Destruction as a Form of Creation: Ann Hamilton’s “habitus”

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Ann Hamilton, habitus, 2016-2017. Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA. Installation view, image taken by the author.

Several months ago, I began a series about how art is displayed. My first post was about Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, followed by Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy a few weeks later. Now, I am returning to the series to summarize with Ann Hamilton’s habitus, which was held from September 17 to January 8 in two physical locations in Philadelphia: The Fabric Workshop and Museum (FWM) and Municipal Pier 9. The FWM, who organized the project with Hamilton, displayed a curated selection of historical objects in their galleries. Municipal Pier 9 housed a site-specific installation, which is what this post focuses on. According to the FWM site, it was held in a third location: online in social media, where it continues to live today.

In light of Women’s History Month (March), International Women’s Day (March 8), the Women’s Strike (March 8, 2017), and #ADayWithoutAWoman organized by the Women’s March, it is timely that this post will be focusing on one of my favorite artists who just so happens to be a woman. Ann Hamilton has created several site-specific installations that inhabit and speak to the history of a specific space, consider making as a form of Creation, and evaluate the poetics of human involvement with objects. Hamilton is also the author of the exhibition I most regret missing: ANN HAMILTON: the event of a thread.

Before I continue with this post, I have re-written the introduction to the previous two posts, and the series, as a reminder of the thread of conversation:

In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.

This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.

Lately, I have been seeing a shift, which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and, through their actions, activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of LossAnn Hamilton’s habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism.

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Ann Hamilton, habitus, 2016-2017. Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA. Installation view, image taken by the author.

Ann Hamilton: habitus. The Fabric Workshop and Museum and Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA; September 17, 2016 – January 8, 2017 

Walking into Municipal Pier 9, you encounter a large, open space. Not quite cavernous, the pier is constructed like any other warehouse: high ceilings, visible rafters, and sparse construction. The walls that jut out into the river are partially open, allowing a cool breeze to pass through the space. Benches are set up along the walls with a few people seated, watching the progress of the installation. The majority of the space is taken up by several large, suspended curtains of white fabric. While they vary in exact size, each curtain is suspended from a circular, wheel-like hoop that is further suspended from the ceiling and attached with a pulley system that allows each sculpture to spin independently of the others. Some stand still, gently rustled by the wind, others are being activated by the audience. Couples, families, and art tourists like me are taking turns pulling on braided ropes, which are attached to the pulleys, which are attached to the curtains, causing them to spin. It takes several moments to understand which ropes activate which curtains, as they are spaced at unregimented distances from their respective curtains, at seeming random. Tugging on one rope, I had to search around for a moment before I noticed a curtain some distance away that had surprised a family standing within it by suddenly spinning.

habitus invokes a sense of playfulness and surprise, and creates an interactive space that makes the art a visceral experience. Everyone is encouraged to touch the art: pull the ropes, ruffle the curtains, stand within the circle of fabric. Through the sporadic relation of ropes to curtains, separate groups are encouraged to interact unexpectedly. There is an undertone of a pleasant, happy murmur with sudden breaks of laughter; each group talks amongst themselves and, at times, between groups of strangers. The entire atmosphere is soft, poetic, and almost nostalgic. The fabric floats outward, shifting based on the strength and quickness of the pull on the rope and the direction of the wind. Portions of the curtains are gathered into folds, creating an imperfect circle, and the rest fall into natural pleats. The use of simple tools, like pulleys and ropes, along with the undyed fabric and unfinished space recalls the industrial era of production: pre-technology and predating the smartphones that are busy takes pictures and selfies for social media. However, instead of creating an atmosphere that is anti-technology, it instead provokes thoughts on the history of technology and the long history that lead to technology as we know it today. It brings to mind the inherent humanness of all production and the fact that, no matter how advanced the technology, it was still produced by people to be used by people. We are always interacting with and inhabiting things, be they simple as the fabric that adorns our bodies or complicated as the miniature computers in our pockets and purses.

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Ann Hamilton, habitus, 2016-2017. Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA. Installation view, image taken by the author.

Past the swaths of fabric and the swirling interactions with things and people, you enter a more introspective area of the exhibition where the invitation to “please touch” is rescinded. Reels with strings of poems strung along them are projecting onto screens, some running, others preparing for an event later that day. A woman sits at a desk, painstakingly removing stitches of red thread from a piece of fabric. The disorganized and undone strips of material pile up on either side of her arms, resting on the table. Then, there is a mesh fence that restricts access to the farthest recess of the space. This area is inhabited by a lone worker, slowly refining bundles of cotton or wool with the traditional method of brushing it to separate the fibers so they can be spun into thread. The sight of the pile of unrefined material slowing shifting into a growing pile of refined material recalls the circular nature of creation and destruction and reveals the entire process of production from raw material to finished product, backwards. It is almost as if you are watching the destruction of the very fabrics you were just walking through, or rather, you are walking back in time through the production process. In a time where the strong majority of the products we consume are presented to us complete and separate from both their production and the human hand in their production, the reminder of the process of creation is both a novelty and a spectacle.

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Ann Hamilton, habitus, 2016-2017. Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA. Installation view, image taken by the author.

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Ann Hamilton, habitus, 2016-2017. Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA. Installation view, image taken by the author.

The wall text at the beginning of the exhibition begins with a quote by Ann Hamilton: “Habitus is the landscape made from letting go and holding on, from reelings and turnings, unravelings and gatherings, spinning and scrolling, continuous and discontinuous threads, in circles and in lines.”

Monumental and unassuming, deliberate and playful, habitus reminds the audience that all products must be produced. They do not spontaneously come into the world, nor are they born; they require the interference and the interaction of people to not only come into being, but to realize any meaning.

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Ann Hamilton, habitus, 2016-2017. Municipal Pier 9, Philadelphia, PA. Installation view, image taken by the author.

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Doomocracy Now

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about Taryn Simon’s recent Park Avenue Armory exhibition An Occupation of Loss which was meant to be the first in a short series. I took a brief pause from this series to write about the emotional backlash I was feeling after the election. I am taking up the series idea again and this time I’m writing about Pedro Reyes’ recent exhibition Doomocracy, which was put on by Creative Time at (and in conjunction with) the Brooklyn Army Terminal. As a reminder, I have re-posted the introduction to the previous post and the series:

In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.

This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.

Lately, I have been seeing a shift which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and, through their actions, activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, Ann Hamilton’s Habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism.

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Pedro Reyes, Doomocracy, 2016. Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn, New York. Installation view, image taken by the author.

Pedro Reyes: Doomocracy. Brooklyn Army Terminal, Brooklyn, New York; October 7 – November 6, 2016.

Initially, I was planning on saving Doomocracy for last because, out of the three, it was the one I had been most critical of. My criticism did not necessarily stem from it being worse than the other two, instead it was because I had been expecting more from it. I went into Taryn Simon’s space with only images and reviews in mind and few expectations. I was blown away, but it would have met higher expectations with equal success. I went into Ann Hamilton’s exhibition with slightly higher expectations because I was already a fan of her work. However, I was aware that the space was more dependent on my activating it. Once again it met my expectations. With Doomocracy, I wasn’t previously aware of Pedro Reyes’ work, but it had been sold to me conceptually as a politically-themed haunted house with a structure similar to Sleep No More. Shrouded in mystery in regards to the specifics, my imagination went wild and I was ready for a truly immersive, physical, visceral experience that pushed boundaries and hopefully scared me. Unfortunately, it did not meet these high expectations. I understand that there were probably concerns with liability issues, fear of someone getting hurt or sexually harassed, and the need to limit the actors and space in order to protect both the guests and the cast. Regardless, I think they could have taken everything further. They had a captive audience of consensual adults that they were herding through an empty, many-storied building manned by professional actors inhabiting created and controlled sets. In my mind, they played it safe and did not take it far enough.

At the time, pre-election, when I was certain that there was no way in hell Trump would win, the dystopian scenes and horror-themed political and social settings felt tongue-in-cheek. A light forewarning of a potential future based on the issues of today that everyone seemed to agree couldn’t actually happen. By the end, it felt like they were preaching to the choir, only reaching an audience that was already in agreement. I mean, really, the people who had made it to the few performances of this show way down in South Brooklyn, the people who even knew it was happening, were almost all left-leaning liberals who were interested in continuing to fund the arts, believed in climate change as a real threat, and were aware that racism, sexism, and classism are legitimate threats to many people in America, if not necessarily themselves. However, with the rapid spread of hate-crimes, the “alt-right,” and the frightening back and forth of Trump’s picks for powerful government positions since he became the most recent President-elect, my trip through Reyes’ house of horrors (in hindsight) is developing a strong sense of foreboding. It is beginning to feel like a wake-up call, especially considering the way I initially viewed it. Clearly, the bubble that I inhabit in the New York City art world has blinded me to the possibilities that we face as a country and as a species, despite my growing up in rural and conservative Upstate New York. This exhibition was not the “preaching to the choir that didn’t go far enough” that I experienced pre-election. Instead, it was an ominous warning of the potential dystopian future that we can expect if we don’t all wake up to the real state of things in both our country and our world. It is now clear that it is no longer enough to admit that racism, sexism, and classism still exist; we need to actively speak out against these acts and beliefs and reiterate that hate is never acceptable. It is not enough to shake our heads when we hear someone deny the impending threat of climate change and call them ignorant; we need to listen to them and make intelligent arguments in return. It is not enough to listen and speak with like-minded people in the cities or towns that we live in and participate in the globalized world solely through the internet, tuning out those who disagree with us. We need to all wake up and hear the cacophony of voices and opinions. We need to educate ourselves on why we believe what we believe so we can make intelligent and forceful arguments to support these beliefs. We can no longer afford to call people with differing opinions stupid or ignorant or wrong; this behavior will not change their minds nor will it reflect positively on our arguments. The only way forward is with intelligence, empathy, and activity.

While I still believe that Pedro Reyes, Creative Time, and the Brooklyn Army Terminal could have pushed further with this exhibition, it remains a strong visual account of the legitimate fears of a dark impending future. Like Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, which to this day are quoted as examples of what the world could easily become, Doomocracy created fantastical scenes that seemed like a joke until I realized just how close they are to many of the horrors we are witnessing today. As Nato Thompson, Creative Time’s artistic director, sid in the NY Times review: “It seems like a joke but the joke is really not funny at all.”

Doomocracy began with ticket holders being separated into small groups who would experience the show together. My group, once called, was sat down and given a general set of guidelines and warnings about the upcoming exhibition to both prepare the viewers and protect the cast. Rules like no cell phone activity of any kind, no touching of the actors unless invited to do so, and the introduction of a safety word in case a viewer felt things had gone too far were all smart stipulations that allowed an environment of trust to be created. We were then herded into a large van and the exhibition began in earnest.  Not long into our drive, we were stopped by what looked like military personnel. They claimed we were in a restricted zone and ordered us out of the van. Yelling, carrying guns, and masked, they pushed us into a room, ordered us against a wall, and made as if to frisk us. We were all giggling slightly at the absurdity of the situation, assured in our minds of the clear fakeness of the frisk and guns. No one seemed to be considering the fact that this has been a real-life situation for many Americans. Perhaps it will become one for many more in the not-too-distant future, a fear for many Americans who are innocent of everything but being the “wrong” color or religion.

