Monthly Archives: November 2013

Leigh Ledare

This interview with photographer Leigh Ledare appeared in Metropolis M:Image

Agnieszka Gratza:

Whereas your mother is obviously a looming presence in your work, your father hardly features in it at all. I was struck by one quote, actually a dedication from Something Might Have Been Better Than Nothing [an exhibition with Per Billgren in Berlin, 2011 – ed.]: ‘For our fathers, mild men.’ Could you comment on that?
Leigh Ledare:
‘There’s a lot in the work that’s activated through absence, so in a sense that was an allusion to that. There are maybe two mentions of him in Pretend You’re Actually Alive. That book is only ostensibly a portrait of my mother and then, beyond that, it’s really about social dynamics and all the interrelations between the different partners and the different triangles that happen within relationships.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
Could you say something about the genealogy of the book, how it came into being? What made you embark on this project?
Leigh Ledare:
‘There are many different stages to this work, which spans the course of eight years, and feelings that I’m responding to. At one point there’s a kind of anger that fuels the making of the images, or a sense of the absurdity of the situation that I found myself in, where my mother was imposing her sexuality on me.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
But you were complicit, weren’t you?
Leigh Ledare:
‘Well, the way I’ve told the story and the way it happened was that I came home one day, after not seeing her for a year, and she opened the door entirely naked, smiling smugly at me. She was with this younger guy who happened to be in bed with her and they were involved in something. I began photographing and I couldn’t quite believe it: it was inappropriate, troubling, alarming.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
And yet you played along with it?
Leigh Ledare:
‘I was responding to a situation I found myself in. Half of the images are, I feel, about her projecting outward a kind of confrontation and challenge to a viewer.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
To you personally as a viewer?
Leigh Ledare:
‘To me as the operator of an instrument that relays information outward. I have a camera; she’s standing in front of me; she’s understanding herself as an image projecting through me to a viewer.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
OK, but you could then be just any other photographer and you’re not: this is your mother we’re talking about and you’re taking photographs of her copulating with other men.
Leigh Ledare:
‘Of course. It’s also how these issues operate negatively: the cover of the book is a direct transcription based on her speaking to the relationship between me and her as photographer and muse. She never alludes to us as mother and son. The whole thing was a kind of gift where I was offering her a stage and she was offering me something in return. That’s why I think about the book as a kind of site where all these different competing impulses are negotiated and worked through. It became a place for experimentation, a hub of generosity, love, engagement and affirmation, and very ambivalent, complicated feelings as well.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
That’s something else I wanted to talk to you about: the ‘gift economy’ in your work. Could you discuss this in relation to your grandfather’s grave plot and your mother’s will? To what extent are these gifts a poisoned chalice?
Leigh Ledare:
‘The grave plot from my grandfather is a gift that is extremely putting upon, so to speak. It was a poetic expression of his concern about the way my mother and brother were living their lives at the time and about the nuclear family disbanding. Each member of the family got a plot as a Christmas present. What I tried to do by transferring the plot to MoMA was to create a monument out of the actual grave plot. The museum would own the piece of land, ensuring no one was buried there, so that in effect it would become a negative monument: the gap between the other plots that spoke to the element that precipitated the gift in the first place. And a way of denying my grandfather writing the end of my plot.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
Let’s turn to your mother’s gifts to you. Her will, for one, contains a list of very personal items, such as lingerie – ones which she felt you in particular would benefit from and appreciate.
Leigh Ledare:
‘But they would always be things she also wanted for herself. The quality of what the gift was always felt deranged in some way. It wasn’t a true gift.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
Deranged?
Leigh Ledare:
‘Maybe not deranged but there was a kind of self-interest in gifting certain things that were actually meant for her; they weren’t there to connect us. I saw these objects as effigies of her that spoke to her taste. It was about expressing difference and it’s through the object that she was able to express that.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
What kind of objects are we talking about? You see her wearing fur in your photographs.
Leigh Ledare:
‘Fur. Designer dresses. Jewellery.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
Is it about glamour?
Leigh Ledare:
‘Yes but there’s a very literary quality to it, too. It’s a little bit Emma Bovary-ish. Flaubert is also someone Per Billgren and I thought about when we were constructing the show at Reception in Berlin. Who’s dictating taste? Who’s providing taste?’
Agnieszka Gratza:
Do you think of your work as being always tasteful?
Leigh Ledare:
‘No.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
Is it deliberately not so?
Leigh Ledare:
‘In some ways. There’s a tension there between the presentation, the structural aspects that inform the work and what might be found there that’s difficult to handle and confront.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
I wanted to read you a quote by Nan Goldin: ‘When I started photographing my boyfriend of years ago, Brian, I realized I had no right to photograph other people having sex if I wasn’t prepared to take them of myself too.’ You talk about your mother’s highly sexualized persona but the same is true of you, in the series titled Personal Commissions, for example.
Leigh Ledare:
‘Sure. These images are a flipping of the mechanism of the camera. By giving these women I met through the advertisements the camera to photograph me, the object generated is a reversal or inverting of the male gaze. It’s similar in a way to having my mother photograph me. What is female desire and how does it look? It’s interesting to me as well because the male nude has so long been owned by homosexual desire. And so it’s something that’s not…’
Agnieszka Gratza:
…explored sufficiently perhaps. Did you feel vulnerable under their gaze?
Leigh Ledare:
‘Yes, and vulnerable in the situation because I had no idea whose places these were that I was walking into. So each time I would go, I would call somebody beforehand and say, ‘This is where I’ll be, if you don’t hear from me in an hour and a half or two hours, then take it from there.’’
Agnieszka Gratza:
And did you ever find yourself in a position where you genuinely felt uncomfortable or surprised by the requests?
Leigh Ledare:
‘Some of the women were aggressive. The main thing is that it was a conversation. It was an extremely open, vulnerable thing on both sides. But then there is also the image of me they’ve taken that shows the way they’ve directed it, what their desires might be, what they believe my expectations might be. What their apartments look like, their style choices, and then there is the original self-description in the form of the personal ad which provides a limiting framework.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
One question I wanted to ask as a way of wrapping things up is that of humour in your work. You describe Double Bind, in which you confront photographs you took of your ex-wife, Meghan Ledare-Fedderly, with those taken by her current husband, who also happens to be a photographer, as having a bitter humour or playfulness. What is the role of humour in your work more generally?
Leigh Ledare:
‘Humour allows one to speak about things that are otherwise very difficult to speak about or that it might seem didactic to speak about. It’s a kind of outlet, like a release valve. It’s also about a sense of absurdity in things. Double Bind is premised on a failure.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
There’s something quite humble about your willingness to put yourself in that position.
Leigh Ledare:
‘The whole structure of the piece has a sense of play to it as well: in a way I’m casting her current husband in a role that I occupied ten years previously and my role may be potentially a forecast of his. There are all of these temporal relationships that are happening too that have a mischievousness about them but that have it with the purpose of asking something that I think is really important.’
Agnieszka Gratza:
And which is?
Leigh Ledare:
‘The question of how we deal with loss.’
Advertisements

