Monthly Archives: April 2014

Dîner noire

This account of Dîner noire in Istanbul appeared on

Tristan Bera and Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Dîner noire, 2014. Catherine Robbe-Grillet. Photo: Protocinema.

“AT 7:30 be ready to go across the street to that building there,” a man standing by the open window whispered as he placed a square wooden object in the palm of my hand. I followed the direction of his gaze to a tall opulent building—the Vault Karaköy, which used to house the Credit General Ottoman, recently converted into a luxury hotel—on the other side of Bankalar Caddesi, just a few doors down from SALT in Istanbul’s Galata quarter.

For the time-being we found ourselves in a shabby room bathed in an eerie blue light, as Charles Arsène-Henry initiated some of the black-clad dinner guests into the mysteries of his Library is on Fire project, installed all around us. The object I’d been handed—a three-dimensional rendering of a prison-cell image from Adolfo Bioy Cesares’s novel A Plan for Escape, displayed in the library—was the equivalent of a cinematic dissolve, prompting the transition to another state or dimension.

By the time we reached the hotel lobby and traded in our token for a black envelope containing a mask to be worn (when instructed) and a letter outlining the protocol of the ensuing “ceremony” (with its mild sadomasochistic overtones), we had become ghosts. At least that’s how we were addressed in the letter signed by artist Tristan Bera, who bid us to exit and “disappear” at the appointed hour, which would be signaled by a bell, rung twice.

Bera and Dominique Gonzales-Foerster conceived this multisensory Protocinema event as a sequel to 121st Night, which took place in Istanbul two years prior, during a full moon, like this evening. Roughly half of the twenty-two ghosts sitting down to the Dîner noire—artists Camilla Rocha and Mark Van Yetter, choreographer Gisèle Vienne, architect Philippe Rahm, writer Evrim Altug, dealer Stephanie Lockwood, and collector Ari Mesulam, among them—had taken part in the previous event. While in 121st Night they had been party hosts, incarnating various movie characters, here they were demoted to a more passive one as guests, glued to their seats for much of the occasion, which had been minutely planned so as to leave little room for improvisation or maneuver.

Tristan Bera and Dominique Gonzales-Foerster, Dîner noire, 2014. Photo: Protocinema.

“We were ready to surrender,” Mihda Koray, founder of Istanbul-based project space and magazine Near East, told me once the dinner is over, “but the chance to surrender was denied us.” Was it the film noir soundtracks—which had played in the Library and in the hotel lobby while we milled about sipping black rum and stout beer—that had set our nerves on edge? Or was it the prospect of meeting “France’s most famous dominatrix”—as a recent Vanity Fair interview dubbed Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the widow of nouveau roman author and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet—who was acting as our mistress of ceremonies?

What we did relinquish, the minute we stepped inside the dark, candlelit hall, was a measure of control. Blindfolded (or as good as) with the mask, we were taken to our seats by Robbe-Grillet’s partner and faithful assistant, Beverly Charpentier, after pausing at the head of the table long enough to inhale the gothic fragrance of tuberose and listen to some opera. Appropriately, given our state of confusion, it was Mozart’s “Dove Sono” aria from The Marriage of Figaro, to which a contorted life-size mannequin resting atop the black tablecloth at one end of the table owed her name.

In an unexpected twist, “Comtesse Rosine” would eventually be joined at the other end of the table by a real-life counterpart, art critic Sinziana Ravini—one of the few participants to play an active part in the Dîner noire. The reddish-blond Ravini, who let herself be tied with ribbons and spoon-fed a bittersweet liquid concoction of sorro and black beet granita (one of the six courses devised with the Vault Karaköy’s chef Coşkun Uysal), was at once a doppelgänger of the mannequin and of Charpentier; indeed like her, she sported a tight-fitted black corset and fetching sarouel pants.

