Saturday, June 20, 2009

New Russian art, AD 1909

These color photographs were all taken in the Russian Empire between 1909 and 1918.

Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii was a Russian photographer born in 1863. After studying chemistry with Mendeleev and later with Adolf Miethe - one of the crucial figures in the invention of color photography - Gorskii started developing his own techniques and processes of color photography, giving it a quality that even impresses even today.
In 1909, he convinced the tsar Nicolas II to send him on a trip across the Russian Empire, to document its impressive diversity. It was a 10-year project, during which Gorskii took over 10 000 pictures, and it ended up outlasting the tsar himself, and the Empire for that matter, as the October Revolution swept away the monarchy. In 1918, he emigrated to Paris, where he died in 1944.

The image archive of 1902 negatives which were left was bought by the Library of Congress a few years after the artist's death, and was put online in 2004. You can find it here.

Prokuda-Gorskii's most famous photo is of Leo Tolstoy, dated 1908.

But I prefer this monumental, megalomaniac and modest project of documenting Imperial Russia, which at the time was larger than the USSR ever came to be. The diversity of the people, and the shockingly modern colors of their portraits, make them impossible to forget. They are our contemporaries, now that they stopped hiding between the unfocused black-and-whiteness.
They are almost too present.

Austrian (probably meaning also Polish and of other origins) prisoners somewhere in Russia. It's really worth seeing a high-resolution image.

Here he is, Sergei Prokudin-Gorskii. In a landscape that is (eerily?) ours.
PS. The amazing color bars that appear on some of the pictures are the result of Prokudin-Gorskii's ingenious process, which consisted in taking three subsequent, monochromatic photographs, one with a green filter, one with blue and one with red. He then superimposed the three projections using lamps with a corresponding filter system. I adore these frames, unfortunately some of the images needed additional computer editing (by the Library of Congress) and in this version were cropped.
You can find an extended biography of Gorskii here.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Something Else / Asger Carlsen

"You're (really) something!" in Polish is "Ty to jesteś!"*, meaning literally "You are the one that is!".

This seems more logical than the English expression - your existence is more, your [way of] being is the right one.

Yet there is, hidden within this phrase, a sense of hierarchy that verges on arrogance - a value judgment on being. I prefer the English version - it sounds more modest, the paradox (you-thing) gives it the feel of a good fetish - you are [my] fetish.
We can also see it as edifying: I can see you objectively and that sight is grand.

But my favorite expression in this neighborhood is "You are something else!" It challenges everything we are tempted to say to and about another person. Here, she is not only a thing, but a thing that is essentially unattainable. She is not only "the other", but the other stripped of the alteregoishness, the person-likeness, flourishing in her (its) thingness, some - thing - else.

You are something else: you are fundamentally unattainable.

All the photos are by Asger Carlsen, from the series Wrong, 0 and Detour.**

* The Polish expression, however, has a rather pejorative connation, while the English one usually means we are impressed with the other person. Still, both have the basic meaning of awe and amazement, and both can in some circumstances be positive or negative.
** The first two pictures are not, as someone suggested, photos of real handicapped people. See the entire Wrong series for more.

Saturday, June 06, 2009


Start off with something nice.
Something delicate, subtle, yet not too sharp, just soft enough to create the sensation of closeness. Don't go crazy, don't look for the ambitious project. Focus on this line. This spot. This shape. Something ridiculously precious for the little space it takes, for the easiness with which one can grasp it with one blink of an eye. Like a photo. Like a brand mark. Like, say, a sign announcing a poodle.
Now. Keep it fresh, don't go for the design, don't become too sure of yourself, you've only walked that far, you've only just created a little tiny bit of reality, something enchanting, a walk in the night, maybe, a few pretty words, possibly.
Stay humble.
And if you think you're humble enough, make fun at whatever it is that isn't there quite yet. Look at the silly figure you're making, you artiste you, you and your pretty dress, and your flirtacious smile, and your bright ideas and smiling smiles.

That's it. You're moving you're making you're growing. You're growing on this other you that is not you, and which surprizingly serves you as a filter to bring about the rest. See?
And though you know there is no other self, by now the distance is your best ally, you use it like a magnifying glass, the distance is what you learn to know best, you play with it, you give it true depth, you make it resound, this distant you, like a tolling bell, and then you pretend there is nothing, you get on with your work and all the rest, until, one day, it comes back, the echo, simple and potent and clear.

