Category Archives: Uncategorized

Donna Huanca

This Critics’ Pick of Donna Huanca’s “Piedra quemada” at the Lower Belvedere in Vienna appeared in artforum.com:

View of “Piedra quemada,” 2018.

Spread over eight rooms in the Baroque former summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736), Donna Huanca’s current exhibition has an opulence all its own. Bright and dim spaces alternate throughout the Lower Belvedere, evoking an initiatic journey into a brave new world. Nude models—sixteen at the opening and two for the duration of the exhibition—with bodies painted in canary-like greens, oranges, and blues starkly contrast with their life-size marble and plaster counterparts, culled from local sculpture collections and arranged in a circle in the penultimate gallery. Huanca calls her female and androgynous models “live paintings,” though they function as both canvases and brushes. Some wear elaborate headpieces of what looks like melted, amorphous plastic, or pose perfectly still on pedestals; others move slowly along the white walls, leaving behind traces of their passage. The resulting wall rubbings inevitably nod to Yves Klein, but they also recall the excesses of Viennese Actionism and hint at Ana Mendieta’s earth-body works.

In the sound piece Teco y Zenon, 2018, the artist’s father teaches her mother Quechua, harkening to Huanca’s Bolivian roots. The same is true of the evocative Spanish titles, including that of the exhibition as a whole. “Piedra quemada” (Burnt Stone) culminates in the elemental soundscape of birdsong, crickets, crackling fire, and gushing water, heightened by the faint aroma of charred wood that permeates the final room. Animated by Huanca’s models and the lustrous, metallic, and velvety materials, the wall paintings and richly textured sculptural assemblages come together in a setting designed to solicit all our senses.

 

 

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Tania Bruguera: Where Art Can Work

“Where Art Can Work: Interview with Tania Bruguera” was featured in the November-January issue of Flash Art International:

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s exhibition “10,142,926” takes over Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall this fall with a series of works and interventions, including a heat-sensitive floor that uses the warmth of visitors’ bodies to reveal the portrait of a young man. In an adjacent gallery, a substance that induces tears is diffused in the air. Agnieszka Gratza spoke to the Cuban artist on the occasion of the exhibition.

Agnieszka Gratza: The numeric title of your new Turbine Hall project will fluctuate over the course of the exhibition. What does it stand for and how is it meant to affect us?

Tania Bruguera: Migration is seen as a static problem — a crisis situation that happens somewhere, then disappears and happens again in another place. The number, which is 10,142,926 today, combines two different data sets sourced from the International Organization for Migration: how many people moved last year around the world and how many people are dying as we speak trying to get somewhere. We always talk about one or the other. Some people only focus on the refugees and some only on the success stories; I think we have to talk about both.

But the people who are free to travel don’t tend to be called migrants.

That’s the thing. They should be. We should call everybody who moves a migrant.

The notion of the “neighbour” at the heart of this project is somewhat at odds with that of the “migrant.” Migrants are seldom our neighbours, which implies having a fixed abode, for one thing. We do not love them in the way we’re enjoined to love our neighbour, at least in the Christian tradition.

One of the challenges of the piece is precisely to pose the question, “How can we make migrants our neighbours?” Why they have to be the Others? Why is it that when somebody is far away they have our sympathy, we think “Poor kids in Africa, they have no water; I’ll send them five pounds,” but if that same kid arrives on our doorstep, we behave very differently. That’s what I want to communicate: How can we be made to have the same empathy for those who are next to us as for those who are far away? And why do we even make a distinction?

Tell me about 21 Tate Neighbours, a group of local activists you brought together for this particular, community-based project. Why that particular number, which sounds almost magical?

It’s not a magic number and we’re planning to open it up. Tate is a very important international museum that has a big impact on the international art community and the way that culture is defined, but at the same time it’s very local — it’s located in a specific neighbourhood. My starting point was to ask: “How can the Tate be global and at the same time local?” I suggested we talk to the Tate’s neighbours and see how they feel about the institution, whether they feel welcome or not, and what would need to change in order for them to feel it’s their institution.

In fact, what came across in today’s presentation is that these people didn’t feel altogether welcome here and that they felt this place caters to tourists more than it addresses their own needs. Why do you think that is?

