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Céline Condorelli

This interview with Céline Condorelli, on the occasion of her solo show at Stroom den Haag, appeared in Metropolis M magazine in Dutch translation:

Image result for celine condorelli stroom den haag proposals photo

Céline Condorelli: Proposals for a Qualitative Society (Spinning) photo: Gerrit Schreurs, courtesy Stroom Den Haag

Agnieszka Gratza: Attempts to Read the World (Differently) is an umbrella project that has many different strands, in which you took part either with other artists or on your own, with Display Show which morphed into Another Reality. After Lina Bo Bardi at Stroom den Haag. And you’re about to do a show there involving spinning tops and carousels.

Céline Condorelli: We’ve been working together for the past two years on a series of linked projects but Stroom is also supporting my research long-term which is really exceptional for an institution. When I was invited to contribute to Attempts to Read the World (Differently), I didn’t know what that would be like. I was trying to think of a starting point that would lead me somewhere. It took quite a long time; that’s the nice thing about a research-based invitation. We started thinking about what ‘reading the world’ meant. At the time, I was interested in forms of display which for me is a way of reading the world: the way things are shown and the way we are able to approach them. Of course that’s very much what’s at stake in exhibition-making. Any kind of presentation of culture has to do with display. So that was my entry point in the ongoing project that started from Display Show with Gavin Wade and James Langdon.

AG: I gather that Display Show had two prior editions in Dublin at Temple Bar Gallery and then at Eastside Projects in Birmingham.

CC: The final one is at Stroom, which allowed us to put some of the displays to work. We started from three historical positions and a contemporary reading – one of El Lissitzky, one of Herbert Bayer, one of Eileen Gray – and these works were then used to display other works on display in the second iteration at Eastside Projects, and were later transformed again for the iteration at Stroom den Haag, which was probably the most complete one but also the most complex one. Part of our argument is that in order to look at something like display, which is a relationship between things, you need to put it to work – to display things and use artworks to display other artworks. That was a really interesting show to have at Stroom.

The work on Lina Bo Bardi came out of the conversation with Stroom programmer Francien van Westrenen. In November 2015, we went on a study trip to Brazil together to visit Lina Bo Bardi’s buildings and decided it was important to look at her, first of all, in relation to forms of display but also through how contemporary practices use her work or refer to it or make further work from it.

AG: What would you say the difference is between a historical approach and the way a contemporary artist such as yourself might approach Bo Bardi’s work?

CC: Well, what was shown wasn’t Lina Bo Bardi’s work but works born from reading or referring to her. There was a Leonor Antunes that refers to the floor in her house; a Wendelien van Oldenborgh reconstruction of one of the display systems with material about the social, historical and political economy of Brazil; there were works of mine in relation to a show that Lina Bo Bardi did. People who went to see the show looking for Lina Bo Bardi materials were probably disappointed because there was not even one. What there was were her ideas and how they live today through contemporary artists – a lot of women, actually mostly women.

AG: Francien, in an email to me, described Display Show transforming into Another Reality. After Lina Bo Bardi as a ‘choreography’ which you jointly set up. Can you describe this process?

CC: We did not finish one show, take all the work away and then do a second show. Each work was removed one by one and then other things appeared every week and in that way the process of construction of display was made public. Something like that relies on having a very good team that communicates what’s happening because there are people walking into Stroom seeing boxes and things not looking finished for a period of three weeks, so it’s really important that an institution communicates what is happening and why that’s important or interesting.

AG: What about the exhibition you’re currently working on with Stroom?

CC: It starts from a drawing by Lina Bo Bardi of the museum of contemporary art in São Paulo, the MASP, with a playground on the square. She said that the museum should contain a collection, popular arts (and by that she meant craft, ‘arte popolare’) and a playground. Then there’s ‘A Model for a Qualitative Society’ by Palle Nielsen for which he turned Moderna Museet in Stockholm into an adventure playground. This was not an educational program; it was the main exhibition and he really meant it as a case study for a society constructing itself.

AG: The dates of these two projects, 1969 and 1968 respectively, are quite close. Is that a coincidence or were they aware of each others’ work?

CC: I had no idea. I don’t know if they even heard of each other because they were in very different parts of the world. Lina Bo Bardi never went back to Europe after she moved to Brazil in 1946; she might have visited her family in Italy but I don’t think she was very present in Europe and she wasn’t famous.

AG: But what is it that made you want to bring these two projects together?

CC: They’re references that help me think through this idea of display, on the one hand, and secondly I’ve been interested for a long time in thinking about undoing a certain elitism of contemporary culture. Even a four year old knows that they’re not supposed to touch anything in a museum. This idea that culture should be something you look at from a distance is a strange construction, one I don’t necessarily agree with. Intimacy with culture is, I think, extremely important.

AG: Francien told me that the objects you’ll make for the exhibition are designed to be handled and touched, which is not ordinarily allowed in a museum.

CC: The playground is a recent addition but I’ve made museum benches, for instance, as artworks – another object in the museum that’s not normally part of the art but is nevertheless in the room. The idea of a playground or play object is related to objects I’ve been making for a long time but also to this idea of intimacy with form that’s not normally allowed with cultural objects. Even more so perhaps because it relies on an interaction with children, not exclusively, but mostly with children who of course have a different encounter with form – as something to climb on, sit on or play with; the body is very important in that encounter. It’s not just vision, the eye or the ear.

AG: What is the relation between the spinning tops and the carousels?

CC: The spinning tops are models of the carousel, miniatures if you like. The first thing I made were carousels for MASP.

AG: This was for the group show called Playground in 2016?

CC: Yes. There were two carrousels called Conversation Piece, one inside the museum and one outside, on the square on which Lina Bo Bardi had imagined a playground that was never built. I thought it was doing some kind of poetic justice to complete her project in a way that she wanted by restituting the carousel for it.

AG: And why are they called Conversation Piece?