Andrea Schumacher, Poodle; Belle of the Ball; and Transposed Gesture (the latter, original, gesso and gouache painting is available at the Pierogi Gallery for under $400)

Friday, June 05, 2009

FC Barcelona and the shift of aesthetic paradigms

Apparently the manager of FC Barelona, the young Josep Guardiola, prepared this film for his players before the finale against Manchester United. And before the game, instead of making the classic motivational speech, he showed them the film. And said nothing afterwards.
If I'm posting this on the New Art blog, it's because this shows a very powerful turn in the way we see film/media. Although the advent of the "TV era" has been prophetized for a long time, and many declared its beginning many decades ago. However, this event, for me, is a very important sign of a shift of paradigms. And it is not as simple as moving from a deep human experience to a superficial "screen" experience. The presence of the manager, of the person, is still crucial (it would be difficult to imagine - for the moment - that he weren't there), but his action is not. Hence, translating it into performative terms, we can say it is not about the actor-audience connection, as some sort of a mystic communion. And a possible reason so many thinkers complain is because they thought the aesthetic experience of a live event had some "added value" because of it being inter-subjective. Suddenly, it appears the inter-subjectivity is just one possible aspect. One that can be done away with - while maintaining, and that is my argument, the value of the experience. Yes, now it seems more about the show-spectacle, but this is not to say the "spectacle" is, as such, of lesser value (based on what?). For one, it appears as a surprizingly intimate event. And if the film will presumably seem kitsch to most of us, that is clearly because it was tailored for a specific audience, with specific references, under very special circumstances. Could it be that this type of intimate media spectacle is what's in the air?

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Aliens in Brussels - Althamer's "Common Task"

On June 4, 1989, Poland held the first (partly) free elections of the so-called Eastern Block.
It was the first time since WW2 that opposition parties could legally participate in the political process, and the result - a smashing success of the opposition - was the end of communism and the beginning of a new, free Poland. These elections are generally considered the single event that began the overcoming of the totalitarian regimes in this entire region of the world.
And among the ways in which Poland will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of these events, one is particularly interesting.

Tomorrow, the excellent Polish artist Paweł Althamer (I've written a short note about him before), will land with 160 other passengers of a Boeing 737 in Brussels. They will all be wearing golden suits that look like a combination of space suits and fairy-tale costumes. Even the plane will be specially designed and painted gold - all as part of Althamer's work Common Task (the Polish expression "Wspólna sprawa" could also mean "common issue" or "common quest"). Their first stop in the city will be the Expo 58, a modernist dream-town. A model of an atom will be a starting point of the visit to the European Parliament and "meetings with the residents of the city" (How does that work?). They will be making a tour of the city as strange, alien visitors. 160 gold-dressed aliens.
Who are they? Mainly Althamer's neighbors, family and friends, who have been joining him for other performances he organized.
Who are they? Poles. Strangers. People from outer space.
They are the winners. The visiting winners. The happy neighbors. The curious onlookers, the modernist dreamers, the naive children of freedom, the believers. They are the pure creators, the dreamed Europeans, the perfect people, they are the unexpected turn of events, where everything turns gold.

The words on the page of the entire commemoration state:
The motto of the commemoration, It all began in Poland, is a bold reference to the fact that Poland was the first European nation to oppose, in 1939, the spread of Nazism and communism, and was the first to remove their communist government from power in 1989.
The gold suits seem to fit. And yet, what I like about this social sculpture (as Althamer sometimes calls his works) is something quite opposite to that spirit of heroism and pride we so desperately claim. It's... you guessed it - the lack of pathos.
Or rather - the way pathos is masked by the gold suit.

(In the video, art critic and curator Anda Rottenberg talks about Althamer's
social sculptures: "It is about involving everyone in the area of the work of art as an activity where a new reality is created together and the chain of events is directed together".)

