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Garden of Memory

This Critics’ Pick of a show at the Musee Yves Saint Laurent in Marrakesh appeared on artforum.com:

View of “Garden of Memory,” 2018.

Weaving together poetry, sound, and sculpture, “Garden of Memory” styles itself as a conversation à trois between artists who are bound by friendship and love. Poet and painter Etel Adnan serves as the link among her longtime collaborators Robert Wilson and Simone Fattal, both of whom she met for the first time in the summer of 1972 in Beirut. Her poem Conversations with my soul (III), 2018—here read aloud by Wilson over speakers and heard by Fattal’s sculpted angels—folds into another dialogue, this time between the poet’s different selves.

Fitted with a gray carpet that dulls the sound of footsteps and, from the outset, solicits the sense of touch, the gallery feels like an anechoic chamber, one that invites visitors to turn inward. Wilson’s looped, nearly ten-minute reading is set to Michael Galasso’s string music and punctuated by silences that contribute to an overall mood of contemplation. Galasso’s wistful composition, written for Wilson’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1888 play The Lady from the Sea—which resonates with the marine imagery of Adnan’s verse—adds yet another layer to the polyphonic whole.

Visually, the show is dominated by Fattal’s sculptures. Inspired by the encyclopedic writings of the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi and, in particular, by his discussion of angels in The Meccan Revelations, these works take many forms: hollow terra-cotta stelae inscribed with Arabi’s texts, displayed on plinths in sets of two and five; small and large humanoid figures resting on pillar-like legs; and a row of five glazed angels mounted on the circular wall diagonally, as if to convey their flight. Fattal considers the stuff of her sculptures—clay and mud—as living material, and thus a conversation partner in its own right.

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In conversation with Katerina Gregos

This interview with Katerina Gregos appeared in Mousse magazine:

Annaïk-Lou Pitteloud, Neo-Logos, 2017-2018, The Former Faculty of Biology of the University of Latvia (Courtesy: the artist and Barbara Seiler Gallery, Zürich Photo: Andrejs Strokins)

Agnieszka Gratza: You curated RIBOCA, the inaugural Riga Biennial in Latvia, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, as well as the group exhibition The State Is Not a Work of Art, which opened at the Tallinn Art Hall in Estonia back in February. Where does your interest in the Baltic region come from? Is it a coincidence that you should be curating two shows so close in space and time?

Katerina Gregos: It’s entirely coincidental. I generally work within Europe and at its borders. I’m not one of these globe-trotting curators who’s working all over the place. It’s not that I’m not interested, but I think there’s enough to talk about in Europe—enough history, problems, paradigms, and complex issues that one can dig one’s teeth into here. I’m also tremendously interested in history, and of course Europe has played an important role in world history, very often in a negative way. I’m pleased to work here, particularly at this moment in time, because it’s an interesting geopolitical region of the world, symbolic of different pushes and pulls, conflicts and paradoxes, and fundamental changes. But why I found myself working here? Frankly, it’s a coincidence. I was invited to curate The State Is Not a Work of Art, and then I received an invitation to make a proposal for the Riga Biennial so one event organically followed the other.

AG: Why did the chosen theme for RIBOCA, which is change, strike you as apt?

KG: This is a region that has experienced successive, traumatic, systemic and often violent changes, most recently in 1990, shifting from one political ideology to another, from one economy to another, from one ethnic dominance to another. The Baltic region is a lens for looking at change and how a society reintegrates globally, restructures economically and re-negotiates its identity after having suffered occupation and oppression from a foreign power. I wanted to work with a subject that also has global implications and a more ecumenical significance. I’ve been preoccupied with how our lives have been accelerated through technology, the internet, and social media. All of this has been thrust on us without much thought or room to pause, let alone understand the implications of it for personal and existential issues, practical as well as psychological. It’s not a coincidence that for the first time in human history so many people are getting burnouts. People are overworked, and so overwhelmed by work that they can no longer function, and they have to take six months to a year off because they’re unable to operate.

AG: What about the laboring classes in the nineteenth century, the kind Émile Zola describes in his novels, or else slaves? I’m sure they had burnouts too, and maybe not the luxury to acknowledge it. If you look back on the history of work—

KG: If we’re to make a distinction, that is that this phenomenon is accelerating, and perhaps more widespread – extending beyond the working class – than it would have been at that time. I think we’re really in a moment of monumental shifts. And if you consider human evolution in the last thousands of years, or at least since Homo sapiens appeared on the planet, we’ve always had the chance as human beings to adapt very slowly to new realities, whereas now, things are changing and are becoming normalized so fast that we don’t have time to process them.

AG: I found Katarzyna Przezwańska’s diorama Early Polishness (2017), which is featured in both shows, interesting in this respect because it brings in a very different temporal dimension, as she tries to imagine what Warsaw might have looked like two hundred million years ago, during the Triassic period: a lush landscape complete with palm trees. Is the Anthropocene a frame of reference for RIBOCA in particular?

KG: It’s become a very fashionable word now, the Anthropocene. There’s something very hubristic about it as a term, it’s like: “We have come to the mastery of the planet.” I prefer to speak of ecological change and the huge question of sustainability versus the problem of incessant growth. That said, the biennial is not dealing only with ecological issues. A biennial in my opinion should not be too narrow. It should allow for different narratives and subtexts to be put into play, complementary to one another. So in the case of RIBOCA I’m looking at social, political, historical as well as ecological change.

AG: I was intrigued by the term homo deus that you use in your essay for the biennial. Could you explain what you mean by it, what it’s referencing?

KG: It’s basically a situation where humans feel that they have mastered the planet, to an extent that they seem to be playing ‘God’, and it is an idea discussed by Yuval Noah Harari in his new book of the same name. We’re not only playing with fire—there’s something very Promethean about it—but we have the illusion that we can play God without consequences. And there’s a lot of writing right now about how scientists are looking into prolonging life considerably, even contemplating the prospects of immortality (which to me seems ludicrous), which I don’t really believe in because it’s completely unsustainable. There’s talk of how maybe even in this century people will go live beyond 100 to 120, 130 or 140 years of age. I don’t know if you’ve read the novel by Dave Eggers, The Circle (2013)? It’s quite chilling. It’s like a metaphor of Google and Facebook, and all these tech giants. All they see is a brave new world facilitated by social media and technology, how it’s going to help make democracy paradigmatic and how the planet is just going to strive to this incredible future of progress. I find this is also an example of homo sapienshubristically playing homo deus.

