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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Eli Lotar (1905-1969) at the Jeu de Paume

The first photographers of modern life did not only have an entire realm of subjects and spaces  at their fingertips waiting to be captured on film for the first time . In more ways than one their angles of vision created an entire new language in order to grasp, understand and reflect the world in a new medium. When this language is channelled with enduring sincerity and intensity, its message seems ageless. In a period of crisp smartphone snapshots capturing the energy of places and people, Eli Lotar’s analog black and white photographs from the 20s through to the 60s keep the same timeless power.

“Eli Lotar” might not be a household name in terms of modern photography on the same level as Man Ray or Henri Cartier-Bresson. However, the Romanian photographer’s importance and vision as one of the first photographers of the Parisian avant-garde cannot be doubted. His first retrospective in the 90s at the Centre Pompidou, two decades after his death, started a new reappraisal of his legacy. While the level of knowledge and expertise is apparent throughout the display, it operates extraordinary restraint and clarity, managing to operate an overview of Lotar’s work which is complex yet accessible through a hundred photographs from the Centre Pompidou’s archives as well as private and public collections worldwide. The co-curator of the exhibition, Damarice Amao, completed her thesis on Eli Lotar at université Paris-Sorbonne (Paris IV), adding particular strength to the narrative of the exhibition in which different projects and pathways undertaken by the photographer intertwine without ever tripping us up as readers or visitors.

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Eli Lotar, Untitled, c. 1930-40, donation by M.Jean-Pierre Marchand 2009, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

In a setting of greys and whites with space for the black and white works to breathe and for the visitor to wander, we encounter Lotar’s modernity for the first time through his photographic reports for different magazines since the 1920s. As a student of the photographer Germaine Krull, Lotar shares her avant-garde vision: one in which through the photographic lens, the photographer transforms the city into a living, active system of shapes and people.  The “New Vision” titling one of his photographic reportages is one in which the viewer redefines the world through his viewpoint. Nothing could be clearer through the creative angles and compositions Lotar creates, adding to written narratives and creating his own silent stories. This vision is steeped in everyday social life and the streets; despite a few  The most notorious series of magazine photographs is a report on the slaughterhouses of La Villette. More than any other imagery, it captures the eery in-between gaps between the realistic and the fantastical buried in the mundane. A picture of a young man staring down at a pile of entrails rubs shoulders with a series of cows’ legs lines against a wall. Surrealism and a certain strand of the supernatural is shown as a particular viewpoint, not only on a street corner but in relation to the world.

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Eli Lotar, Quinze-Vingt Hospital, 1928, purchased through the patronage of Yves Rocher, 2011. Ancient collection Christian Bouqueret, collection Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
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Eli Lotar, At the Slaughterhouses of la Villette, 1929, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, (c) Eli Lotar

It is rare to see an exhibition which manages to strike such a good balance between its contents and its design, making the discovery of Eli Lotar’s complex and consequent life work readily accessible to the visitor by breaking down different parts of his life and career expertly. There are many inconveniences that slightly pollute an exhibition’s enjoyment which, here, are solved with simplicity. The simple case of getting rid of archival casings to present facsimiles of magazine cuttings on the wall is perfectly adapted to the exhibition. Purists might not enjoy the fact that the original documents are not on display, but the clutter of documentation in cases which you crowd around and lean over awkwardly is avoided here, to go to the essential. In this context you actually have time to read the cuttings and understand the context in which Eli Lotar’s photojournalism operated. Similarly, the secion of the exhibition related to Eli Lotar’s documentary work is treated with skill, allowing for a cinema space in the midst of the display rather than a separate room, managing to srike a balance between the darkened cinema space with benches and time to reflect and the meanderings of the visitor.

The large screen displays his documentary on Aubervilliers in collaboration with Jacques Prévert in the 1940s; the shots and narrative manage to mingle lyricism with realism, popular songs about the children of Aubervilliers punctuating a scene in which they play and barthe alongside dead cats in the river and the ruins of working-class homes. On the side, a bench and headphones allow for a more intimate experience of Tierra sin pan, the documentary of the Hurdes region in Spain by Luis Buñuel in collaboration with the photographer. The shots were in black and white, but remembering them makes me feel as though they fully captured the sun-drenched colours and lights of the region. The extreme poverty of the people portrayed is emphatic and prompts for revolution rather than voyerism, as their stories mingle with legends and customs lost between pagan rituals and Christian values.

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Eli Lotar, Las Hurdes, c. 1935, donation of Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar

The thematic choice of the exhibition as allows for a clear overview not only of Lotar’s versatility but also the way in which connections unfurl beween his different projects. These subjects and themes loosely flowing into each other show a problematic at the heart of Lotar’s work floating between documentary and poetry, the objective and the subjecive in order to eventually choose or compromise on neither. From surrealist photomontages, we then encounter his set collaborations with absurdist and satrical playwrights such as Alfred Jarry. A photojournalistic voyage to Greece shows his attention divided between the portrayal of the Greek landscape and its inhabitants and the representation of Cycladic statues. At the very end of the exhibition, we then encounter a particular sculpture staring back at us. Few exhibitions escaping traditional chronology would have chosen to end rather than begin with a spectacular bust of Eli Lotar by Giacometti, yet here it was by the exit, in a silent conversation with a strange self-portrait: a photograph of the bust by Lotar himself, somehow infusing it with his own presence and viewpoint. Lotar was Giacometti’s last male model, and in return Lotar would confer a particular vision upon the sculptor’s work, made visible in the exhibition through contact sheets exploring his workshop. The relation between the sculpture and the photograph taken of it merges with that of the sculptor and his model. The writer Giorgo Soavi described the complete immobility of Lotar, captured in sculpture:

“[Giacometti’s] gaze shone with a strange glimmer, his body vibrating from head to toe, only able to follow the impulses guiding his hands, his arms, his legs: he was in ecsasy. Observing closely the two faces, I understood the secret allowing Lotar not to breathe: Eli was the perfect model for this sculpture because Eli was dead. He did not breathe, he did not think, remained concentrated till the very end. An electric current linked the artist to the model, uniting them in true complicity. They played together, without a ball, or a racquet, or a net.”

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Eli Lotar, Giacometti, bust of Lotar, 1965, donation by Anne-Marie and Jean-Pierre Marchand 1993, Centre Pompidou Collection, MNAM-CCI (c) Eli Lotar
In many ways it takes this outsider’s insight on Eli Lotar himself to start to understand who he is as a person raher than a photographer. The particular aura around the bust itself is elusive, his gaze vulnerable yet mysterious. Like Lotar’s own work it promises the opportunity to look back again with a new insight and interpretation every time. The “New Vision” lives on.

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Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly

This is a fair warning and confession: I am not the bravest person as far as the “horror” genre or at the very least the uncanny is concerned. The latest embarrassing example dates from just this Halloween when I finally decided that one of the oldest horror films of all time, Nosferatu by Fritz Lang, could hardly faze me as much as, say, the trailer for The Woman in Black. I subsequently slept fitfully without being able to get the 1920s vampiric visuals out of my mind.

All the same, despite my much-mocked inability to sit through The Exorcist, I am convinced that the exhibition Persona at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris has been one of the most disturbing exhibition experiences of the year, with a creeping sense of unease which could be felt within visitors all around. The fact that the range of the unsettling varied from a computer programme to a ouija board as well as a 19th century wax anatomic model followed by a robotic gesticulating statue of a Buddha also makes it one of the best interdisciplinary exhibitions I have seen this year. Its blend of anthropological artifacts, historic and contemporary art, popular culture and historical documents make it a stunning and bizarre exploration into what makes us animate entities and most important, how this status can encompass a variety of other objects, such as machines, objects of devotion and artworks.