We were then herded through a door and there was an abrupt change. Suddenly, we were in a dreary room with flickering lights and a very kind, very old woman dressed in a nauseating shade of green to match the walls and with a small dog on her lap. We were encouraged to vote and to do it in a timely manner! From there, we were quickly shepherded through several different rooms which included document shredding in the name of Trump, a prescription-happy doctor who was more than willing to write me a note for the highly addictive synthetic opioid Fentanyl at my request, and a funeral director who had created brilliant candy-shaped coffins for the children who had died, presumably at the hands of their favorite trash foods which they could then be buried in. Donuts, Twinkies, Diabetes, oh my! After that, it was a blur of rooms and scenarios that no one took terribly seriously. There were conservative housewives in sweater-sets selling guns like Tupperware. When one accidentally went off and “injured” an actress, we were ushered out. Then, there was a boardroom for a company that had gone under and we were given the option to take a buy-out or work towards fixing our mistakes and improving the shattered economy. Those of us who chose the buyout saved ourselves and went on to attend a swanky art party, those who chose to make the “hard decision” and help those our company had harmed were suddenly working the event. A stray piece of dialogue stuck in my mind from when we were waiting to serve those attending the party: “I thought they all spoke Spanish or something.” Moving on, we were sold bottled air from a calm-voiced actress in prototypical futuristic silver clothing. Only the best air for the highest price for the most discerning (i.e. wealthy) buyer. Teenage cheerleaders cheered anti-abortion while a pregnant teen burned at the stake. The post-practice discussion was the most disturbing part as the clearly queen-bee-type girl chastised her team with a valley-girl accent before they had to run off to class: “It was ok, not great.” The finale was a soccer match between people who had chosen to go through Trump’s door (those who were undecided were lumped into the Trump team) and those who went through Hillary’s, with a blow-up globe being the ball.

The part that struck me the most, though, was towards the end. We were given virtual reality glasses (a novelty by itself since many people haven’t had the opportunity to try these glasses yet) and told to put them on. We were led about in a row, connected and guided by a rope we all held onto. The glasses showed us a familiar scene of peaceful woods with deer and gently falling leaves. As you looked around, the three-dimensional scene was perfect and you were alone. There were bird noises and rustling sounds. Even the floor had been strewed with something that felt like gravel or acorns, something that made it feel like you were walking across a forest floor. All that connected you to reality was the rope grasped in one hand and the voice of your guide: a park ranger for the newly privatized national parks. Suddenly, there was a motorized noise and the guide freaked out, pleading with us to run and save ourselves, that they would kill us or harvest our organs or something equally gruesome. As we all pulled off our glasses we were met by actors on Segways in Mad Max-esque garb and brandishing weapons. We were pushed through the “real” scene which was a hallway or alleyway strewn with refuse and trash. Having grown up in the country, with acres of woods for a backyard, this scene was the most relatable for me. I shifted from being transported to a scene that reminded me of home to being yanked back into the old army terminal that was grey, dirty, and mechanized. I realized, even then, how close we are to a world where nature and greenery can only be manufactured in virtual reality. I was aware of how delicate our situation is.

As I walked out of the space, still unaware of the level of foreboding I was going to associate with the show as I write about it now, I was still aware of the attempt to make this a wake-up call of sorts. It may have been intended to wake up the people who still believe that climate change isn’t real, or those who are still convinced that we live in a post-race/post-gender/post-class society, or those who aren’t aware of the delicate system we all live in. Regardless of what it was meant to be, Doomocracy for me has become a wake-up call to how easily our future can become this dystopian thing that has, up to now, been no more than a source of inspiration for movies, books, and morality lessons. It is a wake-up call to how many people do not think the way that I think, do not agree with me, and who hold different things to be dear and important and worth fighting for. In my mind, the things that are important to me are right and objectively important, but it is easy to forget just how subjective our lives and opinions truly are. The things I have read about over the past several weeks and months have begun to sound familiar, they remind me a little of much of the years leading up to WWII and I am scared. If we are not careful, Doomocracy could legitimately become our future. As I walked out of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, into the chill night air with my friends, I couldn’t help but hear the over-dramatic refrain of “Glory, Glory, Hallelujah” as sung by Madeline Kahn in Mel Brook’s movie Young Frankenstein.

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The Brooklyn Army Terminal, 140 58th Street, Brooklyn, New York 11220. Image taken by the author.

THERE IS NO “THEM,” THERE IS ONLY “US”: NOW IS THE TIME TO ACT LIKE IT

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Subway Therapy; post-it notes, 2016; 14th Street Union Square L, N, Q, R, W, 4, 5, 6 subway station, New York, NY. Image courtesy of author.

There have been a countless number of articles, Facebook posts, tweets, and discussions about the events of the past few days, weeks, months, and year. Trump has won the white house, it is true. Now, we wade through the aftermath. There have been protests, hate crimes, name calling, and tears. People are scared and confused; they are looking for answers, they are looking to lay blame.

Blame has been thrown around and hurled at everyone. It has been directed at Republicans, calling them racists and idiots, it has been directed at third-party voters, saying they wasted their vote, it has been directed at liberals, calling them elitist and blind. If you listen long enough you will find everyone blamed and you will hear hundreds of opinions on how to change the results, how to move forward, and how to feel.

The most recent blame has been directed at liberals, the protesters who so believed a Trump presidency was impossible. Blind to the woes of the working class, speaking over them to the point where they were cowed and embarrassed, making them feel dumb: these are our sins. These allegations are not untrue, but they only look at one point, one side, and one perspective. They forget that the other side is guilty of the same faults.

I am not interested in politics, I haven’t been since I was conscious enough to understand our government and listen to the people who aim to run our country. This is not because I am apathetic about my country, or because I have a short attention span, or am uninterested in the problems of the world. It is because as soon as I opened my ears to the political forum, I was overwhelmed by a cacophony of disrespect. I listened to the news and I heard politicians shouting over each other, striving to counter-point their opponent before they had even had the chance to fully make their argument. I heard labeling of anyone who disagreed, regardless of whether they were liberal or conservative, as ignorant and embarrassing. If you were conservative, you were backwards, racist, and sexist. If you were liberal, you were elitist, naïve, and privileged. The amount of contempt that everyone participating in the arena seemed to feel for the opposition had only one name in my young mind: mean. It was mean, and ugly, and hard. It was everything I was against and so I tuned it out.

Now, a man who campaigned off of actual racism, misogyny, and fear mongering has claimed our country’s highest office, and what do I hear: hate, name-calling, and disrespect.

I must draw, for myself, a few lines so that I can move forward as an adult and take part in the future of our country because it is no longer acceptable to stand on the outside. It is time to be involved. So, in that endeavor, a few clear understandings:

  • A minority of Americans are genuinely racist and they have taken this election result as a vindication of their feelings. Because of that, they are attacking people both emotionally through verbal insults and physically through abuse. This is not acceptable and must be stopped by liberals and conservatives alike, by both parties and particularly by our President elect. All people, regardless of color, religion, gender, or creed, deserve basic human rights and the opportunity to live their life free of fear.
  • There are genuine issues in America right now that span racism, sexism, and classism. These are topics that must be aired and discussed in a respectful environment. There are no second-class citizens here. One person’s problems are no more important than another’s and we must open our hearts, minds, and ears to the pleas coming from rural as well as urban areas, women as well as men, and minorities as well as majorities. For too long people living in the rural parts of our country have been called ignorant, for too long has racism simmered below the surface and been ignored, for too long has everyday sexism been put up with for fear of ridicule. This is also unacceptable.
  • Everyone has felt belittled and out of place and instead of reacting with defensiveness we need to stop and think with empathy and discuss. Bring out your therapy hats because everyone has been guilty of acting thoughtlessly. Many people grew up in small rural towns where there is an accepted way of doing things. Those who were different, maybe because they were gay or questioned too much or were “overdramatic,” were bullied by peers, parents, or even teachers. They left because their situation was unbearable. Many people in urban environments, who hold higher degrees or have delved into the cultural sphere, look down upon these same small towns and call them ignorant, slow, and backwards. This is a vicious cycle of cruelty that has been going on for far too long and is also not acceptable. No one should be put down for who they are, it is high time everyone educated themselves in empathy.

Enough name calling, enough finger pointing, ENOUGH. Think about how you would explain things to a child. For a moment, step away from the excuse that this is more complicated than a child can grasp and simplify it. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. Are you being nice? If you wouldn’t want to see a child treating someone the way you are, then something is wrong.

Yes, the opposing political party has an agenda that at times directly opposes yours. Yes, many of the things each side fights for cannot exist together. So yes, protest and protect your rights because so many of us have been fighting for them for so long and must continue to fight. And yes, question your government, pay attention to what your politicians are doing and take them to task if they are unconstitutional and defy the human rights of the people who call the US home. Do not stoop to petty and cruel behavior, it is unnecessary and in the end it is damaging.

We all have a dream for the world that we want to live in. We all want to leave a better world to our children. Sometimes these worlds are directly opposing. Rarely will they agree. Remember that the US was founded on freedom of religion, free speech, and the right to the pursuit of happiness. It has not been perfect and we have continued to fight up to now and must continue to fight. All I know is that this fight must be civil. There is no easy answer, no one person to blame, so stop that. Anger is an implacable fire that will burn you alive. Resentment only breeds more resentment. Grudges will fix nothing. Educate yourself on why you believe what you believe. Study history, study policy, read, and develop a clear and strong argument. Do not just parrot what you hear from family, friends, the news, or the internet. Listen to the arguments of others. There is only one way out and that is forward. Pushing others down, and here I am speaking to everyone, will only drag you back. When you are drowning, if you try to keep your head above water by pushing someone down as if they are a buoy, then you will both drown. If you calm down, collect yourself, and remember that you can float, you will.

Trump was elected because too many people felt marginalized. People are now angry because they are afraid of being marginalized. We are all afraid of losing the good things in our lives that we have fought so hard for. I am scared for my rights as a woman: my reproductive rights, my safety, and my place in society. I am scared for the rights and safety of my friends who span all races and religions. These are scary times, but people on the other side of the election are scared too. Most people do not choose to do evil, they do what they think is good and someone else views it as evil. Try to understand and if you still disagree then fight, but fight intelligently and fight kindly. At the end of the day, we are all people. Set the good example, be empathetic and respectful in your arguments. Taking the high road does not mean giving up, it means fighting with dignity.

Influencing Spaces: Taryn Simon’s “An Occupation of Loss”

Having written this post yesterday and considering last night’s events, I hesitated to post and to share it. But, it is in times like these, on days like today, that I turn to art to find humanity and the shared dream of a world where peace, love, and understanding can conquer. With that in mind, I want to share a globally-minded and thoughtful work that explores the human occupation of and with loss and mourning. With this, I will remember to continue to strive and push forward. To turn to like-minded programs, groups, and friends with support and renewed vigor. To continue fighting for equality and the world we wish to live in. This is not the end of the fight, this too shall pass. Moving forward, regardless of where you stand or who you voted for, I urge everyone to remember to be kind and to reach into the depths of their moral consciousness to treat everyone with empathy and remember that we are all human beings with feelings, dignity, and loved ones.

 

_________________________________________________________________

 

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

In most art spaces today, be it a museum, gallery, or auction house, you walk into a square, white room. It is climate controlled, clean, and quiet. The works of art hang on the walls or sit on pedestals like fetishes and the viewer gazes upon them like sacred works that have the power to impart knowledge and culture. You are not a part of this space; you are an interloper who tries to understand.

