Monday, September 28, 2009

In Hiding

Works by Janine Antoni (the first one is a sculpture - a cast of the artist - and not a photo of a performed action, as is the case with the second one).
And as a bonus, a work by her called Umbillical (2000), made of a "sterling silver cast of family silverware and negative impression of artist's mouth and mother's hand".

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Do You Believe In Magic? Grospierre vs. Radziszewski

a comparison of Karol Radziszewski's To Pee In a Bun and Nicolas Grospierre's Kunstkamera

The two recently* opened exhibitions at the main two contemporary art centers in Warsaw – Zachęta and the Contemporary Art Center – have some clear similarities.

Both exhibitions are witty, explicit dialogues with art history. They both play on the distance that separates contemporary art conventions from what has been somewhat recklessly left behind. Radziszewski exhibits works hidden in the depths of the national gallery’s archives. Some are excruciating to look at, others are curious discoveries or brilliant works. Grospierre goes back to the format of the Kunstkammer and does what he does best – plays with it.

They both focus on the structure of an exhibition, and make it an essential aspect, a sort of a meta-work which goes far beyond the classical idea of curator and uses the ambiguity of this function to the utmost. It is impossible to say where the curator’s role stops and the artist’s begins. This goes far beyond the inclusion of the curator’s own works in the exhibition, or his manipulation of the showing. We never know when the appreciation of the shown works is genuine, and when it is ironic. And because of the artists’ works being part of the selection, the self-irony is, as always, disarming.

However, each artist enacts the role of contemporary art trickster in a different way. Beyond questions of scale, budget and context of production, the two exhibitions are at two opposite sides of an old aesthetic debate. They present two different approaches to the question of value in aesthetics. But first, let me give you a brief description of each of the exhibitions.

Karol Radziszewski’s exhibition To Pee in a Bun, is grandiose. It is a personal take on the collection of Poland’s most renowned and respected public gallery of Modern Art (charmingly called The Encouragement for Fine Art).
In it, he acts “merely” as curator, and also as one of the numerous exhibited artists. Here is what the curator had to say in a conversation with himself as artist :
C: Curators are the ones who make the artists conscious of
‘what’ they have created and ‘why’; often, they also manipulate the
works being displayed, creating their own narratives from pre-existing
works, at the same time disregarding their previous context.
A: Like you did in this exhibition?
C: Yes. (laughs)
A: Why?
C: I treat other artists’ works as elements of a larger whole, like
tubes of paint, from which I have to squeeze out colours in order
to paint one complex painting.
A: That’s a very colourful metaphor . . .
C: Thank you.

We could say that Nicolas Grospierre creates a similar procedure of remixing curator and artist when in the Kunstkamera installation, (which is the size of one of the smaller rooms in Radziszewski’s exhibition), he hangs mainly pictures of objects and photos created by other people, and signs the whole as his piece.
Yet the vectors, here, point elsewhere. Instead of spreading the works and opening, if not exploding, them, he seems to move inwards, closing the space and folding it yet again. Upon entering the "room", we discover a game of images reproducing images reproducing the same space with other images. The game goes on, like a play with mirrors, ad infinitum. The "meaning" is still ambiguous - yet it concentrates, thickens, moves toward inhabiting the space instead of abandoning it.

So what does all of this have to do with philosophical debates?

In an article published in 1936, Stanisław Ossowski, one of Poland’s most notable thinkers from the famous Lvov-Warsaw school of thought, argued against aesthetics understood as the “construction of value systems”. The generalizing of arbitrary aesthetic feelings and opinions to the level of theory should, in his opinion, give way to a sociological perspective on art and the aesthetic, one which would embrace the richness of opinions and points of view instead of imposing them.
This bold proposal was answered the same year by another great mind, Henryk Elzenberg, who argued that no matter how weak and prone to error, our aesthetic judgments remain anchored in value systems that can and should be discussed – as we cannot speak of aesthetics without referring to value, and values are open to discussion.

To put it bluntly: in Radziszewski’s exhibition I see Ossowski’s distancing from aesthetics as a system of values, while Grospierre’s installation follows Elzenberg’s ideals.

These are really two different ways of approaching the world.

Ossowski claims that any discussion about aesthetic values comes down to a power struggle. And this overpowering does not go through a sharing of enthusiasm or disgust, but goes through the attribution of value. Why? Elzenberg explains:
Apparently [the value-based aestheticist] lacks qualifications: he does not have the authority, or the suggestive strength, or the capacity to contaminate others with his feeling. And he is overfilled with the will to rule. Thus, he tries to convince the victim that if this victim feels the same things he does, the victim will be right, he will be somehow objectively correct; and he will be wrong if he dares otherwise.

