Monday, January 29, 2007
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Armen Eloyan - Narcisse Tordoir
26.01.2007 - 24.02.2007
opening reception 25.01.2007 6-9 p.m
Eloyan and Tordoir with "Bad Dad" seem to be offering a debasing statement. "Bad Dad" hints at a centralist re-installment of the Father figure, but unlike the mocking reversal of Peaches' "Fatherfuckers," Tordoir's and Eloyan's experiment does not seem to worry about a more moderate evaluation of gender and prefers to stick to a play with more truist notions of the male complexion. Where the title of the show may suggest a certain joy to be found in the ironic renegotiation of a politically non correct identity and all its associations, then the actual layout of the show testifies of the contrary. "Bad Dad" is a harsh, pretty direct but complex installation and leaves very little room for unequivocal clichés.
Both the recent works of Armen Eloyan and Narcisse Tordoir deal with historical documents. For Bleeding Nose, Magic Boots, and Untitled (all 2006) Eloyan has studied end of 19th century eastern European woodcut prints and embroidery that represents fairy tales and peasant stories. The original images are the product of primitivist, spellbound belief structures. Much like in propaganda imagery there is an imminent violence in the visual disposition of power distribution, gender relations and community order. The representation of life close to nature can be as harrowing. Eloyan's impression is devoid of naturalist detail, but chooses to render more incestuous - "Self-oriented" - forms of violence. A Dutch proverb for people who live in the countryside and go to bed early says "to go to sleep with the chicken." It accurately describes the environments and state of mind Eloyan is describing. When people live close to one another, otherness, transgression and violation all take place in a fuzzy zone that escapes a categorical application of Law. The paintings in objectif_exhibitions show us the consequences and dangers of such an embedding proximity, abruptly aborting the nostalgia for a rural moment of awakening and its devout composure. Blood, not spilled massively, but shed painfully takes up an important role in this series of works. Careful study of the works reveals that their spatial design is organized by spiral forms and z-shapes. Technically Eloyan based his brushwork on futurist paintings from the first half of the 20th century. The new unity of form and content is a mind-opener. Far from blowing life forward on revolutionary winds towards a prosperous future, these gestures in a sinister way seem to be re-inflicting the derailments of corporal violations, nationalism and a call for order.
There is a detached relationship of father to child in the disposition of the relationship of ethnographer to the uneducated, brutal savage. There is equally a desire to become one with the more romantic notions of savageness when ethnography turns into its more perverse pendant ethnofilia, and politically when it turns into its nationalist ally. Tordoir directs our attention to the extremities of this dialectic of unification and segregation. He has based himself on old anthropological prints of cannibals. The sholars who originally made these depictions must have been engaged in the creation of a savage otherness that would surpass the limits of any healthy form of imagination. People are chewing on large chunks of meat and the fierce determination of their complexion leaves no room for understanding or interpretation. Animals often have human traits, but humans turn into beasts every fifty to hundred years. When compared to the scientific precision, scale, and to the array and knowhow of physical destruction in our age, the animalistic meal becomes something of an index. It points away from its own inexistence towards other, more destructive moments more close to us. There is something utterly revealing and alarming in the indexical, but blatant reference to the universal destructive aspirations of bureaucratic imperialism today. Tordoir has gradually layered these elements into a series of drawings and paintings that take further inpiration from Pasolini's 1975, brutally repulsive motion picture "Salo" that was made as a reminiscence of the horrors of Benito Mussolini. On top of the images of the film, Tordoir has added today's fetishes, taken from a series of advertisements for computers, cell phones and fashion shoots.
Both Eloyan and Tordoir offer us a vision of the moment when "the bell tolls" which could be the ominous sound of a mobile phone.
Text by Wim Peeters. (2007)
objectif_exhibitions coquilhatstraat 14 2000 antwerp
thu-sat 2-6 pm
t+32 496 504 206
BAD DAD party at capital (stadspark) on 25.01.2007 from 10.30 p.m
Saturday, January 20, 2007
In contemporary art, this is the decade of the fair, as the nineties were the decade of the biennial. Collectors, with piles of money, have displaced curators, with institutional clout, as arbiters of how new art becomes known and rated, and therefore of what it can mean: less and less, after qualifying as the platonic consumer good. The situation was vivid at the recent, fifth annual Art Basel Miami Beach—so named by its founder, Samuel Keller, the director of the long-established Art Basel, in Switzerland. It was crazy fun. Close to two hundred top and/or trendy galleries (the best, Keller said, of six hundred and fifty applicants), from thirty-two countries, had spaces in the Miami Beach Convention Center. About a dozen other, lower-wattage fairs dotted the city. The list of ancillary shows and events was tiring just to read. Then there were the parties. Pretty people of the world were in town with no intention of wasting their vitality on art appreciation. “Art fairs are the new disco,” the veteran art journalist and good liver Anthony Haden-Guest said. Sidewalk crowds paraded dreamy fashions. Fair-certified V.I.P.s had fine views of them from inside traffic-jammed, chauffeured cars. Haden-Guest noted that the sponsors of art events used to be companies hard up for respectability, such as Philip Morris; the classy U.B.S., augmented by BMW, Bulgari, and NetJets, backed Miami Basel (the fair’s vernacular moniker). There were even artists on hand, as awkwardly interested as cows at a creamery.