This is not how art was always displayed and it is not how art will always be displayed. Before the mid-1900s art was hung in a manner called “salon style” where it basically wall-papered the surface from floor to ceiling. Tightly hung, the curators of Europe’s great salons would fit as much art as possible on the wall because it was meant to be viewed, judged, and sold. There was no concept of “breathing room” and an artist’s position on the wall was dictated by talent, political maneuvering, and luck. It was something to be fought over and widely discussed.

Lately, I have been seeing a shift which I have been expecting for years. Moving away from a pure viewing of art, many new exhibitions are site-specific, interactive, and visceral. In my mind, this is the future of art. It speaks to the current culture of boundless information sharing, global communication, and immediate gratification. Viewers inhabit an art space and through their actions activate it. The best versions of this utilize a space in a unique way, encourage play, and pull from both history and contemporary culture. I have recently had the pleasure of experiencing three successful iterations of the new art space: Taryn Simon’s An Occupation of Loss, Ann Hamilton’s Habitus, and Pedro Reyes’ Doomocracy. Each show tackled a different subject, a different space, and a different medium, but each successfully created an exhibition that led to a vivid experience of humans interacting with, and thus giving life to, things. People have been animating objects since the beginning of recorded history, but the interesting aspect of these shows is that they draw attention to this fact and allow an active viewing environment that is based as much on physicality as it is on intellectualism. My next three posts will be about these shows, starting with Taryn Simon’s.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory, September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Taryn Simon: An Occupation of Loss. The Park Avenue Armory, New York, NY;   September 13-25, 2016

You begin by being turned away from the Park Avenue entrance after purchasing your ticket. You are instead instructed to follow the building along 67th Street to the fire escape. Once there, you are presented with a long, descriptive wall text and, once you finish reading, ascend the fire escape about two stories up to a door. At first, you are blinded by the sudden darkness, all that stands out are staggered strips of blue light and then, eventually, the vista of the old drill hall occupied by eleven concrete towers, or wells, that are gently illuminated. Gathered together in the cavernous space, the monumental sculptures form a half circle, almost appearing to huddle together in the middle of the space. Next, you descend the illuminated metal staircase to the ground floor and approach the work.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

I did not have the opportunity to attend one of the nightly performances of professional mourners, which I hear were quite moving, but I still encountered a spectacular space. As I approached the wells with my two friends, everything was quiet and still. Other visitors seemed disinclined to speak above a whisper and the breathless air and gentle light created a calm, almost ritualistic space. We quickly commandeered one of the wells and proceeded to enliven the space. Since I was aware of the nightly performances, I was excited to test the acoustics and one of my friends, a singer and actress, was happy to help. We sang and made noise and laughed and talked. The sounds rang within our well and encouraged us, although we were slightly concerned about disturbing the other visitors. While the sound was amplified within the well, it was concentrated in our immediate space so that when one of us stood outside it, it was muffled creating a unique space where you were both a part of your immediate surroundings and separated from the greater whole. Quite like mourning, when you were in the silo you could be observed by those outside, but they could not fully comprehend what you were experiencing.

Inhabiting the well, which included a single strip of blue light that ran the entire height and a concrete bench placed about four feet above the ground and attached directly to the wall, I felt happy and safe. At one point, I crawled under the bench and crouched awkwardly like a child playing make-believe. Glad to be together and quickly feeling territorial about “our” well, we were a little disgruntled when another pair asked to join, though we couldn’t say no. As it turns out, they added to our space and a sixth member joined our group soon after. We all spoke about the show, the performances in the evening, and the physical space. The wells provided an opportunity for connecting isolations: each well created an environment that could be looked in on from the outside, vaguely heard, and joined. Eleven separate little worlds living side by side. All apparently the same but infinitely and minutely different, just like individual people. Strangers were encouraged to cohabitate a small space and share an intimate moment. As our group grew comfortable, we began to experiment within the space. We learned that the sounds rang clearly throughout the well, but outside were muffled. In the very center the frequency of the vocal noises changed. It was like being right in the middle of the sound you were making, as if suddenly the space was smaller and you were shouting in a handheld tube. I couldn’t help feeling like it was more truthful, somehow, in the center. At the very least the difference was fascinating and we shared the change with the carefree abandon of discovery. One of my friends remarked: “It is amazing that something so utilitarian seeming can inspire so much human movement and noise making.”

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Simon’s practice has been an exploration of intricacies, research, cataloguing, and exploration. Typically, she focuses on spaces and objects that would appear to exist on their own as independent things but are in fact created and activated by human presence. The spaces or objects act as middle men, mediating the relations between people and how they interact with and influence each other. An Occupation of Loss explores mourning. This is most clear during the evening performances where professional mourners from across the world inhabit a well and perform traditional, ritualistic mourning practices. During the day, the presence of the mourners is dropped to a murmur as their recorded sounds are faintly played in the drill hall and the silence of the uninstructed viewer prevails. Growing up with the mindset that grief and mourning are kept quiet, only feeling comfortable crying into a pillow or alone in the bathroom, and raised on scenes of private mourning, it is both alien and familiar to be confronted with a space that explores public mourning and the history of lamentations. I know the feelings, but do not know the sharing. Simon’s installation re-introduced me to the inherent humanness of mourning and loss and how it occupies us. While we occupied the space, shared with the ghosts of each night’s ritual and fellow viewers, we were made aware of the underlying similarities that connect people. No matter how foreign a ritual or space may seem, we all occupy it with the same feelings: love, sorrow, and the need to connect.

An Occupation of Loss created a space that made you uncomfortable, maybe because it was so cavernous, maybe because everyone else was being so quiet, maybe because no one was quite sure what they were supposed to be doing/seeing/feeling. Regardless, this creation made you aware of the space you were inhabiting and how you inhabit it. It made you aware of yourself and the people around you and how you interact within that space. The space, created by an artist and occupied by visitors, acts on those visitors because of the actions taken upon it by all the people who inhabited and activated it.

Right before we entered the exhibition, standing on 67th street and reading the wall text with one of the attendants, two older women forewarned us not to waste our time, that it was nothing more than concrete columns. Art of this nature, art that demands participation, some research, and curiosity will not be experienced in the same way by any two viewers. Some will not experience it at all. This is an important lesson, however: you get what you put into something and, while you cannot control the space that you inhabit, you can control how you occupy it. We chose to occupy this space of symbolic loss with human interaction and joy.

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Installation view, Taryn Simon, An Occupation of Loss, Park Avenue Armory; September 13-25, 2016. Image taken by author.

Yeezus: the nature of faith and doubt in contemporary art

 

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Kanye West, Famous, 2016, Blum & Poe, Los Angeles

Kanye West has made a move into the art world and his first show landed at a big name gallery: Blum & Poe in LA. I don’t begrudge Kanye his 15 minutes in the art world’s sun…but then again, I do. If he wants to make art, more power to him and lord knows he has enough fans to want to see it and consume it. However, it’s statements like the one made by Timothy Blum, the “Blum” in Blum & Poe, which stink of affected ignorance, that frustrate me. Mr. Blum said, and I quote from artnet: “If you didn’t know that this was a work by Kanye West, and instead was the work of a known artist in the art world, the perception of the piece would be completely different—it would be celebrated and universally supported at the highest level” [emphasis added].

I really don’t agree with this. I also don’t think Blum truly believes his statement because a man in such a position in the art world, a co-owner of a major contemporary gallery, cannot believe this is true unless he is blindingly ignorant of the climate in which he operates. Appropriation art is a thing, it is a movement that came about around the late 1960s and flourished between the ‘80s and early ‘00s. The most iconic appropriation artist is Andy Warhol who used quintessentially American imagery in his art to touch upon the topics of consumerism, the American Dream, and the identical repetition inherent in the media and Fordian production systems (a.k.a. the assembly line). The best example is the Campbell’s soup cans. Warhol appropriated an image recognized by everyone (unless they were living under a rock), that had been advertised to the mass market, and was/still is a household name, and raised it up from the low art of advertising to the high art of painting and print making. By doing so, he blurred the line between high and low art, poking fun at the perpetually serious abstract expressionists, and made a statement on brand worshiping consumerism, so perfect in its simplicity as to become its own brand. There are still several successful artists making appropriation art, but the strong majority (and really the only ones being supported both academically and financially, but by no means universally) were around for the beginning of that movement or were a part of its golden days. Richard Prince, Sherry Levine, and Barbara Kruger among many others take images by other artists or from the greater cultural milieu and re-purpose them to create a new meaning, often tongue-in-cheek, that speaks to cultural norms, societal roles, consumer culture, and the society of the spectacle. Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Roy Lichtenstein with their versions of pop art were all precursors to the more contemporary version of appropriation art. The important idea, however, is that the image or meaning that is taken is changed in some way and made to represent something different. Further, as I’ve said before, good art must mean something and it must make us think differently; it should be surprising and empathetic and to some degree revelatory. I also believe that good art must be made by the artist, I don’t agree with the majority of conceptual art, I don’t think that concept is enough. Many professionals in the art world would disagree with me, but many would also agree. However, this is really only part of my issue. When Mr. Blum said “it would be celebrated and universally supported at the highest level,” the fact is that that never happens, there is no such thing as universal support in the art world, it is a society of criticism and disagreement and that is what forces it to grow and improve and keeps it from stagnating. I would support that statement in any art form, popular music included. For him to say something so glossed over and hyperbolic about something that has already gotten a lot of backlash just makes it sound even more like he knows he isn’t speaking the truth. As Shakespeare wrote: “the lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

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Andy Warhol, Campbell’s Soup Cans (1962) exhibition image, synthetic polymer pain on canvas, image courtesy of Maurizio Pesce

Here I’ll admit, any time I hear of a celebrity from film or theater or music suddenly making art with no professional background in visual art, I grimace. I think it’s presumptuous of them, especially when they ask us to ignore their fame in favor of their art, like Adrien Brody has so recently done. We cannot ignore their fame and they wouldn’t have made it this far this early without it. Art is not a meritocracy. How many talented artists that hold degrees in art have dedicated decades of their lives toiling in anonymity, unrecognized, because of how saturated the art market is with contemporary artists? There are so many that it comes down in large part to luck, networking, and a level of independent wealth that allows them to continue without regular funding. It is terribly unfair that a celebrity would accept being plopped in the middle of an art fair or well-known gallery and then demand that we ignore the very celebrity that brought them there. It is frankly insulting.

Then again, if I’m being entirely honest, the biggest issue I have with Kanye’s art is that it upsets my vision of Art, which has been spurred on by recently reading the depressingly pedantic breakdown of modern art in Tom Wolf’s “The Painted Word,” . Art, like so many things in life, requires faith. For the longest time I had faith in art like I had faith in nothing else, not even my best friends and family. My faith has lately been shaken and I am slogging through a period of doubt as I search for my professional niche. Happenings like Kanye declaring his Twitter feed performance art force me to outline rules and draw lines to quantify my faith. I am confident that anyone who has truly observed the nature of their own faith will tell you that it cannot easily stand up to that kind of delineation, that sometimes you just have to believe. The overly observed faith all too often leads to doubt and the only way that I know of to move past doubt is to become all the more rigidly adherent to the original parameters of your faith. But rigidity is not acceptable to me. I think the best way to flourish, especially with art, is to be fluid and accepting of contradictions because often they herald growth.