AG: When it comes to the Tallinn show, why do you feel the notions of nation, nation-state, and nationalism need rehabilitating?

KG: Because I think that the actual model of the nation-state—this kind of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century model of the nation state—doesn’t correspond very well to the new social and demographic realities of today. The concept of nation, as many people still understand it originates in the nineteenth century, when the world map was very different and many countries in Europe were colonial powers. We live in an entirely different geographic and geopolitical landscape at the moment. Former empires have collapsed; we have the question of the legacy of violent European colonialism to come to terms with; and we’re also living in a world where borders and mobility are not what they used to be, where societies are much more pluralist and where we have to face challenges that were not present two hundred years ago. That’s why I believe the needs to be revisited in a manner that’s more inclusive while acknowledging Europe’s historical mistakes or misdemeanors.

AG: Which ones in particular?

KG: The situation in the Middle East, for example. When you consider the refugee crisis that broke out in 2015, Europe and the United States are not without fault in this respect, and the West, of course, has a huge responsibility here; or the military expeditions into Iraq or Afghanistan. We created a mess, and now we’re looking the other way, when in fact we’re directly or indirectly responsible for what is happening to people in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

AG: In your essay “The State Is Not a Work of Art?” you mention “more benign forms of nationalism” that would be more inclusive. I wonder which works on display reflect that kind of nationalism?

KG: My text is not necessarily a reflection of every single work in the show and cannot be; it is illustrative of my own point of view. It has been rather challenging to find works, in all honesty, that deal with all these issues complex issues in an more unexpected manner other than the usual (and justifiable) critique of nationalism and populism. “Civic nationalism” would be a better formulation for more benign or inclusive forms of nationalism. Marta Górnicka’s piece Constitution for the Chorus of Poles (2016) is a work where people from different ethnic and minority backgrounds are interpreting, reinterpreting, and performing the Polish constitution according to what it could be, or what it professes to be but isn’t (more inclusive.) We can’t have people working as precarious laborers in Europe or being born into families coming from different countries and then creating obstacles in giving them nationality when they contribute to the economy and society at large.

AG: I was trying to put myself in your shoes, and imagine how it works if you have a concept and then artworks that don’t quite illustrate it. Obviously, you can’t cast them into a ready mold.

KG: You can’t. And you can’t instrumentalize artists. This is also the challenge of being a curator: to try and create something that is coherent, that corresponds to a certain argument, but also allow the artists freedom and breathing space. I would never say to an artist, “Can you make a work about civic nationalism?” But you can and should be in discussion artists. Besides, half of the show is newly commissioned, and when you commission new work you don’t know what the result is going to be, there’s always a risk you have to take as a curator. There are also two other projects that in some way answer your question: Jonas Staal’s project New Unions—this idea of a trans-European democracy based on criteria other than economy, which is what the European Union is based on—and Marina Naprushkina’s campaign on broadening the pool on who has the right to vote in Europe. I think these constitute good examples of a civic understanding of nationalism.

AG: So these are examples of new models you would like to encourage.

KG: Europe certainly has to be more inclusive. It cannot be based on homogeneous ethnic identifications because that’s not possible any more. Every exhibition that I make has a strong personal parameter. I’m interested in identity issues from my own personal perspective because I’m also a migrant, coming from a different country, living in a host country. I’m also negotiating these difficulties. For the first time this year I’ve considered applying for Belgian nationality, after twelve years of living in the country.

AG: Why is that?

KG: Well, because the future of my own country (Greece), in Europe is uncertain and far from guaranteed. Nothing is given. Who could have conceived Brexit a few years ago?  From the moment that there is a precedent of a country that has left, other countries may well follow suit. Let’s hope that’s not going to happen. I consider myself a European citizen, and I would find it tragic if I were not able to move around or work freely any more in Europe. When enquiring about the process and criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to be granted Belgian citizenship, I received a surprisingly strict set of parameters to which I had to respond. This was not the case 10-15 years ago, for example I’m a European, I speak French, I contribute to the culture and society of the country and the continent in which I live, and yet I have to go through a really stringent process of being ‘re-Europeanized’, so to speak. It became even more clear to me, even in the most benign way, how xenophobic policy making and bureaucracy can affect a person’s destiny and life.

AG: But you are a European.

KG: I’m European, but I could at any point stop being European.

AG: As a fifteen-year-old I gained Canadian citizenship and had to swear allegiance to the British queen.

KG: I have Canadian citizenship as well.

AG: Oh, you do? You’ve spent time in Canada, then?

KG: Never. My father was a Canadian citizen, so I inherited the passport. This poses a really interesting question: I have a passport, but does that make me Canadian? No. I’m not partaking in that culture or country at all. What makes you a legitimate citizen of a country, not only in terms of legal logistics but also cultural ones?

AG: So you consider yourself European.

KG: I feel totally European. And I feel also very Greek at the same time as well as having elements of England and Belgium (the two countries where I’ve spent half my life) in me.

AG: I am interested in the notion of cosmopolitanism, which crops up in the essay “The State Is Not a Work of Art?” as well as in the wall panels. You speak of a “haughty cosmopolitanism” that you oppose to the more populist forms of nationalism. Socrates never left Athens, and yet when asked where he came from, he would say, “The world.” Isn’t there scope for stepping outside the bounds of Europe and thinking of ourselves simply as humans? Perhaps if the space race had taken a different turn, people would be more apt to see themselves as inhabiting a single planet.

KG: Unfortunately cosmopolitanism has come to mean something that is the privilege of a globetrotting professional class as opposed to an open understanding of the world that’s also an understanding of how we’re interconnected now, so that what happens in one part of the world affects what happens in another, certainly in terms of environmental questions, and what we share in common. But I do agree that we need to reevaluate this cosmopolitanism as a shared responsibility for a planet that we co-inhabit and we now have to share. You can erect borders and define nation-states, but are you going to be able to control water, air, or oceans that are polluted? This cosmopolitan understanding you’re talking about can very well have an environmental parameter to it.