Mutual intoxications of art and money come and go. I’ve witnessed two previous booms and their respective busts: the Pop nineteen-sixties, which collapsed in the long recession of the seventies, and the neo-expressionist eighties, whose prosperity plummeted, anvil fashion, in 1989. In each instance, overnight sensations foundered and a generation of aspiring tyros was more or less extirpated. (They were out of style before the market revived.) But tough economic times nudge artists into ad-hoc communities and foster what-the-hell experimentation. The seventies gave rise to gritty conceptual maneuvers, supported by government and foundation grants, nonprofit institutions, and a few heroically, or masochistically, committed collectors. The nineties were dominated by festivalism: theatrical, often politically attitudin-izing installations that were made to order for a spreading circuit of international shows and contemporary museums and Kunsthallen. I disliked the nineties. I knew what all the righteously posturing art was for, but not whom it was for. It invoked a mythical audience, whose supposed assumptions were supposedly challenged. I missed the erotic clarity of commerce—I give you this, you give me that—and was glad when creative spunk started leeching back into unashamedly pleasurable forms. Then came this art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins. Drat.
Fairism (if you will) is inexorable, given today’s proliferation of galleries (hundreds in New York’s Chelsea alone). No one with anything else to do can more than sample the panoply. “Fairs are important for big galleries,” the gallerist Marian Goodman said to me. “For small galleries, they’re vital.” I asked many dealers how much of their annual income comes through fairs. Answers varied from ten per cent to “well over half,” spiking in the range of a third. Beyond that, nonparticipation may be suicidal, risking losses not only of revenue but of artists whose loyalty depends on how gamely they are promoted. The dealer Brooke Alexander said, “The art world is so event-driven these days that if you don’t take part in the major fairs you almost don’t exist in the public mind.” (“Major” includes the original Basel; Frieze, in London; and New York’s Armory show, with ARCO, in Madrid, and FIAC, in Paris, close behind.) Another goad to fairism is the accelerating encroachment of auction houses on the contemporary market, competing with galleries for choice works and pacesetting sales. Amy Cappellazzo, who is in charge of contemporary art at Christie’s, crowed in a recent interview, “We’re the big-box retailer putting the mom-and-pops out of business.” Fairs give the little stores conglomerate muscle.
The typical contemporary-art object, judging from Miami Basel, is well crafted, attractive, interesting enough, and portable. It may be figurative or abstract and in any conceivable medium: a pleasantly ungainly painting by Peter Doig, a tiny sculpture by Tom Friedman, a video stunt by Tony Oursler. Not only is there no leading style; there is no noticeable friction between one style and another. These impressions might fade if you focussed on any particular work, but fairs destroy focus. Thousands of works coexisted cozily in Miami, sharing a pluralism of the salable. Talent counts; ideas are immaterial. Exactly one work drew raves from art people who still crave audacity: the New York dealer Gavin Brown left his large space almost bare but for a crumpled cigarette pack (Camels, perhaps to evoke the Middle East), which, attached by a fishing line to an apparatus high overhead, slowly and hypnotically flew above or skittered along the floor. Conceived by the Swiss artist Urs Fischer, this squandering of prime showroom real estate on the trashed container of an addictive product was a smart insult to the occasion, though an awfully mild one. (The piece sold for a hundred and sixty thousand dollars.) A decade ago, much new art was eyebrow-deep in critical theory. Now it seems as carefree as a summertime school-boy, while far better dressed. I found relief from the convention center’s crushing elegance at the alternative fairs—with names like NADA, Pulse, and Aqua—where galleries featured the scrappily zestful ingenuity of kids who haven’t had time to forget why they became artists: for joy, revenge, and camaraderie. Drawing and language were common, and there were arresting sentiments. “My utopia hates your utopia,” from a busy picture by the New Yorker David Scher, at NADA, stuck in my mind.