So what is one to do? When people fire questions because they themselves don’t share your faith, when they require clear and concise answers and philosophizing just won’t do, when they need firm lines drawn but you require flexibility, when contradictions are acceptable to you but not to your accusers, what can you do? Art like that produced by Kanye, that doesn’t seem to be art to the consuming public or to myself, produces so many uncomfortable questions that I become defensive. But, in order to stand up with something you believe in, you have to accept those questions and that lack of clarity and accept that belief alone is not enough and face it all head on. Mr. Wolf wrote in his book – which I have decided is one sided, bigoted, and a bit snobbish – that one of the main mantras of contemporary art and art theory is that all good art appears ugly at first. Meaning, if you don’t like it at all, it is probably great. That particular line is too rigid for me. Sometimes, you don’t like something because it isn’t good, you don’t feel right about it because it isn’t right. Contemporary art tells us that anything can be art; I disagree. More so, I disagree that this is what contemporary art tells us. Some of the Dadaists literally said that, but they were trying very hard to turn the whole world on its head and that is just one out of many modern and contemporary art movements. Contemporary art does not open the flood gates to everyone and everything being good art. It is true that the art world is full of snobs, prudes, and elitists, but that doesn’t mean that anyone who can get someone to show their work is a good artist. You can find a seller and a buyer for almost anything, that does not make it worthwhile. Therefore, it is not only acceptable but necessary to look at a thing pushed before us, by the sellers especially (because the informal price tag on Kanye’s sculpture is $4 million mind you*), and critique them. Do you like it, how does it make you feel, what does it say about the world it inhabits? Etc, etc. This however does not necessitate the polar reaction of calling all contemporary art shit, which many are all too happy to do. It is not that simple, it has never been that simple, and it will never be that simple because it is created by people to talk about people and why would that ever be simple?

So, ok Kanye, ok Mr. Blum, I’ll take a second and pretend (as much as I can) that Kanye West is not a famous musician and personality of the contemporary social media world. I’ll pretend that he isn’t a household name for a reason other than art, with antics and a family that provide gossip for the entire world and provoke obsession and inspire millions, for better or worse. If Kanye West was already one of the few famous appropriation artists who create work that is included in collections, then yes, this work would probably be celebrated. It’s visually interesting and makes a valid point on fame and the new wave of spectatorship through social media where we aren’t alone even in our most vulnerable hours. However, let us not forget the artist who first painted this image, Vincent Desiderio, who has rarely been mentioned since the original video release, for which he wasn’t even notified, let alone asked for reproduction rights. While Mr. West has changed the medium and the faces, it is still strikingly similar to the original in both image and idea. When questioned, Desiderio was impressed and positive about the whole scenario. Frankly, I believe it was because he felt no threat artistically since music is pretty far removed from painting. He probably also assumed that the link to the famous Mr. West would bring him increased visibility and thus increased prices and shows. But, if it were another artist, would he have been so magnanimous? Probably not. If we look at the many lawsuits surrounding appropriation artists, especially the famous Richard Prince, it is clear that most visual artists are not keen when another visual artist “appropriates” their work. In fact, they tend to use another word entirely. They tend to call it plagiarism and they sue over copyright infringement and reproduction rights. If Mr. West wasn’t Mr. West, he would almost definitely be sued by Desiderio especially if he was already a well-known appropriation artist. If he was not a famous appropriation artist but instead a new artist just breaking onto the scene, it would be even worse. He would be ridiculed or worse, ignored, because appropriation art as a movement is no longer being used by the new young generation of artists. Appropriation art at one point was new, and it was an interesting idea that built off of the past and led to the future, but it is still problematic.

Kanye is not a stranger to appropriation, he has used it in his music often and to great effect. In fact, he did what the appropriation artists were doing for visual art with music. He took segments of well-known, older songs that had influenced his genre of hip hop and rap and shifted them to create a new meaning that simultaneously referenced the past. I just don’t think he is doing this with art. It isn’t the same, and in this instance he isn’t successful. It’s not just that it hasn’t translated well, he has lost the flow that makes the appropriation improve his music. He has also lost the internal reference linking the appropriation with the new work to a deeper meaning. It seems sloppy and poorly thought out. He also didn’t make the actual sculpture and it is unclear how integral he was to both the conceptual and physical creation of Famous.

In the end, if Kanye wasn’t Kanye as we know him and he made this, it wouldn’t have gotten a show at Blum & Poe and he would probably also be in the early stages of an ugly, expensive, and drawn out law suit over copyright issues.

 

*This was falsely reported by the New York Times and later corrected by the Los Angeles Times

Your Insta-Game is Strong (but is that enough?)

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Martin Creed, The Back Door, 2016, exhibition image taken by author at The Park Avenue Armory

Ever since I entered the semi-professional art world (e.g. internships and undergrad) and graduated to the professional art world (a full time job, etc.) I have heard the phrases “you have to see it in person” and “it doesn’t photograph well” over and over and over. It became a matter of course that the picture of almost any painting, drawing, print, sculpture, and photograph (at least the non-digital ones) was going to be sub-par in its reproduction. Even professional art photographers, aided by Photoshop and studio lighting, struggle. Emails with attached images and links to websites were always tempered with “you really should see it in person.” Collectors were urged to attend auctions and art fairs in person (or at least send a trusted consultant), lecturers insisted students must visit the museums that house treasured works, and colleagues stressed that the aura of a truly great work of art could never be wholly captured on film.

Now I am hearing, for the first time that I can remember, artworks and summer public art exhibitions being hailed as “Instagram worthy.” To me, Instagram worthy means that a work of art is not only visually interesting, but it also photographs well and probably provides a sweat selfie backdrop (you gotta stand out to keep your selfie game strong). Initially, I was really excited. I loved the idea of art and art exhibitions being massively popular on social media and talked about by my friends as well as my colleagues. Especially during the summer months when many exhibitions are…not boring…but not as spectacular as spring, fall, and winter exhibitions that coincide with auction and art fair seasons.

As I do with most things, I talked about it…a lot. I talked about the upcoming exhibitions, public art projects, and artworks to friends who I wanted to go with and colleagues whose opinions I valued. I talked and wrote dates down in my calendar and eventually, they opened and I began getting opinions. No one was outright against any of the works but then again, no one was particularly impressed either. I had gone into this hoping for something visceral and interesting. In my mind, the typical gallery-style, white-box aesthetic for displaying art is quickly becoming outdated. I’m over it, the ascetic aesthetics and intimidating space that it creates are passé and potentially harmful to the viewing experience. Personally, I have been very inspired by ground-breaking shows like the immersive “play” Sleep No More, and the widely acclaimed James Turrell and Alexander McQueen exhibitions at the Guggenheim and Met, respectively. Both the latter visual arts exhibitions were some of the most highly attended shows in either venue, ever. And as for theater, I have never heard people talk more about a performance as I have heard people talk about Sleep No More (except maybe Book of Mormon and Hamilton, but those are different formats [musicals] and modern in different ways [i.e. not in presentation]). I am very convinced that this widespread interest is in large part due to the presentation of the shows. At the Guggenheim, James Turrell took over the space for a magnificent, site-specific optical light installation that transformed the rotunda from a white, open, Frank Lloyd Write space to…something else entirely. When you walked into the museum, you encountered a space washed in color and people splayed about everywhere (even lying on the floor, in the middle of the floor, really ALL OVER THE FLOOR, which is not only unusual but not usually even allowed), themselves awash in glowing jewel tones and looking up, enraptured and calm. The colors changed slowly and you became a part of the art and the space. You were not separate, and the art was inclusive and mesmerizing. The McQueen show at the Met also shunned the white cube aesthetic. It took a more theatrical approach to a retrospective about one of the most influential designers of the past several decades and transformed a series of rooms into a Gothic dream. Dark walls and ceilings, aged mirrors, a low wash of light with intense spot lights reminiscent of the runway, and subtle non-verbal music throughout the whole. Once again, as a viewer I was pulled in, my perspective shifted, and I felt like I was being guided in my way of seeing and understanding a subject on which I was frankly quite ignorant. As for Sleep No More, I have yet to actually see it, but I have seen stellar adaptations of it (namely at Cornell directed by a very talented friend), and will not leave NY without seeing it, to be sure. Basically, if you’ve been living under a rock, Sleep No More delicately oversteps the theatrical fourth wall. Set in a series of warehouses in Chelsea/Hell’s Kitchen made to look like a dated hotel and based on Macbeth (a personal favorite Shakespeare play), it takes over the entire space. The audience walks through the “hotel,” guided by actors and taking on a pseudo ghostly role. They are free to go to different parts of the space and enter or leave scenes as they choose. There are many stories going on a once and if you find yourself alone in a room you may even physically interact with one of the actors. Talk about visceral, it’s almost too vivid, taking the idea of a Halloween haunted house and building off of it in a most interesting and creative way.

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James Turrell, Aten Reign, 2013, Guggenheim Museum, photo courtesy of Abby Clark

The significance of exhibitions and performances like these, and the reason that I think they are so important in an internet and social media saturated world, is that people are not allowed to just be spectators but are forced to become participants or what I call “active viewers” (based on a somewhat haphazard understanding or Adorno’s 1938 essay “The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression of Listening”). They are not allowed to sit back and passively absorb what they are seeing and hearing – where they run the risk of not being affected by the show or exhibitions they witness. Instead, an environment is created and they are immersed in the activity of viewing, spectating, and imagining the world that the artist is sharing. To my mind, this is the future of the arts and the direction I hope more institutions will move in.

So, you can understand that I had high expectations of public and outdoor artworks that provoke some sort of participation, be it only social media, which is really the quotidian social participation that many people have (not the only, just the daily). However, to my disappointment, the early reviews from my art world peers was lukewarm and rather apathetic. I was told it wasn’t really worth going to see in person because the images that were already flooding my Instagram were more interesting than the actual, physical artwork. What a reversal from the typical art world adage of “you have to see it in person to get the full effect.” However, I still went to a few of the nearby ones…and found myself agreeing. It’s not that the works were bad, they were just boring. Much more interesting in idea than in presentation…which, given my personal definition of a good work of art, must make them bad works of art.

The first artwork I visited was the closest. I went just a few blocks uptown from my gallery to the Metropolitan Museum to see Cornelia Parker’s Transitional Object (Psychobarn) on the Met Roof. This is a difficult space to design an exhibition for, granted, but I have seen spectacular shows there before. This one was…ok. It was an adaptation of the house from Hitchcock’s famous movie Psycho: she had a life-size reproduction of a typical New England style barn strongly influenced by Hitchcock’s horror mansion and Edward Hopper’s paintings. In theory, interesting, in person, not so much. You couldn’t walk up the front stairs, there was no interior, the back was nothing more than the skeletal structure of typical play or film sets. It really had to be explained and in that endeavor didn’t require much wall space. However, it photographed beautifully and I had to weave around the various people taking pictures, group pictures, pictures for friends, and selfies (etc. etc.) in order to get my own pictures. With the ominous sky, my photographs were definitely guaranteed to get me some likes on Instagram. But, I only stayed for the ten minutes it took to do a walk-around, take a few pictures, and read the wall text. I then moved on to other exhibitions within the museum proper and, beyond sorting through and editing my pictures, the exhibition did not stay with me. In fact, I hadn’t thought much more about it until I decided to write this article. That is not a great work of art nor is it a good exhibition. A great art work or exhibition stays with you, you continue to think over the artistic and curatorial choices, and often want to go back. In the best cases, it changes the way you think about something. I often say that, to me, the importance and worth of art is that it provides empathy in a contemporary society where empathy isn’t a high priority. It allows you, helps you, if must be, forces you to see the world, a topic, or yourself through someone else’s eyes. What else does that? In order to survive alone you have to spend most of your time thinking about yourself: feeding yourself, clothing yourself, paying your bills, finding a S.O., interacting with friends. All of this in direct relation to your personal happiness and survival. Art is supposed to make you stop and remember that other people exist and that they look at the world differently and live in different situations than you. It separates you from the solipsistic self-absorption that is our natural state (thanks evolution) and which has been further magnified by the physical solitude and image cultivation of social media.