UPDATE 05.06.09:
Althamer told the media:
There are no VIPs here. This is a grass-roots project, in which ordinary people participate. It reminds that ordinary people are the ones who can change reality. 20 years ago no one expected that Poland would be free. We thought it was impossible. Our astronauts also never expected to fly to Brussels in a golden airplane. We set to have fun and enjoy freedom.

and the project's curatorial decription tells the story in a broader context:
The participants, i.e. the residents of the Bródno district in Warsaw appear in various places in extraordinary golden spacesuits. The joint activities are aimed to cross not only the mental but also the physical barriers; in addition to the meetings which are set in everyday reality, the participants also set out on peculiar journeys offering them new possibilities and unusual experiences. Clad in extraordinary spacesuits they balance on the border of two worlds; the one that they know and the new one which is very often a projection of their imagination. The world that they know quite frequently means the unattractive space of the grey and gloomy blocks of flats. The participants are “ordinary” people who have “ordinary” jobs and who are just “people from across the street”. “Common Task” allows them to leave the twilight zone and to appear in a public space which is completely new to them. For them, it is a different world full of people communicating in a foreign language. But it is also the world in which they become visible. What is more, they become the focal point and draw attention of the other people.In this context the Project of Paweł Althamer can be viewed as a social sculpture. The sculpture which is a material object, is transformed into a common experience, a process aimed to introduce a deep going change in the registers of everyday habits. Subject to this artistic transformation is not only a physical object but also the person, consciousness and mental habits. At the same time, Common Task is a meeting and integration place of various social groups and people whose everyday realities do not merge in any way and who are often excluded from the social and cultural rites. The symbolic crossing of the borders thus occurs at many levels.

It's curious how the vectors of meaning change. The beginning of the project seems to have been indeed a venture into the unknown, a play with the modernist ideas and ideals of unity, purity, but also of exceptionality of the individual. The trip to the city of Brasilia which they undertook underlines it quite clearly. However, by now the project is huge, the date is a specific date, not a coincidence, and these "neutral" people are not neutral any more - they are the golden ambassadors of the Polish cause. They are, whether the artist wants it or not, the symbol of the Polish events in 1989. And to some extent it becomes irrelevant what their reasons for going were, as the impact of their presence puts them in a very specific role, molds them into a social sculpture quite different from the one described in such a neutral way by the artist. There is a tension between the way the work "should" be seen, and how it appears. Curiously, the media's coverage shows the ambiguity: the journalists would like to show the richness of stories and levels of the work they are participating in (they, too, have to wear the golden suits), yet the bottom line keeps bringing them back to this "gold-medal" aproach, where the Poles are the clear winners of some strange competition.
This development of the "Common Task" is a great example of how the historic identity challenges, distorts, and often overwhelms the personal-narrative-identity.

(with a little help from Polandian)

Simple Stories

David Lynch's new project, Interview Project, is assumingly as simple as it gets: travel across the US. Interview people.
Here is the first episode.
First impressions? It's... nice. Potentially fascinating. Not quite yet. For the moment, it's too early to say.

This might seem like something very unfocused, as if it lacked a form, a formula, a format to support it. Compare this first episode to Kieślowski's (amazing, amazing) Talking Heads (1980):

Kieślowski has a format and sticks to it.
Seen from this perspective, Lynch's project might appear as amateurish.
But then, it goes so well with the spirit of our times, with the thirst for simple, everyday stories...
After all, we can still feel quite a heavy dose of humanist ideals and pathos in Kieślowski's approach. Even the way he films his subjects is dramatic, often painting-like.
Lynch has this capacity too, as we know so well. Yet he chooses a very different approach, different texture. Different proximity.

One small, hardly noticeable element is similar in the two projects: the music. It is heavy, dramatic, as if contradicting the simplicity of the protagonists.
Is it nostalgia for the great narratives?

Oh, and one more thing. We can only get that far asking constantly the most basic questions. After a while, I get tired. I want more. The essential stops being essential. It becomes annoyingly abstract, unaccessible. That's one reason to go beyond the existential questions, and one reason to ask other questions. One way of dealing with this is moving away from the person-as-biography to the person-as-projection. Take the famous work by Sophie Calle called Blind, where she asked people who were born blind about what is their image of beauty.

The pathos is still quite present. Yet the projection, the sensibility of the imagination, makes us... dance with empathy.


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