I don’t think this place is only for tourists. A lot of kids use it; there are a number of programs aimed at local kids. Actually one of the 21 Tate Neighbours is now an artist because he attended one of these programs ten years ago. But more could be done. I’m interested in the idea of museums as civic spaces. How can they become civic spaces? One answer is by becoming better neighbours, by investing all their power, cultural or otherwise, in neighbours. Tate Neighbours have transformed the institution by asking it to change with them.

Outwardly it has been transformed, starting with the first action initiated by 21 Tate Neighbours: renaming the Boiler House, including the Turbine Hall, after Natalie Bell, a local activist. It’s effectively a counterpoint to the Hyundai Commission itself, which is named after a corporate sponsor.

That’s my favourite part of the project. It draws attention to social work as a way of contributing to society. A lot of people put money over everything else but, in this way, we chose to value the time, work and energy Natalie puts into people. For over 15 years she has worked with youths at risk, who were abandoned by their parents, joined gangs, got involved in drugs — the sort of people that society has written off. Through her amazing work and sustained effort, Natalie has shown those kids that they have other options.

Not all of them were migrants, presumably. What about the giant effigy hidden beneath a heat-sensitive floor coated in black paint on the east side of the Turbine Hall—who does this portray?

Well, the Neighbours wanted somebody who represented them, a local hero, somebody who’d never be in the news and would never be a celebrity. We talked to Natalie Bell about who would best represent the work she’s been doing and there was this story about Yousef, a Syrian kid who came here with nothing. He could have gone the wrong way. Natalie and her charity SE1 United worked with him and now he’s studying biomedicine and wants to join Médecins Sans Frontières.

The Manifesto drafted by Tate Neighbours, which comes up on your screen as soon as you connect to Tate’s WiFi network, says something to this effect: “We believe that oppressed communities contribute culturally, socially, and politically to the betterment of all.”

That’s right. In capitalist places there’s a lack of understanding of how immigrants can be a positive force. Only once those societies understand all the knowledge these people can bring them, they’ll be better. I’ve been advocating that we elect undocumented immigrants. Since 2005 this has been my fight with the Immigrant Movement International project.

And what’s the upshot?

I tried and I failed every time but I’ll keep on trying. As an activist you have to try and try and try.

You’ve coined the term “artivist” to describe your activities, namely in the context of the Hannah Arendt International Institute for Artivism (INSTAR) which you set up in 2015.

In Cuba, the government decides if you are an artist or not, because if you do political art they say you’re not an artist, you’re just a dissident. This is why to me it’s so important that I defend the right to be an artist doing political art. And that’s why I call it “artivism.” It’s art and activism.

And who counts as a dissident in Cuba?

A dissident is anyone who criticizes the government openly and in public, and who sustains that critique. It has a bad vibe. People have been conditioned into thinking “dissident” means far-right and CIA-funded. Dissidents tend to be marginalized to serve as an example for others and make them afraid. When people hear that somebody is a dissident, their first reaction is to run the other way.

Do you consider yourself a dissident artist?

I’m an artist who dissents. I was accused in a national newspaper of being a CIA agent.

We both grew up in socialist countries undergoing an ideologically driven experiment gone awry, and that’s putting it mildly. Yet I wonder whether anything positive can be salvaged from those experiences and whether growing up in that kind of extreme environment makes one view instances of social injustice one meets with in democracies like the US and the UK more critically?

I’m very grateful that I was raised in Cuba because, despite all the problems, you felt a certain desire for humanism there that I still believe in. The Cuban government and state may not have fulfilled that humanistic project, which at some point became yet another tool for propaganda. But they planted a little seed in me. The little seed was about social justice and the understanding that everybody is equal. Not everybody is equal right now in Cuba. And the problem with being equal is that it homogenizes everybody into a forced equality, a kind of mediocrity.

That’s another point in the Tate Neighbours manifesto: “We advocate for the right for all to be different but equal.”

Because in capitalist places, they all want to be different, not equals. That’s why I’m so critical of capitalism as well as socialism. In Cuba I want to work for this utopia that supposedly we’re working towards but when I’m in capitalist countries, in the US or the UK, I’m dealing with what I feel is missing. Can we have hope instead of cynicism?

Is that what’s missing in capitalist regimes to your mind? A sense of hope?

A lot is missing. The idea of justice is missing. Not legal justice but justice in the sense of equality.