AG: Absolutely. This September I was traveling in Siberia, where you can see it very clearly. For example, if Mongolia decides to erect a dam on its own territory, it will affect the level of water in Lake Baikal and upset its unique ecosystem, which is our common heritage. It doesn’t just concern Russia and Mongolia.

KG: To go back to this idea of cosmopolitanism, a true cosmopolitan is someone who is open to other cultures, who does not look condescendingly upon them, who does not consider his or her own culture superior. It reminds me of Turkey in the times of the Ottoman Empire, when Jews and Armenians and Greeks and Turks were coexisting together, before Ataturkism and nationalism. These ethnic groups had their cultures and their communities, but they were citizens of the world and of Turkey. What has come to replace this is a situation that is mono-cultural and hence impoverished.

AG: Well, I’m picking up on what you said. I personally think cosmopolitanism as an ideal could and should be rehabilitated.

KG: I too subscribe to it as a worldview, but it has also become the premise of an elite that’s disinterested or disrespectful of local issues, identities, and cultures. What do I mean by “haughty cosmopolitanism”? You might be sitting at a dinner next to someone you don’t know, and you want to start a conversation with the person—

AG: —and so you ask, “Where are you from?”

KG: Right. This is not an ethnically presumptuous question, as some people interpret it. “Oh, it doesn’t matter where I’m from. I’m a citizen of the world.” Well, I’m a citizen of the world too, but I actually come from Greece, which gives me a certain culture and historical perspective. To say “I don’t come from anywhere” is like saying “I don’t have a mother or a father; I don’t have any history; I came out of nowhere.” We all come from somewhere and we all have a certain linguistic, cultural, family upbringing that shapes the way we are. I’ll argue back with a metaphor. Orphaned children, for example, or adopted children, nine out of ten times want to find out who their parents were.

AG: If I can draw an analogy, André Gide said that one chooses one’s friends but not one’s family, and in the same way nationality is something that’s not of your own choosing; it’s foisted on you by birth. Not long ago I heard Francis Alÿs say, “Mexico is my chosen country.” I find that appealing, too. For a long time the UK was my chosen country; it was a conscious, adult decision to move to that particular place. Coming from somewhere, and your ideal projection or conscious choices, are different types of identities.

KG: You and me and Francis Alÿs have had the privilege to be able to do that.

AG: I don’t know about you, but I was wrenched out of my country at the age of eleven, at a time when people weren’t free to leave it, so I wouldn’t consider myself privileged in that respect.

KG: Well, I was also wrenched out my country because of the economic crisis and the prospect of being jobless. I had to restart my professional life from scratch in a country where I knew no one because I knew that I was doomed to unemployment if I stayed in Greece. And when I say “luxury,” don’t get me wrong; what I mean is that the situation is such in Europe that I can work in Belgium because I have a European Union passport. That’s the sense in which I consider myself privileged.

AG: And I feel much the same. I marvel at the fact of all these artists from Poland being able to travel freely and having their horizons expanded in such an extraordinary way. It wasn’t possible for my parents’ generation, nor for my grandparents’ generation, for different reasons. And then there’s the dread that it all may be coming to an end.

Collectors as philanthropists

This text appeared in the “Collectors as Philanthropists” catalogue for the RazemPamoja Foundation-initiated charity auction held at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw:

Philanthropy and collecting stem from opposite impulses. Collecting amounts to acquiring things for one’s own private enjoyment; philanthropy, on the contrary, consists in giving away money or other valuable assets for the public good. The one is self-gratifying and wrapped up in itself, the other selfless and outward-looking. Whereas the collector bestows his affections on objects, the philanthropist is by definition animated by the love of mankind. The auction Kolekcjonerzy filantropami (“Collectors as Philanthropists”) sets out to prove that you can be both.

For a benefit auction to consist solely of artworks donated by collectors is virtually unheard of. While artists are routinely approached with requests for gifts in kind, and indeed their generosity has made live and online auctions organized by the Razem Pamoja Foundation possible in the past, it is much less common for wealthy art collectors to pledge works they own to a worthy cause. Why would they part with pieces they once cherished, which reflect their tastes and often have memories attached to them, when they could give money instead? Apart from anything else, this would have the merit of speeding up the whole process since the aim of any charity auction is ultimately to generate funds.

The founder of Razem Pamoja Foundation, Bartosz Przybył-Ołowski, whose brainchild this alternative type of fundraiser is, does not see it that way. “We could, of course, gather money instead of motivating collectors to donate works from their collections. Even from the very same people. It might have been simpler,” he concedes. “But we also set ourselves the goal of building a unique community of collectors, of connecting individuals, encouraging them and giving them the opportunity to share something they consider significant.” For Przybył-Ołowski, a fundraising event on this scale, which brings together some of Poland’s most prominent art collectors, aside from creating the opportunity for them to showcase a fragment of their personal collections, is primarily an exercise in community building, or strengthening rather. The fact that friends’ associations of Warsaw’s foremost modern and contemporary art museums – the Friends of the Museum of Modern Art, of the Zachęta Fine Arts and the Center for Contemporary Art Zamek Ujazdowski societies – have rallied behind the “Collectors as Philanthropists” auction attests that such a community already exists.

Conceived as a meeting place, this charity auction offers a new breed of philanthropically-minded collectors the chance to join forces and pull resources together, a concept that is at the heart of the Razem Pamoja Foundation, reflected in its very name. Philanthropy typically involves some form of sacrifice and parting with an artwork among many is a small price to pay for contributing to building something other than one’s own collection.

The proceeds from the sale will be used to resume the construction of a school in Jacmel, Haiti and to build from scratch an educational-cum-recreational space in the Mathare slums of Nairobi, both designed by Maciej Siuda in the spirit of experimentation that characterizes his socially-engaged architectural practice and, for that matter, Razem Pamoja’s own working method. Siuda’s rich and complex, semi-open spaces challenge the structural unity, the division into classrooms and corridors – intended respectively for learning and as recreational areas – that makes for the monotony and institutional, even carceral feel of school buildings as we know them. Rather than buildings per se, in the traditional understanding of the term, the visionary alternatives proposed by Siuda are aggregates or clusters of discrete spatial units that organically combine to form what Przybył-Ołowski dubs a “didactic ecosystem”.