CC: I thought it was non-verbal conversation between people and form, form and the social. Like this interaction I was trying to describe that is of the body rather than the intellect or just of eyes.

AG: And how did people in Brazil react to this work?

CC: I don’t know really, but the one feedback I got was through Instagram; that’s how you know how people interact with you stuff and there’s a number of Instagram posts of people photographing their children, making little films with the carousels, posing, or whatever. That I think is the biggest compliment.

AG: Well, I hope it will be the same at Stroom. I’m sure it will be a fun show.

CC: It doesn’t really have a title yet. What we’ve constructed is another conversation between exhibitions and public art, which is also something that’s often missing in contemporary art. The public art category is completely separate – different artists, systems, places, exhibition practices – and I’ve always wondered why. I think I fall somewhere in between those two and so I had this idea of showing a series of carousels in the exhibition space, working with local schools. They would pitch in order to choose one for their own playground, so at the end of the exhibition the carousels would leave the exhibition space and become public art but also just infrastructure in local schools, properly public objects. This allows me to have a series of workshops with kids making spinning tops and colouring them, which will inform the making process, the production of the carousels themselves.

AG: Are these carousels and spinning tops merely inspired by Lina Bo Bardi’s and Palle Nielsen’s ideas or do they more directly reference the form of these works?

CC: The reference is in function, not in form. I try to apply their program. I take it as instructions. And then that’s interpreted or produced through forms that are entirely my own.

AG: I know you’ve curated a Puppet Show at Eastside Projects in 2013. How does that relate to your interest in spinning tops and carousels?

CC: For me everything is connected; it might not be clear from the outside. My interest in puppets is in relation to sculpture, putting things into the world that are not dead but articulate – they speak – and in many ways any cultural production speaks for itself independently of its authors up to a point. Playgrounds or play objects articulate certain ideas of what playing, childhood and culture are. Play is supposed to be low culture.

AG: Perhaps we could probe this notion of play and what potential, subversive and other, it holds.

CC: I think that play is a direct relationship with form, objects. It’s exactly this relationship of intimacy that I was trying to describe. But it’s also a relationship to objects in which objects are somehow instruments for things; not that dissimilar to musical instruments. When you play a musical instrument, you use the object to create something: a piece of music, an experience. The musicians take enormous care of their instruments because they need them to perform. You touch the object in a specific way in order to get it to do something.

That’s exactly the way toys work, especially spinning tops. But I also think that the playing child changes the relationship to the city. This is something Palle Nielsen describes quite well. He doesn’t mean the Moderna Museet as an educational side program for children; he really means it as a case study of human society.

AG: If I understood what went on at the Moderna Museet correctly, it was a radical proposition; it effectively meant that only children could fully experience the exhibition. Do you know Coram’s Fields in London?

CC: Sure.

AG: I’ve always been drawn to it.

CC: Have you ever been?

AG: No, because you need a child to get in.

CC: You can borrow children. That’s how I’ve went there!

AG: I love the world-upside-down you get in such places, which is also what Johan Huizinga talks about in his study of the ‘homo ludens‘, the carnivalesque aspects of it. ‘Play is the work of children,’ Maria Montessori said. In a child’s way of apprehending the world, there’s huge potential for reform of society at large. But I’m not sure what makes it so.

CC: Children allow adults to understand collective work in a completely different way. It’s also about not being burdened by existing models, a kind of spontaneous participation. I’m not a children’s or play specialist at all; I’m just interested in taking the idea of authorship and the construction of process-based culture from the hands of artists alone, and protected objects.

AG: This strand of the Stroom program is in fact aimed both at adults and children. I’m equally fascinated by the idea of playgrounds for adults.

CC: What does that mean?

AG: For one thing, they’re not aimed at children: they’re playful outdoor spaces for adults to unwind in. I’ve not tried them out myself, but they were becoming fashionable in New York when I lived there in 2012. Are the sorts of structures you’ve set up in the offices of Kunsthalle Lissabon and which will now take over Stroom playgrounds for adults?

CC: It’s a good question. I don’t really like the word ‘participatory art’ but, like with most things that require or can have an interaction with the public, as an artist you’re only partially in control. What I try to do to the best of my abilities is to offer things, constructions or situations that can be interpreted at different levels; a two-year old child can use it to climb on when he’s learning to walk or an adult can use it to sit on and have a completely pretentious conversation. I would really like to make the contexts that can be used in those two ways and other ways in between.

AG: Yes, but do you think these objects are a kind of one-fits-all size? I like the fact that you have spinning tops which are scaled versions of the carousels.

CC: They are 1:20. The spinning tops are 15 cm and the carrousels are 300 cm in diameter.

AG: And is that a size more suitable for children or adults? I mean that of the carousels.

CC: Carousels are quite big things. I think both and neither. It could be fitted for giants as well. They’re a bit low for giants perhaps.

AG: How many carousels will there be at Stroom?

CC: Three. They’re all inside. At the end of the exhibition they will all be outside.

AG: They’ll end up with the schools you’re working with.

CC: Francien is trying to work on having one in a public square which, if it happens, would be really wonderful.

AG: How did you select the different schools involved?

CC: They’re schools that Stroom has been in touch with. They often work with schools or school children for their public program. It’s a conversation that’s been happening for the last year: finding local schools that were interested and suitable; getting public funding from the city to allow this to be done properly. There’s a tradition of playgrounds built by artists and architects in Holland. Aldo van Eyk made some 300 playgrounds for Amsterdam. I’m intervening within an already existing tradition.

AG: Besides Van Eyk, the show will be referencing architects and designers such as Constant Nieuwenhuys, from what I’ve heard.

CC: You’ve got Palle Nielsen and Lina Bo Bardi. Nieuwenhuys did these play structures for museums that are quite interesting but I don’t know if they’re going to appear in the show. Isamu Noguchi also did lots of play structures but I’ve only seen them in photographs. There’s a book by Peter Friedl called Playgrounds I really love that has photographs of playgrounds from around world and one by Nils Norman on adventure playgrounds, which is also great.