Hence the need for distance.
It seems Radziszewski claims it on every single step. On one hand, his collection is a moving away from an engaged position, it is rather a questioning of our aesthetic values, of their ever-astounding relativity and apparent insignificance. Who are we to say that this is pretty, and this isn’t? How are we to judge the works that a mere 30 years ago were judged outstanding, while today they’re hidden away in a museum cellar?

On the other hand though, Radziszewski’s approach differs from Ossowski’s philosophy in one respect: being an artist, and not a social scientist, he does not feel the need to eradicate the position of power. To the contrary, he exposes it by exploring it to the fullest. Why bring a porn film into the gallery? Because it’s shocking, and attracts audiences. The aestheticist’s position allows him to create values arbitrarily:
A: You’re a curator — does that mean power?
C: Absolute power! (laughs)
A: Most people believe curators are unfulfilled artists.
C: I think that does hold true for me. Besides, to quote Krasiński
yet again, ‘Art is too serious a business to be left in artists’ hands.’

Grospierre is at a very different point. He does not feel the necessity to question everything – art history has done it sufficiently. Instead, he looks for ways of exploring the place of art today while not undoing it all yet again. Romantic? Certainly. It is a self-ironic romanticism, one that takes great effort in presenting itself as distanced and eye-winking. No wonder Grospierre cites Italo Calvino and Borges: this is the romantic universe that leads the battle for saving beauty. It is not, however, an intuitive aesthetic experience kind of beauty. The Kunstkamera is all about unending layers of initiation. It is a dive into the possibility of image, the possibility of the reflection of things, of some sort of hidden and evolving harmony between the object and the subject.

It reminds one of Heidegger’s conception of art as a window to some other realm we can in no other way describe. Here, this realm always crosses first an image of the reality we know – and so, we never know if this is the level of work-of-art, or it is only a description thereof. Fittingly, the exhibition flyer (a photocopy with clear photocopy marks) explains it all, and more. It seems to impose its vision of the work before we even get to see it.
Take, for instance, the “Trophies” section.
Trophies represent four dog muzzles, belonging to the commonest of mongrels. Bolek, Majka, Eryk and Gucio are four doggies among thousands. In the old Wunderkammer we would find extraordinary or unique natural objects: the horn of a unicorn, huge crystals, stuffed reptiles and other monstrosities. The idea was to show nature in the most surprising forms. Today the world seems devoid of the mysteries and much simpler than in the sixteenth century: the monsters disappeared from biology books. Might it be that the world is less poetic, more prosaic? I don’t think so. Even if science discovered many of nature’s secrets, for me poetry and mystery are still present in nature – we can find them in the most common species, such as house dogs.
The two positions can be called “metaphisical” and “positivist”. Elzenberg’s metaphisicist is
quite aware that there are hundreds of traps on his way; that his individual chances of error are bigger than his chances of winning; he feels that his results are to the highest degree uncertain, endangered by others’ critique and by his own. He feels the constant risk. Yet this risk is also his joy, since, as a psychological type, he has in him – and indeed needs to have – a little bit of a man of adventure and his attitude towards the “positivist” is somewhat like the attitude of a sailor that knows he can drown, towards the landlubber, who has no such fiercely unpleasant risk awaiting. It gives him a sort of satisfaction, but that is not what decides about his behavior in terms of acquiring knowledge; the decisive factor is that he does not want to drown. And that is why he is first and foremost careful. The “Metaphisicist” – or rather, to put it in more serious terms, the valuing aestheticist – knows well that his subject is unclear and unattainable and that what he discovers in it flees any adequate descriptions. Thus, although he is a sui generis racionalist to start off, it is nonetheless easy to discover a trait in him that is the contrary of a strict rationalism: the tendency to treat concepts and judgments as merely a type of highly uncertain symbols of a reality that resists human thought. Thus, he will not suggest that the chiaroscuro in which he sees the thing is full light, nor will he bond himself till death due him part with this or that linguistic formula or even this or that discursive elaboration of his intuition. He – yes he! - has something in him of the spirit of empiricism, as he understands his moving into the subject as a multiplicity of attempts and returns, as the entering in contact, as a progressive bonding with reality. Hence, he has the quality of being critical towards his own achievements, he consciously softens the edges of his statements, and is ready for changes and corrections, and, generally speaking, is moderate and more moderate even.
So do you believe in magic? In the aesthetic wonder of art, that keeps evolving beyond all expectations, that is in some strange way always related to beauty, and maintains some sort of objective common ground, some platform of shared values?
Or did the whole building of aesthetics collapse, leaving us in a void where any new creation of value is so easily ridiculed, art may at best be looked from a great distance, with an ironic, witty, sensitive yet unaffirming stance?

