Monthly Archives: December 2015

Transformation Marathon

This piece appeared in the “Conference Room” section of LEAP magazine, in Chinese translation:

DATE: 2015.10.17-18

LOCATION: Serpentine Gallery and Serpentine Radio

PARTICIPANTS: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Saskia Sassen, Bruno Latour, Gilbert & George and Victoria, Tino Sehgal, Alice Rawsthorn, Eyal Weizman, Etel Adnan, Dorothea von Hantelmann, Juliet Jacques, Kim West, Judy Chicago, François Jullien, Marcus du Sautoy, Jimmie Durham, Gabriella Coleman, Julieta Aranda, and many others.

Now in its tenth year, the annual Serpentine Marathon at the close of Frieze Week has become a London institution. Initiated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2006, the inaugural 24-Hour Interview Marathon was co-curated with architect Rem Koolhaas; subsequent marathons explored topics as diverse as maps, manifestos, gardens, poetry, memory and, last year, extinction. The Transformation Marathon grew out of this last entrant, as a counterpoint to a loaded theme with a certain ring of finality to it.

“Transformation is change with no interruption,” Obrist made his own Etel Adnan’s claim in his opening speech. The Lebanese-American poet, who has been in six prior editions of the Serpentine Marathon, is an oracle Obrist consults in the run up to each new marathon. On the eve of the Transformation Marathon proper, she and two other marathon stalwarts, the artist duo Gilbert and George, took part in an hour-long Flash Marathon at the Google Cultural Institute, alongside Obrist and Juliet Jacques, author of Trans: A Memoir (2015), which, together with Paul B. Preciado’s 2008 Testo Junkie, originally published in Spanish, inspired the transgender strand of this year’s marathon.

“Trans” means to go through or beyond, outgoing Serpentine director Peyton-Jones reminded the audience in her inaugural address, adding that the chosen topic of transformation “touches everybody in spite of their race, color and creed.” Coming at the notion from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and interests, the 100-odd participants considered its social, political, biological, ecological and institutional ramifications. Among other things, the marathon’s anniversary edition addressed the transformation not only of museums and art institutions but of the marathon format itself.

As in previous years, the marathon availed itself of different presentation formats – from talks and conversations to screenings and sound performances – lasting about 15 minutes, and occasionally longer. The Transformation Marathon as a whole reverted to the original non-stop 24-hour format, scaling back somewhat from the last editions. Whereas the initial twelve hours happened live before an audience gathered in Zaha Hadid’s sinuous white Magazine at the Sackler Gallery, the remainder continued on air from midnight until noon the following day in a bid to explore the “transformative power of radio”.

“Bringing together all fields of knowledge but not in a continental and homogenizing way,” in the words of Obrist, the Serpentine marathons invoke Martinican writer Édouard Glissant’s “archipelago-thinking.” What follows are three islands selected by LEAP from the archipelago of ideas.


Poet and painter

 When you speak of transformation you have the beautiful combination or contrast of something permanent that is there, a substratum, and something that changes. There is a mountain north of San Francisco called Mount Tamalpais. The Indians called it the Sleeping Woman. When I became a painter, I started drawing it and I realized how much something that looked so stable was never the same. This was a great discovery that helped me understand painters like Giorgio Morandi, who painted the same ten bottles in his kitchen, or Paul Cézanne, who went everyday to Mont Sainte-Victoire. The area where I lived had phenomenal fogs in the summer that came like rivers, like in some old Chinese painting, and the mountain would be cut in two. You would see the tip and nothing else. When a cloud came under the sun you had shadows moving on the mountain, as if a guardian or some spirit was touching it and moving with it. Sometimes I had the feeling, when these shadows touched it, that it was like some people’s face. You speak to somebody and you say something that moves them and their physiognomy changes. This mountain became as close as a person. It was alive in a strange way. Still on paper or on canvas I try with colour to catch the different moods; the mountain is moody like people are moody. The transformation of the mountain transforms you.


Philosopher and sinologist

I call the “silent transformation” a transformation that takes place without noise and which we do not talk about. Why don’t we talk about it? Because it is global and continuous. It takes place discreetly. We cannot see ourselves getting old because everything within us gets old. Everything is a silent transformation. Ice melting or the falling out of love. I am a philosopher and I follow the Greeks, but I have also decided to look at China because that enables me to step back from our European culture and to consider it from an external point of view. The Greeks did not know how to think about transition, which is at the heart of transformation. Plato spoke about melting snow. Snow, while melting, is indistinct: it is neither water nor snow. It has no essence. Greeks and subsequent philosophies such as ours thought that transition is distinguishing what is indistinct. Chinese thought helps us to think about transition. In China, there are two concepts that refer to transition: modification and continuation. There are four seasons: two seasons which change and two seasons which continue. Winter to spring is a change, spring to summer is a continuation, then to autumn is a change and a continuation into winter. Transformation is an alteration rather a change. This alteration within continuation enables renewal.