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Cornelia Parker, Transitional Object (Psychobarn), 2016, image taken by author at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

After this, I was loath to visit the rest of the public exhibitions because I had heard much of the same and they were much farther away. I didn’t even take the time to walk out to Katarina Grosse’s piece Rockaway!, put on by MoMA PS1 at Fort Tilden, when I went to the beach a few weekends ago. I had seen the pictures, been told that was enough, and chose not to take that walk, which is unusual for me. I always want to go see the art and I’m always stopping my friends to take pictures of interesting things and graffiti. That is how disappointed I had been by these so-called “Instagram worthy” exhibitions. I haven’t had the time or strong desire to trek out to Governor’s Island to see the various artworks set up there. I still plan on visiting Mika Tajima’s color changing hot tub at Hunter’s Point in LIC, which has a glowing steam cloud with color fluctuations based on the varying price of gold, but have been dragging my feet.

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Katharina Grosse, Rockaway!, 2016, image courtesy of Lori Camilleri

Now, I know that this can be said for a lot of conceptual art and I personally am not a big fan of that particular art movement. This indifference could be symptomatic of that feeling and I have further said that I don’t like plenty of artwork that I would still classify as good art. But the difference for me between these shows and good conceptual art is that they still don’t make me think. I can understand their meaning after reading a few paragraphs and then easily leave and never think of them again. That is not a successful work of art, be it conceptual or otherwise. Further, the very idea of them being “Instagram worthy” separates them from conceptual art. They are being spoken about for their digital presence, which while not physical per se, is still the virtual remnant of the physical object, which is not the basis of conceptual art. Conceptual art is focused almost entirely on the idea, not the object, so much so that many works of conceptual art never went beyond the written explanation and did not need to because their weight was held in the concept. That was what made you think.

The only work of art that I saw this summer that I truly enjoyed that was described to me as “Instagram worthy” was Martin Creed’s balloon room, “Half the Air in a Given Space,” at his Park Avenue Armory retrospective The Back Door. That room was fun and truly indicative of Martin Creed’s take on art and, having never met him, I’d assume life. It has been my understanding that Creed’s art theory is to not take it too seriously, and in that endeavor, to turn the art world (an institution that all too often takes both itself and the art it presents way too seriously) on its head. I agree with this, art is meant to be thought provoking and cause change, but that doesn’t always have to be terribly serious, sometimes being able to laugh at ourselves is enough change of thought for one day. As for the balloon room, they let in a certain number of people for a certain length of time and you were free to run about the room and act like a five-year-old, which I happily did. I went in about five times, and oddly (though I suspect on purpose) I was given a different rule each time. The first was a very precise and short time limit, the second was not to throw any of the balloons, the third was that I couldn’t bring my bag in (even though I had done this each time before), etc. These rules did not hold up outside each individual session as I only followed the one rule given each time and was never chastised for forgetting the previously established rules. This may have been on purpose by the artist, perhaps he told the attendants to make up a simple and banal rule every so often. Or maybe, like I did when I lifeguarded at a night club, they made up rules as difficulties in the space arose or if something bothered or annoyed them. It’s unclear but fun to think about. And right there is why I liked the balloon room so much more than the other exhibitions. I was pulled into the space, I had fun, and I kept thinking about it and kept going back. I also took some amazing pictures that, yes, are on my Instagram already. But I never said that the two things were mutually exclusive. I want to have my cake and eat it too, thank you very much.

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Martin Creed, “Half the Air in a Given Space,” The Back Door, 2016, image taken by author at The Park Avenue Armory

I am left, however, with the lingering question of what this idea of “Instagram worthy” art means for the greater artistic evolution. If all of the art made previously was meant to be seen in person, is generally agreed to be much better in person, and has a physical presence and effect that a photograph just can’t capture, what does it mean when several works of art erected in the same summer in the same city are almost only described as “Instagram worthy?” I don’t know, I think this is one of those things that can only truly be understood with time, or at least a great deal of research that I am not prepared to make for this blog post. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing though. Like most changes, there will be mistakes and not so interesting products, but there will also be truly interesting and different results. Martin Creed’s balloon room is case in point. While it provides opportunities for fantastic photos and videos and is a social media PR dream, there is so much more to it that you can only experience in person. It both photographs well and must be lived through if you want to get the full experience. Change is good, which is a good thing because it is also inevitable.

Je est un autre: Nan Goldin’s “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency”

Nan Goldin

Nan Goldin, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1979-96 (detail). Nine-carousel projection with approximately 700 slides, soundtrack, and titles, dimensions variable. Edition no. 1/10. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, purchase with funds from The Charles Engelhard Foundation, the Mrs. Percy Uris Bequest, the Painting and Sculpture Committee, and the Photography Committee, 92.127. Copyright Nan Goldin, image taken from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Now, I know that the last time I wrote about a video work I said that I don’t really like video art…and I also know that this is my third time writing about video art…which sounds a bit odd coming from someone who claims to be lukewarm on video art in general. I still stand by that, video art is not my thing, but I love finding reasons to be excited about things that are not “my thing” because it usually means they are exceptional and unique. When really good art makes me question my opinions and contradict generalist statements, then that there is REALLY GOOD ART. Nan Goldin’s video, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, is a really good work of art. It is a deeply personal photo montage curated between her and her friends in the 80s and 90s and set to a sound track that ranges from the Velvet Underground to James Brown. To begin with, the references are layered and heavy. The title, honestly my favorite title for anything I have yet to encounter, is taken from The Threepenny Opera, written by Bertolt Brecht, Elisabeth Hauptmann,[1] and Kurt Weill. Especially telling for the current political climate in the states, the “play with music” “offers a socialist critique of the capitalist world.”[2] An interesting choice by Goldin, as many of the photos document a pivotal moment in the art world where the art market (capitalism) began to take serious notice of the contemporary art world (not inherently capitalistic) and the art market bubble began to grow (I mean really grow, people still speak about the 80’s art market in hushed, nostalgic tones). It also, tellingly, chronicles the descent of many of her friends and lovers into the ruin of the AIDS epidemic, which is not only devastating on a historic and emotional level, but can be read as a pretty heavy symbolic reference to the slow and painful death that the broader public (read socialism), and in this particular situation artists, bore because of the excesses of capitalism.[3] It moves in a classic bell curve from innocent youth and low income living, to striving for success and enjoying life, to finding success and celebrating/partying heavily, to the emotional and psychological effects that success and heavy partying can bring (drugs, indiscriminate [and unprotected] sex, distrust), to the final decline, decay, and destruction of the situation and, in this case, physical body. I do not for any reason believe that Goldin’s choice of title[4] was arbitrary or taken purely because it sounds good. I believe she attached meaning to it and it is well-deserved to really read into it and think about what it means, empathetically. On a side note, Brecht is an excellent poet/writer from World War Era Germany:

And yet we know:

Hatred, even of meanness

Contorts the features.

Anger, even against injustice

Makes the voice hoarse. Oh, we

Who wanted to prepare the ground for

friendliness

Could not ourselves be friendly.

– Bertolt Brecht, “To Those Born Later” (excerpt)

Onward, though, to the video. On view at MoMA through February 12, 2017, it is exhibited (fittingly) just after the horror that happened in Orlando. It reminds us of the history of the other, specifically the gay other, in American history. Set in a period that my generation has only known through a mythologizing narrative, it opens a window to what another reviewer called “NY’s last bohemia”: a generation and a time destroyed by AIDS. The montage follows a group of people desperately seeking to escape or live through drugs, sex, and friends. Flitting, through images of smiling friends, brooding lovers, self-portraits of the artist with a black-eye from her boyfriend, unprotected sex, drug use, parties, weddings, and finally funerals, the ballad is a journey through tumultuous times. It is equal parts funny, wistful, sad, and horrifying. I urge you to stay till the end, even though you will see nudity, aggression, and needle-based drug-usage, it is necessary to see the full album (preferably from start to finish) like a pilgrimage in order to understand an important part of how we came to today. It tells more than a story, though, it speaks to an often glazed-over reality that has impacted so much of modern day American life in too many subtle ways to count. At the end of the montage, the sequence moves abruptly from images of people – friends and lovers – to empty beds, and finally coffins and graves. It achingly reflects the sudden devastation and loss brought about by AIDS, a genocide still felt today in how it has colored our perception of love, freedom, and sexuality perhaps unchangeably.

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David Wojnarowicz, Untitled (One day this kid…), 1990. Photostat, 30 x 40 1/8 in. Edition of 10. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the print committee 2002.183. Courtesy of The Estate of David Wajnarowicz and P.P.O.W. Gallery, New York, NY. Image from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Orlando, a new string of hate in a decades long war against the gay “other,” makes me think about the irreversible damage that the AIDS epidemic had among the gay community and the lasting weight that the Reagan administration’s indifference has had upon the stigma associated, to this day, with gay men and women, specifically to gay sex. Many Americans associate gay sex (gay love) as dirty, unclean, and sinful. This correlation was strengthened and perpetuated by the AIDS epidemic, thought by many to be a gay disease, even a punishment. According to an article published on the San Francisco Chronicle’s webpage, Reagan’s communications director, Pat Buchanan, called AIDS “nature’s revenge on gay men” and the Rev. Jerry Falwall said “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” To this day homosexual men cannot donate blood, even though AIDS knows no gender, no sexual preference, no age or color, for many it is still tied closely to one group. Insidious and subtle insinuations like this, especially when indoctrinated into law, inform a subconscious distrust and alignment against the “other” in societies like ours which are so heavily based upon an “us vs. them” mentality. These subconscious ideas that homosexuals are different, dirty, and wrong can only lead to outbursts of conscious rage when they fight for, and thankfully finally win, equality in life, love, and status. These outbursts grow more and more dangerous escalating from threats and insults to hate crimes and massacres, and they will not stop until we admit that it is the small semantics in daily life and law that allow the development of such drastic hatred. The AIDS epidemic, the time it took for the Reagan administration to admit it as an epidemic, and the words of hate so often spoken threaten to tear down the fight for equality and the sense of community that many have spent so much time developing: “We’d spent so much effort building the gay community, and we thought it all would disappear…that brand of homophobia lasted because Ronald and Nancy Reagan enabled it”. Indifference is just as threatening as outright hatred; it is used to push the onus of responsibility away from the individual or governing body in a plea of ignorance. However, this is not a solution. It is all of our responsibility to protect the basic human rights of our fellow man: homosexuals, people of color, women…everyone. It is not enough to say I am doing no direct harm, we must stand up for each other, lend our support, lend our ears and attention and, at the very least, listen to understand not solely to respond.

