Friday, April 30, 2010

T.J. Clark on Guernica

Two great minds, Picasso and T.J. Clark matched in a lecture. At first I was dubious, when the first statement Professor Clark made was "Space was the form truth took for him as a painter." This seemed unduly formal, detached. But by the end I was fascinated, and only slightly unhappy, with his analysis. At the beginning Clark declared "The twentieth century appeared in his (Picasso's) work as a way of life coming to an end. ... It was the end of the "room" in art, the world view of being and having was shattered to the core." ( these quotes are based on my notes they are not exact). He did not elaborate on this comment, about which much can be said.

What I will add is that the metaphor of the room as a secure domestic place filled with our objects as the focal point of life, based on capitalism, acquisition, and obvliviousness to the rest of the world, was destroyed in World War I ( of course that isn't true, it was only the hegemony of the British Empire that was destroyed) - but the painters in that crucial early twentieth century era sensed the impending destruction and  altered the domestic space in art into the layered, complexity of cubism. (Clark confusingly later refers to the destruction of Cubist "room-space" by Picasso, the Cubists were not actually concerned with room space, but with disrupting it, in my opinion. I think Clark overprivileges Picasso)

Then point 2 , which was the most compelling insight for me, was that this was "the new face of war" of what has become the war on terror, our permanent war forever. We know that this is the first representation in art of deaths of civilians by bombing from the air ( the Germans were testing new planes in collaboration with Franco, just in case you need that fact filled in). Such a death is now so commonplace that we digest it with our breakfast.

Professor Clark stated that ""certain kinds of death break human contact" There is a "special obscenity" of this new death. "Privacy is torn apart, the room gives way to the street." And this new reality led to Picasso' s new way of imagining a public and political that is outside, rather than the interior sexual domesticities that had been his focus. ( Well there are the Three Musicans, from just after World War I, they are in an ambiguous space and they are scarey and scared).

Again, there is much elaboration possible. Clark showed us an odd sketch in outlining this movement outdoors, but he did not show the famous bone paintings of the early 1930s which are all on the beach and, to me presage, the nightmare of Guernica in thier frightening shapes. But of course one difference is that those giant "vagina dentata" heads are threatening, whereas in Guernica they are being attacked. He also failed to every mention the "dreams and lies of Franco," that well known etching series. It presages Guernica in many ways, it is set outside, it has direct formal connections. When I asked about it in the questions, he first said it was not relevant, than brilliantly backtracked and rethought it as he talked about it.

A major point in the lecture was the enormous scale of the Guernica (mentioned again in the "dreams and lies" answer which he reminded us were tiny) the largest painting he ever did (of course determined by the scale of the site for which it was commissioned, not Picasso's inclinations.) It was this scale as well as the subject AND the site itself, the pavilion of the Spanish Republican government as it fought for its life against unified fascist forces of church and state, that forced Picasso to change his way of working as well as out of his self referential narcissism.  The result is a monumental homage to the doomed people of Guernica. It is not the first time that the female victims of war have been represented, (look at Kathe Kollwitz), but it is because it is by Picasso, the most famous.

One of the most intriguing parts of the lecture was Clark's detailed analysis of how Picasso achieved this transformation of his inclinations to represent the interior, personal, and the sexual, to the exterior public death, by his removal of sexual references, of references to Greek, to males, his step by step ( based on those daily photographs by Dora Maar) changes in the relationships in the painting.

But then Professor Clark declared that in the painting we have "flatness finding its feet"  ( it was a pun too, as he emphasized the feet in the painting) . WHAT, we are talking about re defining the idea of pictorial space in response to tragedy, and we have "flatness". Flatness is of course that tiresome idea of Clement Greenberg's. The flatness here is defined by Clark as "the collapse of modernity" . That's not hard to disagree with as an idea,  but actually there isn't flatness in Guernica,  it has all sorts of erratic spatial relations, and it is the erratic relationships that suggest the tragedy, as far as I am concerned. Some of the figures are flat, some of them are in the extreme surface of the painting, but others are not, particularly at the bottom of the painting, there is an indication of recession or at least volume. ( he talked a lot about the bottom of the painting as a complex problem) But the flatness here is, then, humanity run over by a war machine.

Clark's final statement that these are "hieroglyphics of states of agony" was wonderful.
His lecture was about HOW an artist transforms his personal response to disaster into the elements of a painting, and for Picasso, according to Clark, it was in the transformation of space.

Of course, this almost eliminates the content completely. The bull, the light, all symbolism. The possiblity of resistance is nil, mankind is simply a victim and of course that is the case so often in war, the human is simply a pawn in a system of power, and this is the representation of that moment according to Clark. But emptying all content, except the moment of bombing, I think is unduly flattening the painting. Eliminating all reference to resistance (the woman flying into the center with that incredible light which for me suggests humanity and resistance) makes this image only one of despair.