By championing these two original and forward-looking architectural projects, the Razem Pamoja Foundation reverts to its core concerns of educating by means of art and engaging privileged art world people in a productive dialogue with less fortunate residents of the Global South. For the former, the “Collectors as Philanthropist” auction is the means to turn what is, after all, a luxury item into well-designed public amenities that the latter can enjoy. What is more, this species of cultural philanthropy puts artworks at the service of another art form, one that allies functionality with beauty.

Although collectors have been known to donate works to museums and art galleries, it is much less common for pieces culled from their collections to be sold off at charity auctions. When this does occur, a mix of donators – artists, dealers and collectors – tend to be involved. Organisations such as Artist Equity are calling on collectors to supply the artworks for fundraising events instead of their makers, arguing that they benefit from tax incentives (at least in the US) unavailable to artists, who stand to lose more in the long run when their works are sold beneath their market value. In its exclusive focus on collectors as the benefactors of this particular charitable function, the Razem Pamoja Foundation sets a precedent. One can only hope this alternative fundraising method catches on.

Francis Alÿs

This review of Francis Alÿs’s show “Knots n’ Dust” at Beirut Art Centre appeared in the March-April issue of Flash Art International:

Paradoxes are knotty statements that fold back on themselves, as in “Sometimes winning is losing / Sometimes losing is winning.” Finger written by the artist on a windshield, following a sandstorm that covered Beirut in a film of dust, these words appear as bilingual (English and Arabic) captions in one of four postcards commissioned for Francis Alÿs’s first solo show in this war-torn region. The sepia-colored photographs from which the cards are made recall Tornado (2000–10), a half-hour video that captures the artist’s repeated attempts to penetrate “dust devils.” In conversation with Beirut Art Center director Marie Muracciole at the opening, Alÿs likened the experience to being inside a monochromatic James Turrell installation.

At its core, “Knots n’ Dust” associates two disparate images and actions bound together by a spiral motion that informs the show as a whole. The lone man pitted against the whirling mass of the tornado has his counterpart in a female figure ceaselessly doing and undoing a knot in her hair. This intimate gesture is captured in a vast body of animation drawings that make up Exodus 3:14 (2014–18). To reach the animation proper, projected onto a matching paper support amid the 640-odd drawings on view (roughly half their total number), visitors must walk around them, performing a spiralling movement with their bodies.

Placed next to Exodus 3:14, Untitled (The Liar, The Copy of the Liar) (1994–95), an earlier work in which Alÿs explored the convoluted nature of gender and sexual identity, invites a similar reading of the new animation piece. Indeed, its mostly female protagonist has male hands, just as a contralto tenor sings the haunting lyrics of the looping soundtrack: “I am that I am” — yet another paradoxical formulation, this time drawn from the Bible. Fittingly, the biblical passage in question (whose exact reference happens to tally with the irrational number π) relates how God in the guise of a burning bush bids Moses to lead the Hebrews into Canaan, the promised land that lies in the Levant.

Sean Scully at Cuadra San Cristobal

This Critics’ Pick of Sean Scully’s show at Cuadra San Cristobal in Mexico appeared on artforum.com:

Displayed in stable stalls and outdoors at Cuadra San Cristóbal, on the outskirts of Mexico City, Sean Scully’s paintings and sculptures gain a lot from their unusual setting. The Luis Barragán–designed private residence and equestrian center is all vibrant color and clean lines. Although his palette is much wider than Barragán’s own and his bands of color are fuzzier around the edges, the artist’s works resonate with and meld into their semi-rural surroundings. Take Landline That Pink, 2017, for instance, whose very title pays homage to the architect’s signature hue.

The juxtaposition of Scully’s and Barragán’s work brings out the latter’s use of color as a material in its own right, as well as the architectural elements of the former’s output. Mounted on the walls in a row of stables strewn with pungent sawdust, oil-on-aluminum or copper paintings are categorized into four groups by their titles, as “wall,” “window,” “landline,” or “robe.” These recurring words offer a way to read the alternating horizontal and vertical stripes—brick-like and pleated patterns that edge toward figuration. In the context of a horse’s stall, the barred openings of the pair of paintings that constitute Untitled (Window), 2017, evoke a prison. The sequence of paintings presented in the stables culminates with Ghost, 2017, the most obviously representational of the works on view, featuring an American flag whose fallen stars lie in a heap beneath a phantom revolver that has taken their place. Stark against a blanched rectangle, drained of blue, it is a poignant comment on the gun culture rending the United States apart.

Daughters of Persephone

This essay appeared on tamawuj.org in the context of Sharjah Biennial 13:

Jupiter replied . . .  ‘Proserpine shall return to heaven, but on only one condition: that no food has touched her lips since that is the law decreed by the Fates.’ He spoke and Ceres felt sure of regaining her daughter. But the Fates would not allow it, for the girl had broken her fast, and wandering innocently, in a well-tended garden, she had picked a reddish-purple pomegranate fruit hanging from a tree and, taking seven seeds from its yellow rind, squeezed them in her mouth.

—Ovid, The Metamorphoses, Book V[1]

First Seed

Persephone and the myth of the pomegranate seeds cropped up in conversation a few months ago, during “The Golden Feast,” a meal consisting of food and drink that were that color, which my friend Hermione hosted at her place in the East End of London. She and her boyfriend, Curtis, came up with the idea after I stumbled on them sipping a turmeric-flavored golden latte in a Shoreditch café around the corner from a local gallery, where they had come to see me in conversation with the artist Peter McDonald about his show “Mushrooms of Language.” This may be why, when making provisions for our “trip” two weeks later, a pomegranate caught her eye in the fruit aisle of the local supermarket. “I got the pomegranate for us,” she explained afterwards, “because of its bejeweled, numinous qualities—like something you’d find in an underground cave.”

Dense clusters of luscious bead-like seeds, still attached to their rind, were already laid out in a bowl with some blueberries on top, offsetting the seeds’ ruby color, by the time I arrived with the cubensis. Hermione carefully placed the gold caps on a matching glass plate bearing fanciful gilded motifs. “We should probably leave the pomegranates for later,” I said, mindful of the instructions I was given not to eat or drink anything until the mushrooms took their full effect. “Surely, they’re an ally?” Hermione ventured.

