Monthly Archives: March 2014

Eric Baudelaire

This report from ‘The Secession Sessions’ at Bergen Kunsthall appeared on artforum.com:

Eric Baudelaire, The Abkhazian Anembassy, 2014. Performance view, Bergen Kunsthall, Bergen, Norway, 2014. Photo: Thor Brødreskift.

 

I’m running late for my appointment with the Anembassador of Abkhazia. The fact that it’s only a mock-embassy hosted by an art institution and that I’m meeting the anembassador of a country that does not even figure on some maps is no excuse. Maxim Gvinjia, Abkhazia’s former Minister of Foreign Affairs, doesn’t seem to mind. I thank him for granting me an audience. The rules of the game have not been spelled out at any point yet I find myself playing along, unable to decide whether to take this exercise seriously or in jest.

While he goes out to fetch some milk for my coffee (the anembassy appears woefully understaffed), I inspect some of the “props” laid out on the plywood desk: the Abkhazian flag, featuring a hand surrounded by seven stars (as I soon find out, this stands for hospitality); a laminated map of the world showing in green the smattering of countries that officially recognize the Republic of Abkhazia (Russia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela among them); a set of postcards written and illustrated by Norwegian schoolchildren, aged eleven to thirteen, who came to visit the anembassy that very morning.

Letters to Abkhazia are what got us here in the first place. Back in June 2012, when artist and filmmaker Eric Baudelaire dispatched a letter to his friend Max (whom he met long before the latter rose in the ranks at the Ministry), he fully expected it to be returned to him marked “address unknown.” (France does not recognize Abkhazia’s existence, after all, and neither does the French postal system.) But a reply from Max did eventually arrive, in the form of an email, since the post office in Abkhazia cannot handle international mail.

The one-side correspondence that ensued, over the course of three months, forms the basis of Baudelaire’s new feature-length film Lost Letters to Max, which I watch in the anembassy room, doubling as a projection space, later that day. A sample typed letter with some typically cryptic/philosophical questions for Max to mull over is displayed in a vitrine by the entrance along with the envelope it came in. The collected Letters to Max, complete with Xeroxed copies of envelopes that bear witness to the logistic challenges the project posed for post-office staff, were published as part of Baudelaire’s exhibition “The Secession Sessions” at Bergen Kunsthall.

Baudelaire felt that no single medium could convey the complexity of the Abkhazian question, to which he has returned again and again, since he visited the country for the first time in 2000. His return visits to the region over the course of a decade have shaped his move from photography to film. Built around a film that is itself densely layered, the exhibition— with its live art component, in the shape of a conversation with Gvinjia—was followed by a seminar, timed to coincide with the end of the exhibition, exploring the issues raised by Abkhazia’s paradoxical and tentative existence from a variety of disciplinary perspectives.

As the weekend slipped by, nothing came quite close to my initial, unpremeditated exchange with Gvinjia. Baudelaire wanted to offer visitors the same possibility of an encounter that he experienced in the course of his travels to Abkhazia. When I walked into the anembassy I knew next to nothing about the place, despite a visit to Georgia in 1997, which made me aware of this ghost state within a state. In the span of an hour-long conversation, meandering its way from topic to topic, we covered a lot of ground. More importantly, Max, who struck me as a cross between the noble savage and the Christian fool, gently impressed upon me his philosophical outlook on things, borne out of living in a permanent state of uncertainty.

Rituals of Rented Island

This review appeared in frieze:

imageTheodora Skipitares Skysaver, 1980, performance documentation

The full title of Jay Sanders’s first show since his appointment as the Whitney’s first-ever curator of performing arts – ‘Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama – Manhattan, 1970–1980’ – could easily pass for an academic thesis. This tightly focused exhibition looked back to the golden days, if not quite the dawn, of ‘performance art’, a term which had superseded all other tentative labels by the mid-1970s, as Sanders points out in one of the well-researched catalogue essays. This was a time when lofts in lower Manhattan were cheap and in abundant supply, when artists had the place pretty much to themselves – or so it would seem when looking at a period map in the show, densely colonized with alternative art spaces in and around what came to be known as SoHo.