To delay the stupor of overstimulation at Miami Basel, I set out to assemble an imaginary collection of one work I liked from each gallery. Then I realized that I could as easily afford the contents of the Louvre. Meanwhile, folks were parting with hundreds of thousands, or millions, of actual dollars for this or that Andy Warhol, Lucian Freud, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Bruce Nauman, or Cindy Sherman, not to mention the odd Picasso or de Kooning. It seemed that almost everyone was selling out of almost everything. “It’s incredible. No one questions price. They pay whatever is asked,” said a dealer friend who, with a discretion that used to be common in the art dodge, requested anonymity. Who are the collectors? Hedge-fund wizards are routinely mentioned. So are cohorts of Europeans, Russians, Asians, and Latin Americans. The startling costliness of recent art from China, much of it pretty bad, proves that the market is international as never before. People who were eager to deny the obvious—that the runup in art prices is a bubble headed for a spectacular correction—all cited this factor to me. I countered with a little fantasy: One day, perhaps soon, someone in a convivial group of money guys at a bar will say, “I just got back from [name of art fair]. It was fantastic!” Another will drawl, “You still into that?” In the ensuing embarrassed silence, the bubble won’t burst; it will vanish.Fashion victims and pure speculators aside—their number will be immediately evident when the market stumbles—there are serious collectors whose absorption in art transcends their holdings and justifies personal wealth as a force in culture, one that is quicker and sharper than the committee labors of institutions. The best show in Miami was “Red Eye,” a brilliantly curated roundup of recent art—paintings, sculpture, installations, and video—from Los Angeles, at the Rubell Family Collection. (Donald and Mera Rubell are former New Yorkers and hoteliers—Don is the brother of the late Steve Rubell—who have collected art avidly since the eighties.) The show, which will be up through the spring, posits a blooming tradition of gorgeous and impolite styles keyed to psychosocial provocations in works by Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Charles Ray, Barbara Kruger, Raymond Pettibon, and Jim Shaw. I hadn’t heard of nearly half the artists (nor had some Southern Californians I consulted). Most of them seemed distinctive and strong, building a case whose relative cogency remains to be decided but which gives traction to aesthetic discernment and critical intelligence. Money, like virtue, is as it does.
Bears against bombs
They passed a law to ban him, but they can't keep Brian Haw out of the Tate: his five-year protest against Tony Blair has been lovingly restaged by the artist Mark Wallinger. Is this art, asks Adrian Searle
Slideshow: the installation in pictures
Tuesday January 16, 2007
Artist Mark Wallinger beside his installation State Britain. Photograph: Cathal McNaughton/PA
The barricades came down yesterday morning, when the temporary walls obscuring Mark Wallinger's State Britain were finally removed. Running the length of the central spine of Tate Britain is a near-perfect, life-sized replica of the one-man camp that peace campaigner Brian Haw occupied on Parliament Square between June 2001, when he first began his protest against the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, and the night in May 2006 when the police removed almost the entirety of Haw's belongings.
In between, the twin towers fell, Afghanistan was invaded, and sanctions against Iraq turned into occupation and civil war. London and Madrid were bombed, and the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act was passed, forbidding any unauthorised protests within a kilometre of Parliament Square. It was said that terrorists might use protests such as Haw's as a cover for their activities - though it appeared to have been designed principally to move Haw on.
Over the years, Haw's public protest opposite the Houses of Parliament grew to become a rambling, gap-toothed, 40-metre-long wall of banners, placards, rickety, knocked-together information boards, handmade signs and satirical slogans. Banksy donated a big painting of soldiers. Sun-bleached rainbow peace flags flapped overhead. The placards declaimed "You Lie Kids Die BLIAR" and "Christ Is Risen Indeed!". Road-spattered appeals to motorists to "Beep For Brian" stood beside an accumulation of material that could only be read or understood close-up. Photocopied warzone reports, commemorative crosses, entreaties and signs that have crept in from other people's protests - "Pensioners want a slice of the cake, not crumbs" - compete, and an estate agent's board has even found its way amongst the piles of stuff on the far side of Haw's placards, the accumulation of a near-five-year tenure.
Lovingly copied and recreated, this has all made its way into Wallinger's work. All that is missing is the indomitable Haw himself, with his megaphone and his badge-encrusted floppy hat. He is still camped on the grass opposite parliament, but now occupying only a fraction of the space he once had. A few days before Haw's stuff was all taken away, Wallinger took hundreds of photographs of the entire, splendidly ramshackle, ranting, unmissable eyesore on which he based his reconstruction. Here is an impromptu, cobbled-together monument to a "fallen comrade", constructed from a plastic traffic cone, several lengths of taped-together garden cane and a homemade flag. There, a group of dolls in Victorian dresses is lying beside a plastic baby with missing arms and legs, bloodied with paint. Mutilated soft toys, placard-waving and card-carrying teddy bears - bears against bombs, bears saying "too much to bear" - and soft toys piled in a paper coffin.