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The exhibition requires an attentive ear and at the very least an open-minded spirit, since from the onset it pulls us into strange new territories about personhood and presence, starting with hallucinations and invisibility, macrocosms and microcosms. What does it mean to exist? Can people exist while being minuscule or invisible? The selection becomes slightly odd at times, with for instance the juxtaposition of a video of a “flea circus” next to a NASA video of infinite space. However, the exhibition never forgets its roots at the centre of the permanent display of the Quai Branly, letting the artifacts from African, Asian, Latin American and Oceanian countries and cultures speak most eloquently about the fragile line between inanimate objects and receptacles for spirits and souls. Most importantly, these objects and their relation to presence, hallucinations, spirits and the relation to the animate is never condescending or a prop for a point. Roseline de Thélin’s Man Homo Luminoso (2015) made of optic fibers, above, talks to Ernst’s the temptations of Saint-Anthony, a BBC documentary on hallucinations following sensory deprivation, and an Oceanian mask.

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© musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, photo Gautier Deblonde

The exhibition manages to skillfully tie in our fascination with spiritualism and detecting the invisible presences around us with the fascination in creating or imagining this artificial presence through robots both fictional and imaginary. A display of Edison’s documents on a machine capturing the frequencies of ghosts leads to a showcase of chilling ghost-hunting equipment (including a medium hand with a broken index found next to the body of the medium show-runner ‘s husband and a revolver), and Artaud’s “Radio Momo” – a contraption by Jean-Jacques Lebel involving a real skull, a radio and antennaes to capture the dead playwright’s presence. HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey sings in a screening in the background while we interact with ELIZA, one of the first artificial intelligence program from the 60s. By this stage, it is sufficient to say that everyone is understandably spooked, but the exhibition decides to take it up a notch with the uncanny valley corridor, a true horror-trove exploring how and why we express disgust and fear when an inanimate object resembles an animate body too much, but without the spark and soul of life, including robots, sugar skulls and theatre puppets. Moving onto the sole question of robots veers into bizarre, amusing and often oddly sexual territory concerning attraction, companionship and increasingly hybrid organisms.

If the exhibition would have a main advantage and drawback, is that it addressed such a vast range of subjects and concepts that I immediately wanted to write down everything and read anything on the subject as soon as I left. However it also means it was quite wordy and also had the ambition of sifting through millenia of anthropology, art and history around personhood and artificial intelligence. Nevertheless, this exhibition is haunting in more ways than one: much the content it addresses is intentionally conceived to disturb and subvert our traditional concepts of personhood and asks open-ended question which we may only be able to answer in a century, with nothing to calm the existential dread about a robot takeover in the meantime. However, asking these questions forces us to shine a light upon our perception of what it means to be a person, altering our vision of the world and placing us in a strange space between the supernatural and the factual, wonder and understanding. Beyond the spiritualism and science-fiction undertones, we are face to face with our own limitations and potential as living, thinking, feeling entities. And I’m left with a few Pink Floyd lyrics:

Hello,
Is there anybody in there?
Just nod if you can hear me.
Is there anyone at home?

Persona is at the Musée Quai Branly till the 13th of November

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Exhibition review Paris Uncategorized

Seydou Keïta at the Grand Palais

“You look beautiful like that.”

The sentence that accompanies the visitor through a richly patterned door into the Seydou Keïta exhibition was the Malian photographer’s proclaimed tagline, one he perhaps repeated to countless subjects that posed for him from the 1940s onwards in his studio in Bamako, in the space of a few decades in which his work extended to neighboring countries and achieved worldwide recognition. Many photographers distinguish themselves through the diversity or eclecticism of their subject-matter, from portraiture to genre and landscape; Keïta was not one of them, focusing solely on portrait photography of a seemingly formal nature. Yet, it is through this uniformity and simplicity that Keïta acheived some of the most complex, sensitive and multi-layered portraits of the 20th century. The formal premise is that of his photography business: subjects drop in to have their photograph taken either within his studio or outside, due to his constant preference for natural light. The backdrops are usually  patterned cloths, changing over the years, which become Keïta’s only means of placing a date on them. Entering the exhibition space is to enter an airy, vast space of soft pinks, whites and reds which delicately complement the black and white pictures, blown up almost life-sized, as though to transport us back to the precise moment in which Keïta achieved his perfect vision for the shot. Notoriously meticulous about poses and gestures, the results he achieves are not spontaneous or candid yet they capture the subject with startling intimacy and sincerity.

Vue de l'exposition (4)Scénographie Gare du Nord architecture © Rmn-Grand Palais / Photo Didier Plowy, Paris, 2016

The effect is both striking and contemplative, in rooms that allow enough space for the photographs to breathe, but also convey enough intimacy for these anonymous faces to speak out to us. Anonymous, because Keïta’s way of working (footage shows people queuing up to be photographed one after the other) does not leave room for official records and names. We are left to guess thoughts and relations from one subject to another. As fashions change and intermingle, between Malian fashion and European suits and skirts, a portrait of a country in the midst of change and shifting identity, between images of tradition and modernity, is etched but never quite grasped. At the time, Bamako was still the capital of French Sudan; the year 1962 marking the independence of the Sudanese republic marked the closing of Keïta’s studio, as he was asked to become the first official photographer of the Republic of Mali.

72 DPI-2. Sans titre, 1949 51Untitled, 1949-51, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

Moving through the space, the sense of continuity and familiarity between different photos is through not only textile backdrops, but another theatre-like feature: props. Sunglasses, handbags and even an elegant white Vespa pop up in different pictures, as ways for subjects to play creatively with the composition, and also, significantly, the way in which they wanted to be seen and represented. Keïta’s portraits are sincerely realist, yet they also belong to the realm of fantasy and aspirations, on the public status level of a busy neighborhood of Bamako where photographs were usually taken in front of a noisy crowd of peers, and on a deeply personal level.

72 DPI-9. Sans titre, 1952-55Untitled, 1953, Genève, Contemporary African Art Collection © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo courtesy CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Genève

The final room of the exhibition brings us back to the small-scale level of the photographs that would have been taken home by subjects; since Keïta did not keep his own copies of the photographs, most of them were found abandoned or forgotten by clients of the framer’s shop, who also took care of colouring certain accessories. The contrast with the impeccable large-scale portraits is stark; many of them are torn, yellowed or stained. Yet, a deeper sense is given of them as artifacts and keepsakes, fragments of family memories and personalities. They mingle with the confident and light-hearted words of Keïta himself, through footage of his work and interviews that draw smiles and laughs from visitors. The photographer’s pride in his work and confidence in its perfect execution is communicated through his warmth and charisma. One of the quotes peppered throughout the exhibition states proudly and poignantly:  “You can’t imagine what it was like for me the first time I saw prints of my negatives in large-scale, no spots, clean and perfect. I knew then that my work was really, really good. The people in my photos look so alive, almost as if they were standing in front of me.” This heartfelt exhibition left me with no reason to disagree with him.

72 DPI-16.jpgUntitled, no date, collection André Magnin, Paris © Seydou Keïta / SKPEAC / photo François Doury

 

 

 

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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Goya: The Portraits, at The National Gallery

What we make of an artist’s career after he is long gone often, inevitably, is at odds with the artist’s own intentions. Goya wanted to be known for his portraiture, and in his particular his ambitious role as a court portrait painter. He could hardly predict that the vision we have of him mainly conjure the cruel denunciations of Horrors of War engravings, or the dark creativity of Black Paintings, as well as his harsh, biting satire of Spanish society and fantastical sabbats in Caprichos.

Competing with the hype of drama, horror and scandal is a challenge for the first exhibition devoted solely to Goya’s portraiture, all the more when it starts off slowly. Goya in the first rooms is shown not as the tragic, deaf artist we all know and love, but as a late bloomer, only just starting his career in portraiture in his late thirties and whose true ambition is to become the official portrait painter of the royal family. Only a handful at this early stage allow small and often enigmatic glimpses into the informality and sincerity he will try and cultivate in later paintings. This sense of intimacy is taken to an almost bizarre extent with the vast composition juxtaposed to it, The Family of the Infante Don Luis de Borbon. The theory of the curator, Xavier Bray, is that Goya is comparing his role and that of the portraitist directly to that of the barber, listening in on court gossip…

The amount of noble and royal collections that follow in quick succession are a testimony to Goya’s ambition, but not all complete masterpieces, building up a career in progress and a patient, painstaking learning curve, leaving room for flaws as well as gems.  These are not all the most memorable paintings, nor are they particularly set out as such, more as a patient build-up to Goya’s maturing portraiture. A shorter selection would have allowed for a faster pace and more concentration on Goya’s earlier blend of tenderness and delicacy, searching for a stable identity and brand measuring up to his ambition and pride.