Artist and feminist

By the end of the 1960s I began looking back at women’s history because I’d decided that I was tired of not being myself. At the time I don’t think I realized what a radical break I was about to make. In Pasadena Lifesavers, I was starting to try and infuse the minimal language and the colour systems I had developed with my own content and subject matter as a woman. I became incredibly interested in trying to fashion images of female sexual agency. The image of the flying phallus, active male sexuality, goes back to Greek times. There is no comparable history of female sexual agency. So imagine if you’re a female artist and you feel not only active as an artist, as a sexual being, as a person, actively wanting to participate in human history – you have to think and stand against the entire history of Western thought. Pasadena Leftovers was probably my first baby step in preparing myself to stand against the tradition of art history and of Western culture, to find my way and create a path for female sexual agency. When I decided to make this radical change in my work, I wanted a way to symbolize it. And I thought I’m going to announce with a name change that I’m taking control of my future, my identity, my art making.


Chantal Akerman

This review of “Chantal Akerman: NOW” at Ambika P3 appeared in Mousse magazine:

Long in the planning, and sensitively curated by Ambika P3’s Michael Mazière jointly with the filmmaker duo A Nos Amours (Joanna Hogg and Adam Roberts), this survey of Chantal Akerman’s video installation work was intended to show the continuity of her practice as a filmmaker and an artist. “NOW” follows on from, and in a sense completes, the retrospective of Akerman’s entire filmic output orchestrated by A Nos Amours at the ICA London. Dedicated to the memory of the late artist, who passed away on 5 October, the retrospective came to a close (following two years of monthly screenings) a week before the show’s opening. Casting a shadow over both events, Akerman’s unexpected death, aged sixty-five, gave an added poignancy to the seven works brought together at Ambika P3, even as it made the show’s title sound bitterly ironic.

Akerman, who shot her first film, Saute ma ville (1968), when she was just eighteen, only turned to making work for gallery viewing in 1995, after she was invited to do a show at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Many of her video installations reuse film footage originally shot as feature films or shorts with cinema audiences in mind. In the Mirror (1971/2007), which confronts visitors immediately as they enter the mezzanine overlooking the main gallery space at Ambika P3, is a case in point. A young woman wearing nothing but underwear inspects herself closely in a full-length mirror, finding fault with this, that, and the other. It could be a self-portrait, but this is in fact the actress Claire Wauthion, who would go on to portray Akerman’s lover in Je tu il elle (1976). The black-and-white 16mm film transferred to video is a fourteen-minute sequence lifted from Akerman’s second feature film, L’Enfant aimé – ou je joue à être une femme mariée (1971), which the filmmaker herself deemed a failure but would return to, years later.

Two other video projections displayed in a succession of dark rooms downstairs repurpose footage from travelogue films, a mode to which Akerman would return again and again in her later works. A Voice in the Desert (2002) and D’est: au bord de la fiction (1995) illustrate the varied uses to which Akerman would put existing filmic materials in her installations. Originally shown at “Documenta 11”, the former work is a filmed projection on a screen suspended against a desert backdrop of the final minutes of Akerman’s film De l’autre côté (2002), dealing with clandestine migration along the U.S.-Mexico border, accompanied by the barely audible sound of Akerman’s voice reading extracts from the film in Spanish and English. The latter displays scenes from D’est (1993)—shot while traveling across Eastern Europe shortly before the fall of Communism—on twenty-four monitors, presented in eight blocks of three in a precise arrangement by Akerman’s longtime editor, Claire Atherton. In contrast to this surfeit of bleak wordless images, a final monitor presented on its own shows grainy, indistinct footage of a highway by night as the filmmaker recites, in Hebrew followed by English, the biblical interdiction on graven images from Exodus.

Presented next to each other, Maniac Summer (2009) and Maniac Shadows (2013) gesture in their titles to the manic episodes Akerman was increasingly prone to from her mid-thirties onward. (She openly discusses her bipolar condition with the curator Nicole Brenez in the so-called “Pajama Interview”.) [1] Both show contrasting indoor and outdoor scenes and make striking use of after-images, inspired in part by the traces of radiation left behind in the Hiroshima blasts. In Maniac Summer, the footage shot in and from the vantage of Akerman’s Parisian apartment is drained of color, multiplied, and progressively abstracted, as the projected images travel across three walls clockwise, disappearing then reappearing moments later in an altered guise. A faint shadow on a contiguous wall duplicates one of three moving images composing a triptych in Maniac Shadows, presented as a wall of photographs in a second gallery space alongside a projected image of Akerman reading a text about her mother at The Kitchen in New York.

Described by the filmmaker as her “orphan film”, Tombée de nuit sur Shanghai (2007), made for the omnibus project ”The State of the World” with contributions from Pedro Costa, Wang Bing, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, was subsequently part of Akerman’s solo show titled “Maniac Summer” (2009) at Marian Goodman Gallery. Random, gaudy advertisements animating the LED screens on two prominent skyscrapers form a moving image within what is mostly a static long take of Shanghai’s harbor at nightfall. The large-scale projection is flanked by two diminutive mass-produced glowing aquarium light-boxes, whose fish at one point echo the images projected on the towers.