AG: Will you show any documentation from this history of adventure playgrounds?

CC: I’ll try and have some context there. I don’t think it will be archival stuff but more to do with how it’s been used. And there will be a library as well, a bibliography for the project.

AG: Are there any other elements to the show, besides that, the spinning tops and the carousels?

CC: No, that’s it. That’s the important bit. Can’t get too distracted.

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Taste of Things to Come?

Seen from the top of a mountain overlooking the fishing village, Henningsvær resembles an archipelago of islands loosely strung together, not unlike Lofoten as a whole. Bathed by the sea, some of the oldest volcanic rock formations on the Lofoten peninsula can be found on the edges of the settlement, right behind the sports arena known as Henningsvær Stadion – one of the locations of this edition of LiAF, in fact. For the first time since its inception in 1991, the biennial, which in the past has mainly been held in the larger, neighbouring towns of Solvær and Kabelvåg, took place within the confines of Henningsvær. Due to the decline of the fishing industry to which it owes its wealth and the ongoing threat of oil rigging, the town faces an uncertain future, thus lending itself beautifully to the theme chosen by curators Heidi Ballet and Milena Høgsberg for this edition of LiAF, titled I Taste the Future.

As it happens, the works by some twenty artists and artist collectives featured in this year’s LiAF – a good mix of international, Norwegian and locally-based artists with a connection to the place – are spread across three atmospheric, dilapidated venues that were former sites of fish production, before closing down in the 1980s and 90s. Is this the taste of things to come? I was left wondering. The largest of the three, Trevarefabrikken, an old cod liver oil factory turned into a cultural centre boasting a bar and a cafe, was the designated festival hub. Youmna Chlala’s blue neon installation,  one of (all too) few site-specific artworks to be located outdoors, deftly availed itself of the skeletal wooden racks visible all around the village that are still used to hang cod out to dry. Part of a larger text-based work spanning the three venues – How Many Tongues Does It Take to Make a Color? (2017) – the sign read “Here We Cut Tongues”, in keeping with Chlala’s poetic claim that “In the future we will weave, cut and preserve tongues in the hopes of preserving languages. If blue is the horizon of colors will it appear infinitely?”

Written out in cobalt blue letters, the latter was inscribed on the wall in a room of Trevarefabrikken with sweeping views of the sea and the jagged mountains beyond it. In the same room, packed with people at the opening, I witnessed the start of Adam Linder’s roaming performance To Gear a Joan (2017) enacted by Stine Janvin Motland. Sporting parts of an armour fashioned out of carbon fibre over a plain grey outfit, the pale Norwegian vocalist looked the part of Joan of Arc or else a “future Eve” as she moved around slowly, in a controlled manner, and repeated Linder’s lyrics in an eerily high-pitched tone, over and over, like some incantation. As she stood by the vast square window dominating the room, Motland appeared to vie for our attention with the breathtaking scenery. “We’re not in competition but in conversation with the landscape,” Chlala would tell me later.

Not all the artists saw things this way, though. Eglė Budvytytė’s Liquid Power Has No Shame (2017), another choreographic performance that spilled out of Trevarefabrikken onto the streets of Henningsvær, saw the three Brussels-based performers pitted against the landscape, “refusing to surrender to [its] romantic pull”, to quote the festival booklet. Clad in gold hooded jackets bearing fanciful octopi motifs, the dancers moved languidly down a wide street, followed by their audience and the amused gazes of local youths, until they reached a rocky promontory overlooking the sea, where they carried out peculiar, mildly erotic rituals. These involved round colourful urchin shells from which the dancers poured out water into each others’ navels, drank it and then spat it out into a shallow pool of water nestled in the rocks.

Imagine a future with no humans
The festival’s very title suggests a way of apprehending the future through the senses. The sense of taste itself was represented by Liv Bangsund’s People’s Kitchen project, which during the opening weekend served up delicious free lunches cooked with food past its sell-by date in a bid to raise awareness of food waste in Norway and beyond. But the titular “taste” stood for an all-round sensory experience. “We could have called it I Smell the Future,” Høgsberg explained at a press briefing on the day of the opening. Or indeed I Hear the Future, given the prominence of audio works showcased in the festival. Daisuke Kosugi’s audio guide, for one, invited participants to follow specific instructions, directing them to specific places located in and around Henningsvær Stadion’s football field. This resulted in a silent choreography as visitors – each in his or her own world yet dimly aware of other people’s movements – listened to two different versions of the audio with four discrete tracks on it, ranging from the upbeat 1947 song “I’m My Own Grandpa” to what the artist referred to as “hell tourism” stories (apparently a popular genre in Japan), inspired by a folk tale about a monk who travelled to hell and back. These briefly captured my interest but soon I found myself drifting away from the football field to inspect the curious gneiss formations thought to be some 25-million-years old; the work could hardly compete with the scenery in this instance.

Kosugi’s recordings challenge us to imagine a future with no humans in it. At the outset of her own “outdoor sensory tour”, which was among the opening weekend’s highlights, Elin Már Øyen Vister  also reminded those who went on it that cod fish were coming to those shores long before humans ever did. Her contribution to LiAF, Dear Henningsvær and the Ocean that Embraces You! (2017) –  a title that reads like a love letter – engaged with the village and its setting to a greater degree than any of the other exhibiting artists. Már Øyen Vister, who lives in Lofoten, is well aware that it takes a long time, sometimes years, to make a site-specific work worthy of the name; she admits that on this occasion she only spent two months at Henningsvær in the run up to LiAF, getting to know the place according to her usual practice: first by walking around and meeting the landscape, sounding it out, deep-listening to it, and then by getting to know its people and their stories.