 

Countess of Altamira with her daughter, 1787-88

Francisco de Goya, The Countess of Altamira and Her Daughter, María Agustina, 1787-8, Oil on canvas, 195 x 115 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.148) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The visitor witnesses the gradual transformation of style and substance in Goya’s portraits, the elimination of slightly hard lines and postures of previous portraits and the creation of a mesh of light, colour and brushwork that is more soft and diffuse, not concentrated equally around the canvas but focusing on specific elements. Interestingly, the moment this style reaches full maturity is the moment where, slightly confusedly, the exhibition veers away from the chronology indicated by the “First Portraits” rooms and focuses on particular themes. So far, Goya had succeeded in securing a comfortable position at court, but yearned for more that the royal tapestry commissions he regularly received. Perhaps this frustration led him further into painting not only royals and nobles but also the enlightened spirits of the time, men of power and responsibility who seem to let him grasp further than appearance and symbolism. His liberal ideals and those of the Enlightenment shine through these quiet, introspective portrayals.

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Francisco de Goya, Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos, 1798, Oil on canvas, 205 x 133 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid P03236 © Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos’ portrait shows the Minister of Grace and Justice as through taking a break from work and from the task of reforming Spain, melancholic and weighed down yet determined at his desk. Layers of depth and meaning let us leave the sincerity struggling to seep through the stateliness in the previous rooms: if this room starts with a self-portrait of Goya posing in his studio, like a small advertising billboard, it ends with a starkly intense reflection in the mirror, in black and white. There is something particularly startling about this confrontation – the realization that we are engaging in a dialogue with these sitters conducted via Goya’s intense gaze.

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Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait, 1795-7, Brush and grey wash on laid paper, 15.3 x 9.1 cm, Lent by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1935 (35.103.1) © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The idea of Goya treading the line between the flattery of portraiture and the honesty of his gaze, laying bare his sitter’s souls with audacity and, to a certain extent, because he had the skills to get away with it, is very attractive to us.Despite the subtle flattery that Goya weaves onto his double hanging portraits of Charles IV and Maria Luisa in her fashionable mantilla, they still exude a relaxed confidence that does not need props or backdrop – indeed here the backdrops are outdoors, adding a sense of softness to the scene but also a strange theatricality. Opposite them hangs a portrait that is both spectacular and far more elusive, as well as one of Goya’s most famous portraits: the Duchess of Alba, whose portrait radiates charisma and aloofness, more fantasy than reality.

Maria Luisa with Mantilla 1799

Francisco de Goya, María Luisa wearing a Mantilla, 1799, Oil on canvas, 205 x 130 cm, Colecciones Reales, Patrimonio Nacional, Palacio Real de Madrid © Patrimonio Nacional

Yet this idea is thrown off by the tumultuous shifts in governments that occur from 1808 onwards that hardly gives room for picking sides. Just as Goya condemns the horrors of war he does not have his say after the installation of Joseph Bonaparte at court, and paints the returning monarch and tyrant Ferdinand VII  in just the same way.  Is the portrait of the King truly meant to depict him in such a subtly spiteful and shallow way with his beefy face and his body dripping with pompous regalia, or are we inferring too much? This is the flip side to the depictions of the “horrors of war” that Goya portrays elsewhere and creates a far more ambivalent and realistic portrait of the painter as a man bound to a job rather than the visionary satire and denunciation which may compromise it. It may not be the aspect of Goya we enjoy the most, but it is perhaps the most realistic.

The exhibition only just decides to tackle the impact that Goya’s deafness has had on his portraiture in the penultimate even though he has in fact been deaf ever since his illness in 1793. The display’s presentation of the paintings of his friends, shows that these were all the more important to him since he was not able to communicate with them as he usually did and probably relied on the closeness of a portrait sitting to do so. This is without a doubt, with the last room depicting his last portraits and his family, the most touching and powerful part of the exhibition. It is the moment in which these portraits become people and establish a relation with us, creating a true emotion and presence that goes beyond the original context and material life of an object destined to hang in a private home or office. The warmth and raw honesty of Martin Zapater’s portrait is a face to face testimony to the strong love between the two childhood friends whose record lives on through correspondence.

 

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797

Portrait of Martín Zapater, 1797, oil on canvas, Bilbao Fine Arts Museum (c) Bilboko Arte Ederren Museoa – Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao

The last room is like a quiet farewell already steeped in a certain degree of darkness, suggesting the turmoil of the Black Paintings, for instance, in Goya’s self-portrait of himself as a fading, desperate man held up by the doctor who saved him and for which he offered the painting as a sign of gratitude. Even then, the tenderness and love of his family portraits, from sketches and miniatures to a portrait of his adored grandson, shows another, ultimate side of Goya. The dark Romantic visionary has left a little room for several other lesser-known Goyas – the friend, the intellectual, the ambitious courtier, and the proud and doting grandfather.

Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820

Francisco de Goya, Self Portrait with Doctor Arrieta, 1820, Oil on canvas, 114.6 × 76.5 cm, Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Art, The Ethel Morrison Van Derlip Fund, 52.14 © Minneapolis Institute of Art

The exhibition succeeds in making Goya’s portraiture not only relevant but relatable – faces and glimpses of personalities that we can recognize, identify with, laugh at, or wish to know better. It somehow tricks you into believing this is going to be a somehow technical and slightly dry account of Goya’s evolution as a portraitist at the beginning but transcends these biographical and technical barriers.

While the rythm is slow to begin with it becomes flowing and effortless, creating a walk-through that is easygoing and feels shorter than it is – in the best of ways. Small rooms with warm, welcoming colours and lighting allowed for an intimate navigation in between works that was all the more heightened by the inclusion of the captions in a visitor booklet rather than on the wall, allowing wandering around and autonomy.  The intensity and depth of his portrayals has a special depth and presence within the succession of rooms that is strangely heartening. I emerged from it with the need to return to see a few particular portraits again before they leave London again – like visiting old friends.

 

 

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Bruce Nauman at Fondation Cartier

Time can shape both the content and the format of a work and the way it is visited. On my way to the Bruce Nauman exhibition I had a slight time constraint and already drew up a rough estimate of the moment I would finish the visit. However as I left the exhibition I found that I was leaving earlier than I expected while under the impression I had been there longer.

Sound and video, in the same perspective, become an integral part of our daily routine that we devote a huge amount of time to but sometimes take for granted, skipping or cutting off at will. It takes a particular discipline and focus to make us sit down and cut off the rest of the world instead. Through performance, video and installations, as well as audio works and sculpture, Nauman manages to use this to his advantage within the exhibition space. Most of his iconic works have been concerned with the mapping of a place through the movements of the body and the measurement of time, his studio in New Mexico becoming fully part of his work as he used to create a map of his own footsteps around his workspace. Here, in the same way, the way we travel through the display influences us, and immersing ourselves in sculpture, audio or video becomes an artistic process.

The Fondation Cartier for Contemporary Art has a clean-cut, severe yet serene appearence that lends itself well to metamorphosis. I had seen it only once beforehand for the Takeshi Kitano exhibition that had made it a fun, multicolour treasure trove full of noise and movement. In contrast, at the moment, the Fondation remains soberly stripped down to its bare essentials with its large spaces and transparent walls. The first room shows us Pencil Lift/Mr Rogers, a casual optical illusion set in the everyday clutter of the artist’s studio as he seemingly lifts a string of pencils as his cat ambles past the camera.The intimacy of the studio where he attempts to merge the mundane and the “magical” is undermined by the huge format of the video installation, taking up an entire wall and towering over us.