The same twin light-boxes feature beside the five screens suspended within the large black box built to house the centerpiece, NOW (2015), which dominates the show both visually and aurally since its piercing soundtrack bleeds through the walls. Akerman’s most recent work on view was commissioned for the 56th Venice Biennale. Tucked away at the back of the room, the kitschy fish tanks strike an incongruous note in the work’s otherwise spare presentation at Ambika P3, which does away with the artificial flowers strewn on the floor in the Arsenale installation. And yet they offer some respite from the dun desert landscapes hurtling past at breakneck speed on the five screens, seemingly divorced from the din of explosions, gunshots, sirens, calls to prayer, human shrieks, and panicked birdsong, all denoting alarm.

Karen Brunwasser

This piece appeared in the FT Weekend’s Expat Lives column:

Karen Brunwasser in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market or ‘shuk’
©Eyal Warshavsky

Nothing beats the shuk, as far as Karen Brunwasser is concerned, especially on a busy Friday afternoon when Jerusalemites stock up for Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath. “People push and shove, and there’s yelling, but that’s when the Mahane Yehuda market is at its peak,” she says. A bustling marketplace by day, the shuk is full of bars and restaurants that open late most evenings, attracting an eclectic crowd from across the city’s ethnic, religious and political divides.

Until about five years ago, there was no nightlife at the market, except for one man who would bring in a live band and serve tapas once a week in the summer. As deputy director of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, Brunwasser takes pride in the shuk’s revitalisation.

The JSOC stages various public arts festivals in the city designed to bring different communities together, including the hugely popular Balabasta festival of dance, music and drama amid the stalls of the shuk. Started in 2010, Balabasta continued for two years until the local night scene took on a life of its own.

Over dinner in one of the shuk’s covered alleyways, Brunwasser tells me how, walking through the market one night, she met her husband, Lior Shabo, who was hanging out at a bar. A seventh-generation Jerusalemite on his mother’s side, Shabo embodies the city’s rich ethnic mix, his family being of Yemenite, Spanish, Kurdish and Persian descent.

This diversity and cosmopolitanism are what drew Brunwasser to Jerusalem and persuaded her to settle here as opposed to, say, Tel Aviv, a city she finds “very young, fun and energetic” but relatively homogeneous. “Jerusalem isn’t just diverse. It preserves cultures; it’s not a melting pot,” she says. “Cultures continue to exist, almost as if they were in different eras of history, alongside one another.”

Brunwasser, 39, first visited Israel when she was 16, for her brother’s bar mitzvah. Her mother, an Irish-American Catholic, was attracted to Jewish culture from a young age and converted to Judaism together with her daughter, who was then a baby, after she married Brunwasser’s father. He was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany after the second world war to Polish Jewish parents. “I grew up in a religious home, in a very Jewish part of Philadelphia,” says Brunwasser.

Israel cast a spell over the 16-year-old. Yet “Jerusalem was the thing that most fascinated me”, she says. The city’s depth and cultural richness appealed to her intellectual and spiritual sides, but the teenager also found Israelis rowdy and fun. “There was a lot of freedom there for a teen that we didn’t have in the US,” she says.

In subsequent years, Brunwasser would return to Jerusalem often, finding different jobs and taking advantage of various programmes for Jewish teens and young adults. She spent a year of her undergraduate degree at New York University studying at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and returned to Israel a couple of years later to do a masters in Middle Eastern studies.

In the US, Brunwasser lived in Washington, New York and Los Angeles at different points during and after her studies, but none of these places proved a substitute for Jerusalem. She couldn’t get over the place so eventually, after 12 years of grappling with the idea, she bought a one-way ticket to Israel.

Jewish immigrants to Israel often feel as though they are fulfilling a promise or destiny — a 2,000-year-old longing. They do not migrate; they “make aliyah” (Hebrew for “to ascend”). Yet the reality is often more challenging, and “they’re smacked in the face with the difficulties of another culture, in particular Israel with all its issues and challenges”, says Brunwasser.

When she flew into Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport 10 years ago, on a plane full of people making aliyah, they were welcomed by the then prime minister, Ariel Sharon, and former prime minister Shimon Peres. Brunwasser’s fluent Hebrew led to her becoming the “aliyah poster girl”, as she puts it, after her image was used to promote aliyah.

Yet when it came to getting married in a religious ceremony some years later, Brunwasser discovered her conversion was not recognised by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, which in recent years had grown more extreme and rigid.

“In an orthodox synagogue, there is usually some sort of barrier between men and women who pray,” says Brunwasser. But because some of the rabbis who converted her in Philadelphia had previously served in a synagogue that didn’t have this barrier, her conversion was declared invalid. It took her husband’s connections for it to be acknowledged, the day before the wedding.

The barrier that gave rise to all this “nitpicking”, as she describes it, also stands for the wider divisions in her adopted country and city. The recent wave of stabbings in Jerusalem have further damaged fraught Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Although UN statistics from 2012 (the most recent available) show the US murder rate was more than double that of Israel, Brunwasser, who is pregnant, wonders if it is right to bring a child into a place that is so conflicted. “But then real life takes over,” she says. “People are nice to each other on the streets. You get into a taxi with a Palestinian driver and you’re both trying to reassure each other, ‘I’m not going to hurt you’. Real life pulls you out and keeps you going.”