Moffett

Donald Moffett, He Kills Me, 1987. Offset lithograph. 23 1/2 x 37 1/2 in. Edition unlimited. Published by Donald MOfett. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY; Gift of David W. Kiehl in memory of artists and artworkers who died of AIDS, 2012.160. Copyright Donald Moffett. Image from the Whitney Museum of American Art.

I look around me today, at all of the supportive posts, pride events, and beautifully written articles that celebrate the victories of equality, both big and small, and I have faith that we are moving forward, that true equality is as possible as it is necessary. But, I also see a slow erosion of the memory of past horrors and how they continue to color our perceptions and beliefs. AIDS is still an active and terrifying disease, despite the medical leaps that have been made in eradicating its threat…that is still evident. What isn’t mentioned, however, is how long it took for AIDS to even become a topic of conversation, how long it took before anyone in power took notice and truly pushed for change and concern. Indifference and trivialities led to this topic being silenced and shunned for years, thus allowing the health, safety, and welfare of the gay community, and all others affected by AIDS, to become inconsequential. This indifference, and the laying of blame and shame on the gay community for this horrible disease can be directly related to today’s acts of hatred. AIDS was not a punishment laid on the gay community, it did not and does not affect only the gay community, they are not dirty nor are they disease-ridden for their life choices. We must all remember the long hard fight for the beginnings of awareness as much as we remember the continuing fight for equality. Just like a great dam can be brought down by the tiniest of cracks, so too can our perceptions be influenced by seemingly inconsequential oversights and flippant words. Why can gay men still not donate blood? Why is the word “gay” still used as an insult? Why, when we speak of NY’s lost bohemia, do we see it bathed in the golden glow of nostalgia? Why don’t we all remember the horror as well as the freedom? The AIDS epidemic shook NY’s bohemian youth out of their age of innocence and into the harsh reality of pain, indifference, and disease. NY hasn’t been the same and the gay community across America suffered a blow that is all too often left on the silent sidelines as a taboo topic. It is through art that I have learned to question this silence. The art created by those diagnosed with, or close to those diagnosed with, AIDS has taught me to open my eyes to the hidden history of individual suffering and strength.

Nan Goldin’s montage, its painful end following too quickly from a frenzied, bright beginning, asks that the viewer see all sides of this past. By drawing us in with family album style images of friends and lovers that invoke feelings of nostalgia for a past that many of us never knew, it can then subvert these feelings, brushing up against the darkness of the truth of loss and pushing us to realize and remember that memory all too often glazes over the unhappy memories in search of the happy ones. It is important that we know everything that happened, the bad along with the good, so that we may move forward with full knowledge of what happened and an attempt to understand how these wounds left scars that continue to inform our actions today, regardless of whether or not we were there. As Georg Simmel said: “It is not our task either to accuse or pardon, but only to understand.”

 

 

 

 

A closing note, Obama announced the Stonewall National Monument, a site of a historic LGBTQ uprising, as a historic and nationally recognized step-forward in the fight for equality: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/06/24/president-obama-designates-stonewall-national-monument

 

[1] I also want to mention that Hauptmann’s name has been left out of everything MoMA has written on this work; they only reference Brecht and Weill. Is this just an oversight or is it subtle sexism from an institution often called out of favoring white, male, European/American artists? The lack is questionable, especially given that this is an exhibition focusing on a female artist. However, Hauptmann’s role was to translate John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, from which the German opera was adopted, so she did not take part in the actual writing of the piece, though she worked with Brecht and Weill and played a major part in their understanding of what the opera began as, and thus, what it became. Source: Wikipedia.

[2] According to the above footnote mentioned, relatively reliable source on Wikipedia.

[3] For example, the massive depression we fell into over the real estate bubble bursting.

[4] Here it is important to note that the title was chosen after the pictures were taken, in retrospect, and that she continues to edit the piece since its initial debut in 1985.

 

Finally, the title is a quote of Arthur Rimbaud from a letter to Georges Izambard in 1871: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/11/17/arse-poetica

Authenticity, Authorship, and Other Lies: (a.k.a.) Some Things I’d Like to See

Authenticity and authorship are two very interesting concepts within art history and art practice. We currently live in an era where authenticity is highly valued and deeply tied to the idea of one stand-alone creator. The “artist” is viewed as an individual who works alone to create a piece of art that was conceived and produced in solitude, only influenced by the ideas and techniques of predecessors and peers. Artist “factories” or studios that employ creative assistants, conceptual art where the artist only concerns him/herself with the idea and not the implementation, and appropriated art (brushing uncomfortably close to plagiarism) are looked down upon by many and not even considered art by some.

“What is art” is a question that I hear a lot, especially with the direction that a lot of contemporary and post-modern artists have taken. Artwork that looks so simple a child could do it, happenings that have no physical trace beyond the act, and concepts so abstract that they can’t even be clearly defined in critique are ambiguous, transient, and vague. They are difficult to call “art” because there is nothing concrete and obviously requiring talent to point to and label as “the work of art.” However, I don’t believe “what is art” is the correct question, at least, not for the answer most people are looking for (or it is nothing more than a trick question meant to “stump” art professionals and “reveal” their supposedly flimsy constructs of art, a sort of emperor’s new clothes objective). The point I am trying to make is that the question “what is art” is better broken down into two questions: “what makes an artist” and “what makes art good.” These are not questions I plan on tackling right now in this blog post. Not only are they way too big for a blog post to cover, but they are inherently subjective. Suffice to say, what I look for in a good work of art is creative and conceptual talent that has led to something that provokes new thought in the viewer and a charismatic (“sticky”), personal aura that reflects the humanity of the artist and asks the viewer to actively look outside of themselves and their own experiences and situation (whew, run-on sentence!). I know that is terribly broad and I further hold the right to contradict myself in the future as my opinions evolve and change.

All of this brings me back to my original point about authenticity and authorship, which is: their definitions and level of importance are constantly shifting throughout the history of art and of course into the present. What we hold in such high regard today – individual artistic vision, singular authorship of a finished work of art, unique ideas – were not always in vogue. For example, artist’s studios where several apprentices assisted in the creation of a finished work of art and the master artist only took part in the conception and finer details were quite common throughout the Renaissance and beyond. Raphael, Rembrandt, Titian: all of these masters of the past created their masterpieces in what we would currently call factories, much like Warhol, Hirst, and Murakami do today. Some contemporary scholars spend their entire careers trying to determine which Rembrandts were actually painted by the master and which were just signed by him. This realm of academia, however, is only relevant in today’s society, it just wasn’t such an issue when the works were first created, it definitely wasn’t a secret. Then, conceptually speaking, most works before the late 1800s were commissioned and the subject provided by the client instead of the artist. Artists only began basing their main oeuvre on a personal, creative conceptualization of both subject and technique fairly recently. Finally, if you look throughout the history of art, mediums and techniques have consistently evolved and shifted, and entirely new mediums have been regularly invented since cave painting; conceptual art and performance art are just two new methods and mediums in a steady stream of innovation and invention.

So, this long preamble is really just leading up to what I really wanted to write about today – as well as explaining why I think it’s acceptable to be included on a blog that is mostly about art writing. Below, I have listed several ideas and thoughts I have had…basically things I would love to see created by an artist and transmuted through their own personal lens. So, if I may:

 

THINGS I WISH MY ARTIST FRIENDS WOULD CREATE

 

  •  Performance (though it would be tricky in real time) or Video Art:

A life-size ballerina is being spun on a gigantic potter’s wheel. In my mind, the potter’s wheel should be sized so that the ballerina will scale to the size of a medium/medium-large vase (but s/he is in fact life-size). As s/he spins, s/he slowly (minutely, really) ages from about 5 or 6 years old to old age (think mid 80’s). As she spins and ages, her poses very slowly change (or evolve) every 10 seconds or so. The changes should occur slowly but distinctly so that it is obvious she has shifted and her position/pose has changed, but you cannot pinpoint exactly when this change occurred.

Lighting, costume, gender, positions, music, colors, etc. are left to the discretion of the artist.

  • Drawing/Painting/Print:

Depict a hand pulling the sting bit from a clementine (between the skin and the meat…those annoying little bits that are left behind and look a bit like veins). It will be manipulated to strongly resemble someone pulling a thong string out of a butt crack, but the sizing of the hand to the clementine will be to scale for real life.

  • Drawing/Print

A modern day version of da Vinci’s body studies based on contemporary body builders. Heavily drawing from old master anatomy studies, but fully including the tanning and speedo choices…if possible, set it in Venice Beach in the same way etchings in 16th – 18th Century medical atlases placed the figures in idealized landscapes.

  • Drawing/Painting/Print:

Baudelaire’s description of love: “For my part, if I were asked to represent Love, I think I should paint him in the form of a maddened horse devouring its master, or perhaps a demon with eyes ringed by debauch and insomnia, dragging noisy chains at its ankles, like a ghost or a galley-slave, shaking a phial of poison in one hand, and in the other a dagger dripping with the blood of its crime.”

  • Painting:

A Bob Ross series, following his directions exactly as they are given on the show.

  • Performance Art Piece (a warning, this is dark and personal and includes self-harm…so take caution):

Sit in a chair naked for 8-10 hrs. Chain smoke and continuously drink all day: coffee for the first third, water for the second third, red wine for the last third. Do not get up for any reason, pee in the chair. Every cigarette gets put out in an ash tray positioned next to you except the second to last one, a few min before the end. Ideally, within the last 30 minutes of the performance the room will be at its most full and people will be a little bored, not expecting anything new or drastic…maybe a little grossed out by the smell. The second to last cigarette you will put out on your arm (really…like actually burning your arm). Hopefully there will be a collective gasp, feel free to wince, but try not to flinch. Then the room goes entirely black and silent (hopefully). In the silence you light one more cigarette. The only light at this point is the flame, followed by the smoldering tip of the cigarette as you take a drag. Take a deep drag on the cigarette. At this point, a spot light abruptly illuminates you from behind at about a 50° angle from the ground (kind of like that scene in Flashdance, with the water) so that you are nothing more than a silhouette. Exhale the smoke (it should glow around you in the light, creating a halo effect). At this point, you will signal to a male helper (or whatever gender you are sexually attracted to) and as he walks on the lights turn on full and glaring, as if everything is done (nothin’ to see here, folks). He covers you in a blanket/towel/robe (ideally in a single, unobtrusive color and a very simple, not so nice fabric) and says, clearly, “let’s get you cleaned up.” As he helps you stand, say in almost a whisper, “do you think they liked it?” Walk off.

The room will be designed so that all your sounds are magnified but surrounding noise is dimmed. You want the audience to hear every sign, every match lit or lighter struck. When you almost whisper your line it should come across loud and clear, as if you are whispering into the ear of each member of the audience. The lights will be comfortable, dim, and warm (like twilight in the summer) until they are turned off, then the halo of light should be piercing, then they will be turned harshly back on full, bright, and glaring like in a doctor’s office.

The Cult of Beauty…or…Why Does It Have to be “A Strange New Beauty”?

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Edgar Degas, “A Café-Concert Singer,” 1877-1878, aquatint and drypoint on paper, image courtesy of the author.