Frieze or Faculty?

This piece, written for Guardian professional, appeared on guardian.com:

A woman is reflected in one of Anish Kapoor's stainless-steel sculptures
Photograph: Johnny Green/PA
 
Six weeks ago, an unusual request landed in my inbox. A Swiss-French filmmaker I’d not heard of before, Benoît Rossel, emailed me out of the blue to say he was looking for a London-based character-cum-situation hunter to assist him with a documentary film about artists. Someone close to the wheels of power in the art world, who, like me, had participated in Tino Sehgal’s These Associations at Tate Modern last year, had recommended me for the job.

Since leaving a full-time, secure position as a university lecturer (a job for which I wasn’t temperamentally suited) in 2008, I’ve tried my hand at a number of volatile occupations – the more outlandish the better. Like sharing confidences with perfect strangers, and running up and down the Turbine Hall in an interactive artwork that earned the Berlin-based but London-born Sehgal a nomination for the Turner Prize.

Art criticism is something I fell into by chance. Following the break up of a long-term relationship, I moved to London to take up a job in the French department at Queen Mary University of London in Mile End, and start anew. For a while I shared a flat just off Brick Lane with a BBC finance journalist aspiring to become an artist, who introduced me to her arty friends (some of whom will now feature as ‘characters’ in the documentary film I’m helping out with). Eventually she also left her BBC staff position, initially to do a course at the Prince’s Drawing School.

Neither one of us has looked back, despite ongoing challenges, financial insecurity, and an uncertain future. That someone with an academic background in Renaissance intellectual history and French should end up writing about contemporary art and film for a living may seem random. But such leaps are not uncommon. When I started reviewing art and film, I had no specialist knowledge of either field but was assured, on more than one occasion, that this can be positively an advantage.

As a former academic dabbling in journalism, you inevitably face some prejudices. For one, you have to prove that you can write in a non-academic way, that’s to say engaging, accessible, wearing its knowledge lightly – all things good academic writing is anyway. A PhD in humanities is not exactly an asset either when it comes to getting a job outside of academia, or even an internship or work experience for that matter.

I was recently introduced to the director of the Chisenhale Gallery in East London, a short distance from where I used to teach at Queen Mary. After taking me round their current show, which I’m reviewing for a magazine I contribute to, she politely asked me what else I did for a living. The question was simple yet revealing. Few people live off art reviewing alone.

While ‘art writing’ may be a burgeoning (academic) field, the dwindling opportunities in arts journalism mean that it’s no longer a viable career option. Unless they’re one of a handful of critics with staff jobs, whose longevity is impressive, art reviewers will typically do some editing, curating work or teaching on the side to subsidise their other less-than-lucrative activities.

But if English is not your first language, you’re doing everyone a favour by steering clear of editing. If curating doesn’t appeal to you for whatever reason (besides being at odds with what you’re called on to do as a critic), and if you’ve left academia to do something else, then these options may not be open to you. Luckily there are others: character hunting and the like. They may not help your long-term prospects but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of taking the path less travelled.

Academia and the art world, despite appearances, have a great deal in common, not least that each is peopled with eccentrics and cultivates its own brand of eccentricity. On the eve of another Frieze week, as I’m being plied with food and drinks in the run up to the yearly London marathon of art openings, talks, concerts and parties that glamour-starved academics could only dream of, I cannot help the gnawing sense of having swapped one bubble for another.

Locarno Film Festival

This report from the 66th Locarno Film Festival was posted on the frieze d/e blog:

Piazza Grande, Locarno (all images courtesy: Festival del film Locarno © 2013. All rights reserved.)
 
Tornado warnings added a certain frisson to proceedings on the opening night of the 66th Locarno Film Festival, held in the Swiss lakeside city’s sumptuous Piazza Grande. Lightning punctuated the speeches and gave way to rough winds during the open-air screening of Baltasar Kormákur’s 2 Guns (2013), but it was the rain that eventually had us all running for shelter. Every August, the city’s main square is fitted with a giant screen and enough black and yellow chairs – in keeping with the festival’s leopard theme – to seat an audience of 8,000. But these have mostly a decorative function since the majority of the films vying for prizes in the two main festival sections – the International Competition and the Filmmakers of the Present, dedicated to first and second films by emerging directors – are shown safely indoors.