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View of the exhibition Bruce Nauman, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2015. Visuel © Luc Boegly

After this luminous and light-hearted presentation, it is fair to say that arriving at the darker lower level welcomes you to the sleek stuff of nightmares. A deconstructed Carousel spins around dismembered dog mannequins, in a structure that ressembles a slaughterhouse scenario rather than a merry-go-round. Yet this effect would only be slightly creepy were it not for Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera). The chaotic, anguished and strangely sensual singing of classical singer Rinde Eckert is paired with a projected close up of his face towering over us on the three walls, surrounded by six monitors, all with a slight discrepancy that creates the strength and horror of the installation as in each video the singer declares “Feed Me, Eat Me, Anthropology”, “Help Me, Hurt Me, Sociology” and “Feed Me, Help Me, Eat Me, Hurt Me”…all at once. Eckert’s chant ressembling a prayer puts a dark spin on our basic human needs and impulses and our need to categorize them.

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View of the exhibition Bruce Nauman, Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, 2015. Visuel © Luc Boegly

The harmonious cacophony that ensues in the large, darkened space creates a tension and anxiety that fascinates and disgusts at the same time. Even though the installation is almost unbearable to listen to and visually unsettling, we still remain drawn to it through the urgent emotion and tension of Eckert’s voice. This video from an exhibition in 1993 retranscribes this chaotic chanting.

It is neccessary to walk across the room in order to slide through a small darkened corridor, somehow masking some of the chanting to immerse us into a very different type of atmosphere. Untitled 1970/2009 shows us a doubly projected video of two dancers rolling harmoniously around a dial-like floor, their hands entertwined, like anthropomorphized needles of a clock. Their predetermined protocol (the artist was not present during the shooting of the video) was to dance until exhaustion ensued, in this case during 30 minutes. The entire video relies on the same movements again and again, playing with our notions of time and movement; it is fascinating, almost hypnotic in the way it forces us to take a break and watch the same, repeated motions.

Bruce Nauman Fondation Cartier pour l'art contemporain. Mars 2015
©thomas salva / Lumento pour la fondation Cartier

The soothing, fascinating quality of Untitled and the nervous, anxiety-inducing nature of Anthro/Socio (Rinde Facing Camera) can both be found in the double audio-installation For Children/Pour les Enfants and For Beginners (Instructed Piano). The first happens on the ground floor, back in one of the large and luminous glass rooms, where a drawing, For Children/For Beginners shows the words “For children” and “Pour les enfants” hastily scribbled on the page as a stern voice repeats these terms on a loop, inspired from a piano music partition by Béla Bartók entitled “For Children”, adapted to the small size of their hands and their beginner level. This repetition makes the term go from mundane to almost ominous, confronting us to discipline and control, education and “playing”. For Beginners happens outside, in the Fondation Cartier’s luxuriant and peaceful garden. On louspeakers dispersed throughout the greenery and benches, we hear the recorded piano playing of Tony Allen corresponding to the artist’s protocol: his hands must remain at the centre of the keyboard. Both dreamlike and eerie, the constraint imposed by the pianist can only be heard and not seen, giving it a clumsy but endearing nature.

The exhibition is short and although it is meant to be a compendium of his recent career, does not feel like a comprehensive sense of his work. Yet each work is physically and mentally demanding, almost draining. Bruce Nauman does not want a passive gaze: to understand the work we need to work for it, wander around and into it, in the case of audio installations. Time is not linear in these works or in the way we confront them; it works itself into a loop that weaves itself into our footsteps, emotions and experiences.

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern

Images of war and conflict invade us more than ever before. The constant presence of them in photographs and videos, on television, in press, on the internet, is both an eye-opener to the horrors of wars far away from us yet strangely desensitizing when we become “accustomed” to them. 2014 has been rife with these images while museums have been concerned with a similar topic: the centenary of the beginning of World War I, which has launched a certain number of commemorative exhibitions documenting these first raw depictions of war in photography and painting.

In this context, I was not certain how to approach Conflict Time Photography at Tate Modern before my visit: would this be a commemorative exhibition or an exploration of the way in which war photography has evolved in time? Would this be a display centred around photoreporters or artist’s interpretation of conflict? Time Conflict Photography was effectively made to coincide with the centenary, yet has chosen to focus on a wider scope of conflict spanning many time periods. Yet in a uniquely creative twist, these records of conflicts are not shown in their chronological order but in the order of time that followed the photographing of each conflict: moments later, days, weeks, months, several years later. As the curator of the exhibition Simon Baker elaborates, “We wanted to think about the way photographers have photographed moments of conflict after they have happened, thinking about their long-term effects.” Thus, even though a photograph of the atomic ‘mushroom’ over Hiroshima is shown in “moments later” by Toshio Fukata, further photographs of the ravaged city and its inhabitants will only appear several rooms later in “months later” or “years later”. It mirrors however Luc Delahaye’s much more recent photograph US Bombing on Taliban Positions in 2001, its peaceful depiction of a field with the dissipating cloud in the distance only making it more horrifying and ominous in its understatement.

Landscapes and buildings are the main protagonists of this series of photographs, whether this is moments or months and years later. The only survivors that will be able to last through time and serve as commemorative parts of the landscape in itself? Or the fact that the immediate human experience is too difficult to capture in film both physically and emotionally? Regardless, this only makes the appearence of portraits all the more poignant, like Shell-shocked Marine, Vietnam, Hue, taken in 1968 by Dan McCullin, a reporter, only moments after this soldier returned from the battlefield, showing the raw tramatic toll of war in a way that would be almost impossible now, due to the increasing alienation and sanitization of relations between war correspondants and the army.

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Don McCullin Shell Shocked US Marine, Vietnam, Hue 1968, printed 2013 © Don McCullin

Strangely therefore, in this exhibition, death and suffering is alluded to but very rarely shown – the only elements that we are allowed to see are those that have survived the initial blow to be recorded. Yet this is purposefully the point of the exhibition: memory, its persistence and the fact that despite the disappearance of bodies, either immediately or in time, they are still inscribed within landscapes and objects. Sophie Ristelhuber’s immense desertic series of landscapes, Fait riddled with memories and objects of the Gulf War, lull us into aesthetic and almost abstract compositions to show us how nature has “absorbed” conflict but never forgotten it, in a way alike to our own process of memory and remembrance. In the ‘days, weeks, months later’ section, Simon Norfolk embarks on a similar process: using the romanticized idea of the “ruin”, he uses it to document the destruction of sites in Kabul in 2003, such as in this photograph below, taken in the Karte Char district of Kabul, in the aftermath of the conflict between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then Rabbani and Hazaras.

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Simon Norfolk Bullet-scarred apartment building and shops in the Karte Char district of Kabul. This area saw fighting between Hikmetyar and Rabbani and then between Rabbani and the Hazaras 2003 © Simon Norfolk

In a different perspective, the photographs are often nondescript without further context on their history and meaning. Thus, Diana Matar’s series of seemingly uneventful and unharmed buildings means nothing without her captions integrated to the mosaic of works on display – in which she describes how these were revealed as torture dungeons following Ghaddafi, in 2012. In the same perspective, Chloé Dewe-Mathews’s series Shot at Dawn, in “years later”, shows peaceful landscapes in the north of France that retain no more memories of their past use – as spaces where deserters were shot. All that remains of them and their memory are these landscapes and their titles composed of their names.

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Chloe Dewe Mathews Vebranden-Molen, West-Vlaanderen 2013 Soldat Ahmed ben Mohammed el Yadjizy Soldat Ali ben Ahmed ben Frej ben Khelil Soldat Hassen ben Ali ben Guerra el Amolani Soldat Mohammed Ould Mohammed ben Ahmed 17:00 / 15.12.1914 © Chloe Dewe Mathews

Other photographs take us back to an experience of bodies and objects that undermines the full horror of a war that can take its toll through the dead, but also through its survivors – such as those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki subject to radiation. How to represent what cannot be represented without an overwhelming feeling of horror? Kenji Ishiguro, with Hiroshima Now, shows the full frontal reality and brutality of war on surviving bodies, while Shomei Tomatsu participates in the record of objects and their ongoing, horrific reality in Hiroshima-Nagasaki document published in 1961. Hiromi Tsuchida’s photography of surviving objects coupled with quotes from the relatives and friends of the lost owners is probably the set of photographs that is hardest to watch, in its brutal and unforgiving honesty.