Sea Sámis
Unlike Már Øyen Vister’s audio walk that visitors could go on by themselves, and which engaged with various actors (both human and non-human) and aspects of life in the fishing village, the tour at the opening weekend focused more firmly on the Sea Sámi people and their culture. By living in the area, the artist became aware of Norway’s colonial history and present as regards the Sea Sámi, which she was not taught at school. Her work in the context of LiAF attempts to address this but it does so in a way that I found somewhat troubling. On the tour that I attended, we were led towards two women sporting traditional Sámi costumes presented against a stunning natural backdrop of sea and land that was, at least implicitly, presented as rightfully their own. This despite the fact that, as far as I could ascertain, neither one of them – singer Elisabeth Misvær and translator Heidi Birgitta Andersen respectively – actually comes from Lofoten. Given the regional disparities between the Sea Sámi people, reflected by the very different costumes the two women wore, Már Øyen Vister may have cast her net a little too wide, particularly if her aim was to convey to us the fruit of her research into local lore and oral histories.

Már Øyen Vister was not the only LiAF artist whose work touched on the fraught Sámi question. Besides Sorry (2014), Siri Hermansen’s informative documentary built around film footage from King Harald’s official apology (“for wrongs inflicted on the Sámi people by the Norwegian State through policies of hard Norwegianization”) made at the opening of the Sámi Parliament in 1997, the second floor of the Nordbrygga venue housed sundry drawings by Danish archaeologist Povl Simonsen, whose pioneering field studies in the 1950s showed that the Sámi people were the first inhabitants of some parts of Northern Norway. These were selected by Silje Figenschou Thoresen, an artist of Sámi origin, and presented alongside found objects and sculptures of her own. When I asked her how Simonsen’s drawings related to the biennial theme, the artist’s response was that the work “talks about the past, and we will always do that in the future”.

This was certainly true of Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings’ video Museum Futures: Distributed (2008) that one could view in a black room right next to Hermansen’s installation. Commissioned by Moderna Museet to mark its fiftieth anniversary in 2008, the work imagines a live virtual interview between Moderna Museet’s executive director Ayan Lindquist and a Chinese archivist, Ms Chan. Set in 2058, fifty years from now (at the time of its conception), the dialogue flits back and forth in time, spanning a century of the museum’s history – roughly half of which is speculative. The fictive scenario at the heart of Museum Futures: Distributed mirrors the curatorial premise behind this edition of LiAF: Ballet and Høgsberg had asked artists to project themselves 150 years into the future. None of the participants took this literally, as Høgsberg admitted on the day of the opening, explaining that this brief was intended “to move past apocalyptic scenarios and get into a more playful way of thinking”.

A Cyborg Manifesto
Unsurprisingly, given the approach encouraged by the curators, several works on view nodded to Donna Haraway’s 1984 A Cyborg Manifesto. The feminist theorist and her convention-defying life style are sympathetically portrayed in Fabrizio Terranova’s feature-length documentary film Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival (2016), screened in a dedicated projection room. The Cyborg Manifesto informs Lili Reynaud-Dewar’s video TEETH, GUMS, FUTURE, SOCIETY (TGMFS) (2016), which turns an adornment associated with hip-hop culture – the gilded “grill” worn over teeth – into a futuristic prop that a group of four Memphis-based actors dons as they  read out from and discuss the Cyborg Manifesto on a makeshift stage inside a suitably modernist-looking building.

Haraway’s influence and her brand of feminist science fiction make themselves felt in the cyborg-like, female or androgynous, creatures who are a ghostly presence in the works of Adam Linder, Lili Reynaud-Dewar, Marysia Lewandowska and Neil Cummings, and above all Ann Lislegaard. “Billy”, the cyborg whose effigy looms large in Maelstrømmen (2017) – Lislegaard’s 3D animation for two screens set amid industrial machinery at the Trevarefabrikken – is made in the artist’s own image, albeit with shaved hair that significantly alters her appearance. In conversation with Milena Høgsberg at the opening weekend, Lislegaard said that one of the reasons why she has long been interested in science fiction as a genre is precisely that it explores gender issues and sexuality in interesting ways.

But Haraway’s ideas were also invoked by artists whose work gestures towards alternative forms of communication, not only between humans but also, intriguingly, between different species. Lislegaard’s cyborg Billy appears to be hearing the voices of other beings, which he attempts to capture by holding up his hand to his ear. Occasional glitches in the transmission that keep the viewer engaged, as far as the artist is concerned, recall the odd slip in the otherwise implausibly articulate debate that Cummings and Lewandowska’s two female protagonists engage in. Ms Chan and Ayan Lindquist seem to be browsing materials lodged in their heads even as they converse; the future technology that enables this is taken for granted (it comes with its own vocabulary) and never spelled out.

A similar haziness surrounds Filip Van Dingenen’s concept of “interspecies diplomacy”, illustrated by the case of seaweed. Van Dingenen, who spent time learning about traditional seaweed cutting and farming in Ireland, has since joined the ranks of worldwide activists fending for the legal rights of seaweeds, faced with the reality of mass harvesting. The artist sees seaweeds as sentient beings endowed with spiritual qualities. At the opening weekend, we had the chance to get more closely acquainted with a variety of locally-sourced specimens that Van Dingenen collected especially for his Seaweed Cutting, Collecting and Conservation Project (CCCP) workshop. This was to be sure a pleasurable activity that appealed to more than one sense, yet I came away feeling none the wiser as to how this particular instance of interspecies communication was to work, nor what the artist meant by “new forms of diplomacy” in our dealings with seaweeds, other perhaps than his insistence on addressing them as “sea plants” – a more politically-correct term, grant it.

The artworks that made the deepest impression on me at this year’s performance- and video-heavy LiAF were undoubtedly the ones that acknowledged the surrounding scenery and worked with it, not in defiance of it. On the whole the curators struck the right balance between different media; and yet, despite Lofoten’s famously unpredictable weather, a case could be made for having more outdoor installation pieces and fewer video works whose projection requirements kept visitors cooped up inside the main festival venues.