 

Historia de la meva mort (The Story of My Death, 2013)
 
The International Competition jury, chaired by the Filipino director Lav Diaz, awarded the top prize – the Golden Leopard – to Albert Serra’s baroque costume drama Historia de la meva mort (The Story of My Death, 2013). The film is loosely based on the final exploits from Casanova’s memoir Histoire de ma vie (The Story of My Life, 1822). In Serra’s version, Casanova journeys from Switzerland to the southern Carpathians where he meets Dracula and eventually his doom. The Catalan writer-director often uses literary and biblical figures to comic effect – from the Magi in his 2008 El Cant dels ocells (Birdsong) to Don Quixote in (Quixotic) Honor de cavalleria (Honour of the Knights, 2006) – in his idiosyncratic filmic adaptations, most of which were recently shown in a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou. The comedy of Historia de la meva mort is of the dark variety, more unsettling than genuinely funny and of a piece with the candle-lit and generally murky shots that suggest more than they reveal keeping one guessing at the nature of the sexual proclivities and mores they depict.
 
Serra, whose production methods are anything but orthodox, makes his aversion to working with trained actors well known; he prefers to film with what he calls ‘innocent actors’, including people from his home town, Banyoles in Catalonia, but also Canadian film critic and Locarno programmer Mark Peranson, or Barcelona-based poet and art curator Vincenç Altaió, who portrays an aged Casanova with brio.

 

Exhibition, 2013

Joanna Hogg’s well-received third feature Exhibition (2013), which was among the 20 films that premiered in the International Competition at Locarno, likewise casts two first-time actors in lead roles: singer and songwriter Viv Albertine, formerly of the girl punk band The Slits, as the neurotic and sexually repressed performance artist D, and Liam Gillick as her husband H, a successful architect and designer.

The plot hinges on the middle-aged, childless couple’s decision to sell a house that has been their home for over 20 years. Not just any house. Exhibition is set in a house that the late modernist architect James Melvin, to whom the film is dedicated, designed for himself in South Kensington. Too stylish to suit the needs of an ordinary family, the minimally furnished house with its clean lines, reflective windows and, at its heart, a spiral staircase that looks superb on film, is a gilded cage of sorts. The sense of entrapment is conveyed through a wealth of details, from close-ups of Venetian blinds to the striped tops that D, who hardly ever leaves the house and appears to meld with it, consistently wears.

 

Lo que el fuego me trajo (What Fire Brought to Me, 2013)

Another modernist architect’s home, Lina Bo Bardi’s jungle-clad 1951 Casa de Vidro (Glass House) in Morumbi, São Paulo, features prominently in Adrián Villar Rojas’s short Lo que el fuego me trajo (What Fire Brought to Me, 2013). Commissioned by Hans Ulrich Obrist for an exhibition he curated in April 2013 (The Insides Are on the Outside, Casa de Vidro), this is the Argentine artist’s first foray into filmmaking. The most remarkable thing about this 43-minute-long silent film is the protracted closing credits that last a disproportionate 10 minutes. Consisting of spaced out letters, black on white that form elaborate designs on the screen, they wrap up the visual experience of the film in a witty and, to my knowledge, unprecedented way.

If modernist (glass) houses are justifiably favoured by filmmakers, few have hitherto explored the cinematic potential of cable cars. Manakamana (2013) is filmed entirely inside a cable car, carrying groups of two to three pilgrims (including some goats, on one occasion) to the eponymous Hindi temple. The film consists of eleven roughly 10-minute-long shots – the duration of a ride to or from the temple, corresponding to one reel of 16mm film. Each pair or group appears against a moving backdrop of densely wooded mountains and sky, neatly framed by the window of the cable car, which recalls a cinema screen. As an essay in portraiture, Manakamana brings to mind Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests (1964–66), whereas the luxuriant landscape filmed in successive long takes, coupled with the exquisite sound design, are akin to some of James Benning’s experimental films, from Ten Skies and Thirteen Lakes (both 2004) to Stemple Pass (2012).