Somehow she had gotten things back to front. In Greek mythology, the seeds that Persephone unwittingly consumed in the underworld—whether tricked into doing so by Hades, her ravisher, or acting of her own accord—nearly caused her to remain there forever. Yet in Hermione’s version of the story, as related to those at “The Golden Feast,” eating pomegranate seeds became a gesture of defiance: Persephone partook of the food of the dead while looking Hades straight in the eye, knowing full well it was not allowed.

Instead of eating the glossy, firm seeds that Hermione had encouraged me to squeeze between my teeth, I took to dropping them onto the wooden floor of her room. (At this point, the mushrooms had clearly started to work their magic.) Amazed by the muffled thud, I kept repeating: “There’s no echo,” grasping for the right analogy. The floorboards had become porous, as if made of cork, cushioning and absorbing the sound of the pomegranate seeds, not unlike the walls of an anechoic chamber, also known as a chambre sourde in French, which literally means “deaf chamber.” I had visited one in Paris a few months before. It struck me at the time that the discombobulating absence of an echo was akin to a body bereft of its shadow.

Anechoic chamber at IRCAM (Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music), Paris.

Second Seed

Memory is to a smell what an echo is to a sound: something that carries it, prolongs it, and gives it a body. For what became the artwork Essence/Seeds from Brazil, 2017, the artist João Modé had wanted to work with a fruit scent. He was looking specifically for the essence of caju, a fruit from his country, and found instead a fragrance evocatively called “Seeds of Brazil.” So inconspicuous as to be easily missed at the top of a landing, a tiny white bowl containing an essential oil of that name was the source of a delicate, warm aroma lingering in the air at the back of the house, which faces the Hagia Sophia and its rounded dome.

Land, 2014/2017, Modé’s second offering for “BAHAR,” a series of exhibitions and performances that brought me to Istanbul in May, took over a room located on the ground floor of the Abud Efendi Mansion. The second of four off-site projects staged as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, “BAHAR” (meaning “spring” in Turkish, Farsi, and other languages), organized by the curator Zeynep Öz, took as its starting point the word crops and explored, among other things, the themes of seed dormancy and the awakening of the seeds coinciding with the arrival of spring.

Sourced from a nursery on the Anatolian side of Istanbul, across the Bosphorus, plants from all over the world—one hundred-odd species of them—mixed their roots and foliage to form an indoor jungle in Modé’s Land. That this “multicultural micro-forest” should contain a pomegranate shrub seemed fitting, given its widespread cultivation in the Mediterranean region and beyond. Farmers grow pomegranates even in Brazil, though the trees are not as big and beautiful, the artist told me, as the ones he had seen on his travels in Turkey and Greece. In fact, it is a Brazilian custom to ring in the new year by eating seven pomegranate seeds (“just the smooth part covering the seed,” Modé specified) at the stroke of midnight. The seeds themselves—or the seeds within seeds—are kept in one’s wallet for the whole year to bring luck and prosperity.

Installation view, João Modé, Land, 2014/2017. BAHAR off-site project, organized in Istanbul as part of Sharjah Biennial 13, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

The New Year’s Eve ritual doubtless says more about the Brazilian obsession with the lucky number seven than anything else. And yet Persephone and her consort Pluto, another name for Hades, seem to lurk behind it like a half-forgotten song. Pluto, whose very name held the promise of wealth and riches, is Hades in his more auspicious guise. The child that the harvest goddess Demeter conceived out of wedlock in a thrice-plowed field was venerated alongside his mother and spouse in the secret agrarian cults reenacting the story of Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s search for her daughter at Eleusis in Attica. Pluto shares with them such agrarian attributes as the stalk of grain, and is often portrayed with a horn of plenty, a cornucopia.

Third Seed

While in Istanbul, I arranged to visit the artist Aslı Çavuşoğlu. She suggested we meet at her studio, a stone’s throw from the Golden Horn. If you craned your neck, you could get a fine view of the start of Galata Bridge from a narrow side window. Somehow we got onto the subject of the exhibition “COLORI,” curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev at the Castello di Rivoli in Turin, where Çavuşoğlu’s Red/Red, 2015, which I had missed in the 2015 edition of the Istanbul Biennial, was on view. Over coffee, the artist told me how she found out about the crimson pigment traditionally made from the now-nearly-extinct Armenian cochineal, an insect found in the Aras (or Araks) river valley, and eventually tracked down a man who still extracts the red color in a laboratory, using a secret process. She traveled to Yerevan, Armenia to meet him and managed to obtain twelve grams of the extract, which she used to paint a series of monochromatic panels and book illustrations inspired by illuminated Armenian miniatures. To prove her story, which made artistic research sound like detective work, Çavuşoğlu produced a small vial containing what was left of the precious substance.

Installation view, Aslı Çavuşoğlu, Red/Red, 2015. SALTWATER, 14th Istanbul Biennial. Photo: Sahir Ugur Eren

The deep red ink was the color of a pomegranate. It brought to mind Sergei Parajanov’s 1969 film—the Russian title Цвет граната is translated as The Color of Pomegranates—which is loosely based on the life of the eighteenth-century Armenian bard Sayat Nova. (Sayat-Nova was the title Parajanov had intended for the film, but he was forced to remove all references to the poet’s name to get past Soviet censors.) Filled with often-abstruse symbolism, the successive tableaux informed by the aesthetics of Persian miniatures obey a dreamlike—and occasionally nightmarish—logic. Color, above all red, is deployed to dramatic effect, as in the famous opening shot featuring three pomegranates whose juice seeps through a white cloth, gradually revealing the contours of the ancient Kingdom of Armenia. The pomegranate motif is threaded through the film. The fruits usually come in threes but, in one disturbing scene, a group of young monks vociferously bite into hard, uncut pomegranate fruits as the pensive, Christ-like poet looks on. Incidentally, гранат (granat), the Russian word for pomegranate, also means garnet, the dark-red gemstone whose crystals bear a striking resemblance to the seed-lined chambers of a pomegranate.