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Shomei Tomatsu Steel Helmet with Skull Bone Fused by Atomic Bomb, Nagasaki 1963 © Shomei Tomatsu – interface. Courtesy of Taka Ishii Gallery, Tokyo

Until now the scenography has been very sober, understated, white walls and sufficient space between the works as though to reinforce this passage of time. Sometimes an entire wall is dedicated only to one work, and allows us ample time to walk next to it, contemplate, before going on to the next set of photographs. This creates a slow, meditative pace that is quite soothing: despite the large amount of people, there was never a sense of feeling crammed into a space or crowding around to see a work. It felt appropriately timeless while showing us works recording a very precise time and place.

This setting abruptly changes as we enter a room labeled as the Archive of Modern Conflict, by the eponymous group that curated it. This somewhat elusive group houses an archive of photographs and artifacts related to wartime that publishes books based around this content, or curate exhibitions. Here, a central space was devoted to them, as “guest-curators”, interrupting the ongoing display. Contrasted with the main exhibition, this was a wartime cabinet of curiosities, with photographs collaged onto the wall like archival wallpaper, paraphernalia and trinkets in antiquated glass cabinets. This interruption was a surprise, and although it was interesting and fascinating in its own right, obviously jarring in the context of the exhibition’s usual sobriety and neatness. If I had been aware of this room beforehand, I would probably have visited it after the main exhibition, in order to view in a different mindset. Then again, it was a welcome change to the pristine nature of the main display.

Conflict Time Photography created an intense yet subtle exploration of memory, time and war without veering into pathos or preaching. It is not to be visited lighly, in a casual or hurried mindset. It is harrowing, poignant and often unbearable in a way that we have often learnt to forget in order to protect ourselves from the violence. This is as much an exhibition about conflict than the way we deal with conflict, grief and remembrance, in all its ambiguous and complex undertones.

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

Niki de Saint-Phalle at the Grand Palais

Niki de Saint-Phalle is the type of artist that can bring to mind not necessarily one work in particular but a type of composite image, or iconic aura, that is instantly recognizable. This phrase cropped up in my conversations about her: “You think you don’t know her but you actually do: you know, these large, colourful women.” In a way, yes, we do “know” Niki de Saint-Phalle’s Nanas, with their pervasive joy and round bodies. But do we “know” all we need to about Niki de Saint-Phalle? The curator of the exhibition, Camille Morineau, admits herself that she discovered new, surprising aspects of Saint-Phalle during her initial research. The end result is a sensitive and intense rediscovery that leads us onto unchartered and forgotten territories of her work, and their relation to feminity and women artists.

The first room is surprisingly sober in its scenography, with its grey walls and traditional format. Perhaps it reflects exactly that which Saint-Phalle wanted to escape in her early works: the confines of a traditional bourgeois Catholic family of bankers that wanted her to marry and perpetuate the family’s good name. Saint-Phalle’s emancipation from this bourgeois mindset in order to find a liberated, bohemian lifestyle is the stuff of romanesque novels. Yet her first works, creating collages of various everyday objects on canvas, interspersed with a folk-art and naïve style of painting reminiscent of Chagall or early Pollock works, hides darker struggles beneath their colourful and irregular surface.

They reflect her complete immersion into art as a therapeutic necessity rather than a casual soul-searching hobby, after a huge nervous breakdown, linked to her fluctuating mood and tense marriage. Beneath the work’s titles, particular quotes of hers allow us to pinpoint her state of mind as her works progress territories that are often dark and violent, exploring her dreams and fantasies – using for example the revolver she bought to “metaphorically” shoot her ex, an impulse that she exorcises through Revolver. As I continue on to a larger room, more circular and irregular in its shape, her voice already rings out crisply and defiantly from a 1960s documentary, as though criticizing what we have just seen: “It’s a good thing I was no good at painting.” This “good thing” that allowed her to go beyond the confines of painting to search out new artistic expression is shown all around the screen. Monumental women become the anthropomorphic materialization of her earlier works: accumulations of objects made into huge, overpowering female forms, these mesh together a complex glorification of woman and a criticism of her role in a society that wants to restrain her into marriage and submissiveness.

Large faceless brides tower over us while simultaneously seeming to keel under the weight of all the sum of their fragmented parts. The minute and breathtaking delicacy of Saint-Phalle’s composite sculptures never removes the sharp edge from her absolute hatred of marriage, likening it to the end of life itself in a quote associated with The Bride under the Tree: “Marriage is death.”  This figure is white and waif-like, like a ghost rather than a symbol of bridal purity, losing her face and individuality faced with the demands of tradition and society. Yet most of these women are domineering and victorious, already revealing Saint-Phalle’s vision of a powerful and colourful woman that needs to detach herself from the constraints of the patriarchy. Leto, with her baroque body, is rendered both glorious and monstrous through the collage of objects that create her. Flowers, toys soldiers, plastic artefacts among the many that she scavenges for at her treasure trove of choice – Monoprix, the French equivalent of Wall-Mart or Tesco.

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Leto ou La Crucifixion, 1965 236 x 147 x 61,5 cm objets divers sur grillage Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle, Paris, achat en 1975 © Centre Pompidou, MNAM-CCI, Dist. RMNGrand Palais / Georges Meguerditchian

Throughout these works, a strong motif reoccurs: a battalion of small plastic soldiers and animals, seemingly crawling over “their” woman. The body literally becomes a battlefield and a space that woman must reclaim for herself. This ensemble is complemented by a pair of garters in a pose imitating the Crucifixion. A celebration of female sexuality? The condemnation of a society that willingly objectifies women yet vilifies them in the same instance? Possibly both. Feminist? Undoubtedly. The idea of systematically labelling any work made by a woman artist as “feminist” causes a great deal of annoyance amongst artist and art historians alike. Yet in this case, Saint-Phalle says so herself, and loudly: “I can see that I am dealing with an anti-feminist!” she chides in the video facing her male interviewer’s comments, using the term with a strength and ease that reflects her uncompromising visions.

Niki de Saint-Phalle is not only concerned with a condemnation of patriarchy. What interests her is creation on all levels. The creation of a new matriarchy of powerful women, the creation of art on her own terms and the creation of life. The walls are lighter, more circular and curvaceous, as though reflecting values that are turned against their male oppressors: fecundity and compassion. The feminine body is no longer a monstruous bulk of collage made to denunciate a body used and abused; it is an object of power, giving birth on its own terms. The vision of a doll emerging from between the legs of these pure white deities is startling, shocking, yet unabashedly powerful.

Cavorting sculptures of wire and painted polymer lead us on into a smaller, dark room where spotlights showcase new forms. With a smoother surface than her collaged counterparts, rotund and full of life, these were inspired from an initial sketch of Clarice Rivers’ pregnant form. A darkened, tunnel-like room, almost womb-like, it announces the “birth” of the iconic nana but also echoes the monumental sculpture-machine installation that she made with Jean Tinguely and exhibited in 1966 within the Moderna Museet of Stockholm. HON – or “She” in Swedish was a momentous 28 meters long, 6 meters high and 9 meters large, enough for people to visit the inside of her body, strategically entering between her legs to discover an art gallery in her womb, a milk bar in the cavity of one breast and an observatory in the other.

Niki de Saint-Phalle’s voice and message, stern and reproving, now has a cheeky, more cheerful tone as a video shows her spinning around in a white chair like a mock James Bond villain, announcing “Je suis Niki de Saint-Phalle et je fais des oeuvres monumentales!” (“I am Niki de Saint-Phalle and my work is monumental!”) The room that leads us towards these towering works is, appropriately, the largest and the most spectacular, with a dome like a miniature cathedral as a Chopin waltz accompanies the rotation of the Three Graces, three grand dancers, covered in colour and mirrored mosaics whose reflections bounce and dart around the room. They are flanked by their gigantic peers, in a serene yet momentous atmosphere, as Niki continues to talk about her “grosses dames” in a video in the background, her humorous reverence forming a striking contrast with her slim, suit-adorned silhouette. This is truly a temple to the Nana: the woman who will exude power but remain protective and loving, forming a new bond with man based around exchange instead of confrontation.