To me Yousef’s concealed portrait represents hope, as well as a call for collective action. His lone image seems to embody the relation of the individual to the group.

Exactly, you have this huge number, ten million or so, and then one boy.

It also takes some sort of concerted action on the visitors’ part for the portrait to be revealed through the collective heat of their bodies. Visiting the transformed Turbine Hall is a very sensual experience, appealing to the senses of touch, smell, and hearing. You seem to be using the senses to artificially trigger emotions, like the “forced empathy” induced by an organic substance that causes one to shed tears.

You cried?

I sure did. Isn’t it problematic on some level, though, the whole notion of induced empathy? A bit like crocodile tears.

Let me tell you something: we live in an era of fake news, fake celebrities, fake Instagram photos. We live in an era of fakeness. At least here we’re faking something that’s positive, and hopefully reminding people what feeling for others is. Moving to another country is traumatic. You have to restart your life. A lot of people are displaced for economic reasons, due to climate, war, violence. Migration is forced upon them.

You’ve used emotional responses and social affect in your work before, including in the Tanks at Tate with Surplus Value (2010), which I experienced back in 2012. The visitors were meant to queue and some of them even had to pass a lie detector test in order to access the exhibition room.

Did you pass the lie detector test?

No, I didn’t.

Me neither. In my case I didn’t pass because sometimes I couldn’t answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” I hesitated and I failed.

And yet I answered the questions truthfully to the best of my knowledge. The officer conducting the enquiry told me when my blood pressure rose and coolly noted other signs of nervousness and anxiety, which reminded me of how I’ve occasionally felt when crossing borders.

Once you start doing political art in countries like Cuba, you understand that politicians use affect as a tool and they construct it. They tell you how you feel. I’m so interested in working with affect because we’re social animals and we forget that part, the animal part, the one that controls fear and anxiety about not understanding things clearly. That’s the space where art can work — where something isn’t very clear or well defined, but you are in a protected zone.

Tania Bruguera: 10,142,926” is on view at Tate Modern, London, until February 24, 2019.

‘Low Form’ at MAXXI

This review of ‘Low Form: Imaginaries and Visions in the Age of Artificial Intelligence’ appeared in the December issue of Art Monthly:

Agnieszka Polska, What the Sun Has Seen, 2017

The evocative, if not entirely obvious, title of this group show points to the ‘unstable forms produced by artificial intelligence’, in the words of Fondazione MAXXI’s president, Giovanna Melandri. The notion of ‘low form’ is somewhat at odds with the highly sophisticated nature of some of the digital tools and algorithmic processes used to generate the works on view by the 16 international artists included in the show. Mostly born in the 1980s, or failing that the 1970s, they belong to the Millennial Generation and are – just about – ‘digital natives’. This buzzword, which has its origins in the 1996 Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, owes its popularity to the American educator Marc Prensky who used it, alongside its counterpart, in the title of his 2001 article ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’.

The protagonists of ‘Low Form’ are 3D avatars, robots and their parts, puppets and sun effigies, armies of animated humanoids, apparently getting on splendidly without us. Placed at the start of the show, Emilio Vavarella’s Do You Like Cyber?, 2017, orchestrates an exchange between three robotic arms mounted onto the wall and ending with mini-speakers, inspired by an episode that saw a number of fembots interact with each other rather than the male customers of an online service that had been hacked. Vavarella’s conversation piece has affinities with Cécile B Evans’s Test Cards, 2016 (Interview AM414) – a set of cartoon images featuring three robotic characters, including a dog, framed by LED-lit monitors – as with Zach Blas and Jemima Wyman’s video installation Im here to learn so :)))))), 2017, which bring back to life Twitter’s aborted creation Tay (‘thinking about you’), a chatbot designed to speak like American millennials in their late teens. Tay fell victim to hackers and, within hours of its launch, succeeded in putting out thousands of racist, homophobic, misogynistic and otherwise offensive tweets.

All three works play with sci-fi ideas around the exploitation of AI and artificial life, and with this comes the threat of their insubordination and revolt, which is as old as science fiction itself. This way of projecting human attributes and emotions onto inanimate and, for the most part, immaterial things – their creators’ creatures run amok – smacks of animism and runs the risk of anthropomorphising our cybernetic others. The concept of ‘artificial intelligence’ itself entails a machine’s supposed ability to emulate the way a human being thinks. And yet, as James Bridle argues in his 2017 essay ‘Machine Learning in Practice’ (featured in the helpful anthology that is part of the exhibition catalogue), ‘what used to be called Artificial Intelligence has always been hampered by its attempts to recreate human intelligence’, whereas the more recent ‘growth [in the use of machine learning] has been driven by the increasing inhumanity of the intelligence we’re developing’.