It all has a cumulative, creepily sentimental horror. It also, weirdly, reminds one of all sorts of artwork one has seen before: the installations of Mike Kelley; the placards, swathes of photocopied material and detritus of Thomas Hirschhorn. With its recreation and representation of an individual's lair, and the stuff they surround themselves with - Haw's Tesco biscuits are here, a sleeping bag sandwiched between layers of tarpaulin, his rolling tobacco and his flagons of drinking water, and what looks like pee - it is not unlike the fictional habitats of Mike Nelson's work, or even of some of Beuys's placards and survival packs.
State Britain could be interpreted as a continuation of Haw's protest by other means, in such a place and in such a way as to mock a law designed to curtail our freedom to protest. The whole thing is a trompe l'oeil fabrication, a still life, a 2007 history painting - the modern equivalent of Géricault's Raft of the Medusa, Goya's Third of May and Manet's Execution of the Emperor Maximillian, all of which referred in contentious ways to world events. Taken as a whole, it is the sort of thing one might find documented in Jeremy Deller's Folk Archive, his collection of the amateur and the inadvertent.
For State Britain, Wallinger has also taped a line on the floor, indicating an arc of the kilometre cordon as it passes through the gallery. It first appears under a display of wrapping paper in the Tate Britain shop, crossing the floor and disappearing under a display of art-technique manuals. It crosses a room currently dominated by a bust of TE Lawrence, hitting the wall beneath Jacob Kramer's Jews at Prayer; it passes Jacob Epstein's alabaster Jacob and the Angel, and speeds beyond Nicholas Hilliard's portrait of Elizabeth I. It slides past a vitrine displaying the first English translation of the Qur'an, published in 1649, just four months after the beheading of Charles I. Finally, the line hits the wall under George Stubbs's 1785 painting of Reapers, his immaculately turned-out peasants decorously working the farm. The line may be an arbitrary slice through the building, but it adds to the effect, and creates its own resonances and echoes. The line joins as much as it divides, and places Wallinger's work in a conversation with the rest of Tate Britain.
Brian Haw is a driven individual, whose entire life is given over to his kerbside protest. To ask what drives him, apart from his moral and political convictions, is to diminish the exemplary nature of his protest, whatever one might think of the manner of his dissent. Yet he is not unlike the figures Wallinger has focused on before. Throughout his career, Wallinger has returned again and again to the theme of Englishness as a trope for identity, and to the events, myths, faiths and individuals that make up a sense of national belonging. In Passport Control, 1988, Wallinger graffitied over his own portrait, turning his photo into various ethnic stereotypes (orthodox Jew, Arab, Chinese). In his 2000 film Threshold to the Kingdom, he showed passengers emerging through passport control at London City Airport, in slo-mo and to the strains of Allegri's setting of the 51st Psalm. We see their ecstatic expressions and relief, as though they had indeed passed a spiritual, as much as a bureaucratic, test. The film is deeply sad, a miserable miracle.
Everyone from the Women's Institute to the far right has claimed William Blake's Jerusalem for themselves, but in his own work Wallinger reminds us of Blake's radicalism; he has used the word Jerusalem as if it were revolutionary graffiti, spraying it over his own rendering of a painting by George Stubbs.
Wallinger once recorded a performance of the comedian Tommy Cooper and played it backwards, reflected in a mirror, a sort of loving homage to Cooper's anarchic stage confusion. Recreating Haw's protest is itself a kind of reversal, as well as a duplication. By bringing the protest inside an institution, Wallinger gives us a chance almost to freeze it, presenting it as a simulacrum of itself.
He is very good at teasing out meanings and metaphors. In a number of paintings and videos, he has analysed the culture of horse breeding and racing - in which he saw the dynamics of race, sex and class at work. In 1994, he bought a real live racehorse, calling it A Real Work of Art and registering his own racing colours.
Looking at State Britain, I am reminded of numerous earlier works by the artist. Haw's protest stems from his evangelical faith. In several works, including 1999's Ecce Homo, Wallinger has examined what kind of faith an artwork might now exemplify or entail. Ecce Homo placed a cast of an anonymous young man dressed as Christ on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in 1999. Wallinger's Christ was not just an everyman, he was a stand-in. What, I asked a few months ago on these pages, would be the reaction to the placing of such an overt Christian symbol there today? It might well be taken as a provocation. Certainly, it is within the sacred kilometre.
Is State Britain a protest, a readymade, a simulation or an appropriation? It is all these things - an installation, an institutional critique, an example of relational aesthetics. It touches all bases, without becoming tedious or hectoring. The title may be a poor pun, but the work itself is clever and barbed. It makes us think of the mores of recent installation art, about the "public" nature of a space such as Tate Britain's Duveen Galleries and about the Britishness of the gallery itself - what is and is not exhibited here? State Britain raises more questions than it answers, but it is not glib. While Haw's placards announce the campaigner's beliefs, Wallinger takes a step back from the slogans themselves. Walking among the banners, you realise you look at them differently here.