Fourth Seed

A baroque-rococo masterpiece, lodged within an even older hospital complex in the heart of Naples, the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili is a thing of beauty. Accessed through an arcaded loggia, itself reached by means of twin, pleasingly curved staircases, the entrance room is fitted with wooden cabinets displaying neat rows of blue and white maiolica vases and jars; each had a unique design that, in the absence of labels, allowed the apothecaries to know which ointments and drug compounds they contained. This antechamber, where medicines were dispensed, leads into a more lavish grand salon and library, whose frescoed ceilings and sculptural ornamentation obey an elaborate decorative scheme, replete with Masonic symbolism.

Inside the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili (Historical Pharmacy of the Incurable) in Naples.

The back rooms—including a small laboratory full of alembics and other implements used in pharmaceutical preparations—were closed for restoration when I visited, having been urged to do so by a friend, who knew I would be traveling to Naples for an opening at MADRE, the nearby museum of contemporary art. Our guide offered to give us a quick tour. Amid sundry objects tucked away in a narrow passageway stood a sizable marble urn mounted on a pedestal. Framed by a floral motif, a bulging fruit sculpted in high relief on the urn rose above a green marble backdrop.

The guide informed us it was a melograno—Italian for pomegranate—the emblem of fertility. Made of choice Mondragone marble, the urn was designed to hold the equally precious acqua teriacale, for which the pharmacy was famous. Owing to its elaborate preparation and an ever-expanding list of rarefied ingredients—ranging from opium, myrrh, and saffron to viper’s meat—theriac was the most expensive of drugs. Its reputation as an effective antidote known to the ancients, as well as a universal panacea capable of curing all illnesses, was only starting to be challenged by the mid-eighteenth century, when the Farmacia storica degli Incurabili was built.

Among the virtues attributed to the concoction were its aphrodisiac and hallucinogenic properties, according to our guide. In her eyes, the former accounted for the prominence of the pomegranate symbol—not without some irony, given that the hospital specialized in the treatment of venereal diseases such as syphilis. As to the latter, it would appear that Bufotenin—a psychoactive substance naturally occurring in the skin of certain venomous toad species—was to blame.

Fifth Seed

The day after my visit to the Farmacia, I saw a tour guide pointing out the flowers of a pomegranate tree—or several—growing among the ruins in the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum. A couple nodded knowingly, but I had never seen a pomegranate in blossom before. I resisted the urge to pluck off one of the poppy-colored blooms set amid dark green foliage; fortunately, they were out of my reach. That very afternoon, I spotted some more pomegranate trees and shrubs near the vast outdoor swimming pool behind the Villa Oplontis, a few stops away on the Circumvesuviana railway line. The Roman villa that Poppaea Sabina, emperor Nero’s mistress and later his wife, had elected as her secondary residence lay at the foot of Mount Vesuvius, like Herculaneum, and it met with the same fate when the volcano erupted in AD 79.

Red and yellow ochre are the dominant tones of the wall paintings unearthed at the Villa of Poppaea in Oplontis, long buried beneath protective layers of volcanic debris and ash, and remarkably well-preserved as a result. One of them depicts Hercules (after whom the Greek colony of Herculaneum was named) in the Garden of the Hesperides. Conceived with the central niche of the caldarium in mind, this fine, naturalistic fresco shows the barely-clad hero standing beside a large tree, his right arm extended in the direction of two round, reddish fruits placed on a nearby boulder, as if to taunt him.

Fresco c. 90-25 BCE depicting Hercules in the Garden of the Hesperides, the Villa Oplontis, Naples.

These appeared to be Hera’s immortality-granting “golden apples,” the ones that Hercules was tasked with stealing in his penultimate labor, except that they looked neither golden nor like apples. They resembled pomegranates more than any of the other fruits associated with the goddess. Fruits tend to be indeterminate, and easily confused, in biblical as in mythological accounts. Apples, especially, are fated to stand in for all (forbidden) fruits. The trees in the Garden of the Hesperides, grafted from the branches the Earth goddess Gaia gave Hera on her wedding day, may have borne oranges, pomegranates, or pommes tout courtA pomegranate—from the Latin pomum for “apple” and granatum, meaning “seeded”—is, after all, an apple with many seeds.

Sixth Seed

Casa Melograno, on the island of Stromboli, near Sicily, is one in a cluster of holiday homes built around an older, more imposing private residence that locals still refer to as “Il Castello.” The two-story mansion, with its fine stone-framed windows, stands out among the modest whitewashed houses in the Piscità settlement, near the end of the habitable stretch of Stromboli. The name leapt out at me on the morning of my arrival on the Aeolian Island, straight off the night ferry from Naples, as I walked past the house and spotted a lone pomegranate tree in its front garden. I was looking for La Lunatica, the villa where I would be staying for about a week for a residency with the artist Gaia Fugazza, the curator Daria Khan, and the photographer and publisher Giovanna Silva. It lay hidden behind Casa Melograno, at the bottom of a narrow path that skirts Il Castello. On a moonlit night, when the palm trees cast long shadows across the road, it looked like a haunted castle.

We were there to conduct some unorthodox “research activities” in preparation for a group show in central London, and to gather materials for a publication linking the two volcanic portals to the underworld through which Jules Verne’s heroes go down and come back up again in The Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864). With that in mind, on the evening slated for our ascent of the active volcano, we agreed to meet back at the house where Geko—a longtime resident of the island who set up the local plant nursery—was to stage a shamanic drumming ceremony, following our descent from the mountain. The pulsing rhythm of the drum is meant to induce a trance-like state, ideally resulting in an encounter with one’s inner animal guide. To set the whole process in motion, Geko had instructed us to visualize an opening of some sort—be it a cave or a well—leading into the earth. But owing to sheer exhaustion from the six-hour climb, or a failure of imagination, the drumming did not do much for me. My companions fared somewhat better.

Silva told us the next day that the opening she pictured was a cave she had visited years before in a sanctuary at Eleusis. We had just finished reading aloud passages from classics of katabatic literature (stories narrating journeys of descent into the underworld), inspired in part by the drumming session, out on the terrace of La Lunatica. The cave in question, known as Hades’s grotto, lies on the grounds of the sanctuary dedicated to the god who abducted Kore, Persephone in her maidenly guise, and brought her back up through a well located on its precincts—or so claimed the priests who presided over the Lesser and the Great Mysteries, celebrated respectively in spring and at harvest time in Eleusis.