 

Roberto Cuoghi: Perla Pollina

This review of Roberto Cuoghi’s “Perla Pollina” at MADRE, Naples appeared in Mousse magazine:

The accidental title of Roberto Cuoghi’s midcareer retrospective, which the press release attributes to “the erroneous effects of an auto-correct program,” invites various possible readings. A reclusive and enigmatic figure who has been known to shun the art establishment, the Italian artist cultivates a hermit-like persona. The titular “pollina,” suggestive of chicken manure, put this critic in mind of Aesop’s fable about a rooster who finds a jewel in a dung heap only to cast it aside, since in his eyes the gem is no substitute for plain corn. It has certain affinities with the playful name Cuoghi adopted in one of his earliest self-portrait series, Il Coccodeista (1997), a made-up word that conjures the cackle of a hen. In an interview quoted by the show’s curator, Andrea Bellini, in the opening essay of the lavishly illustrated monograph accompanying PERLA POLLINA, Cuoghi suggests that “pearls are an illness of the seashell.” Not unlike the tumor-generating cancer—a diseased outgrowth and error in the order of nature—pearls are excessive in every way, and yet we set great store by them.

It would be fitting, for an amateur of the fugue such as Cuoghi, that his retrospective should take the form of three iterations of growing complexity. Whether this will happen remains to be seen. Of the three exhibitions, all curated by Bellini—starting with his home institution, the Centre d’Art Contemporain Genève, and traveling to MADRE, Naples, and then on to Kölnischer Kunstverein, Cologne, over the course of a year—only two have taken place to date.

If these are anything to go by, there is a conscious effort on the curator’s part to vary the presentation of the selected works that goes beyond the constraints created by the exhibition spaces. By and large the same individual works and bodies of work, showing Cuoghi’s artistic evolution in the last two decades, feature in both shows, from the early self-portraits for which the artist subjected himself to all manner of grueling (and much-discussed) experiments to the ceramic crabs in the 2016 Putiferio series and the kilns in which they were fired. If anything, the inaugural show at the Centre d’Art Contemporain is the more complete of the two when it comes to the number of works on display. Moreover, the sound installations documenting Mbube (2005), Mei Gui (2006), and Šuillakku(2008) (which, admittedly, were not the most successful part of the Geneva show, as the headphone presentation failed to do justice to the complexity of these choral works) are not shown at MADRE. Instead, a seminar focusing on this aspect of Cuoghi’s oeuvre will take place during the exhibition.

Cuoghi tends to work in cycles and series, obsessively exploring a given technique or method that requires him to master a set of skills, until his interest is exhausted and he moves on to the next thing. Works belonging to each series were grouped together in Geneva in a roughly chronological fashion on the third floor (where most of the drawings, diary works, maps, and some of sculptural pieces were displayed,) resulting in a more coherent show. Those same works were deliberately mixed and matched on the corresponding (second) floor at MADRE, in a way that brought to light possible connections between discrete cycles and suggested new readings of individual works.

Take for instance Megas Dakis (2007), an astonishingly lifelike profile portrait of the Greek collector Dakis Joannou in the guise of a Roman emperor minted on a coin. The fleshy wax effigy, complete with human hair, morphs in places into strange hybrid creatures—doll and animal rolled into one. Unlike at the Centre d’Art Contemporain, where this was the centerpiece and focal point in a dedicated room, at MADRE the work was hung behind one of the Pazuzu sculptures, named after the demon of wind in Sumerian mythology, whose face in this instance bore Cuoghi’s likeness; rather than Joannou’s portrait, it took center stage. In Geneva, the work was shown alongside prints and wonderfully absurd reproductions of deep-fried surgical instruments that form part of Joannou’s collection; the fourteen works in question appeared mounted onto the wall in single file, spanning three communicating galleries in Naples, but taken out of context their overall impact felt somewhat diminished.

In lieu of the shrine to Joannou as a patron and collector, toward which the different rooms on the third floor of the Centre d’Art Contemporain built up, the eight smaller gallery spaces at MADRE strikingly featured a collector’s room. Minimally furnished with dark-wood period furniture, which served to display some of the artworks, it brought together a range of ceramic crabs, a layered map of the world, and prints of surgical instruments, hung salon style, beside the dark painted portrait of yet another maimed art aficionado, staring back at the viewer with his one intact eye. Staged in this way, familiar works by Cuoghi took on the aura of wonders produced by nature and art alike—the sorts of objects one would expect to find and marvel at in an eighteenth-century gentleman’s Wunderkammer, which incidentally is what Cuoghi’s own studio is like.

 

Florence Hercule at NMNM

This review of “Florence Hercule. Le nouveau Robinson” at NMNM Villa Paloma appeared in the May 2017 issue of Flash Art International:

 Hercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm - Collection C. H. Florence -  Leila et Silvia FlorenceHercule Florence, Sem titulo (canoa de Guatòs, ao por-do-sol), ca. 1835, watercolor and China ink on paper, 32 x 43,5 cm – Collection C. H. Florence – Leila et Silvia Florence

Meticulously researched and documented, this captivating show co-curated by artist Linda Fregni Nagler and NMNM’s Cristiano Raimondi brings together a vast array of drawings, watercolours, prints, letters and manuscripts that shed light on the remarkable achievements of the nineteenth-century draughtsman, printer and inventor Hercule Florence (1804-79). Born in Nice but raised in Monaco, this self-styled “new Robinson” is little known outside of Brazil, where he settled and worked for much of his adult life, after taking part in the ill-fated Langsdorff expedition (1825-29) into the Amazon that cost the German leader Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff his sanity and the French painter Aimé-Adrien Taunay his life.