Wallinger is asking us to view his recreation of Haw's stuff as art (even if some of it, like Banksy's image, already is art of a sort); he is not asking us to see Haw himself as an artist. Instead, he wants us to think more in terms of place and context - another of modern art's modes, the site-specific. In an accompanying exhibition publication, Wallinger presents a montage of writings - taken from George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson, the journalist Henry Porter and Tony Blair himself ("When I pass protesters every day at Downing Street, and believe me, you name it, they protest against it, I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That's called freedom").
Since the 1960s, many artists, from Hans Haacke to Daniel Buren, Cildo Meireles to Allan Sekula, have made work which offers a critique of the institution that houses it, and the structures, financial and ideological, that support it. However critical such art may itself be, it also serves to highlight the institution's liberalism, by allowing it to be there in the first place. Such inclusiveness, as Susan Sontag argued, defuses the very criticism being offered. What State Britain offers is a sort of portrait of British institutions at a time of war, of the lip service government pays to dissent, on the attacks being made on our freedoms in the name of security, on the impotence of protest and of art itself as a form of protest. How rich this work is, and how saddening our state.
Trouble in paradise
Epic slaughters, the fate of the planet, the closeness of calamity - Anselm Kiefer's desolate landscapes address the most crucial issues of our times. Contemporary art doesn't get much better than this, argues Simon Schama
Saturday January 20, 2007
"Not since Guernica have pictures demanded so urgently that we reflect and recollect." Kiefer's Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant iustum (2006). Click here for more images from the exhibition.
He must be the most un-hip artist ever shown by White Cube, the very Sanhedrin of cool; barely a contemporary painter-sculptor at all, if the range framing the contemporary goes from coyly self-effacing minimalism to gaudy showboating. What's more, Kiefer does earthspace, not cyberspace. No Luddite, he none the less has let it be known that what he dislikes most about computers is the indiscriminate quality of their memory, a universe of data held simultaneously, accessible at the click of a mouse, permanently available and impervious to either natural attrition or poetic distortion. Since nothing may be digitally forgotten, nothing may be truly recalled.
Much of Kiefer's art represents a resistance to this inhuman virtualisation of memory; its lazy democracy of significance, its translation into weightless impressions. The opposing pole from that alt/delete disposability is to make history obstinately material, laid down in dense, sedimentary deposits that demand patient, rugged excavation. Kiefer's work burrows away at time, and what it exposes also makes visible the painful toil of the dig, skinned knuckles, barked shins and all.
For a German born amid the slaughterhouses of 1945, booting up could never be glibly electronic. Kiefer became famous in the 1970s and 80s for his frontal engagements with the totems of German history: blood- spattered trails befouling the deep Teutonic woods (his name means fir tree) from which the national culture had been proverbially rough-hewn; torch-lit timbered pantheons within which heroes and anti-heroes lay provisionally interred.
By the lights of the transatlantic avant garde, Kiefer did absolutely everything wrong. The choices were clear. Art either had to be hard-edged in its irreducibly angular minimalism, like Donald Judd's stacked boxes, which drew their ominous power from being nothing other than what they were; or else it had to be ecstatically collapsed into the raw and rowdy universe of signs: op'n'pop, flags and soup tins, one long cackle at art's valetudinarian pretence to hold the moral high ground. To grab our attention amid the modern clamour, art needed to drop the churchiness (especially abstract churchiness), and get out from under all those centuries of pompous sententiousness and obscure story- telling. All painting could be was flat-out play (with the emphasis on flat).
Wrestling with his Teutonic demons - and keeping close company with the likes of Grünewald, Altdorfer and Caspar David Friedrich - Kiefer could scarcely comprehend, much less identify with, the case for painterly amnesia, nor with the posturing for lightness and shallowness (he has never been much of a tease). Stubbornly, his art was always hewed to spatial depth and moral weight, so his landscapes take anti-flatness about as far as it can possibly go, opening immense vistas behind the picture, carved furrows on the surface stretching away to remote distance.
He does not do this innocently, of course. The practice of perspective, invented to imagine a bucolic world where pastoral fancies were enacted in a neverland of happy radiance, is recycled in Kiefer's landscapes to exterminate the fantasy. Kiefer's skies are often black, streaked with the phosphoric licks of a descending firestorm, and what vanishes at the vanishing point are the balmy consolations of rusticity. Bye-bye Hay Wain, hello the Somme.
Kiefer also needs immensity in order to frame the ancestral epics of life and death which for him remain art's proper quarry, and which sometimes extend beyond that far horizon into the infinite metaphysical space of the beckoning cosmos, where they interrupt the emptiness with mapped constellations. Events - scriptural, mythic, poetic, historic - are transfigured into written words on the painting, because, for Kiefer, words sanctify the events and figures to which they refer, rather than demystify them.