Walking around MoMA’s new exhibition “Edgar Degas: A Strange New Beauty,” I remembered something that happened a little over a year ago in London. I was in my dorm room with a few friends, for one reason or another. On the board behind my desk I had pinned some things that I found interesting: letters, cards, flyers for various museum and gallery shows I wanted to see, etc. One such thing was a postcard sized flyer for an Egon Schiele show at the Courtauld Gallery. The side of the card facing the room was taken up, in large part, by a full length study of a particularly garish nude woman. Personally, I loved it. I love almost everything Schiele created, that is why I put it there. However, one of my friends, a boy, looked at it and asked the room (probably rhetorically): “why do they always paint ugly women.” I, of course, immediately jumped to the defense of the figure: “she’s not ugly!” But then I realized, yes she is…and she is supposed to be.

 

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Cover for “Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude,” the exhibition catalogue for the Courtauld Gallery exhibition by the same name.

Now, I’ve thought about this particular moment a lot. In part because that is what I do, I overanalyze a lot of insignificant moments…in another part because I had a crush on the guy in question…but also in part (and this is what I believe to be the important part) because I want to understand why I immediately jumped to the defense of this woman. First of all, she’s long dead and even if she was still alive, she wasn’t there…and beyond that, this is a drawing of the woman, not a woman in flesh and blood or even a photograph. My friend wasn’t insulting her, he was insulting the drawing…but he wasn’t really insulting anyone or anything because he was just stating an objective opinion. Second of all, why did I defend her as if she was going to be hurt? Why didn’t I defend the merit of the drawing or the artist? Why did I even feel the need to defend its beauty when I know that it isn’t beautiful and wasn’t meant to be?

I would like to explain something about Schiele and many of the modernists: they were not trying to create beautiful works of art. In fact, many of them were rebelling against the idea that a work of art had to be beautiful. They were exploring modernity, reality, modern techniques, and the very physicality of the methods of creation they were using. Schiele’s woman was painted to be ugly because she was symbolic of the widely believed moral turpitude of society in the new, urban settings of world war era Germany. She was probably, in reality, just as skinny as she was drawn because she was most likely both poor and hungry. The jerky flow of the lines was because Schiele would often draw the figures without looking at the paper, in one continuous movement from sight to action. Her coloring is borderline diseased-looking because Schiele was exploring the failings of government, the decay of humanity, and the stagnation of society as he saw it. This is more than just a drawing of a naked woman, it is a powerful statement to the reality that he and his models were living in: poverty, starvation, fatigue, and disillusionment.

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Edgar Degas, “Dancer Adjusting Her Slipper,” 1887, pastel on paper, image courtesy of the author.

Back to the exhibition at hand, though. When many people think of Edgar Degas, they think of impressionist-era France, ballet dancers, and bright colors. They think of things that are generally associated with beauty and prettiness. However, the selection made by the curators is of lesser known pastels, monotypes, and charcoal studies. Sketchy, small, works on paper that most people have never seen, myself included. These works and these women are not beautiful and they are not meant to be. So why are we concerned with insisting that they are? The title of the show, “Strange New Beauty,” (which, granted, is a Mallarmé quote referring to Degas’ work) insinuates that these works are beautiful, just in an unusual and modern way, which is why they are not “traditionally pretty.” But, as I previously stated, the great thought of modernity was that a painting did not have to be beautiful or idealize and depict the inherent beauty of nature, women, and the human condition. Manet broke that barrier with “Olympia” who was called a “corpse” by critics at the time and generally considered ugly by the viewing public for decades. But, he painted her to represent a modern woman of the time, someone you could (and many people did) see on the street: young, poor, hungry…just trying to get by. Artists such as Picasso, Goya, Schiele, and yes, Degas too, took up this new challenge and created images – quite often of women – that were edgy, sketchy, blurry, and sometimes grotesque. They explored the medium of the painted canvas, the charcoal sketch, and the wide array of printmaking methods; they explored the visceral nature of their tools through smudging, scraping, and blurring. There is no need to argue for the beauty to be found in these works, to be apologetic for the lack of traditional aesthetics, because they do not need to be beautiful. Baudelaire, one of the great writers and critics of Manet’s generation said: “because the Beautiful is always wonderful, it would be absurd to suppose that what is wonderful is always beautiful” (The Salon of 1859).

 

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Edgar Degas, “After the Bath (Woman Drying Herself),” c. 1896, oil on canvas, image courtesy of the author.

We have fallen into this “cult of beauty” and it is brainwashing us. In the cult of beauty, everything has to be beautiful in order to be acceptable – in order to be ok and PC – even if it isn’t actually beautiful. We are constantly being bombarded by images of near perfect, beautiful people (all of whom fulfill socially created standards, mind you, that hold little weight beyond our own imaginations…after all, what is society but a mass, agreed upon hallucination of “reality”?): aggressive workouts and diets, “how to get bikini ready”, Photoshop, makeup artists, hair stylists, once a week manicures, “I can’t leave my house until I put my face on,” etc. I have no specific issue with these things and there can be great enjoyment in playing with make-up and feeling beautiful in an external, socially recognizable way. Photoshop is cool and Instagram filters are a lot of fun. What concerns me is how so many people feel that these things are necessary to a happy life; that you need to make yourself become either this one standard of beautiful or you MUST BE beautiful in some way in order to be happy, whole, and desirable. Beauty is relative, A), but beyond that beauty is not all that there is and not everyone has to be or wants to be beautiful.

When someone doesn’t live up to this standard, they are immediately defended or shunned. Apologists claim that you do not have to fit this ideal to be beautiful. Beauty at any age, beauty at any size, beauty across cultures, genders, and norms. But the focus here is still beauty. What about, “you do not have to be beautiful”? Instead of creating and generating excuses like, “they’re tired,” “it’s been a long week,” and “this is my winter body.” What if we did not have to fulfill this expectation of beauty? What if it was ok to not be beautiful or to not be striving to be beautiful? Not just for ourselves, but for others. Why, when I see the ugly image of Schiele’s women, do I feel the powerful need to defend their beauty? Why can they just not be beautiful and have that be ok? Why are they not allowed to be ugly? Ugliness has its own power, it is not inherently bad, we have just made it so. Why must everything be in some state of beauty? Is it because we label ugliness as a judgement BECAUSE it is so objective and when someone calls something ugly we instead hear that they are deeming it below respect, unworthy, and unliked? Why is ugly not a fact but a judgment? I

think it is high time we reclaim the word ugly and lift it from the social taboo as some sort of bad, unfortunate thing. Or, at the very least, leave off the labeling of beautiful and ugly and accept other terms to be used in their stead…not replacement words but the full spectrum of things that a person or a thing can be: smart, kind, interesting, vivacious, whatever – anything except just beautiful or ugly. The world we live in does not have to be couched in terms of beauty. There are more ways to see things, more powerful things to be than beautiful. We are limited by the very concept of beauty. We are limiting these works by forcing them into the limited confines of “beauty.”

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Edgar Degas, “The Name Day of the Madam,” monotype on paper, image courtesy of the author.

Therefore, I further posit that it is ok for something to be ugly, that there is still the potential for appreciation in the ugly and the grotesque: a life lived, wisdom gained, experiences had, dangers survived, lessons learned. It is ok to overcome and deepen something beyond its surface; we should deny the cult of beauty and accept that some things really are ugly and that, too, is ok.[1] Degas’ women are ugly. They are misshapen, heavily shadowed, obscured…they are not striving for beauty and I do not believe that he was looking for the hidden beauty in them and their situation. His dark shadows that cover the faces and bring forth a freakish aspect speak to the dark side of their lives. The bright, garish highlights talk to the beautification of the surface of their industry, the façade of youth and strength and the desirability of that form of beauty, but the darkness battles the light. The women are both, they lived hard lives but they were still people with thoughts, feelings and dreams. The shadows live alongside the light, sometimes overpowering, sometimes fading, and sometimes just existing alongside.

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Edgar Degas, “The Fireside,” c. 1880-1885, monotype on paper, image courtesy of the author.

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Edgar Degas, “Actresses in Their Dressing Rooms,” 1879-1880, etching and aquatint on paper, image courtesy of the author.

The women exiting baths, their bodies contorted into impossible shapes, are flailing and awkward. No longer the idealized bodies of David, Rembrandt, Titian, and often Lautrec, Degas has taken his women a step farther than Manet. They are allowed to be more than a symbol, an idea, an idol of feminine beauty and mystique. Their awkwardness and slips are not made acceptable by being made funny and they are not erased to make the women perfect, graceful creatures; they are accepted as a fact of life. Sometimes we fall down and it does not have to be funny or sad, it just is. These women are human: they fall, they flail, they shit, and they can be ugly. Through their ugliness, he has freed them from the pedestal – the golden cage – that art history has placed them in. The prostitute, the dancer (the rat), that cabaret singer are no longer these symbolic epitomizations of sensuality. They are revealed for what they are: damaged, dark, tired. Perhaps in this way their due is finally given as the rigors of their professions, their lives, their fate is not only revealed but allowed.

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Edgar Degas, “After the Bath,” c. 1893-1898, oil on canvas, image courtesy of the author.

I want to reclaim the word ugly. I want to remove it from the realm of dirty words and mean things that we cannot say to other people. It is not the antithesis to beauty, it is not the insult on the other side of the compliment. It is a fact of life, neither good nor bad. It is exhausting constantly being concerned with being beautiful. When I was little, my mother would sing me a mantra of praises before I went to sleep. A feminist who wanted me to be a strong woman who did not see beauty as my only option for worthiness, she told me I was strong, funny, kind, smart, loving. Everything but beautiful and most nights, after she completed her list, I would ask her if I was beautiful and she would tell me “yes.” Despite her best efforts, society held its sway and I wanted nothing more than to be considered beautiful above all else. That desire stands in the back of my mind to this day. A small voice begging to be acknowledged despite my best efforts to quiet it. It is exhausting constantly fighting that urge. I want it to be ok to be ugly and have that not be considered a failing. I don’t want beauty to be the given standard, the price to be paid for just participating in life. Everything does not have to be beautiful. Allow me to be ugly….or better yet, allow me to not be beautiful.

 

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Edgar Degas, “Café Singer,” c. 1877-1878, monotype on paper, image courtesy of the artist.

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Edgar Degas, “Waiting for the Client,” c. 1877-1879, monotype on paper, image courtesy of the author.

 

[1] Do not take this as an excuse to be an asshole though, like saying that you can say truly mean things because “I like to tell the truth.” There is a line between being honest and being a dick and we all know it, so stop pretending that that is an acceptable excuse.

Blurry and Grey

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Spotted at my hometown bar, WTF is this?

