratch an educational-cum-recreational space in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, both designed by Maciej Siuda in the spirit of experimentation that characterizes his socially-engaged architectural practice and, for that matter, Razem Pamoja’s own working method. Siuda’s rich and complex, semi-open spaces challenge the structural unity, the division into classrooms and corridors – intended respectively for learning and as recreational areas – that makes for the monotony and institutional, even carceral feel of school buildings as we know them. Rather than buildings per se, in the traditional understanding of the term, the visionary alternatives proposed by Siuda are aggregates or clusters of discrete spatial units that organically combine to form what Przybył-Ołowski dubs a “didactic ecosystem”.

By championing these two original and forward-looking architectural projects, the Razem Pamoja Foundation reverts to its core concerns of educating by means of art and engaging privileged art world people in a productive dialogue with less fortunate residents of the Global South. For the former, the “Collectors as Philanthropist” auction is the means to turn what is, after all, a luxury item into well-designed public amenities that the latter can enjoy. What is more, this species of cultural philanthropy puts artworks at the service of another art form, one that allies functionality with beauty.

Although collectors have been known to donate works to museums and art galleries, it is much less common for pieces culled from their collections to be sold off at charity auctions. When this does occur, a mix of donators – artists, dealers and collectors – tend to be involved. Organisations such as Artist Equity are calling on collectors to supply the artworks for fundraising events instead of their makers, arguing that they benefit from tax incentives (at least in the US) unavailable to artists, who stand to lose more in the long run when their works are sold beneath their market value. In its exclusive focus on collectors as the benefactors of this particular charitable function, the Razem Pamoja Foundation sets a precedent. One can only hope this alternative fundraising method catches on.

Francis Alÿs

This review of Francis Alÿs’s show “Knots n’ Dust” at Beirut Art Centre appeared in the March-April issue of Flash Art International:

Paradoxes are knotty statements that fold back on themselves, as in “Sometimes winning is losing / Sometimes losing is winning.” Finger written by the artist on a windshield, following a sandstorm that covered Beirut in a film of dust, these words appear as bilingual (English and Arabic) captions in one of four postcards commissioned for Francis Alÿs’s first solo show in this war-torn region. The sepia-colored photographs from which the cards are made recall Tornado (2000–10), a half-hour video that captures the artist’s repeated attempts to penetrate “dust devils.” In conversation with Beirut Art Center director Marie Muracciole at the opening, Alÿs likened the experience to being inside a monochromatic James Turrell installation.

At its core, “Knots n’ Dust” associates two disparate images and actions bound together by a spiral motion that informs the show as a whole. The lone man pitted against the whirling mass of the tornado has his counterpart in a female figure ceaselessly doing and undoing a knot in her hair. This intimate gesture is captured in a vast body of animation drawings that make up Exodus 3:14 (2014–18). To reach the animation proper, projected onto a matching paper support amid the 640-odd drawings on view (roughly half their total number), visitors must walk around them, performing a spiralling movement with their bodies.

Placed next to Exodus 3:14, Untitled (The Liar, The Copy of the Liar) (1994–95), an earlier work in which Alÿs explored the convoluted nature of gender and sexual identity, invites a similar reading of the new animation piece. Indeed, its mostly female protagonist has male hands, just as a contralto tenor sings the haunting lyrics of the looping soundtrack: “I am that I am” — yet another paradoxical formulation, this time drawn from the Bible. Fittingly, the biblical passage in question (whose exact reference happens to tally with the irrational number π) relates how God in the guise of a burning bush bids Moses to lead the Hebrews into Canaan, the promised land that lies in the Levant.