Florence’s studies of the Amazonian landscapes, its flora and fauna, as well as indigenous tribes and their customs hold pride of place in the show alongside the finely illustrated diaries he kept during the expedition. Yet this forgotten figure from Brazil’s colonial past deserves our attention today for his subsequent discoveries: innovative proposals for a system of musical notation of bird song and animal cries; a sixth architectural order, the Palmian; and more or less successful experiments with different printing techniques, including “photographie” (a term he coined in 1833 for a technique of printing with light) – a few years before Daguerre was credited with the invention of the photographic medium.

Commissioned works by five international artists, three of whom live in Brazil, provide a welcome contemporary twist to an exhibition which might otherwise flag owing to the sheer weight of archival materials. Formally varied in approach, they pick up on different aspects of Florence’s oeuvre, whose ongoing preoccupation with copying and recording informs Fregni Nagler’s own artistic contribution. Lucia Koch’s translucent silk curtains printed with subtle colour gradients drawn from Florence’s enchanting watercolour series of cloud-strewn skies are one of the exhibition’s highlights.

Oceans: The Forgotten Habitat

This interview-based piece appeared in Chinese translation in the Conference Room section of LEAP magazine (April issue):

Hosted by Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21), The Current Convening #2 took place in Fort Kochi, Kerala on 13-15 December, 2016, coinciding with the opening of the third Kochi-Muziris Biennale which was dedicated to, among other, water and hidden rivers. Set up by TBA21 founder Francesca von Habsburg together with artistic director Markus Reymann, The Current is a three-year exploratory fellowship program dedicated to research on the oceanand specifically the Pacific Ocean and its archipelagoes. In addition to The Current fellows and expedition leaders Ute Meta Bauer and Cesar Garcia, who took part in recent expeditions to French Polynesia and Papua New Guinea aboard the Dardanella, TBA21’s own research vessel, this Convening brought together participants from the fields of art, ecology, law and policy-making to examine what the arts can effectively contribute to the debate concerning such pressing ecological concerns as climate change and deep-sea mining. The following text is excerpted from the three “structured conversations” or round-table discussions that engaged with the ocean as a mythical space, a complex ecosystem as well as a legal entity.

1. Unpredictable Oceans and the Monstrosity of the Sea

UTE META BAUER The ocean today is less explored than outer space. The three “structured conversations” address the urgency to protect the oceans as an irreplaceable resource for all forms of life and as habitat for tens of thousands of known and even a larger number of unknown species. Humankind has long seen the ocean as an unknown, monstrous and imaginary space. Such a view has been shaped by our limited experience of the oceans and is fed by mythological and cultural narratives that have been passed down from generation to generation. As the planet is confronted by unprecedented challenges in the age of the Anthropocene, including climate change, the rise of the sea levels, pollution of all sorts, overfishing and most recently seabed mining, it’s more important than ever to reexamine our relationship to the sea, to respect its manifold and complex ecosystem, to imagine new possibilities for coexistence. Admitting how little we know might also change our personal and collective attitude towards this large and powerful entitythe ocean.

DANIELA ZYMAN If the oceans are the last frontier, what does it mean in terms of the monstrous? Is it no longer the Leviathanthe mythical or biblical figure of the animal creature? Is the monstrous a figure that has more to do with global economies and the consequences to the oceans and the environment developed out of outrageous extraction strategies? One other picture of monstrosity: the Mediterranean that has lately become a graveyard of vessels and boats and people trying to cross the Mediterranean in the hope of accessing different forms of life. This has brought up again the need for us to intervene in those spaces with a regulatory system, trying to reconnect and create on a humanitarian but also a regulatory and ecological level new forms of legal bodies and entities that would allow this forgotten space to be redrawn and given a sovereignty that it has never had.

2. Ocean as Habitat: The rights of nature and the international law of the sea

T J DEMOS My provocation will be to try to get you to reconsider the term climate refugee” and what that means. What happens when the ocean becomes a kind of “sacrifice zone,” a term that environmentalists use for when areas of oceans or land become dedicated to forms of extraction that basically give up any hope of saving or preserving an ecosystem’s integrity? We’re living through the sixth mass species extinction; we’re entering into a period of a mass refugee crisis where we’re running out of refuges.The humanitarian desire is to produce the category of “climate refugee.” It’s an incredibly problematic category. Climate refugee is not even recognized within international law. A lot of people, including in the Maldives, would resist this category because it tends to produce a victimizing objecthood. In certain ways it’s a fatalistic discourse that gives in to the end result of rising seas and submersion and the loss of territories. A term we could think of in relation to this: wishful sinking.

MARKUS REYMANN The ocean offers a habitat for 90 per cent of the species. So far we’ve mainly talked about one, which is human. If we’re talking about reconsidering the rights of nature and the concept of common heritage of mankind, or humankind, then we need to consider organisms other than the big charismatic ones, the dolphins and the whales that have pushed legislation forward but only because we can create empathy for them. But what happens to all these organisms down there at the bottom of the sea that have the sedimentation of one millimetre per square meter per year? […] The organisms down below are not to be mined; if anything, they’re to be farmed.

D. GRAHAM BURNETT The future of the protection of the ocean lies in the codification of rights in nonhuman creatures, from the microorganisms that are capable of metabolizing complex minerals right up the food chain to the charismatic megafauna that we can create a cognitive or an emotional relationship to. You’re not going to get people to take seriously the need for a legislation unless you can make them care. This was what did happen when people mobilized to save the whales and get an international moratorium on commercial whaling; that happened because a bunch of visionary folks, Greenpeace and others, began transforming how people thought about those animals. Here’s the link between saving the ocean, law and the kind of work that many of us as artists and creative people or scholars or writers do: it’s to say minds have to be changed and they need to be changed by making the kinds of ideas that are real, true and important dynamic, vital, unforgettableto make them stick in our heads. That’s how it happens.