When we were not being expertly stroked with ostrich feathers and rubbed with fur by Robbe-Grillet, or entertained with readings from her autobiographical accounts and other books fit for Bera’s rayon noir of forbidden texts, my fellow voluptuaries and I attended to the business of feasting on all things black. Liberal doses of squid ink tinged our lips black, so that when the time had come for us to disappear and mingle as ghosts with those guests who’d only just arrived to see the remnants of the feast, we actually looked the part.


Josephine Pryde: Scale

This feature on Josephine Pryde’s Scale series appeared in Metropolis M:

Seductive and discomfiting in equal measure, the work of British photographer Josephine Pryde holds pride of place amid some 1,500 new acquisitions – an embarrassment of riches – that have accrued the Stedelijk’s collection during Ann Goldstein’s time as the museum’s artistic director. Goldstein considers Pryde, with her ‘unique and complex relationship to conceptual art, historical photographic practices, and feminism’, to be one of the most significant artists working today. For some years she has been closely following the artist’s work, which she acquired for the Museum of Modern Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles, before moving to Amsterdam. She feels very strongly about it: ‘Her work is powerful, critical and provocative – and also illusive in a most intelligent and visually stunning way,’ says Goldstein.

One of Josephine Pryde’s alluring large-scale colour photographs, Do You Want Children from the 2010 Reena Spaulings’ show Therapie Thank You, was purchased soon after Goldstein took up her position at the Stedelijk Museum in 2010. A photographic diptych, it juxtaposes two closely cropped images featuring folds of Issey Miyake plissé fabrics, bulging to one side in such a way as to hint at a pregnant belly, in keeping with the title of the individual work and of the series as a whole with its veiled allusion to ‘retail therapy’. Building on this, earlier this year Goldstein went on to acquire Pryde’s entire 2012 Scale series, which may be said to be the outgoing director’s parting ‘gift’ to the Stedelijk Museum.

Judging by the sheer scale of her acquisitions for the Stedelijk, Goldstein is not averse to retail therapy herself. This comes across in her attitude towards this particular body of work. As she puts it, ‘I heard about Scale before I saw it, and already knew I wanted to acquire it, even before I saw the entire body of work in [Pryde’s] 2012 survey exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern.’ Comprising 36 photographs of guinea pigs, the series was first presented (alongside three photographs from the Therapie Thank You series) and indeed produced at the Kunstverein Düsseldorf for ‘Miss Austen Enjoys Photography’, the inaugural show of its new director and one of Pryde’s most perceptive critics, Hans-Jürgen Hafner. It travelled on to the Kunsthalle Bern for Pryde’s survey exhibition, (re)titled ‘Miss Austen Still Enjoys Photography’.

Pryde, who carefully considers the architectural and institutional setting in which her work is displayed as part of her practice, seized the opportunity Hafner’s invitation offered her to test new ways of working with or inside an institution. She asked the Kunstverein to act ‘as a kind of production company on a shoot. To scale my photo shoot up,’ she explains. For Pryde, ‘there are all sorts of relationships of scale’ in this work, justifying its title.

The photographs were shot over two days on the Kunstverein premises, in between exhibitions, using hired daylight lighting so as not to risk scaring the animals with flash photography. An animal trainer was on hand and the installation team took every possible precaution to ensure the guinea pigs’ comfort. The main challenge, for Pryde, was not so much working with non-human subjects (she has done so before), as the turnaround of the work: ‘The shoot, the editing, the printing and the framing were all done in Düsseldorf in the space of just over two weeks before the opening.’

The 36 photographs, a number she eventually arrived at through the editing process, working mostly on her own at that stage, are either colour or black-and-white images that come in two different sizes, large or small. The smaller-scale ones (eight in total), appear against a background of coloured mattes in duck-egg blue, russet, pale yellow, white and mauve. The relation of black-and-white to colour, of large to small format is non-systematic, according to Pryde. It could be said to obey the more supple principles of variation and repetition, dictated by the serial approach that Pryde adopts in most of her work, which invites comparisons with Minimalism in this respect.

What makes each photograph in the series ‘so distinctive and remarkable’, in the words of Goldstein, has as much to do with the way it is staged and composed, the range of props and of photographic, often experimental techniques deployed, as with the physical variety of their animal subjects, photographed on their own, in pairs, in groups, as well as with a ginger cat who towers over the guinea pigs in yet another relationship of scale.