His seriousness about words, as weighty as the lead from which he forges his books, also puts him at odds with the ironic mode of quotation that has long defined modern art. Instead of mimicking the industrially reproduced comic signage of the mass market, Kiefer marks his pictures with the spidery inscriptions of his own hand, the moving finger quoting, inter alia: Isaiah, Paul Celan, Aeschylus. Mirabile dictu. Wordiness for Kiefer is painterliness. The library and the gallery, the book and the frame inseparable, even interchangeable, in his monumental archive of human memory. Not since Picasso's Guernica have pictures demanded so urgently that we studiously reflect and recollect in their presence.
Which may make Kiefer's new work sound like homework (to be severely marked by the forbidding Herr Professor Uber-Bombast). Nah, thanks all the same, you're thinking, would rather do a day with Damien and Trace. But advance preparation in the Iliad, the Kabbalah, not to mention higher scriptural exegesis, is really not the price of admission. For visual drama that (I guarantee) will haunt your dreams, there's no one alive to beat Anselm Kiefer. This is because, along with being a philosopher-poet, he also happens to be a craftsman of phenomenal power and versatility.
For some time, he has been experimenting with work that crosses the boundaries separating not just art and literature but painting and sculpture. Sometimes (as in the breathtaking Merkaba), a gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) brings together free-standing sculptural elements in stone or lead in continuum with a vertical painted surface, the one acting as a terrestrial transport to the celestial apparition of the other. Some of the paintings on display at White Cube sustain this working method by setting a clump of thorn bushes before an ashy grey winterscape that speaks (much less ponderously than this makes it sound) of chill death and resurrection. But other paintings - especially in the triptych of confounding masterpieces that, alas, will be travelling to the Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney - have incorporated into the grittily loaded texture of the canvas itself a seething bed of organic (and occasionally inorganic) matter, so that the surface becomes akin to a yeasty humus; alive with golden flecks of straw and hay, twigs, whole branches which poke through the impasto. Another denial of the modernist dogma that authentic paint should never dare to present as anything other than itself.
Kiefer's paint is forthrightly the crusty medium of generation - the baked clay that develops the cracks and fissures from which vegetable life burgeons forth. Even when the paint is, in fact, just that, it is made to clot and coagulate, puddle and pond, or rise in frozen crests as if it were the volcanic material of primordial genesis.
Kiefer's painting, then, is not a representation of some feature of creation so much as a re-enactment of it. And if this sounds a mite up itself, well indeed it is, and none the worse for it. Even if you care not a toss for the esoterica, the richness of classical allusion (such as the catastrophic landscape of the fall of Troy, scarred with explosions of carbon and cobalt, and transmitted via a telephonic connection from Greek peak to peak in mimicry of Agamemnon's beacon signals to faithless Clytemnestra), you can still happily envelop yourself in the blanket of colour and line that fill every centimetre of Kiefer's pictures.
Dazzling, nostalgically psychedelic shots of colour. Beneath the verse from Isaiah that speaks of heavenly mercy, "Rorate coeli desuper et nubes pluant" (Drop down ye dew and let the clouds rain upon the just), Kiefer has planted a field of blazing, flamingo-tinted poppies. But the mercy is not unqualified; the flowers are marshalled along perspectival lines all the way to a horizon that is built from raised skeins of greenish-black paint, the corrupted hues of chemical pollution. (Evidently we're not in Monet's picnic country of Les Coquelicots.) Kiefer's poppies with their black faces can be read interchangeably as columns of warriors or the floral memorials of their fiery entombment. And the petals of the middle distance suggest the flares of combat as much as a field of flowers.
The most startlingly florid of the pictures travels from a paradise garden at its base, with the caked terracotta blossoming in arabesques of brilliant violet, pink and vermilion splashes that coil through the more furrowed landscape. Above it are more verses from Isaiah that open the Palm Sunday liturgy: "Aperiat terra et germinat Salvatorem" (Let the earth open and bring forth a Saviour). But Kiefer being Kiefer, there needs be trouble in paradise, so that along the serpentine line of beauty lurks the form of a skeletal snake, its vertebra constructed from a string of terracotta beads suspended on spinal wire poking from the picture surface. Good and evil, vitality and mortality, thus literally hang sinuously in the balance, it being deliberately unclear whether the serpent is safely fossilised within the sprouting clay, or has shed its casing the better to writhe into freshly devilish incarnation.