3. Ocean as Treasure Trove: Deep-sea mining–the next gold rush?

STEFANIE HESSLER Everybody who has a smartphone or a computer should care about deep-sea mining because it involves the extraction of minerals and rare earths from the seabed that are being used in consumer electronics, in batteries etc. We’ll most likely hear this term in the future because the extraction activity is about to become a reality. The conversation about deep-sea mining began in the 1960s with a publication by J. L. Mero entitled The Mineral Resources of the Sea. That book suggested there was a near limitless supply of what were called “potato-sized” nodulesmetals that were found in the sediment of the sea floor. The early attempts to make deep-sea mining a reality failed as a result of the collapse of world metal prices; however, in the past decade, with the soaring metal prices, especially for gold and copper, deep-sea mining is on the table again. […] The nodules that are being extracted are not dead matter but actually living beings so speaking about the rights of nature and rights of other than human organisms is also important for this conversation.

AMAR KANWAR We need to understand what it is that we’re going to lose and, unless we do that, we will not comprehend the meaning of the crime. In a certain way we’re talking about a crime to be. And how do you respond to a crime that is about to take place? If you look at extraction, any kind of extraction, and if you look at the evolution of the law, you can see that it has a very close relationship with the whole process of extraction, wherever you go. The law gets conceived for extraction. Before a crime takes place, it is conceived; after you conceive it, you plan to execute it. You can see the evolution of the law is the crime already. So when you’re looking at evidence–what would be evidence of massive destruction on the bottom of the sea when you can’t access it or see it?–I would say that the crime has begun.

NABIL AHMED I’m from Dhaka and we have a very long maritime border with India. In fact, the very first maritime dispute boundary that was presented and debated in the international tribunals for the law of the sea was the maritime boundary dispute between Bangladesh and India. I would add that the seabed is also a spatial condition. The geospatial and the marine sensing that are used for those exploration purposes could be turned to monitor these and to set up a counter-forensics. Perhaps there is a way that these technologies could be shared to open them up to artistic practices that could use our kind of sensitivity, our background and experience to track what might happen. For example, I work around a landmine in West Papua. It is not a technical exercise; in fact, the work is there to support the self-determination of the West Papuan people. This kind of forensics must work with the people to whom these seas belong and not only to the state.

MARKUS REYMANN This is my question to everybody: how do we bring the dimension in which we operate to the table, persistently, in technical terms like the comments [TBA21 put] to the Mining Code at the International Seabed Authority or any other kind of authority. Becoming an observer to this United Nations’ body is for us–as a cultural agency, an arts organisation–an opportunity to insert a different language, a different thought and mode of operating. We saw it at the ISA, as soon as we start speaking their language we lose. It’s not going to change anything immediately but you have to be there, and you have to be persistent. It’s one drop, and another drop, and another. We’re there for life. But the beauty of this is that the crime hasn’t been committed.

Miroslaw Balka

This review of Miroslaw Balka’s “CROSSOVER/S” at HangarBicocca in Milan is featured in issue 57 of Mousse magazine:

The end is in the beginning and yet you go on,” says Samuel Beckett. Placed at the outset and the close of Miroslaw Balka’s retrospective at HangarBicocca, spanning the last three decades of the Polish artist’s career, two yellow lines – one horizontal, one vertical – frame the exhibition and, taken together, beautifully illustrate the titular “CROSSOVER/S”. Both are fragile and unstable objects. To see the first, a video piece featuring a rectangular yellow bar shifting ever so slightly against a black background, the visitors have to look back or retrace their footsteps, suspended as it is high up, out of harm’s way, above the main exhibition room’s curtained threshold. (This casts the work’s title, Holding the Horizon (2016), in an ironic light.) Equally elusive, the tenuous and barely visible thread of Yellow Nerve (2012-15), spotlit at night and catching the sun rays at certain hours of the day, occupies the full height of the contiguous Cube room. It has the empty industrial space all to itself, barring the audience members whose breath and movements occasionally cause it to stir.

As they make or rather feel their way through an exhibition designed to stimulate all our senses, the visitors individually and collectively give it body. Except in one instance – the blurry portrait of a concentration camp guard interviewed by Claude Lanzmann for his 1925 documentary film Shoah in Balka’s three-second-long looped video work Primitive (2008) – the body as such is conspicuous by its absence. And yet its diffuse presence haunts the show, starting with the heavy velvet curtain visitors must negotiate on entering the exhibition space, which has been heated to reach the average temperature of the human body. Titles of other works, such as 15 x 22 x 19 (hard skull) (2006) and Yellow Nerve (2012-2015), read like anatomical studies or else memento mori. According to his usual practice, the artist’s own body – and notably its height – has been used as a measure for the scaled-down version of the original zoo built for the SS officers and their families at the Treblinka extermination camp, the bare bones of which have been faithfully reproduced in 250 x 700 x 455, ø 41 x 41 / Zoo / T (2007/2008).

If man is the measure of all things, then some of the artworks on view are bound to confound our expectations. Take, for instance, the colossal Wege zur Behandlung von Schmerzen (2011), as if designed to dwarf the visitor. Styling itself as an “anti-fountain”, the bulky metallic structure continually discharges a murky black liquid in lieu of the accustomed clear water; unlike your typical fountain, which tends to stand in the middle of a public square, it has been relegated to a corner. The centre of the main exhibition space – fittingly called Navate, “the naves” – is occupied instead by another sizeable installation made of steel and titled Cruzamento (2007), in keeping with the Christian symbolism that pervades the show. Made up of intersecting cage-like corridors, fitted with five strategically positioned ventilators that make your hair stand on end as you walk through, this is one of several such passageways and conduits made to channel the visitors’ bodies or draw them inside like a trap. Whereas 200 x 760 x 500 / The Right Path (2008/2015) – whose L-shaped layout mirrors that of the Navate as a whole – leads to a dead end, the light bulb dangling from the ceiling of a wooden cubicle in 196 x 230 x 141 (2007) switches off, disconcertingly, the minute one crosses its bounds.

