Friday, April 30, 2010

Magic at MOMA

The Artist Is Present. Marina Abramovic at MOMA. My first take? Not that interesting, a lot of people waiting for her to make a move, any move, false or otherwise. And by her refusal to do so, we were all forced to wait. Crowd-at-a-hanging mentality, sheep mentality, no one moves unless the leader moves. The artist as bellwether. Being an impatient Aries myself, I was anxious to look for greener pastures in the Kentridge show. You wait here. I'll be back.

William Kentridge! Magic drawing! Magic theater! Magic music and magic lantern shows! The power of imagination and inventiveness. The three parts of The Magic Flute were so entrancing that I watched each one all the way through. In an entirely different but equally affecting way, Ubu and the Procession is a parade of South African folk, torn black silhouettes moving herky-jerky across the screen from left to right, accompanied a loop of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus," a ragged-edged version delivered by a woman's voice in more than a hum but without actual words, scat-style as ragged as the torn silhouettes themselves. Audio-visualize an allelujah chorus of the wounded on crutches, refugees carrying and carting their belongings, miners, prisoners, preachers and the lynched, ghosted and blackened. As I'm a Kentuckian getting ready for another round of nostalgia tomorrow afternoon (it's Derby Day in the Bluegrass), this tableau awakened in me that painful mix of wistfulness and sorrow that comes with the singing of "My Old Kentucky Home." But more to the point is Kentridge's power as a narrator and draftsman. I remembered too that magic moment at the University of Louisville when I was handed the keys to the kingdom of drawing and realized what worlds could come alive just by putting pencil to paper.

The Abramovic performance (I told you I'd be back) is in a way a political stance. By refusing to react, she dissuades us from reacting. Ostensibly, there is nothing to react to. Should we be horrified? mollified? lulled into non-action or provoked into retaliation? A sort of Schadenfreude ensues as one watches the person sitting across from the artist. What are that person's actions, thoughts and feelings? Around the perimeter, students are drawing the event, writing about it. I'm beginning to feel it's really quite extraordinary, the power of this performance. When one sitter rises to leave, Abramovic puts her fingertips to her eyes, adjusts her body, draws within, becomes human for a few seconds. As the next sitter takes her place, Abramovic visibly re-enters her body, the goddess inhabiting the oracle space, and engages this new supplicant through eye contact alone. Magic indeed.

For much more on Kentridge
and live video of Abramovic
MOMA's website is excellent.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Inside the Whitney

My walk through the 2010 Whitney Biennial began on the fourth floor and went downhill from there, though not quite so negatively as that may sound. In a show devoted to ways of experiencing space, there are also connections with human presence. One of the fascinations of re-viewing these works on the internet is that many of the pieces are more effective on my display than in actual fact, and that the most striking piece of all comes across as barely credible on the museum's website.

First off the elevator was a large hemp and jute tapestry by Piotr Uklanski (no image available). There is a recent time and tradition in which tapestry was bold in its imagery and reflected its roots in primitive traditions. Untitled (The Year We Made Contact) is such a tapestry and it comes across now as dated, monotonous and far too big for its wall. By contrast, Still, Untitled, Pae White's tapestry one floor down is modern in its execution but looks back even further in history to the 16th and 17th century tapestries woven at the Gobelins workshops in Paris. The same size as the tapestry a floor above, White's images of curling smoke activate the space rather than kill it. The fact that it is machine woven is so little evident that I at first took it for a painting, which is to say that the technique did not call attention to itself.

Some rooms/spaces at the Whitney are devoted to a single artist. Charles Ray's big flower paintings make a nice grouping, though each one could certainly inhabit a space of its own. Ania Soliman's NATURAL OBJECT RANT: The Pineapple, a frieze of collages and text that line the pink-painted walls of a small square room, describe the economic, politcal and ecological cost of the pineapple industry in Hawaii. The images were small enough to draw me in and spin me around the room. By the time I'd finished, I felt distinctly that I too had been sliced and canned, and was drawing personal parallels between the pineapple industry and the processing of viewers in blockbuster shows.

A site-specific installation by R.H. Quaytman that references an adjacent window by architect Marcel Breuer makes good sense visually, but on the whole this is a humdrum Biennial with much derivative work. Roland Flexner's 30 sumi ink drawings that have been mentioned by another writer as magical may have been so in the studio, but the presentation - overmatted, framed and gridded - snuffed the life right out of them.

Now almost a week later it is the breath in other pieces that stays with me: the heart-breaking photographs of Afghani women, by Stephanie Sinclair, Self Immolation in Afghanistan: A Cry for Help; the indifferent-to-human-pain smoke in White's tapestry; the hilarious video, Detroit, by Ari Marcopoulos of a couple of kids making noise rock in their bedroom. Standing in a small darkened room with this one is to know what it's like inside an adolescent boy's head: The Noise! The Color! The Lights! That's primitive, that's brash, and that for me made the show worthwhile.

Photo credit: No photos allowed of the Biennial art, but someone had left a closet door open, a stand-in for installations everywhere.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Some Answers, Some Questions

In Maine, where I spend most of the year, painting is still the gold standard. In New York, the ARTSEEN editors at The Brooklyn Rail write that followers of post-modern theory have created "a ghetto into which painting, drawing and sculpture, along with certain kinds of film and photography have been driven, the door locked and the key thrown away." Personally, I like a balance between content and form, and in thinking about why both are important, have come up with some answers:

Art is an object. Art has no physical form.
Art is presented in special places. Art is everywhere we look.
Art is made by talented people. Art is made by everyone.
Art exists in a vacuum. Art exists in the interaction between the object and the viewer.
Art is the interaction between participants.
There is no message without a sender.
There is no message without a receiver.
Art is always static. Art is always moving.

And then some questions:

Where does art start and where does it stop? What is the vantage point from which art can be seen, practiced and acted on? When is an artist not an artist? Questions of permanence/ephemerality and of commercial value are secondary to the consideration that art is a noun for which there is no verb. The verb is "to make." If I jump on a pedestal and proclaim myself an artist - that's art. If I put a pile of sofas in the middle of Second Avenue and sit there - yes, I am an artist. What makes the sardine packer different from the canner of s***? The difference lies in the ability of the artist (in this case Manzoni) to take a concept, that of putting something edible into a can, and twist the concept for his own purposes, whatever those may be. The art lies in the transfiguration of action into idea into objectification, the creation of the moebius strip that unifies the three.