Les Trois Graces, 1995 - 2003
Les Trois Grâces 1995-2003 argent : 290 x 125 x 95 cm noir : 260 x 150 x 90 cm blanc : 290 x 120 x 90 cm polyester, mosaïque de miroirs Niki Charitable Art Foudation, Santee, USA © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Philippe Cousin

Not all of Saint-Phalle’s artwork surrounding women reflect this sunny, positive and power girl feminism that I was most familiar with. In another dark tunnel-like room, in dimly lit alcoves, the figures yet again become monstruous, both a criticism of women’s restrictive roles and a criticism of the women who willfully “devour” their children by bestowing upon them all their own ambitions and social restrictions. The tableau becomes darker and more autobiographical.

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La Toilette 1978 femme : 160 x 150 x 100 cm table : 126 x 92 x 80 cm papier collé peint et objets divers collection MAMAC, Nice, donation de l’artiste en 2001 © Niki Charitable Foundation / ADAGP, Paris 2014 / photo : MAMAC / Muriel Anssens

Saint-Phalle’s relation to her mother was complex and ambivalent. Facing the sculpture of a monstrous, gluttonous monster she recalls her mother asking, horrified, if this sculpture was her; Saint-Phalle does not have the heart to tell her that it is one aspect of her memories of her, a fragment of what she fears she might become as a mother. Motherhood becomes then not only a positive trait of protection and nurturing, but a toxic, unhealthy relation that is inextricably linked to possession and all-controlling affection: for Saint-Phalle, mothers will end up devouring their young just as much as the father with his dominance of the household. Saint-Phalle’s sculpture ‘The Death of the Father’ creates a darkly hilarious tableau, with a matronly window whose sorrow is suspiciously absent and an open coffin displaying a giant phallus. This mirrors the opening scenes of Saint-Phalle’s film Daddy, in which she explores the dark and complex relationship with her father, who raped her when she was eleven. Psychoanalysis, symbolism and morbid fantasy mingle with both intimate rejection of her father’s toxic influence and the ultimate obsolete patriarchy that must be destroyed. The “death of the patriarch” is theatrically presented as Saint-Phalle, in a classic “masculine” suit, shoots her father’s coffin.

Grand tir - séance Galerie J, 1961
Grand Tir – Séance galerie J 1961 143 x 77 x 7 cm plâtre, peinture et objets divers sur panneau d’aggloméré Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre de création industrielle, achat en 2004 © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Laurent Condominas

The use of the pistol, the phallic, destructive object, rarely associated with womanhood, is in fact a recurring theme in Saint-Phalle’s work. Earlier on, Niki de St-Phalle did use a revolver as an element of her collage work but in the series of Revolver painting, the passive fantasy becomes a real act of violence in which she uses a gun to create her paintings, making colour burst from fragile envelopes of plaster with each shot. More than a creative protest, the shots become a public performance, and a political act, as she shoots patriarchal and political figures alike. This return to painting exacerbates both its violence and its feminism into outspoken, brash messages about the world she lived in. This included a cynical militaristic altar to speak out against the horrors of the Algerian war, and an eerily premonitory depiction of a rocket crashing into Twin Towers as the death-mask like faces of American presidents and politicians look on (in terms of strange premonitions, Saint-Phalle also “shot” Kennedy’s…portrait, only months before his assassination). The last room presents a few of her late sculptures as well as photographs of the breathtaking Jardin des Tarots in Garavicchio, Italy, which she funded and created through sales of her work and perfume brand, fulfilling her vision of an architectural art inspired by Gaudi.

It creates a lasting sense of unity: the large skull, multicoloured and cheerful, inspired from the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, finally unites the careless sense of joy in many of her work with the ominous sense of the morbid that pervades others.

Skull (méditation room), 1990
Skull (Meditation Room) 1990 230 x 310 x 210 cm mosaïque de verre et de miroirs, céramique, feuille d’or Sprengel Museum, Hanovre, donation de l’artiste en 2000 © 2014 Niki Charitable Art Foundation, All rights reserved / Photo : Michael Herling

In a sense the particularity of this exhibition is its refusal to compromise while creating a complex, coherent whole. The exuberant nature of the Nanas cannot be complete without the toxicity of the Devouring Mothers. The delicate sculptural collages that she assembles join themselves to the violence and spontaneity of her gunshot paintings. It is truly an exhibition in the image of a feminist who refused to choose, embracing the idea of motherhood, sisterhood and its protective, nurturing aspect, but never discarding the radical, violent dismantling of the patriarchy through her work. I think this exhibition is essential in rediscovering a Niki de Saint-Phalle that is multi-layered and ambiguous, a revolutionary and a romantic rolled into one.

Claire Mead

Niki de Saint-Phalle at the Grand Palais, 17th September to 2nd of Febuary 2015

Categories
Interview London

TalkAbout Guides

Visiting a museum or gallery can be a silent and solitary moment, despite the people surrounding us. More than once I feel that I am missing out on a great deal of discussion in front of a work of art with fellow visitors but no opportunity is given to me in order to change that.

Yet this notion is being challenged by a new generation of gallery-goers. Previously on this blog, Les Jeudis Arty were opening up art galleries to a larger Parisian audience. This time TalkAbout Guides, an Oxford-based company, are sparking off lively conversations in museums.

Eliza Easton, Communications Director for Talk About Guides, tells me all about the frustration of quiet art galleries, asking the right questions, and why overzealous shushing in museums alienates us all.

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What is the general concept of TalkAbout?
Eliza Easton: So the idea came from the fact that there was a group of us that were really frustrated with the way people were approaching art galleries that we worked in, and that people in contemplation thought of as appropriate. It was almost like a library, where you were only allowed to think about the works themselves…whereas I think that as a student the really enjoyable part about my course was having conversations about the artwork that can even be quite frivolous at times, and feeling really comfortable doing that. So that was why we started doing that. And the way we approached tackling that problem was to create kind of conversation-starting questions. So there’s a whole range of questions on different themes. And those questions invite conversations, specifically conversations that encourage you to look at the artwork closer but also encourage you to talk more to the person that you’re with. Because you remember things far better if you actually have someone to remember them with you, it’s really basic psychology. We felt that this was a problem that we tackled.

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What does the project look like, how is it used by the visitor?
E: The form that it takes at the moment is a set of five cards, each with three questions. They are fold-out cards so the questions are sort of revealed to you on an individual theme, a theme like love or beauty, or death, or fantasy… Sometimes they are themes around a specific event: we are doing one for the Breath Festival, which is themed around breath, different types of ideas to do with being alive. They come in an envelope, you can take them out, you can also keep them to have a physical reminder of the discussion. You give them to friends, to invite them to have this journey with you, or take the same journey with a different person…

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How are the themes chosen out of a wide range of subjects? Is it something that’s more of your personal preference, or is it based on feedback?
E: It completely depends on the project we’re working on. Sometimes they are separate projects, like I mentioned with the Breath Festival, working out how to present the subject of breath. Obviously we work in the galleries themselves. For example we’re doing a project at the Ashmolean at the moment on Schubert and Goethe, and we’re doing different themes within one pack based around that. The questions can be varied anyway, even within their theme. And then for another project at Waddesdon Manor where we had three themes…we actually went round, had a look, then had a meeting with some of the curators who were interested, kind of bounced ideas off them, suggested three final themes and they accepted them. If they had thought of different themes we would bounce that round a bit more. It’s similar with the objects: we go round, choose the objects, and communicate our choices to the curators. Whether they say yes to all of them, or yes to one of them, we work from that point onwards.

So really, it’s a tailored, custom-made theme for every single institution…which could take quite a lot of time I imagine. What’s the time lapse between the moment where you start collaborating with the institution and the final actual product that can be used by visitors?
E: It’s a really funny thing because first of all it’s quite a long time just because of the way that museums work! So they have to budget for things a long time in advance. So we can only take it as fast as they can take it. So they’ll decide they’re going to do it but they might not OK the objects for another two months…and so, you have it on the boil but it’s not taking up much time. The thing that does take us a long time is working out the questions. It’s a little bit design-dependant as well so if the museum wants their own design for the card, then obviously you have to work with the designer. The Ashmolean uses their own designer to help us, so it’s hard to find but they help us orchestrate it. For each question, each set of five questions between about five thinkers, question-seekers, it probably takes…four sessions, so probably eight hours for five cards. Five cards, each with three questions…fifteen questions in eight hours.