In The Greek Myths, Robert Graves suggests a number of possible locations where the Rape of Persephone or Proserpine (“the fearful one”) may have occurred, ranging from Sicily to Crete to Attica. Ovid sets the scene in a glade of everlasting spring surrounding a deep pool by the name of Pergus (the modern-day lake of Pergusa), near the walls of Enna, a city at the foot of Mount Etna in the center of Sicily—tantalizingly close to the Aeolian Islands. This is where Dis (Pluto) beheld the maiden, as she was gathering flowers with her companions, and snatched her. Nothing remains of the temple dedicated to Demeter who, with her daughter Persephone, was the object of a cult at Enna, but a grotto from which Pluto was believed to have emerged is thought to be the navel of Sicily.

Hades’s cave and sanctuary at Eleusis, Greece.

Seventh Seed

The Fates had decreed that whoever ate or drank in the underworld would be condemned to remain there forever. As a result, Persephone, who consumed between three and seven seeds—according to different versions of the myth—while she was held captive by Hades, would dwell each year in the underworld for as many months. This is one account of the origin of seasons, since during the months Persephone spends beneath the ground—not unlike a seed (“a sweet young seedling” is precisely how the grief-stricken goddess describes her lost daughter in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter)—Demeter goes into mourning and the earth no longer bears crops; conversely, the moment when Persephone comes back and is reunited with Demeter marks the onset of spring. Part chthonic deity, part vegetation goddess, Persephone personifies the dormancy of the seeds and the rebirth of nature.

Each of the seven “seeds” above explores an image—or cluster of images—connected to the pomegranate and its potent symbolism as both a fertility emblem and food of the dead. Together they make up an anatomy of the fruit and a travelogue of sorts: I brought the seeds back from travels—for work and pleasure—that spanned a period of three months, from April to June 2017. The physical journeys were doubled by other “trips,” induced by the use of magic mushrooms, shamanic drumming, and meditation techniques. I’m not sure what all these connections reveal other than that, when we become interested in a given subject, we start seeing it everywhere.

 

[1] From a translation by A. S. Kline,
http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph5.htm#anchor_Toc64106320

Nicola Tyson’s grotesque bodies and faces

This essay appeared in Nicola Tyson: Beyond the Trace Exhibition Guide at The Drawing Room, London:

Drawing may be the starting point for Nicola Tyson’s better-known work in painting, but for the artist it is also an end in itself. Most of her drawings, in fact, are made for their own sake. ‘When working in a sketchbook, it’s only those [drawings] that feel like they could be developed further, through the introduction of colour, that I pull out and use as the basis of a painting,’ Tyson insists.1 In those instances, she tends to project what may have been a rapidly executed drawing directly onto canvas, before beginning the painstaking process of fleshing it out with colour.

The artist has often distinguished the slow and deliberate manner in which she paints from her more intuitive and quickly executed drawings; but that’s not to say that all her drawings are dashed off. ‘The larger drawings can be extremely slow to complete because they may involve shading and cross-hatching,’ she explains. ‘I feel my way to completion – much as I do with paintings – and may leave and return to them over many days or weeks.’ The recent and new works on paper brought together for Beyond the Trace at Drawing Room vary considerably in their size, the materials used (ink, graphite, acrylic paint) and format (vertical, horizontal, square).

The scale of the work determines the thickness of the paper support; for her larger drawings the artist tends to prefer thicker, more resilient paper stock. Opting for graphite or ink does not radically alter the way the artist works since, as she puts it, she ‘very rarely need[s] to erase anything: ‘mistakes’ are incorporated or used as a springboard for gear changes in mark-making’. Tyson admits that working like this can be nerve-wracking but for her it is ‘the only way to get to and keep on target in finding a ‘truthful’ image – one that grows itself’. To understand what she means by this, we must delve deeper into the intuitive and fluid – as opposed to rational and deliberate – process of working that the artist favours when attempting ‘to lay down the energetic structure of the drawing’.2 To get at the truthful image, she lets the hand guide her, ‘bypassing that rational decision-making, pattern-recognition, problem-solving part of thinking’. The hand, not the eye. Tyson confides that she has been known to draw with her eyes closed on occasion, at least to start with, and that she barely looks at the image until it is done.

In drawing as in writing, the hand appears to have a mind of its own. Tyson acknowledges that the hand responds to signals from her brain, whether it is the brain seated in her head, her heart or her gut, elaborating:

‘When sketching or laying down – capturing, it feels like – the basics for a more involved drawing, it feels as if I must let the hand find the image and try not to interfere, until I feel I have captured the necessary information, a presence. Successful images – ones that are alive – will appear unfamiliar to me, in that I could not have thought them up, contrived them.’

Underscoring the sheer material variety that illustrates the versatility of the drawing medium is Tyson’s quest for an ‘unfinished’ quality: ‘The danger is in over finishing, once the process slows down. I try to leave the drawing at a point where the viewer gets to finish it […], by observing those energies at the point when they are just about to fall still and stop. This is the case in painting too – to keep the image alive so that it completes each time you look at it.’

The series of five enigmatic life-sized ink drawings from 2016 perfectly illustrate the point the artist alludes to in the above statement. These works – each of which features the bare outline of a female figure spanning the full picture frame, practically from head to toe – are quite literally life-sized at 182.9 x 106.7 cm. Their slightly tilted heads, turning torsos, arms either outstretched or akimbo, and above all, legs striding forth, unnaturally foregrounded and noticeably wider towards the bottom, forcefully convey a sense of movement, of barely contained energy. The limbs peter out, appear to be stunted or barely suggested, as in the twin circles that stand for hands (or is it fists?) and elsewhere for ovaries in Uteryne (2016). The title offers a possible reading of the image with its prominent central lock motif representing, on one level, the female womb. Yet the crenellated end of the contraption, which is also the hemline of a short skirt, makes this viewer think of the chastity belts which crusading knights would use to lock the ‘private parts’ of their spouses, guarding them against temptation during their prolonged absences.