What makes these photographs so ‘creepy’, to borrow a term Hafner uses to describe Pryde’s work in a 2011 Spike review, is the implicit parallel they establish between pets and human models by drawing on the methods of glamour and fashion photography. In some of the portraits, the guinea pigs appear alongside fabrics that recall those in the Therapie Thank You series, just as ribbons, silk ties, Mylar and other such props reference the fashion industry. The same holds true of the city names (more often than not inverted) that appear in some of the photos on transparent scraps of plastic: Paris, Berlin, Tokyo and New York.

Rather than seeing the guinea pigs simply as stand-ins for ‘us humans’, though she acknowledges this is certainly part of it, the artist was thinking of the animals as pets, ones that are often bought with children in mind. Pryde, who divides her time between London and Berlin, where she teaches ‘Contemporary Photography’ at the Universität der Künste, points out that guinea pigs do not have the same connotation of ‘test subjects’ in German (the idiomatic equivalent, Versuchskaninchen, literally means ‘test rabbit’) as they do in English. The etymology of guinea pig links it with the so-called ‘Guineamen’, the slave-trading ships aboard which the animals would first have been brought over to Europe in the sixteenth century as exotic pets.

The New Photography 2013 exhibition, currently on at MoMA, where Pryde’s work is showcased alongside that of eight other experimental artist photographers who ‘turn pictures into questions’, stresses the guinea pig’s historical links to the international slave trade in the description of the selection of Scale works on view. The complete series, Scale I-XXXVI, is an edition of three with two additional artist prints, but the Stedelijk is currently the only museum to own the entire series. For Goldstein, the subject of this photographic series tallies with the serial nature of Pryde’s work, given how ‘prone to reproduction and multitude’ guinea pigs are. She felt ‘it would be very special for the museum to own the complete body of the work – to really feel the power of its volume’.

Richard Hawkins: Hijikata Twist

This review of Richard Hawkins’s ‘Hijikata Twist’ at Tate Liverpool appeared on


Not a contorted martial arts move or sex position, “Hijikata Twist,” the subtitle of Richard Hawkins’s debut UK museum exhibition, refers to the uses and abuses to which the Japanese artist and choreographer Tatsumi Hijikata subjected works by Western painters in his Butoh-fu scrapbooks of the 1960s and ’70s. These reveal the often overlooked Western influences, literary and artistic, behind butoh—a species of dance and performance art with dark, erotic overtones that Hijikata was elaborating at the time. Collaged with densely annotated reproductions of figurative abstract paintings, which Hawkins culled from Japanese monthly art magazines, a set of facsimiles of Hijikata’s scrapbooks are the show’s starting point and its kernel.

Confined to a single gallery, the entire show could be construed as a collage—Hawkins’s medium of choice—and is loosely built around five paintings from the Tate’s collection, the closest thing to the originals in the scrapbooks that the artist could lay his hands on. Works such as Jean Dubuffet’s The Tree of Fluids, 1950, a painting featuring a paper-thin female form, as if ironed into the ground; photographs of “Disbellmered” doll effigies by Hans Bellmer; and Willem de Kooning’s giant figures from the “Woman” series, which became “fat whores” when viewed through the distorting lens of butoh, are a pictorial equivalent of novels by Jean Genet, Marquis de Sade, and Comte de Lautréaumont, all of whom Hijikata read voraciously.

Mixing pictorial and textual elements—such as quotations from Genet and Japanese characters drawn with thick strokes against a uniformly blue background (some of which translate to “fester,” “decay,” “rotting jewels”)—Hawkins’s own variously complex and incongruous collages are guided by the spirit rather than the letter of Hijikata’s Butoh-fu. They have no method other than perhaps that of the “intuitive leaps” Hawkins attributes to his model in one of the statements, and they follow nothing but “an exquisite impulse to tell some quite perverse and gruesome little stories.”