 

Manakanama, 2013
 
Manakamana deservedly took the top prize in the Filmmakers of the Present section as well as receiving a special mention for a best first feature. Directed by Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez from the Harvard-based Sensory Ethnography Lab, run by Lucien Castaing-Taylor who produced the film with Verena Paravel (the two made together the award-winning Leviathan), Manakamana is the latest film from the Lab to garner prizes at film festivals. The experimental approach to ethnographic cinema fostered at the Lab, which sees sense experience as one of its most important subjects, is also at work in A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (2013) by Ben Rivers and Ben Russell, whose films straddle the divide between documentary and fiction, portraiture and landscape filmmaking.
 
A first-time collaboration between the two artist-filmmakers, A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness premiered at Locarno in the new ‘Signs of Life’ side programme, named after a 1968 film by Werner Herzog who was in attendance at the festival. The film is a triptych, its three discrete parts – shot on an Estonian island (COMMUNE), in northern Finland (SOLITUDE) and at a nightclub in Oslo (BLACK METAL) – connected by certain recurring motifs (face painting, fire, triangles) and a single character, portrayed by the Brooklyn-based musician Robert AA Lowe, who appears in all three sections. Of the three, the commune section comes across as the most didactic, perhaps because it is the only one that features dialogue. Prompted by the filmmakers, conversations between the different commune members about what it means to live together inevitably feel contrived.

Pays barbare, (Barbaric Land, 2013)

The latest film by the Milan-based duo Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, who have been collaborating since 1986, Pays barbare (Barbaric Land, 2013) is also driven by a strong political message, neatly summed up by the statement: ‘every period has its own fascism’. For the first 10 minutes of the film, blue-tinged footage documenting Mussolini’s downfall in 1945, marking the end of the Italo-Ethiopian war, is projected at decelerated speed and in complete silence to gripping effect. Culled from film archives, the hand-tinted moving images that follow in the remaining 55 minutes are powerful enough on their own, as an indictment of colonialism, without any of the literary quotes and statements occasionally read out in voice-over. That this kind of film should have its premiere in the main competition at Locarno, rather than being relegated to one of the sidebars, speaks loud and clear of the festival programmers’ willingness to take risks and their ongoing support for experimental filmmaking.

Lisbon Architecture Triennale

This interview with Beatrice Galilee appeared, and did not appear, in Flash Art:

AGNIESZKA GRATZA: Can you comment on the chosen theme or title “Close, Closer”– for the third edition of the Lisbon Architecture Triennale?

Beatrice Galilee: The title is designed to convey an idea of intimacy but also of momentum, the sense that we’re moving towards something but that we’re not quite there yet.

AG: And what might that something be?

BG: An understanding of architecture as something much larger and more expansive. It’s a widening out of what architectural practice tends to be understood as.

AG: What part will performance play in the Triennale?

BG: The Triennale has three major exhibitions and one public program. For me they represent very different strands of architectural practice: “Future Perfect” is about speculation; “The Real and Other Fictions” about intimacy; “The Institute Effect” about institutions and the dissemination of architectural practice; whereas the “New Publics” is about agency and pedagogy. These themes have nothing in common, apart from the way they are executed. Each of the exhibitions has a performative, narrative-led approach.

AG: One of the remits of this Triennale is “to explore architecture as a practice of construction as opposed to building”. Could you elaborate on that?

BG: Architecture has always been about more than building; it only solidified into a profession in 1900 or so. Collectives like Archigram or Superstudio in the 70s totally demolished this idea of architecture as a built form and talked about architecture as a city, a political tool, a social project and a means to an end as opposed to an end in itself. It’s important to remember that there’s a history to this. We’re not presenting something entirely new, but rather putting the spotlight on it and saying that it’s the only thing we’ll be discussing. I know that architecture consists of many other things but we’re not going to go there. If you accept to have construction as well as models and drawings, you dilute the message.

AG: I’m intrigued by the six digital publications you’re putting together in lieu of a traditional catalogue.

BG: They’re meant to contain the intellectual background for the exhibitions because the exhibitions themselves are both ephemeral and elusive. What’s nice about e-books is that they’re distributed digitally. This means we can hopefully reach more people around the world. They have a global appeal.