I must say I prefer Grospierre's installation: it's discursive and communicative, inquiring and playful, desperately searching for beauty, or maybe: aiming at beauty. This is a work of a believer. And although I'm not exactly a believer, I can repeat after one of my favorite characters, Samuel Hamilton: I don't really believe in it save that it works.

*It took me some time to write this... and tomorrow is the last day of Kunstkamera! Hurry if you want to see it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lightness is Difficult

As a wise man once said, life is serious, art is lighthearted. And this very description is what I find the most difficult about creating art. There is a tremendous distance between the seriousness of living a life (yes, even an artist's life...), and the light that the art requires.
Or is it the heart?

Both works are by Collier Schorr.

Cattelan vs. Woodman

Looking for the above gorgeous image by Francesca Woodman, I came across Lucilees post where she asks the ever-recurring question about appropriation vs. plagiarism, in the context of the two works below:

Cattelan's installation, untitled, from 2007.

Woodman's photo, untitled, 1977.

The work seemed like a clear quote to me, but I searched a bit more.
Cattelan presented the installation in 2008 at his Bregenz Kunsthalle (the site seems to have almost no working pages) exhibition. It was on the highest floor of the building, and it looked like this:

Impressive. It's quite interesting, though, to see to what extent the presentation of a work can obscure/transform its dynamics. The first picture of Cattelan's piece without this second one creates a significantly different framework. (According to one commentator, this was the first time Cattelan used someone else's architecture to stage his piece.)
My Polish coleagues have linked Cattelan's work to feminism and eschatology. Crucifiction, yes, but what is beyond? Also, the white nightgown suggests a patient, eternal patient, hysteric person...
Although Iza Kowalczyk is right to point out that this work stresses the crucifiction more than the hanging in Woodman's version (where the chair in the front created a classic reference to this way of committing suicide), there is something in both these installations that I found crucial, and missing in the comments: the portrayed woman is not crucified. She is suspended by her own arms. It is a very uncomfortable position and requires significant effort.
There is a play going on here between victimization, self-victimization and empowerment. The subject self-objectifies thus getting higher.
One other thing, concerning a discussion on one of the sites, about eroticism. Is this too pure to be erotic? To me it seems to bring about the right amount of frustration by being so unbearably decent, and yet stretched to the limits . This is much more explicit in Cattelan's work - an installation, bringing about a specific, ambiguous visual perspective. This frustration of power, which plays namely on the the relation between the viewer and his subject, is a trademark of many of Cattelan's works. It's what often irritates me. And what makes me come back.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009

Don't you hate it when big commerce does something real good

See Sprint's Plug Into Now project (launched about a year ago and created by Goodby, Silverstein & Partners). Get impressed. And then goddamn it, move forward, do things no commerce can think of. Because it does have the feel of some excellent live art that's been around in the recent years. And let's say it feels just a tad late (and shallow, and not moving forward - but it's selling a product, for chrissakes!). Just late enough to feel that artists can still handle the commercial pressure.
Yes, they've been counting on viral marketing.
Yes, they think they might tap into a blog like this one.
Yes, they just did.
Because they're good. Is it a sin for a commercial enterprize to be good?
Well, they have the means. Get it while it's now. They play around with this idea, and they do it well.
I'm glad they do - it's an inspiring project. It makes me want to move beyond this. Now.

Moebius Bach

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Far Away So Close

The San Francisco LAB just closed their 25th-year-anniversary exhibition called PastForward, where they made an open call to young artists to respond to works of the established ones who came out of The LAB. The result seems to have been quite exciting - you can take a look at some pictures at this site (with some great jazz playing on the site - which unfortunately can't be turned off...).
My favorite work, especially given the distant perspective (I'm in Warsaw now) is the Viewing Platform by Ellen Babcock:

Perfect for any vernissage! (And after all, what would contemporary art be without the vernissages!) It plays with an essential trait of contemporary art: centrality. You are taller, you see further, and as if by chance you are hence appreciated. You become the spectacle. Very tiring indeed. And fun, if you forget the impossibility of an intimate contact with the remaining works. I know, the people become the work, and still...
I would love to create a portable version of this. Like a small podium with railings that you could carry around the opening (wheels?), or rent, or receive if you are a VIP guest. Or just have one of my own, though the most enjoyable part might be having several people on this higher level, among the crowds. And believe you me, at the exhibition openings of the main Warsaw art centers, it would come in handy.