One such space was the Plaster Foundation of Atlantis, christened by filmmaker Jack Smith, who occupied this Greene Street loft from 1969 until he was evicted in 1971. Not nearly so well-known as the films he had made in the previous decade, the handful of Smith’s performance works included here – from the 1968 Travelogue of Lobsterland! (formerly known as Clamercials of Capitalism) to the Irrational Landlordism of Bagdad (1977) by way of The Secret of Rented Island (1976–77), an unconventional adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play Ghosts – playfully inveighed against the joint evils of capitalism and private property.

Richly and imaginatively documented, this exhibition was anything but fusty in the way shows built around archival materials can be. The formal variety of the displays, for each of the 20 artists (many of them women) and collectives included, ensured that its interest rarely flagged as the visitor moved from one exhibition area to the next in a meandering rather than linear parcours. Each new body of work called for its own distinct mode of presentation, ranging from a modest slideshow of photographs documenting Laurie Anderson’s Duets on Ice (1974–75) performances to a spectacular installation made up of images and ephemera from three wacky-sounding plays staged by the Hungarian group Squat Theatre.

At odds with the intrinsic qualities of performance art – if we’re to believe Marilyn Arsem’s pithy 2011 manifesto ‘THIS Is Performance Art’ – ‘the staged, the theatrical, the spectacle’ is something ‘Rituals of Rented Island’ flirted with while outwardly distancing itself from. As the exhibition’s full title made clear, theatre (albeit of the hermetic kind) was among its dominant modes. Besides early ritualistic works by Robert Wilson and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre, performed in lofts for a select audience, the show featured a presentation of composer John Zorn’s equally esoteric Theatre of Musical Optics, in which minute illuminated objects were staged in sequences of growing complexity.

The exhibition’s theatrical nature was bolstered by a plethora of more-or-less outlandish objects, props, costumes and entire stage sets in the case of the Kipper Kids’s littered boxing ring from their notor-ious 1979 music hall act at The Kitchen. Elsewhere, Jared Bark’s unassuming lamp and table were propped against a wall painted with phosphorescent paint, retai-ning the lamp’s shadow from The Cold Light House (1977), and nearby was the multi-functional wall display for Theodora Skipitares’s Skysaver (1980). Stuart Sherman’s suitcases packed full of props the artist would deploy to conjure up a given city in his Tenth Spectacle (Portraits of Places) (1978) smacked of street theatre and magic tricks. In contrast, Jill Kroesen’s trademark white pyramids that accompany her ‘system portraits’, the term she used to describe her allegorical theatre pieces, fulfilled no very obvious function other than, perhaps, to signal their underlying symbolic structure.

Dotted around the gallery, these moveable props were among the many objects that made for a playground atmosphere of a piece with the personal narratives exploring childhood memories and traumas. Baby Blood (1967) saw Robert Wilson symbolically reenact his own birth; in Shake Daddy Shake, performed at the Judson Memorial Church in 1976, Julia Heyward related her father’s charismatic preaching to the palsy which later paralyzed his arm; Ericka Beckman’s beguiling works made for camera, such as We Imitate; We Break Up (1978), in which a giant pair of puppet legs shows the performer how to play football and other games, were underpinned by the theories of child psychologist Jean Piaget. My favourite ‘Rituals of Rented Island’ moment came in the shape of an unexpected comic interaction with Michael Smith in full ‘Baby Ikki’ gear, casting about for a playmate in one of the few (perhaps too few) live performances planned alongside the exhibition. Within minutes of appearing on the scene, Smith had impressed upon his audience what no amount of performance paraphernalia, no matter how alluring, can adequately convey: the sheer power of live presence.

Robert Ashley: That Morning Thing

 
This review of Robert Ashley’s opera That Morning Thing was posted on frieze.com:
 

Robert Ashley, That Morning Thing, 2011. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

‘Language, translation and misinterpretation’, the catch-all research theme chosen as a rallying point for Performa 11, would alone have justified the inclusion of Robert Ashley’s experimental 1967 opera That Morning Thing (curated by Mark Beasley) in this iteration of the performance art biennial. The work explicitly concerns itself with the question of language and rival, non-verbal modes of communication. Its three acts followed by an epilogue vividly – all too vividly at times – illustrate the initial mock-lecture, delivered by narrator John Hagan in the guise of The Speaker (presumably speaking for the composer), on how language, spoken and written, risks to be superseded in daily exchanges by different forms of communication, altogether more brutal.