Clark has become a formalist? Or is he re defining formalism in a social context.  I think the latter.  I hope so. I hope this is slight of hand, play the vocabulary of formalism into a new context. Clark is, of course, of that particular breed, academic marxists. They are all brilliant, but on some level, they all disturb me. They are so dry and removed from feeling the horrors. Their social concern for the state of the world is undoubtedly real, but their writing is so turned inward that it contradicts what Marx realized was necessary in the age of industrial capitalism, resisting oppression through collective action in public spaces.  Clark and Picasso's public space (or ambiguous public private space) actually is not a committed activist space. We know what happened next to Picasso, he joined with the Communists and the Resistance during the Occupation of Paris. Then he went back to his old domestic ways for the most part in his later years. We have to acknowledge that Dora Maar was the radical that really was a key to Guernica.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Two plays about war and one "quilt"

Theaters can make statements about war, directors care, but sometimes it is a little ambiguous what the plays actually say. Two plays in Seattle, Henry V and An Iliad (a modern play performed by one actor, that refers back to the classic but also inserts contemporary references), each one is obviously responding to our permanent war culture.
The first Henry V by Shakespeare is really celebrating victory against long odds in war. It was used to rally the British morale during World War II, with a film version starring Laurence Olivier. Prince Hal was a pretty wild kid, but he became King Henry V.When the Church gives him a chunk of money (to avoid having their lands confiscated according to the play's beginning), he's off to war in France, based on some shakey premise that France is actually belonging to the English because of way back when family connection (that sounds like Israel in Palestine). Anyway off he goes and he beats the complacent French at Agincourt because (although this wasn't emphasized but my knowledgable husband informed me) they use the older technology of the longbow while the French used a cross bow with a shorter range. The real story of the war not included in this play, is rather grim, with many women and children dying in a siege.

So is this an anti-war statement??? The Director said in the program that her best friend's son was in Afghanistan. It seems to me the play was an homage to the courage of soldiers.
But then there is Shakespeare's own perspective. It has been said that on the one hand he creates heartfelt speeches by King Henry, on the other hand suggests he is ruthless, and his men mock him.

This play was commissioned by Queen Elizabeth because the Irish troubles had already begun, so perhaps it was intended to give heart to the British. But, of course, underlying it, is the ordinary people and their ordinary thoughts, always a feature of Shakespeare. And of course they were wet, dirty and sometimes uninterested.

To further mitigate its anti war statement, in this production there was a mix of 1940s war costumes, seen here, and 1960s Pop around the Princess Catherine of France who at the end marries our Henry V, which did bring peace. So that makes the war worthwhile??? Or could he have married her anyway and no war. He was offered her at the beginning of the war. ( It is a little like the Vietnam War, Kissinger was offered a peace before it started and in the end had exactly what he was offered at the beginning, after so many years)
Odd Play. Here is another opinion.

An Iliad (this isn't much of a picture but it is all they have on the website, obviously the character was posed before the production) , created by Denis O Hare and Lisa Peterson (who also directed it) was an entirely different matter. It was a tour de force performance by a single actor, Hans Alweis, and he played the entire range of characters ( Hector, Achilles, Ageammenon, Patroklus, Priam, Helen, Paris, Andromache, Astynax the baby son of Andromache and Hector , Zeus, Thetis, Athena) brilliantly, as well as himself (perhaps Homer) and himself again ( a contemporary who sees the meaninglessness of war).

The selections from the Iliad, the parts that were chosen, were perfect to convey the stupidity of war, the needless suffering, the insanity of killing, the arrogance, the egos, the hesitation, the thoughts of avoiding war that were not acted on, all of it was there. The recital of wars from ancient history to the present was staggering, presented in a soft voice that seemed to come out of the actor like a slow drip of blood. It was a similar intention to the slide show at the end of Henry V of art works about war, but had much more impact. The simple recital fit with the poetic homage of the play as a whole.
An  Iliad gave us the full persepctive on what war is about and an extraordinary performance.

But then there is the Srebenica Quilt made by the widows, sisters, daughters of survivors of that terrible massacre. Each square is an homage to a lost loved one. Each one is actually woven, it is not a quilt, it is done in the flat weave kilim style, a heritage of the Ottoman Empire in this area. It is done by a group of brave, activist women who are extraodinary survivors, who are claiming a burial ground for their loved ones, who are reburying them, who are organizing to declare that they are going forward. This is the message of woman. I wish there were a play about that.