So it also takes quite a lot of time back and forth, checking that everybody in the team is okay with the questions?
E: Yes! It’s actually quite difficult to think up questions that are meant for a conversation. There are so many questions that have a yes or no answer and that people can laugh off but we choose questions that make sure people will start talking. The other thing is, we always drive ourselves in a bit of a passionate state because we’re so interested in the questions, they’re great philosophical, aesthetic or intellectual questions…It’s interesting because we’re going start bringing in other people to work on specific projects, it’ll be exciting. So at the moment we’re working on a training program to help people learn how to answer the questions. We’re looking for a kind of consultancy situation where we will have a pool of people who each have different specialties. For example, say, if you knew a lot about history of art and you knew specifically about a subject for a project then could we go to our list and look at it to select you. If we’re working on a project involving Schubert and we have somebody who knows a lot about music it’s useful to have them on board. So that’s how we can improve it a little bit at a time, because having a basic knowledge can help for a lot of things but people having selective, focused specialties on certain subjects can make everything more coherent. We also have something called a question bank, which is a big list of really interesting questions that we think up in our daily lives and that we want to get them to be talked about more at some point but we’re are still waiting on it.

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Do you think there is a definite problem of museums and cultural institutions intimidating people into silence?
E: I think it has more to do with the democratization of museums. I think that when it was all just the upper classes visiting, everyone felt comfortable because they all had training…Now everyone visits them which is such a positive thing but there’s still a problem especially in the UK where you don’t learn about art and you just don’t talk about it. So of course it’s going to be alienating. In Waddesdon Manor where I worked, you could see little schoolkids walking through and their teachers would go “Shh! Shh!” shushing them into silence, because they’re pointing out, going “What’s that?!”…but I think that’s exactly what most curators want! Especially since it’s a house meant to be visited, interacted with.

My mum is a teacher and she was showing her schoolchildren through the Musée d’Orsay…where they kept being shushed by the guard! It’s stupid because these places attract a lot of people and yet they don’t want them to interact fully with the works…
E: Yes, it’s not a straightforward dialogue. It should be a conversation…that is what’s really puzzling for me. A silent art gallery is great but it should also be a place for conversation. Otherwise it’s so intimidating! It’s like being in a library…which is nice on one hand, art is also meant to be appreciated when you’re alone, but…it should be something more.

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It’s kind of like John Berger in Ways of Seeing comparing people’s visions of museums to churches.
E: Yeah but even in churches, people sing, you know? There’s something communal about it whereas in art galleries everyone walks off on their own.

Yes it’s true. Especially with audioguides…What do you think about audioguides in general as a way to engage with the art?
E: Basically I think that audioguides can be a really good thing but they can also be intensely alienating and going into the room with people listening to audioguides and being the only one without them is always weird. I think also that the Internet made it so easy to find out facts… if you’re interested in a piece and you want to go home and find out facts about it, become more knowledgeable about it, that’s easy to do. You just need to be able to remember the piece in the first place. And if you’re not doing that, if you’re just accumulating facts, facts, facts and you’re not enjoying yourself, and not really sure which direction you’re going in…it’s not that great. About audioguides, it’s a weird thing that they are so normal. Maybe there should be a way of making use of what you already know to fill in blanks rather than cutting people off from each other.

How would you picture TalkAbout evolving, about one year from now? What direction do you think it’s going to go towards?
E: I think it all depends…The team is completely brilliant, which means they’re up for doing a lot of things all the time, so it’s a bit tough to determine exactly what we are going to do but we’re definitely going to open it up more, it would be really exciting. We’re hopefully going to be in cultural institutions the US and the UK…and I think working in London museums would be good, after Oxford, and lots of other national properties are interested. If we could also get more students on board we can work on more projects as a company. At the moment we are working on three projects each, with individual questions for different museums, and that’s pretty heavy for us.

Remind me who TalkAbout has worked for?
E: The Ashmolean in Oxford, twice, Waddesdon Manor, and then we’re working for the Breath Festival which is at the Pitt Rivers and the Natural History Museum in Oxford, working at the Oxford Castle which is going to be a permanent…and our future projects aren’t yet ready for full disclosure!

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You can find TalkAbout Guides on Facebook page and Twitter!

“When was the last time you had an interesting conversation in a museum?” Talk About asks, and so do I! If you have any interesting, good, bad or downright awkward conversations in museums, I definitely want to hear about them!

Ways of Seeing by Jonh Berger is a BBC documentary from the 1970s that looks at the way in which we perceive art and visit museums now, with the arrival of photography and mass media. Find it here.

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Digital Revolution at the Barbican Centre

Many exhibitions are too quiet for their own good. The cautious whispering and awkward silences do not do much to strike interest or new ideas within visitors, let alone excite them. I often wish for more noise, more bustle and movement inside a space meant for communicating as well as seeing. As I entered the Digital Revolution at the Barbican Centre, I suddenly had all of this…all at once. Within a huge darkened room with flickering lights and screens, with electronic music playing in the background and a regular hubbub of noise, people were also visibly moving, talking, having fun, as they did not only watch the exhibit but also took part in it actively.

Digital Revolution’s ambitious aim is to regroup and present the most diverse and extensive achievements of the digital medium through an impressive array of genres and formats, from video games to music, animation and art installations. It presents its complex past, retracing the history of the very first computers and their games, but also veers beyond simple documentation into experimentation and entertainment.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, Digital Archaeology section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

The exhibition’s first segment, Digital Archaology, is concerned with the purely chronological, starting with relics from the 80s onwards, onto legends such as Pong, Pac-Man, Space Invaders or the first Tomb-Raider…all playable. There is a huge crowd yet surprisingly enough the glass displays that allow one player are laid out in a way that does not cram too many people in one corner…others are glad to wait for their turn or try different games, since most if not all of them can be tried out. The novelty of being in a time-travelling arcade does not wear off easily on anyone, whatever their age or experience with gaming.

This is perhaps because the exhibition made absolutely no concessions in terms of different tastes, aesthetics and genres. Commercial games like The Sims co-exist with indie DIY online games that enjoy messing with traditional programming and expectations, exploiting glitching, pixel art and the sense of powerlessness when the game spirals out of the user’s control, to become its own narrative. The section on games reveals a flurry of hideen gems, usually quite marginal and independent in nature that, in a few minutes, become their own digital performance piece, affecting us as viewers more than we affect the game. This is only heightened by our full involvement in the display, sensing the changes undergone as much as we understand them. A srange atmosphere is created, between a collective experience and a one-to-one relation with the game onscreen. The best thing is that many of these games are available online, for free. One of my favourite, Sodaplay, allows to tweak the movements of geometrical shapes to create unique objects evolving differently in an abstract space.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, Creative Spaces section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

It was maybe for this reason that the section on digital art in films felt slightly more underwhelming after the video and computer games. While I was watching the way in which Inception created its paradoxical dream surroundings or how Gravity managed to make people seem as though they were spinning in space, I did not learn anything from it that I did not know before and there were limited options to engage with in terms of interaction. The short documentary on How to Train Your Dragon 2 was definitely more fascinating in the way in which it managed to tie the need for emotion and movement into more intuitive ways of animating CGI, capturing the magic and childlike wonder of animation coupled with pure skill in a way that has often been shunned in favour of its earlier, 2-D technology.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, will.i.am’s artwork Pyramidi in the Sound & Vision section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

While the first part had been interactive enough, while remaining mainly involved with the history of the digital and its evolution, the next sections were involved in more experimental and collaborative contemporary works, including prestigious projects such as will.i.am’s exclusive music installation, Pyramidi, his giant and imperious digital effigy following every visitor’s movements as he sings. In the same way, DevArt, initiated by Google, showcased works that used motion capture to create digital art as an environment for moving, experimenting, even dancing.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, DevArt section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