A number of the installation pieces brought together under one roof at HangarBicocca rely on the visitors to activate them by walking through, into or on top of them; others still seem to act of their own accord. This applies to works of the noise-generating variety especially, above all the outsized heavy wooden platform of 400 x 250 x 30 (2005), calling for a delicate balancing act on the visitors’ part akin to finding a sweet spot, and the wily To Be (2014), a motorized steel wire whose writhing motions produce a loud lashing sound, occasionally accompanied by the hollow thud of the falling platform displayed nearby.

Overlaps such as these are reflected in the show’s capacious title. CROSSOVER/S invites its audience to tease out the connecting threads between the unsettling objects gathered in this rich, densely allusive exhibition, in which differences of scale, verticality and horizontality, light and darkness, purity and dirt, heat and cold are subtly contrasted and played off against each another. Ultimately, the artworks assembled at HangarBicocca all seem to point in one direction: mortality as the true leveller and our common horizon, one which we struggle to grasp.

The Green Ray

This essay appeared in the November online issue of The White Review:

I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

AURORA CHASING IS A FAVOURITE SPORT UP IN ICELAND, one of the main draws for visitors. Northern Lights come in all sorts of hues, apparently, but more often than not they are a glowing green – the colour of the equally elusive meteorological phenomenon that gives its title to a lesser-known Jules Verne novel and to Eric Rohmer´s 1986 film Le rayon vert. The dreamy final sequence of the latter, as I recall, dilates the moment when the green flash briefly appears just as the sun sinks below the horizon, contemplated from afar by the mesmerised heroine Delphine and her newfound love, Jacques. Earlier on in the film, the troubled protagonist portrayed by Marie Larivière overhears a conversation at the beach in which Verne´s Le rayon vert is discussed. Whoever sees the fleeting green ray, the story goes, gains an insight into their own and other people´s thoughts and feelings. A clarity of vision.

A week into my month-long retreat in the solitude of Roni Horn‘s VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, overlooking the harbour in the fishing village of Stykkishólmur and the many islands of Breiðafjörður Bay, I sighted a green ray from the writer´s studio located beneath the library. Minutes before I was up in the library, surrounded by the clear glacier-filled glass columns that have replaced its original holdings. The wind-swept sky that evening had the same pellucid quality. For once no clouds were obstructing the horizon line at sunset; this in itself felt like a rare occurrence, one that should not go unheeded. I was in the midst of preparing supper when the sun started dipping into the sea. These rival claims on my attention kept me rushing back and forth across the room, from the kitchen area to the windows looking out to the West Fjords. The sun´s disk was all but engulfed. Eager to resume my cooking activities, I nearly turned my back on the green ray. Yet before I could pull myself away there it was in a flash, eerily, unmistakenly green. And then, just as suddenly, it went out.

Thanks to Rohmer´s film, which a friend had urged me to see some years ago, I knew instantly what it was. The excitement of seeing the green ray for the first time soon gave way to a vague sense of melancholy, brought on no doubt by the dying of the light that this horizontal band of lurid green hemmed in by whiteness seemed to underscore. And then, unlike Rohmer´s heroine, who has found her match by the time she comes to view the green ray, clasped in her lover´s embrace, I had it all to myself.

To capture the elusive ray on 16 mm film Rohmer and his crew went all the way to the Canary Islands. Stacking the odds in their favour, I suppose. That I should spot it from another volcanic island on the edges of Europe seemed fitting. Iceland with its extreme and unpredictable weather, completely at odds with the Canaries in this respect, made witnessing what is an uncommon sight at the best of times feel that much more precious.

The day when the sighting occurred coincided with my first foray into the wilds of the Snæfellsnes peninsula, named after the snow-capped stratovolcano at its tip. I got up bright and early to catch the school bus bound for Grundarfjörður, departing from in front of the public swimming pool at 7.45 a.m. It was a glorious morning. From the rocky expanse atop which VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER stands, offering sweeping views of the sea and the surrounding mountains, I could see at a glance all the nearby peaks, usually partly obscured by low-hanging clouds.

The two women sitting across the isle from me, one of whom turned out to be the headmistress, gazed out of the window, quietly taking in the breathtaking scenery unfolding before us along the bus journey. It struck me that perhaps they had grown used to it and were seeing the familiar landscape afresh, through a stranger´s eyes. ‘And you do this every day!’ I ventured at last. ‘But we never forget its beauty,’ they assured me, as if reading my thoughts.

On that occasion I only made it as far as Grundarfjöður, the bus‘s final destination. The small fishing town, as one of the women explained to me, lies exactly in the middle of the peninsula; that‘s why the high school catering to all the teens on Snæfellsnes is located there. Grundarfjörður has its own magic mountain, Kirkjufell, possibly Iceland´s shapeliest and certainly among the most photographed. Yet the farther down the peninsula one travels, the more keenly Snæfell makes its presence felt. One of the 24 glaciers whose melted substance is preserved at Stykkishólmur´s VATNASAFN/LIBRARY OF WATER, Snæfell is the point of access to the underground realm that Verne‘s heroes stake out in the Journey to the Centre of the Earth. There is no getting away from Verne´s novel in this part of the world; reading it, I confess, is also what initially drew me here.

By mid-afternoon, the wind had picked up and the clouds started gathering, so that a clear sky at sundown was by no means a given. The green ray, when it did happen, took me by surprise. It came to me unbidden and unlooked for, as if to make up for the patent absence of the aurora borealis that I had been hoping to catch all week. The first (and only) time I ever saw the Northern Lights, they too caught me unawares. It was up in Scotland, coincidentally where Verne´s Le Rayon Vert is set. My partner James and I were driving back from St Andrews to our home in the fishing village of Crail. A green veil of light on one side of the road stopped us in our tracks. Neither one of us could tell then and there what it was. We pulled up into a country lane and watched it billowing against the night sky from across a barren field. It was nowhere near as spectacular as aurora displays can get – in the right place and at the right time – yet it has given me a taste for things that shade of green.