Monday, April 12, 2010

From Oppression to Liberation

 "Boycott Israeli Apartheid" the  pro Palestinian protest at Westlake Plaza in downtown Seattle had a huge audience last weekend because it coincided with a "flash", a coming together of young people. The Boycott, Divestment Sanctions campaign is a long project. It is just beginning. The people of Palestine and pro Palestinian Israelis and other people around the world are urging the world to support this campaign that compares the current situation in Palestine Israel to apartheid in South Africa. The Palestinians are trapped in their cities by endless checkpoints. They are living in open prisons, they cannot get to work, their fields are being stolen by the wall. The campaign is asking people not to buy Israeli products, like Naot shoes, and to advocate for divestment of investments in Israel such as Motorola and Caterpillar. Here is an image with some of the companies that do business in Israel.

Of course the largest factor in the situation is the enormous US support for the Israeli military budgets. We send untold billions there every year. End the Occupation is a project to help us educate the American public and lobby Congressmen on the issues.

Not far away from the pro Palestinian rally, there was an immigrant rights rally, hundreds of people protesting the deportations, proposed horrendous legislation, and advocating for their rights.  They oppose further militarizing the border, and they support legalizing their status. They came here simply to make a living because many people are increasingly unable to do so where they live, often because of our Free Trade policies that are dumping cheap agricultural products in Mexico, putting farmers out of business.

Last weekend there also was a South Asian Film Festival with films by South Asian women and about South Asian women  including the talented Gazelle Samizay.
Her five minute film was stunningly beautiful,  psychologically intense, and metaphorically layered all conveyed by the washing of a sheet that got bigger and bigger and dirtier and dirtier.
The film festival was sponsored by Tasveer, which has been going for about nine years, an amazing and enterprising operation. It is partnering with Chaya, a group that advocates for and provides services to South Asian women who are victims of domestic violence. Yoni Ki Baat ( Vagina Monologues) was a series of courageous monologues by women who addressed dating, marriage, cultral traditions, sexuality, coming out, childbearing, and female circumcision.

And finally, there was an Indian PowWow, a celebration and example of an extraordinary resurgence of American Indian cultures, traditions, languages, and pride. Far from being obliterating, tribes are asserting their rights and recovering their languages and traditions.

So from oppression to liberation, from the beginning of a resistance, to the results of resistance, from people in the midst of struggle to people healing themselves to people celebrating their liberation.

Very inspiring. People organizing together really do make a difference, they really can change the world. And artists are an integral part of that.  Doing nothing or just talking really does waste that potential. As Arundhati Roy says in one of her brilliant essays in Field Notes on Democracy " "There is something pitiable about a people that constantly bemoan its leaders. If they've let us down, it is only because we've allowed them to."

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Kiki Smith 2 and Milton Rogovin

So  I went back to the Henry Art Gallery's Kiki Smith exhibition "I myself have seen it" for another look. It is a complex exhibition and deserves a lot of looks. First I watched the Art 21 video which was really helpful . She talks about death masks, her grandmother's, her father's, her sister's. She herself is cast, that is terrifying. And she talked about Genevieve the savior of Paris.

So when I saw the series about Genevieve in the exhibition, it was clear what she was doing. The exhibition includes six photographs of parts of the sculpture, a profile face, lips, a hand,  the legs of a wolf ( perhaps signifying the enemy that Genevieve's prayers staved off from Paris), the wolf's furry face, four animal feet. Together they create an imaginary narrative, much more than the sculpture in which G calmly steps over a supine animal, but this narrative is another story, a story of fragments of bodies that seem to be frozen, even as they create, collectively, a sense of anxiety. The stasis is perhaps related to Genevieve's spiritual nature. But there didn't seem to be any suggestion of the actions that she took to save the people by bringing grain.

Going through the rest of the show starting with a young girl trapped (floating?) in a branch, to odd photographs that seem to evoke fragments of organs, to Mary Magdalene ( we know her story, Christ's "fallen" woman) , to Lot's Wife (who turned to a pillar of salt, if you remember), to the Harpies (perched about on mouldings high above us) , to the witches, to the little girls, dead white animals, dead black crows, shredded puppet, worms, and a photograph of just Guanyin's head on its side (the image is in previous post) which does not suggest her power as a goddess of love and mercy and childbearing. There is only one message for me - violence against women, and especially little girls. The show is presenting frighened girls  and oddly powerless witches. Even fairy tales where little girls succeed, like Alice in Wonderland, seem to be oddly ambibuous - will she succeed in escaping her pursuers??

The question is why doesn't Kiki Smith say what her real subject is, why is she so unwilling to be an advocate for all the victims she creates in her sculptures?? Why does she make victims from powerful goddesses and biblical women. Why can't they fight back? Why doesn't she fight back? My intelligent friend Deborah Lawrence talked me out of saying it is about personal trauma. What do I know, but why is Smith so obsessed with this single subject of death and threats of death and powerlessness.