For an exhibition whose artists embrace the cutting-edge technological developments in the digital realm, ‘Low Form’ is at times surprisingly backward-looking. One of its avowed aims is to explore the links between historical Surrealism and its contemporary forms. A surrealist sensibility permeates Jamian Juliano-Villani’s paintings, drawing on high and low cultural references alike, and notably Victory Over The Sön, 2018, in which a skeletal swan contemplates its own full-fleshed snowy reflection in a pond that bears the inscription ‘VISIONS OF BILLY’S PENIS’. Eerie, simulated imagery reflecting the hidden recesses of the online world and its subcultures, the body and its entrails also informs Jon Rafman’s videos Poor Magic, 2018, and SHADOWBANNED: Punctured Sky, 2018. The avatar’s motley head in Blas and Wyman’s rendering of Tay hovers against a dream-like hallucinogenic backdrop arrived at after using Google’s DeepDream computer-vision program.

Other artists draw on techniques associated with Surrealism and its precursors, be it automatic drawing in the case of Cheyney Thomson’s prints Sets of Curves, 2018, a variation on the nude figure of the goddess Bellona in a painting by Peter Paul Rubens but made with a printer for vector graphics, or collage and assemblage in Anna Uddenberg’s multi-sensory installation Pockets Obese, 2017, whose centrepiece is an unidentifiable object that may once have been a chair in a hair salon, surrounded by see-through walls of falling water. There are Duchampian echoes (namely of The Large Glass and its machine-like bachelors) in the Lithuanian duo Pakui Hardware’s biomorphic sculptural ensemble On Demand, 2017, which hints at the human form by means of whimsical details such as tiny feet supporting what looks like a blue body of water embedded into a glossy Plexiglas sheet. Hybridity and a touch of the absurd likewise characterise Luca Trevisani’s delicate compositions, mixing organic and synthetic matter as in caldo (Giorgio Manganelli), 2018, an amalgamate of animal (lobster claws), vegetable (milk thistle, silk floss tree seeds) and mineral (silver chain, copper powder) parts covered in tempura.

‘What does the future look like?’ asks one of the characters in Evans’s Test Cards. ‘Distressed,’ quips the other. If there is something uplifting about Lorenzo Senni’s Breaking Edge, 2018, with its punchy laser-projected images dancing to an upbeat, high-pitched tune in an endless loop, and even about the ceaseless stream of self-generating forms in Ian Cheng’s live simulation Emissary Sunsets the Self (ESTS), 2017, the overall mood of ‘Low Form’ is more sombre and downcast. The eponymous Sun in Agnieszka Polska’s hypnotic animated video What the Sun Has Seen, 2017, scans our doomed planet with the sad, knowing eyes of a child. Alternatively despondent and confident, the haunting lyrics from the album by the fittingly named The Children of Sunshine that Polska chose to accompany her surreal imagery offer a glimmer of hope: ‘It’s a long way to heaven, I don’t think we’re going to make it … It’s a long way to heaven, but maybe we might make it.’

Companion Planting

This piece appeared in the summer 2018 issue of CCQ magazine:

The roundtable discussion was part of a three-day event (7-10 June 2018) held at artist Fritz Haeg’s Salmon Creek Farm in northern California. Conceived by James Voorhies from the Bureau for Open Culture as a think tank of sorts, Companion Planting: A Manual for the Ecology of New Art brought together artists, writers and academics. Participants were invited to present one of the six modules – Artists, Audience, Economics, Education, Institutions, Publicity – and to consider what is needed to sustain a healthy contemporary art scene from a perspective 30 years into the future.

James Voorhies: Maybe we could start off with our ownership of various themes and how they connected to others. Does an institution of the future begin to operate a little like a gallery, committed to a specific number of artists? Of course that would mean fewer artists or creative producers are supported by that one institution but that it is also supporting them more sustainably. That’s one provocation but also a potential for thirty years down the road.