Here is what the curatorial note says:
Ellen Babcock responds to Lauren Davies with a sculptural installation
that addresses Davies’ engagement with representations of the natural world. Based upon Babcock’s visit to a tiny museum in Twillingate, Newfoundland – a visit Davies herself had made prior to Babcock – the sculpture teases out the differences between the two artists’ approaches to the tropes of natural history display. Encountering a stuffed polar bear in the museum, Davies responded with a gently mocking mixture of humor and pathos meant to remind us of the absurdity of the way taxonomies simplify and freeze the fluid mysteries of life. Babcock, on the other hand, found the quasi-encounter visceral and beautiful. While she sees Davies as opening up a space for the Real in an iconoclastic rejection of the traditions of natural display, Babcock looks for vestiges of the Real in the moment of encounter when disbelief is suspended.

Quote of the day

To me it seems as though a lot of this... this work is people who are scared to live a life in the first place. Incredibly unradical people who play a game of a radical life within very safe confines of some Kunsthalle or other museum in Germany or France.

- Gavin Brown, gallerist, The Gavin Brown enterprise, about artists related to "relational aesthetics".

The quote comes from a film by Ben Lewis called "Relational Art: Is It an Ism?" (2004).
What I like about the film is that it's (sometimes) funny and doesn't fuss around.
What irritated me though was that beyond the humor I kept feeling a bitterness I despise. So when we discover in the film that Ben Lewis used to make art (with vegetables) and then decided he wasn't good at it and stopped, Lewis' slightly too aggressive attempts to ridicule the artists he talks about become, well, put into context. I would love to see the rest of the Art Safari series to see if it's juat the case of this episode, or is this the "intelligent irony" we should expect in every episode. (correction: I just realized I had seen an episode with Sophie Calle. And it's pretty much the same thing).
But then... I found this famous article of his about the art world - "Who Put the Con in Contemporary Art?" which basically claims it's all an evil world, a clique that only wants profits. And although I agree with some of the statements he is making, it's the tone that really discredits him. (The joker became the prophet!) Especially given he is publishing on the site of... the Saatchi Gallery!

The paintings, (which in my humble opinion are rather unrelated to the topic of relational aesthetics), are by Peter Doig, at the Gavin Brown enterprise. (They are here because of solitude, reflection, one's place in the world as an artist and a person. And skiing.)
The photo is by Ryan McGinley.

Looking at Opałka. Can one focus on the focus?

I'm sure you know the work of Roman Opałka: he has been painting the same continuous picture since 1965, consisting only of numbers, from 1 to infinity. The work has had some changes over the years, among them, in 1968, the introduction of self-portraits.
At the very enriching exhibition of a part of the permanent collection of the Center for Contemporary Arts in Warsaw, there is a room with some six of his portraits, from various periods of his life.
Today I discovered a curious detail: in this particular collection of photos, the early ones are slightly out of focus. Or rather, the focus is on the hair in the back of the head. The later we get, the better the focus. The last two pictures, of Opałka past 70, have his eyes perfectly in focus. As if the disappearing of the numbers was accompanied by the appearing of the person. As if he was more himself.
I'm sure this is a coincidence. But why should I care? What's wrong with a little hermeneutics? Can't we accept conceptual art to have a life of its own, one that eludes its original readings? Isn't the fact that Duchamp's Fountain has long disappeared, and was recreated by the artist many decades later (in several copies) because of interest in the work, isn't this a wonderful enrichment of the original work?
It might be considered a useless stretch of the pure concept. Like overdoing something that was meant to be simple. Possibly. I'll have it my way.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Feeling of Landscape

This is what would be nice: for all this splatter, all this hazy spirit pollution, to suddenly (or progressively) make sense, and turn into a landscape.
Okay, I admit it, there is a world which I am pretending to ignore. There are those one loves and others which are close enough to be deeply missed, at times.
I admit, there is a light which remains and manages to outshine any particular chaos, any specific too-lateness. For a while, it remains with the body, or the view of the body, or the afterview, and then it moves away, into the back of the mind's eye, and turns into an excuse to remain hesitating, instead of letting it all go.

But no. All this is happy-tuning oneself, it does not sustain. That is precisely why I miss the feeling of landscape: it sustains. While this? It feels more like posing steps on stones in a stream, where no single stone is certain, yet together they make an unexpectedly serious path. (Maybe not "serious". Maybe "defined". Or "path-like". Or is it that looking for adjectives misses the point: that it's the path that's unexpected, not any quality it might have).

And at the bottom, in the water, remains all this, all that stuff that somehow never unbecame me. And lingers on as if too hazy to be rejected, too ridiculously gone. So if it's gone, what is it, I ask.The first three paintings are by Andrew Hollis, and the last two - by Gemma Gallagher.


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