Even before the dystopian vision conjured by The Speaker and the traumatic account that followed, the staging of the opening scene and the uncanny atmosphere put me in mind of J. M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians (1980), not least in its sci-fi overtones. Sitting far apart with their backs to the audience, a woman and a man of a certain age faced a neat row of men – presiding in their midst like a magistrate at a trial was The Speaker – flanked on each side by expressionless young women sporting cream-coloured gowns, matching heels and black goggles with protruding orange lenses – a surreal touch that gave the women who wore them an inhuman insect-like appearance. Specially designed and made by James Lo, the glasses would light up comically and flash every time the women came together to form duos and turned their blank stares the spectators’ way.

The female dancers who, thus strangely attired, stood for the titular ‘Frogs’ in Act I, advanced towards each other with measured steps, palms raised and facing outwards, occasionally rotating and shifting direction in a succession of pedestrian movements reminiscent of Trisha Brown’s choreography, as the male chorus repeatedly counted to four over recorded frog sounds. In David Moodey’s stylish lighting design – made to complement the acoustic environment – leafy patterns that evoked Italian brocade for me were projected as shadows onto walls and the floor in The Kitchen’s otherwise spartan theatre.

Robert Ashley, That Morning Thing, 2011. Featuring Fast Forward. Photo: Paula Court. Courtesy of Performa.

The first of Ashley’s operatic works to dispense with a linear narrative, That Morning Thing consists of a series of discrete parts loosely strung together – despite the deceptively reassuring three-act structure followed by a coda, that suggests some sort of progression leading towards a final resolution. What we get instead, pointing to a modernist aesthetic sensibility, is a collection of fragments that seemingly do not add up. Yet formal and thematic echoes help make sense of the work even if we are left to speculate as to its meaning. A passing remark made by The Speaker in Act I – ‘Why is it that it is so difficult to remember sometimes, but so easy to forget? Yet when you really want to forget, it is so excruciatingly impossible.’ – foreshadowed and possibly commented on the graphic taped account, punctuated with ‘I remember’ or words to that effect, of a sexual assault (or merely an encounter?) in ‘Purposeful Lady Slow Afternoon’ (Act II). The dancer Kimberley Bartosik listlessly struck a series of poses with her gaunt body and turned over a deck of giant cards, one by one, as the recording played itself out.

What is ‘that morning thing’? And who is the visitor in ‘She was a visitor’, repeated, pondered, interpreted for us again and again by the speaker-narrator in the Epilogue, until the phrase was broken down into its component parts by the female chorus who took place amid the audience and gently encouraged us to echo for one full breath the sound of individual phonemes chosen at random from this four word score? Does she bear any relation to the ‘Purposeful Lady’, she in the gruelling recording, or is she one of the women in the ‘Four Ways’ (Act III) assailing actor/director Fast Forward with questions someone visiting New York for the first time might conceivably ask – ‘Where is Columbus Circle? … Where can I find a good Chinese restaurant? … Where is Little Italy? Why is it called “little”?’ – as if to illustrate the starting thesis that language has ‘little or no meaning, being only part of a larger and more complex gesture’? Besides hints and guesses, hints followed by guesses, what lingers on is the distinctive cadence of Ashley’s words, tottering on the divide between speech and song, poetry and prose.

 

Zarina

This review of Zarina’s “Folding House” appeared on Art Agenda:

march3_review_img1.jpgZarina, Companions of the End of the Night, 2013. 

“What’s not to like?,” a fellow critic concurred as I waxed lyrical about Zarina‘s solo show, which I had seen a few days before in Delhi. The opening was timed to coincide with the India Art Fair, around which a number of glittering events have coalesced in what has become the country’s art capital. Inscribed in gold, the black cardboard invitation and matching catalog cover depict the bare outline of a golden house from Folding House (2014), a set of 25 collages from which the exhibition takes its title. A house divided, and split down the middle by a neat dividing line, unmistakably alludes to the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. As a child growing up in Northern India (she was born in 1937), the artist experienced firsthand the massive population displacement and bloodshed that ensued; her work could hardly be accused of lacking political edge.