In ‘Nicola Tyson in Conversation with Herself’, the artist notes, in response to a question she puts to herself regarding the word ‘frock’, that the term ‘private parts’ is something of a misnomer when it comes to female genitalia, given that ‘women’s ‘parts’ aren’t private property – they’re viewed as available to, yet are policed by, the patriarchy… indeed are its private parts.’3This may explain the emphasis given to said ‘private parts’ not only in this series of images – most notably the one titled Pencil Stub (2016), featuring an outsized vagina dentata and breasts with unusually large nipples staring at the viewer like a second pair of eyes – but also in some of the tall and rather narrow graphite drawings on view in Beyond the Trace. Untitled (2008), for instance, depicts a spindly figure whose torso, decked with gaping white breasts, takes the place of a face deliberately left out of the frame so as to generate ambiguity. The breasts and hint of a navel become surrogate facial features, not unlike in René Magritte’s highly disturbing painting Rape (1945).That said, the artist is keen to distance herself from surrealist dream (and nightmarish) imagery, as well as automatic drawing techniques associated with the likes of André Masson, which spring to mind in relation to Tyson’s own largely intuitive process of drawing. For one thing, Tyson does not wish to be labelled in any way. Also, from the 90s onwards, she has been striving to go beyond what she calls her own ‘learned male gaze’ in order to find ‘new imagery that could tell us something about ourselves (women) that we hadn’t seen represented before – the intuitive female body as experienced – lived in – not a surreal one of the art historical kind.’

Tyson’s transgressive, porous and permeable bodies, with their exposed sexual parts and prominent orifices, align her work with the grotesque sensibility. The grotesque, from the Italian word grotto, has its roots in the Renaissance rediscovery of Roman frescoes depicting hybrid creatures caught in a dense web of floral patterns. Yet the wider concept owes as much – if not more so – to Mikhail Bakhtin’s classic study Rabelais and His World (1965), and his understanding of the ‘grotesque body’, as illustrated by the family of giants and other larger-than-life characters who people the French sixteenth-century author’s subversive literary oeuvre. Tyson’s tall drawings – in particular Untitled (2009), with its outsized turbaned head that evokes a Charles Rennie Mackintosh rose pattern, and the bulbous, Bellmeresque, maimed and contorted body of Untitled (2009), ending in exquisitely drawn hoofs – partake of this sensibility.

In its contemporary and painterly guise, the genre has been dominated by male artists whose work ‘tends towards provocatively sexualised depictions of women’, as Jonathan Griffin points out in his essay on ‘The grotesque’ published in Tate Etc.4 Griffin counts Tyson among the female artists – alongside Dana Schutz, Nicole Eisenman and Tala Madani – who in recent years have turned to making grotesque images of women in a bid to claim the grotesque for themselves and counter the male hold on it. In his eyes, the feminist artists who exemplify this trend, ‘share a sensitivity to the interior experience of the female body, and the ways in which that inner space projects into the outside world’, effectively dissolving the boundaries between self and other.

This kind of sensitivity is reflected in two new works made especially for the show at Drawing Room, The Selfies (2017) and The Secret (2017). These twin horizontal graphite drawings were intended as a counterpoint to the verticality of the other works on view. The format is dictated in part by their subject matter; each represents two women, in marked contrast to other works in the exhibition which, by and large, feature solo figures. Some of these are the artist herself under different guises – most explicitly so in the colour monotypes, referred to as ‘self-portraits’ rather than as ‘portrait heads’, a more neutral label that leaves the identity of the subject open.

The Selfies show two female heads side by side, as if tied together by their hair, respectively shorter and longer, which forms a flowing boundary between the artist’s fictional self and her other half. ‘I wanted to return to exploring characters in relationship to one another,’ Tyson says of these two drawings. Whether lovers or merely friends, their closeness suggests an intimacy, just as the two faces, seen in profile – one leaning in towards the other, as she gazes into the distance – subtly convey the exchange of confidences in The Secret. The ‘selfie’ is to a ‘self-portrait’ what a ‘snog’ is to a ‘kiss’: a refreshingly pop way of deflating loaded art historical subjects (Snog, in the 2015 ‘daily drawings’ series, is a case in point). On top of that, the two female ‘sitters’ in The Selfies are crying – one has ray-like tears streaming down her cheeks and the other dark puddles beneath her eyes beside other tell-tale signs of disarray. In her Anti-Selfie series of photographic self-portraits, the Dutch artist Melanie Bonajo systematically records all the occasions on which she has cried. Tyson’s The Selfies also wilfully subvert selfie norms and the expectation that women always have to smile, look pretty and appear available. Tyson pokes fun at this in ‘Dear Man on the Street’, the first of her mock-epistles published together as Dead Men Letters. In this one instance, she takes on not a famous male artist but rather the obnoxious passer-by who tells her to ‘smile’, prompting her to do so when she least feels like it.

In her monotypes Tyson uses colour to further sabotage such ‘mandated behavior’. Despite the bright red lips and playful polka-dot patterned orange frocks in Self-Portrait: Coy (2016) and Self-Portrait: Worried (2016), these figures are hardly alluring in the traditional sense.  There is nothing remotely sexy about the featureless faces, by turns gaunt and bloated, framed by ever receding brown hairlines and clothing items whose random shades and patterns (‘green shirt’, ‘black turtle neck’, ‘dots’, etc.) spell out different modes of fatigue in the acrylic works sharing the title Self-Portrait: Tired (all 2016). At the close of her interview with herself, Tyson describes these monotypes as a species of printing, since the acrylic paint is first applied to glass and then printed onto paper in reverse. Yet they also represent another way to draw, as the marks we see are the result of strokes made on the back of the paper. This ‘back-to-front way of working’, as her interviewer calls it, has the advantage of allowing her to ‘drop directly into color’ and move beyond the confines of the graphic line.

1Nicola Tyson, in an email exchange between the author and the artist, 6 September 2017. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations are from this interview.

2 Jenny Bahn, ‘The Shape of Things’, interview, Office magazine, 2017

3Nicola Tyson, Works on Paper catalogue (New York: Petzel Gallery, 2016), p. 78

4Tate Etc.,Issue 26, autumn 2012