This dialogue between martyrdom and resurrection continues into the deeply stirring Palm Sunday installation: 18 glazed cabinets that house vertically mounted branches of vegetation (mangroves, sunflower pods and dracenae as well as palms themselves). Stacked atop each other, the cabinets seem not so much vitrines from some botanical museum as the opened pages of a herbiary, Kiefer the tree-man knowingly playing with the conceit of a super-folio, interleaved with sacred revelations. The branches are coated with a thin skin of plaster or white paint so that, at first sight, they seem bleached of life, sapless and forlornly skeletal. But the newly (if tentatively) optimistic Kiefer wants us to register Palm Sunday as a true triumph; the entry to Jerusalem inaugurating the events that lead not just to the Passion but to the Resurrection. Kiefer also knows that, in both pagan and early Christian iconography, the palm with its sword-like branches was known as an immortal tree, which never actually perished but constantly regenerated, a new sheath of fronds budding from the site of a fallen limb. The very earliest representations of the cross in the Coptic church thus took the form of the living palm. Kiefer has also contrived to display another palm as if it were the feathers of some avian or even angelic wing; a doubly miraculous apparition which, as outsize quill, writes its own revelatory gospel behind the veiling glass.
Like the dirty fields of death sewn with floral brilliance, Kiefer's phantom tree limbs enact a parable of the intertwined fate of nature and humanity. For the erect branches lie or stand against flesh-coloured beds of sand, that in their gracefully voluptuous swirls are unmistakeably feminine and invitingly sexual. In one of the most beautiful of the cases, Hosianna, the vegetable matter is arranged as a luxuriant pubic tangle; the prima mater from which life itself issues. Kiefer has managed somehow (perhaps by treating the case as a kind of bath) to run streams of graphite across the sand and then wash them out to form delicate rills that suggest the ferns and lichens of the first green life to appear on the living planet. Gustave Courbet's lavishly devotional hymn to the pudenda, The Origin of the World, is by contrast all frisky slickness. Instead of the erotic quiver, Kiefer gives us a heart-stopping moment, as we suddenly read those marks as simultaneously biological and cosmological, micro and macro; a vision of deltaic capillaries, the pulsing veins and branches of an estuary as seen from an orbiting camera, or up close, the fronds waving gently through a transparent wash of nourishing water.
This is as good, I think, as art ever gets: mystery and matter delivered in a rush of poetic illumination. That Kiefer's work happens to engage with almost everything that weighs upon us in our tortured age - the fate of the earth, the closeness of calamity, the desperate possibility of regeneration amid the charred and blasted ruins - and that it does so without the hobnailed tread of pedestrian polemics, is just one of the many marvels for which we have to thank, yet again, this most indefatigable of modern magi.
· Anselm Kiefer: Aperiatur Terra is at White Cube, London SW1, from January 26 to March 17. Details: 020-7930 5373
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
a free spirit
As a homage to the artist, who was born 125 years ago, the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium presents in an extensive exhibition the original and very personal work of Léon Spilliaert (Ostend 1881 - Brussels 1946). It is suitable to make the point about the diversity of style, content and spirituality of those works, which, although influenced by the spirit of the 'fin de siècle', will develop far beyond Symbolism. His original interpretation immediately stands out in the dark wash drawings of his first years, when he painted sharp and acute compositions showing a sound analysis and a deep psychology. While taking a bright look at his surrounding world, he indulged in an intense retrospection from which he extracted visionary self-portraits. Spilliaert has acquaintances with the artistic movement of his time, confronting himself to the contemporary painters as well as writers. He is the precursor of a geometrical abstraction, a constructed and colourful Expressionism, a Surrealism mixed up with images and at the same time he redefines a vision of the space inspired by Japanese engravings.
ROBERT FLECK: North-eastern Light
Adam Adach's painting reached maturity during those past few years. The space became extensive, including a dimension - urban or urbanistic - which expresses a calm, steady and unlimited pictorial place. Devoid of traditional effect of monumentality, his canvases acquire an intrinsic dimension and a surprising inner magnitude. The palette of colors and their light are even more amazing. It is a unique use of light which marks the artist out in the concert of the present-day generation painters in which this medium occupies again a considerable place on the international scene. The light of Adam Adach's painting is not similar to anything known. It often comes from a preparation of backgrounds like a sort of "polish". Figures, objects and semi-urban views are unfurling on this surface so to define a dimensional axis and a figural space. But things are less obvious than such description could suggest. The backgrounds with their complex tonalities are not opposite in a mechanical way to colors of foreground figures. Backgrounds and figures answer each other, dialogue and so start to float all in all. Fragments of colors included in the background will serve to represent figures and to draw the space. Thus a tremendous delicacy and constant comings and goings between the different elements are drawing up, bringing a peculiar pleasure to painting. Such exchanges and tonality links are imaginable in this medium only, and Adam Adach conceives it with admirable mastery and pictorial culture. But it is not a matter of virtuosity. This peculiar combination produces an intense luminosity which is opaque also. This luminosity corresponds to the fact that the pictorial space seems unlimited and closed up at the same time and cannot escape from the implacable law of opaque backgrounds both clear and impenetrable (like a foggy day under a sky which no ray will be able to go through - like winter days in Baltic countries). The contradictory impression of pictorial joy with a half-shade world defines Adam Adach's paintings. These are much marked by content than simplicity of forms and subjects suggests at first sight.