NSFW/Trigger Warning

I hesitate to post this because it is so personal and because of the potential responses, but, I have been thinking about it for a while now. Between Trump’s popularity and history of aggressively misogynistic and sexual comments towards women, because it’s almost summer and the catcallers will soon reclaim their positions on Brooklyn’s stoops, because of conversations with friends, and because of articles I’ve been reading, I thought it was time. Lately, there has been a welcome noise on the front of women’s rights and sexual consent and we all must raise our voices to make change. More than half of my friends have been raped or sexually assaulted and that is not only disturbing, but it is also unacceptable. I did not know this about many of my friends until I chose to share my own story; it was only then that so many shared theirs is an act of solidarity, understanding, and empathy. Women across the country and the world are sexually harassed daily and it does not stop there. For six years – from the year I hit puberty to the year I graduated high school – I was sexually harassed by a boy I thought was my friend and it culminated into a moment of sexual assault where he took advantage of an emotionally vulnerable state to push me to do something that I did not want to do. Six years where “no” meant nothing and I didn’t know how to handle it or make how to make it stop. The first time anything happened was in class and I told the teacher, asked to move, and was told to stop tattling. Being the teacher’s pet, overachiever type that I was, I immediately was ashamed of myself and never spoke of it for the next six years, except to one very close friend towards the very end. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that a teacher even noticed and he immediately separated us and kept him away from me. I tried saying no, I tried hitting him, I tried laughing it off, I tried ignoring him, but in a small town and a smaller high school where we shared a close-knit friend group, avoidance was impossible, especially since I didn’t fully grasp what was happening. It was never extreme enough to be clear to me that it was harassment and assault and not just me being a prude or awkward. It was slow, but it was steady, and it left its mark. It took me three more years after I graduated and cut off all communication with him to even call it sexual harassment and assault. It took three years to admit how much it had affected me, and how it continues to affect me today in my reactions and relationships. For years I hated myself, for years I believed that no one else would want me, but I finally learned to love myself and I even learned to forgive, though never to condone. Someday, I want to run a non-profit art space where I can exhibit art as the social and political discourse that I believe it to be. To not only teach about art, but also about society, academics, history, and all of the subjects and grey areas that art touches upon. I most definitely want to put on a show about the battles of sexuality and consent and how they continue to rage, all too often silently. Consider this a small, online, curated show to someday be brought to an art space near you.

I want to start this “exhibition” with a quote: “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman. She has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to men is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another…. One might simplify this by saying: men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.” (John Berger, Ways of Seeing)

John Berger is a well-known art historian and his texts, though often dating to the mid-20th Century, remain relevant today. This passage speaks of woman as spectacle, as an object to be seen which, in the history of art and society in general has been woman’s condition for the past several hundred years. Walk through any museum and you will see the walls peppered with portraits, history paintings, and studies of women. They are nude, they are pursued, and they are watched. This is not to say that these works are not beautiful and important, because they are. In fact, my current favorite work of art is a nude woman, Rembrandt’s Bathsheba at her Bath. But one of the reasons I love it so much is because of how thoughtful and sad she looks. Many painters who had portrayed this subject depicted Bathsheba as a fickle and vain woman, primping for a romantic meeting with King David. What they leave out about the story, though, is that she was blackmailed by David and met with him to save her husband’s life. Why should she be happy? The issue that I have with the prominent display of these works is the lack of context and the lack of conversation. They are set on the wall and they are sanctified because they are old and were painted by the masters. That can no longer be enough. We must use these works to talk about the history of women in both art and society and the frightening lack of change women have received within the male gaze. This issue cannot be left off the white wall of the museum and ignored as if it no longer exists. There has been great improvement but most definitely not enough. So, below, I have compiled a list of women who have thrown off Berger’s history of watching and being watched. Women who no longer accept the adage that “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” Erica Jong once wrote: “Women are the only exploited group in history to have been idealized into powerlessness.” These artists have not stopped at watching but are speaking out and creating their own images that resonate with defiance.

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Hannah Price, City of Brotherly Love, image courtesy of the artist’s website www.hannahprice.com

Hannah Price – City of Brotherly Love

Philadelphia-based photographer Hannah Price has recently received media attention for her series City of Brotherly Love. In particular, I recommend reading NPR’s and Buzzfeed’s articles. Price began the series when she moved to Philadelphia and experienced the barrage of catcalling that occurs in most major cities across both the US and the world. Struck by the overly familiar and aggressively suggestive comments made at her by strangers, she stopped and engaged by taking a photograph. She spoke with some of her subjects and discussed the situation and reason for the pictures, but with others she only took passing snap shots. Adding a touch of humanity and permanence to a dehumanizing and transient ritual that most city-dwelling women are all too familiar with, this portrait series identifies the street harassers and calls them out by calling attention to the humanity of both the harassers and the victims. This is a creative reaction to a complicated situation that most often can only be ignored and dealt with by the victims for reasons of personal safety.

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, Stop Telling Women to Smile, image courtesy of the artist’s project site www.tlynnfaz.com/Stop-Telling-Women-to-Smile

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh – Stop Telling Women to Smile

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh is a Brooklyn-based artist who has also created a portrait series called Stop Telling Women to Smile, but instead of taking photographs of street harassers, she is documenting the reactions of the women being victimized. Using a medium that is ubiquitous to the urban landscape of New York City, Fazlalizadeh posts signage across city walls in graffiti-style murals that mimic the posting of bills, notices, and spam across the grey public/private boundaries of the city. The creation of these signs is a personalized process that not only speaks to the voice of the artist but also that of her subjects. She begins by interviewing the women of the city that she will be pasting and as they speak about their experiences she sketches a portrait. She then finalizes the portrait and chooses a quote from the interview, which she then combines with the image and blows up into larger than life murals that she, along with volunteers, posts across the city. Fazlalizadeh has pasted across New York as well as Mexico City and her works confront the street harassers, forcing them to view the women as individuals. The images linger in everyday life and transcend the momentary nature of a catcall. Instead of being something to be watched, these images of women demand to be heard and they force this demand in a very public way. The website encourages interaction, making this more than just an art series but also a social call to arms and awareness.

Betty Tompkins

Betty Tompkins, Ten Until She…, 2014, acrylic on canvas, 6 x 4 x 1.5″, image courtesy of The FLAG Art Foundation’s site flagartfoundation.org

Betty Tompkins – WOMEN: Words, Phrases, and Stories

Following the vein of verbal harassment leveled against women, the FLAG Art Foundation held an exhibition of Betty Tompkins’ recent paintings from the series WOMEN: Words, Phrases, and Stories in early 2016. Hyperallergic wrote a great review of the exhibition that is worth reading. Tompkins is probably best known for her NSFW porn paintings that focus on the “money shot” of pornographic videos and stills. However, this now largely linguistic exhibition is also much more interactive than her previous work. She began the exhibition by sending out an email to interested parties through social media requesting submissions of words used against women (both derogative and affectionate). She then painted these words onto canvases that were displayed throughout the exhibition and which held a semi-permanent, and thus contemplative, status especially when paired with the performance on opening night where visitors were asked to read the words aloud, interpreting them through their own experiences and personalities. The images, like many of the words, are not pretty and this exhibition so thoroughly sums up the oxymoronic experience of many women where we are asked to be all or nothing: pure but sexy, beautiful but modest, dumb but interesting…a confounding combination of worship and hatred.

 

Theses three, above-listed, contemporary works speak not only to the day-to-day prevalence of verbal harassment by strangers at women, but also adamantly demand interaction and a performance by both the artist and the viewer. The following grouped works are a little bit older and speak to the history of art touching upon the subject of the sexual harassment and assault of women.

Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems, Not Manet’s Type, 1997, image courtesy of the artist’s site carriemaeweems.net

Carrie Mae Weems: Not Manet’s Type

This portrait series features the artist standing in as the trope of the artist’s model: the historically Western place for the female body in art history, especially for minorities. By focusing on herself in this position, as opposed to an outside model, Weems questions the tradition of that place and what that position means for a contemporary, black, female artist. She brings up the names of four of the top masters of the last two centuries, all western, white men: Manet, Picasso, Duchamp, and De Kooning. Aiming the lens at her reflection in a bedroom mirror symbolically poses this series as reflective, personal, and indirect as this theme in art history is often murky and neglected.

George Grosz

George Grosz, Sex Murder in Ackerstrasse, 1916-17, lithograph, image courtesy of LACMA’s site collections.lacma.org

George Grosz: Lustmord in der Ackerstrasse

In world war era Germany, there was a sudden and rampant slew of shocking sexual murders, called Lustmord in German. These murders coincided with social concerns about the growing number of prostitutes in major German cities. With the onslaught of war and the sudden industrialization and urbanization of the German landscape, many conservation groups took up arms against the “moral degradation” of these modern spaces. They wrote books, pamphlets, editorials, and campaigned for stricter government regulations. Their arguments were most often aimed at social deviants and they cited the need to protect the children of Germany from corruption. While it is still unclear exactly what spurred these horrific, sexualized murders, the artistic fascination with these crimes by artists such as George Grosz and Otto Dix is equally disturbing.

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Carolee Schneemann, Interior Scroll, 1975, image courtesy of Hyperallergic.com (photo by Anthony McCall)

Carolee Schneemann: Interior Scroll

Carolee Schneemann has analyzed and combated social conventions, stigmas, and stereotypes surrounding women throughout her artistic career. Never one to shy away from taboos or be concerned with creating PC or “pretty” art she performed a piece of art that has reached notorious levels of fame. In 1975 she stood naked, painted in mud, and pulled a paper scroll from her vagina from which she read a truly beautiful piece of prose about her vagina, womanhood, and perception. The juxtaposition between this poetic speech and the shocking and blunt nature of the physical performance resonated so strongly that it is still talked about today. This recent Hyperallergic article about Schneemann and her concern (or annoyance) over the fame of this one work is a must read.

This article has gotten quite long, so I will leave you with some links that I highly encourage you to check out!

Kate Beaton (an AMAZING comic-series artist) on superheroes (for a lighter note):

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=311

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=45

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=295

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=328

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=305

Robert Mapplethorpe: in part because this post is unfortunately entirely hetero-normative (as I am speaking through the lens of my own personal experiences) and in part because his work is some of the most illuminating portraits of gay/bi-sexual bodily experience from the 1980s (the decade of AIDS)

https://www.artsy.net/artwork/robert-mapplethorpe-self-portrait-with-whip

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-robert-mapplethorpe-getty-museum-lacma-2016-photography-exhibition-20150401-story.html

And perhaps one of the most hotly debated acts of performance art in the past five years (based on her own personal experience):

Emma Sulkovitz: Carry that Weight

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/06/05/emma-sulkowicz-work_n_7515136.html

http://time.com/3910621/emma-sulkowicz-mattress-columbia-rape-video/

Further Required Reading:

http://www.upworthy.com/why-women-smile-at-men-who-sexually-harass-us?c=ufb1

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/17-tweets-show-how-early-women-experience-sexual-harassment-and-violence_us_5716633ee4b06f35cb70be5e

http://www.upworthy.com/joe-biden-hadnt-considered-this-point-about-rape-and-he-sure-felt-stupid?c=ufb1

http://www.endstreetharassment.com/

Djuna Barnes, “The Book of Repulsive Women,” 1915

Finally, to sum up, I am leaving you with a picture of Lynda Benglis that is so notorious in the artworld that I almost don’t want to explain it. To make a long (bamf and a half) story short, artists Lynda Benglis and Robert Morris were having a competition on who could create the more scandalous/awesome image. After a bout of so-so pictures, Robert Morris threw down the gauntlet by posting a lubed up, chain toting, S&M picture of himself. What was Benglis to do but one-up him, and obviously she did: oiled up, hair slicked back, and completely naked except for sunglasses on her face and a double dildo in her vagina. Her sunglasses do not hide her straightforward, self-aware, taunting gaze at the viewer and her nakedness does not objectify her. Instead, she took complete control and created an image that says “Fuck you all, I’ll do what I want and it will not lessen me but instead will make me stronger.” Of course, there was massive dissent and censorship and a few people even threatened to leave the magazine (Art Forum – where it was published as an ad since they wouldn’t run it with the article it was meant to go with) if they did not retract the image. Read the NYTimes and the ArtInfo articles about it.

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Lynda Benglis, Artforum Ad, 1974, image courtesy of Blouin Art Info Blog