But the critic’s question—with its hint of underlying criticism and the implication that Zarina‘s delicate creations, fashioned out of precious and handmade materials, were simply too alluring for their own good—nagged at me. To be sure, there is an element of material fetishism in the artist’s work, as the elaborate and at times long-winded descriptions of her chosen media attest. Take City (2013) and its companion piece Wandering Souls (2012), for example: “Collage with pewter leaf on Indian handmade paper stained with Sumi ink, dusted with gold powder and mounted on Arches Cover Buff paper.” And yet, this attention to detail may be equally seen as a way of promoting traditional, craft-based techniques. For Zarina, who honed her printmaking skills in Bangkok, Tokyo, and Paris, ink is not just ink, and paper is not just any old paper. Mounted against the muted, grainy background of Arches Cover or Somerset stock, which is wispy around the edges, each type of image calls for its own variety of handmade paper—from Japanese Kozo to Indian and Nepalese. The artist subjects them all to staining, folding, threading, and puncturing in turn. 

Zarina‘s refined appreciation of the papermaking craft goes hand in hand with that of Urdu handwriting and calligraphy, another dying art and declining language, which happens to be her mother tongue. Having grown up in a bookish household, literary allusions abound in her work in the form of poetic titles or as full-fledged quotations that accompany the image in the illustrated manuscript tradition. Taken from a couplet by the revolutionary and Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the title of the “Companions of the End of the Night” series (2013), for example, appears handwritten in the fluid, ornamental Urdu script on its own piece of paper, and is collaged beneath ink-stained drawings, pin-punctured to form constellations of tiny holes like those found in the Folding House image on the invitation. Less-polished handwriting can also be seen in Urdu Proverbs (2011), collaged beneath ten rough-hewn woodblocks that illustrate just as many Urdu proverbs, and in Echo (2013), digitally printed with the text of a letter from Zarina‘s sister on a narrow strip of Kozo paper, which forms a square within a square.

No reproduction can do justice to the sculptural quality of these layered collages, woodcuts, and prints, which are poised between two and three dimensions, nor could it adequately convey the subtle variations in tone and texture of the paper she uses. The other materials Zarina works with, like pewter and 22-carat gold leaf (favored in India and across South Asia), create even greater relief and sharper, more pronounced edges and lines. For instance, in Compass (2013), an imperfectly round shape made up of thin triangular strips of pewter leaf, which appears cracked in places, is echoed by a diminutive circle inching its way into one of the triangles. Even in Zarina‘s more overtly two-dimensional works, there is a tension between the fragility and lightness of the materials deployed and the impression of solidity and weight they convey. 

The latter of these dominates the three sculptural works displayed in the downstairs gallery space. Placed on a low-lying plinth, Enso (Zen Circle) (2012), a string of black marble disks sealed with red paper at both ends (in a rare departure from the artist’s restricted palette of gold, black, and creamy whites), gives consistency to the titular Japanese ink drawings made in a swift brush stroke intended to free up creative energy. Nestled in one of the room’s corners, the rosary-like Tasbin (2011) consists of outsized black-and-gold maple-wood prayer beads strung together. Hung from the ceiling with gold wire of varying length, the 101 bulbs carved out of white marble with a dazzling, 22-carat gold encasing in Frozen Light (2013) transform the fragile glass-and-metal object into something rock solid.

Arte Povera this certainly isn’t. Zarina‘s recourse to expensive materials enhances the value of her work (not least in the eyes of collectors) with marble, gold, and paper so fine that you would indeed think twice before marking on it. As Zarina confides in her artistic statement in the catalog: “I am still overwhelmed by my doubts and hesitations before I make a mark on paper.” Fortunately, for our sake, the artist manages to overcome these inhibitions, channeling the creative impulse necessary to move beyond doubts and hesitations into works of exquisite beauty. 

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