Frances Richard: Similarly, at the faculty level, fewer people getting more real support is something that’s ethically complicated but worth thinking about. If you invest more in your faculty, you invest in fewer people. That’s always an argument against unionization. The institution says, ‘You know, if you ask for better conditions, fewer people will get them.’

Nate Padavick: To me it sounds as though the artist figure or the art teacher becomes embedded in everything else, in all the other facets of higher education. It all becomes a little more porous.

JV: So maybe we jump forward to 2048 and the artist has ceased to exist but something called a very creative, networked individual exists who might be a designer, who also steps into an art school to teach one class, and is also working in some kind of urban planning context.

Kim Nguyen: But who could with quality, effort and care contribute to that many disciplines?

JV: For people who teach in Design, education isn’t the number one thing. Designers, this is a generalization, but they expect to be paid.

SJ: I guess some designers get signature status but a lot of design jobs are for hire as opposed to for signature.

NP: There’s a natural ecosystem for that. The designers go to school and they get hired by the job market but the ecosystem isn’t as clear-cut for art. The institutions aren’t responding to the ecosystem, which is telling them we’re saturated; they’re just floating the market and creating this…

JV: Well, a bubble of some sort.

Fritz Haeg: I have an easy time romanticizing the past, the 60s, the 70s in particular. The young artists before the 80s, let’s say, in the West were part of the counter-culture, both outside and inside of culture. The post-80s influx of money, publicity, glamour, parties or whatever, it’s just changed the dynamic so much and I wonder where this is headed. I see a profoundly different culture around art making and the role of artist today versus what I perceive it to be before the money came in.

KN: The question is when is ‘before the money came in’? Like, the Medicis? It’s always been part of it to some extent.

Shannon Jackson: I was thinking that too throughout the weekend. There were all these moments of realization – ‘Oh, this place is here in part because of the history of logging and, yes, the back-to-land people had trust funds or there are Amazon boxes coming here’ – at odds with the presumed purity of dropping out.

Brian Conley: One thought is about embracing corruption not as some kind of foreign being one has to go to battle with, but as a kind of necessary component of the imperfection of life itself. And then the other is that even if you have these corrupt forces or institutions that are part of the art world, there are things like what Fritz is doing, people who are attempting to provide another platform, and gatherings like this that try to create new forms of art and relationships with institutions. Even if there are no solutions that come out of this or out of Fritz’s project. Fine. But the very attempt is symbolically important.

FH: I’m not looking for purity but my heart does get racing with the idea of thinking of new possibilities.

Michele Carlson: There’s a whole network of acceptance of abuse and scarcity, which seems bigger than the educational space. Artists who are graduating, they’re thinking ‘I’m going to go out by myself and maybe make art in the corner of my closet’. They’re not thinking of themselves as networks. There’s this really important collectivity, multiplicitous and porous and dynamic. I think those collective spaces often create the very forces they might be working against.

Ryan Peter: I don’t feel we’ve talked about real estate much. How does that affect the artist? I’ve already complained to a number of people about getting displaced out of my studio by a tech company going around a neighbourhood and buying up a number of buildings. Maybe an artist [of the future] is no longer somebody who occupies space.

SJ: What if artist training included some things in the future like basic real estate management…

KN: Oh God!

SJ: …or, I don’t know, how to talk to an urban planner or some things that are about cross sector work or something, because you’re going to be vulnerable as artists or potential collaborators.

RP: I’ve also been thinking about these 13-year-old kids building cabins [at Salmon Creek Farm] and maybe we’ve got to start going backwards. Maybe we need to become more holistic – what Nate was talking about, something that’s no longer a definite role but takes place within a number of disciplines in the university model.

Calvin Rocchio: I wanted to bring up the idea of ‘companion planting’ again to break down this illusion of the closed walls of the art world. We keep talking about the art world as if it’s autonomous; I’m excited thinking about artists as service providers, companion planting with other fields of research. The notion of ‘a corner of the closet’ is extremely antiquated because it treats the field itself as this romantic space.

SJ: If that’s companion planting or whatever it is, there’s a bit of tension always between creating an environment for specialised artists within music, art practice, film, theatre, etc., while at the same time trying to get this out in every single field for everybody. Careful what you wish for. I don’t know how to talk about the future but I’m probably going to try and think of how to make the best use of planting companionship.

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