The second intense moment of this painting is constituted by the link with photography, more precisely with the function of the mechanical eye of the camera. The composition and above all the picture are determined each time by a photo or a specifically photographic look. For Adam Adach it is not a question of painting photography, of combining the painting to the glamorous picture or to the current climate catching which photography represents better than any other medium. The real relationship is in fact that photographic picture frees painting from the necessity of making a composition up with introducing there a representation of the outer world. This entails the very concept of painting beyond pictorial self-thought. Thus the connection with the media is very deep although discreet. It opens up an object and a figuration already made; thanks to these, the figurative painting can become as free and precise as abstract and structural painting, without suffering its interior limits. Thanks to this approach, Adam Adach is standing at the centre of primordial works of his generation. What distinguishes him in this context is the fineness of his process entirely directed towards pictorial values (and not intended to put under any pretext of fashion and people magazines imagery into the painting sphere like many present painters in vogue do). Pre-established photographic picture frees here the work on light and on colors. Adam Adach's post-photographic process never begins an end in itself nor technical feat, nor a speculation seeking photographic seduction in painting. In the contrary, it is a question of freeing the light and colors connection and trying out the different constituents of painting with more freedom. Adam Adach's recent works take over from the most elaborated abstract works of our time - we could think among others about Bernard Frize - going against the paradigm of structural painting with nonchalance. All-made composition opened up by photographic objective deletes for the painter the necessity of thinking to "look picture". So he can entirely deal with elements which define his world: the light (intense and opaque) and colors (faded but deep which surround the objects).
A third constituent aspect of Adam Adach's painting is the choice of subjects which are far to be neutral. Without telling any story, figurative contents have a precise role in his paintings: it describes a highly personal world marked by indelible experiences. Some of his paintings show anonymous urban zones, half abandoned, where life is continuing in spite of politic and economic changes that came up those last fifteen years. The exaggerated distance between the buildings reminds us of certain experiences of socialist countries of Soviet hemisphere. Those paintings are amongst the most complex and the most singular of Adam Adach's works. It constitutes an introduction towards a half melancholy and half disillusioned world which is the one of post-communist countries in the 21st century. A certain number of other motives take part in that description of this world. We see mines, scattered villages, hidden houses behind great Baltic forest trees, an underwater and scenes with mythical connotation like this rescue by plane on the ice field, or those minuscule figures in snowy expanses. Here again, Adam Adach's painting is never literary or nostalgic insofar that the motif remains serving a register of lights and colors which is used as a framework and a structure for a closed world in spite of its spaces. Those "Nordic" paintings matter amongst the most originals and convincing ones of the new generation of artists. Each one is constructed and thought in a precise and individual way. It is always a question of installing a formal device which allows liberating light and colors towards original tints using the grid formed by photographic picture. Those paintings as a whole compose a personal account which is distant and free from the post communist condition in north-eastern countries of Europe.
The same touch of melancholia is also found in "Occidental" motives paintings. The park subject like an enclave of metropolitan life is often kept. It is treated with more saturated colors, nevertheless subjected to the same light system coming from the background of the canvas; subjects are always chosen to enable the painter to realize large flat tints, reaching a three-dimensional look and introducing the strange zones in an innocuous world, seemingly well-known by Occidental citizens. The motives of park, of mountainous landscape or weather station thus outline ways to describe an empty space without communication in which human figures suffer a certain form of loneliness. Those paintings avoid any spectacular trick. The painter limits himself to the pure "urban still life" without movement and story. He avoids any expressionist posture and realizes really expressive paintings yet. In the intense and opaque light of his paintings, the world is closed on itself, without issue, but full of omnipresent poetry in the exquisite colors in a foggy day.
Sunday, January 07, 2007
The Internet platform »Zone*Interdite« by the artists Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud
»Sensational discovery: Swiss Internet artists reveal US army secret«: that’s how the programme »Kulturplatz« on Swiss television announced the art project »Zone*Interdite« by Christoph Wachter and Mathias Jud on 29th March this year. Since early 2000 the two Swiss citizens have been collecting data on military exclusion zones and presenting a compilation of the data on the website www.zone-interdite.org. The platform is linked up with a Google search function, meaning that information available via Google can be called up for the now circa 2.000 entries with just one mouse-click – a function that is as low-key as it is stunning, for it offers visitors to the site effortless direct access to a plethora of information and images about the individual zones, although the military obligation to kept restricted data confidential dictates that the general public should be kept in the dark as much as possible and certainly should not be told the truth via images.
Translation: Helen Ferguson