The contrast to Cindy Sherman comes to mind who works from film, that, like fairy tales, are often about violence against women (in fact the new mythology), but we know they are re-staged with herself as the main actor, and she is opposing violence against women by calling attention to it. 

Kiki adds to the victims in the world without doing anything for them. As far as I am concerned this is not feminism.

In an intriguing revelation, she mentioned that she had worked with Bread and Puppet theater for awhile. But she takes their confrontational approach and empties it of all resistance in making these  prone or frozen or fragmented women and girls.

And what an amazing contrast to the adjacent gallery at the Henry with the photography of Milton Rogovin.
 He has photographed the working class for fifty years. He went to Chile ( the image above is from Chile,) Appalachia, photographing. among others, the families of miners and the miners themselves (particularly resonant at the moment with the horrifying greed propelled, mine accidents in the non unionized mines )and repeatedly to the Lower West Side of New York City. His people are dignfiedand strong. He honors them with his photographs.
He wrote poetry about the subjects of his work.
Here are a few of his comments.
"They are regular people just like the rest of us. We must not abandon them."
"Everybody should have an opportunity for a better education."
" All around we saw people with great potential but we knew none of them would realize it under the conditions of our society."
Here is a man who cares deeply about the human condition and has spent his life recording it and speaking up for what he believes.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Kiki Smith

The Kiki Smith exhibition at the Henry Art Gallery, curated by Elizabeth Brown, in collaboration with the artist for many years and years, is a tour de force, not to be missed. Together they went through about 80,000 photographs to arrive at the show. Hats off for a great show and a great installation.
Brown wrote her dissertation on Brancusi's photographs of his own work, those haunting black and white photographs that were first published in the Little Review in the early 1920s by the eccentric genius Jane Heap. (See my website for more information on her). But what a difference. Compared to Brancusi's actions which were relatively straightforward, although the results were beautiful, Kiki Smith, is like walking into a complex game in which we have no idea which way to go or what the rules are.

The title " I myself have seen it: Photography and Kiki Smith " refers to the fact that these are Kiki's photographs of many different types, documentary, journalistic, casual, creative, serendipitous.
Those of us in the press conversed with the artist informally -a great opportunity to try to get a little more straightforward information from the artist ( her artists talk was aggravatingly indirect,  and my bete noir, about her materials and where she got them, although she had some good one liners).

Naturally, I asked her if she was concerned about environmental issues, since we were standing in a room with a lot of simulations of dead white mammals, and also a crucified Christ photograph ( that's my nod to Good Friday, today). She said she didn't like to be polemical, she didn't like to tell people what to think. Where have we heard that before? But in her case, it is true. She lays out the work, the death, the damage, the anguished adolescent girls, the mythic women, the fairy tale girls, the composite bird women, but they are all strangely passive. Oddly,  she said the same thing as William Kentridge, that making art flows from her subconscious, she doesn't know what she is going to do ahead of time. But with wildly different results. Kiki Smith does not engage social political issues, we must conclude that spontaneity is conditioned by who we are. In Kiki Smith's case, I think this show gives us a whole new perspective on who she is and what her work is about.

When I asked her about AIDS, since that was the first work I saw that impressed me at the height of the epidemic (in the art world), she said, oh I just happened to be doing work about the body then (she also said when she took emergency medical training it was just to clinically analyze the bodies) .But her sister had jsut died of AIDS! So where is the anguish, the emotion, the passion? Anyone that can produce this much work has passion, but there is a strangely absent quality, a sense that somehow her consciousness is somewhere else.

Now I am going to make a big leap and a big guess. When I saw the movie Precious, one of the key devices was that when she was being raped, she would escape into fantasy, wonderful living color celebrity status fantasy. She was absent from the world in those times.

I see the same absence in Kiki Smith, her women lie wounded, or stand introverted, her crows are dead, her imagery of Little Red Riding Hood morphing into a wolf/girl doesn't suggest she is empowered by this transformation. Lilith, another woman who has had a raw deal, is just Lilith, not all conquiering Lilith. So what about Kiki's absent emotions. Is this a result of early traumas? I am not going to go further with this and get more explicit,  but that was the message of the show for me. Going from Kiki Smith to William Kentridge, from the "feminist" introvert standing or lying passively, to the male activist declaring greed and capitalism wrong was quite a contrast. I still haven't digested it. I respect Kiki Smith for what she has done, but I wish she would stand up and declare herself. We have to penetrate the obfuscating indirectness ( which is strangely, deeply allied with sixties modernism, as became clear in the lecture).

But the show is really wonderful, dozens of images, all of them beautiful in themselves, that together give us a whole new perspective on Kiki Smith. The Seattle Weekly had a nice analysis of the experience of looking at the show, up, down, and eye level. Sharon Arnold did a wonderful analysis from a completely different perspective than mine.