Since movement was necessary to many of them, interactivity was key yet not always a given to all visitors; maybe we are too used to standing still and waiting for something to happen within a museum space, rather than making it happen. In that respect, help and advice towards visitors on behalf of the staff within the space could have been better handled, with more communication about what to do or even tacit encourahement from the helpers by initiating the movement itself. Yet the initial awkwardness and lack of clear direction was usually quickly overcome, as most of the visitors enjoyed the exhibits with an infectious energy. If the first part could be compared to a time-warp arcade, this one would be a futuristic hall of mirrors in a funfair, where our appearances, gestures and silhouettes are reflected, recorded and distorted.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, The Treachery of Sanctuary in the State of Play section Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

The Treachery of Sanctuary in the State of Play, above, had three people at a time standing on a specific platform as their silhouettes are affected by the elegant yet morbid black silhouettes of birds: one disintegrating into a flock flying away, another pecked at until in disappears and the other growing wings that can be moved and flapped at will through the visior-player’s movements, creating a graceful and powerful exploration of the ways in which technology eats away at us while it transforms us. As visitors we are active participants in the performance and create its true meaning. As the exhibition draws towards the end, a less agitated corner allows visitors to listen to different kinds of music created via digital means, including a soundtrack by Björk. Digital Futures, towards the end, is a mix of digital dreams and utopias that are slowly becoming a reality, like 3D printing able to shape new objects and even clothes such as Studio XO’s 3D Printed Parametric Dress for Lady Gaga. With the installation Petting Zoo, there is even a desire to look towards AI and the sensorial (even emotional) that could be created in relation to it.

Digital Revolution Installation At The Barbican Centre
Digital Revolution installation images, Minimaforms’ Petting Zoo section, Barbican Centre 3 July – 14 September 2014 © Matthew G Lloyd/Getty Images

Ultimately, Digital Revolution is not only a celebration of digital art as an immaterial, eternally flexible and complex medium, steeped in a history old enough to be extensive yet young enough to be remembered. It is before anything else a celebration of the visitor and player, of the person behind the screen that allows digital art to express itself fully. The challenges that the digital can take on in order to push further the boundaries of art and technology are truly revolutionary. Yet, the real revolution is the creation of a space of discussion, discovery and communication that breaks silences and encourages people to touch as much as they can. I hope to see much more of it in the future, in other mediums and exhibition spaces.

Discover Digital Revolution at the Barbican

Categories
Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Making Colour at the National Gallery

Colour is so omnipresent today that we need not worry about having to create it or search for it extensively…in fact, a main concern is rather knowing how not to use too much of it at a time. As a digital artist I can simply open Photoshop and slide a colour wheel around to obtain thousands of different colour swatches that anyone else can use. As a traditional artist I can shop around for the exact shade of red I need. Being able to access and experience these colours is taken entirely for granted as an artist and as a viewer.

For this reason, the National Gallery’s exhibition Making Colour is a perfect reminder in our saturated world of the ways in which artists have long struggled to find and make colour in order to represent their particular vision of the world. The record of this search is as vast as it is fascinating; artists up until the 19th century were still grinding colour pigments and mixing them in with egg white, yolks or oil in order to create the effects they desired. The creation of synthetic colours available in tubes then allowed for revolutionary changes as painting outside was possible. As Renoir famously points out: “Paints in tubes allowed us to work in nature… Without paint in tubes, there would have been no Cezanne, no Monet, no Sisley or Pissarro, nothing of what the journalists were to call impressionism.” Yet this chemical and artistic breakthrough could only have been achieved through a slow and painstaking historical process to find the perfect pigment in nature, whether it was through dried insects, plants, minerals….or even poison.

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Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890), Two Crabs, 1889 Oil on canvas, On loan from a Private Collection © Private Collection

A short introduction shows us various colour palettes and the way in which the perception of colour evolved throughout the centuries, culminating into optical theories about light being broken down into a vast spectrum of colours. They also show us a few basic yet useful example about complementary and contrasting colours, as well as the way in which painters’ techniques of colour application varied, such as the use of orange and green with Van Gogh’s Two Crabs. Vigée-Lebrun’s neat dabs of colour in her self-portrait are challenged by Turner’s seemingly chaotic palette, showing that their brushstrokes and mixtures as well as the colours they had access to definitely influenced their styles and stemmed from their personalities.

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Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775 – 1851), Chelsea Palette, Wooden palette with paint on its surface, Tate Archive © Tate, London

The following rooms are all thematic in nature rather than chronological, presenting a wide selection of works from all time periods, with one colour for each room, the dark walls and soft lighting allowing the works’ palettes to shine out to their audience. Whether it is blue, red or green, even veering onto silver and gold, each section retraces a short history of the way in which its colour was created and used on a variety of formats. The act of breaking up the discovery of colour into several sub-sections and giving them their own small history, creates a sense of harmony and casualness; I could wander from room to room without feeling as though I had to follow a specific route or chronology. The exhibition was relatively busy but never gave a sense of clutter or overcrowding, mainly because it was quite easy to wander around from object to object leisurely rather than awkwardly queue up to see a series of works in a row.

Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog
Lapis lazuli amulet carved in the form of a frog, Lapis lazuli, 2.2 x 1.2 cm The British Museum, London 1856,0903.243 © The Trustees of the British Museum

I was slightly wary about the sheer amount of information that would be thrown at me for every single colour. The ways in which we perceive colours now is almost never relevant to the art work’s actual time period, and cannot be properly be understood without a long painstaking history of each colour. Would it prove too heavy and too much to handle for an exhibition? It soon turned out, however, that this was going to be an extremely technical take on colour based more on aesthetic sensation, contrast and form and the ways to acheive it on various mediums.

The amount of cultural, religious, social and historical complexities and significance around blue, from the mantle of the Virgin Mary to its presence on the EU flag, would be so large and shifting in itself that the colour would need its own exhibition. (Incidentally it does possess its own book, Blue: History of a Colour by the colour historian Michel Pastoureau, which I cannot recommend enough). Although each section did briefly recall the various ideas related to their respective colours (red for passion or purple for nobility), the focus was less on their symbolism or what they represented, and more focused on how they were found and used, as well as their value. Ultramarine, created with lapis lazuli, was defined in its economic value and importance in the fact that it came from “beyond the sea”, mined in Afghanistan to this day in very difficult conditions. Its intensity and long-lasting nature made it precious for artists and their patrons from the medieval period onwards, but also explains why and how cheaper alternatives were looked for in duller and darker pigments such as smalt, or in an easier form through cobalt blue, later on used in its synthetic form by Monet. From this we could of course interpret that blue was researched and paid for because of its religious importance or that on the contrary it became an important colour used for the best of religious art because of its worth. Yet focusing mainly on the purely visual and technical was a good choice: sometimes leaving one aspect out from an immense subject allows another facet to shine in a more coherent and interesting manner and this was definitely the case!

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Claude Monet, Lavacourt under Snow, about 1878-81, Oil on canvas, 59.7 x 80.6 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

Each artwork description made sure to make the viewer understand exactly which pigments the artist used and how, sometimes adding in some historical context to reinforce its point but focusing on the form rather than the subject itself. In a sense, understanding the colour of the painting gives us valuable tools to understand it on our own terms, without the need to know the story behind it or the particular symbolism of a colour at that given time. For example I was not given much in the way of context concerning the Portrait of a Lady by Moroni and the sitter’s role or social status, but the knowledge that the red and gold dress she was wearing would have never existed because it was too expensive to make in 16th century Italy told me a lot about the wealth and power associated these two colours in terms of image and status.

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Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Lady, perhaps Contessa Lucia Albani Avogadro (‘La Dama in Rosso’), about 1556 60, Oil on canvas, 155 x 106.8 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

In the same way, The Beheading of St-Margaret by Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina did not inform me about her martyrdom and its significance but rather about the narrative power of colour as our eyes move from the purple of the executioner to her form shrouded in blue against the dark background and crimson city walls.

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Gherardo di Jacopo Starnina (Master of the Bambino Vispo) The Beheading of Saint Margaret (?),probably about 1409, Egg tempera on poplar, 42.3 x 65.2 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

A great deal is also learnt about what we can no longer see or understand, due to the fact that either colours or our perception of them has been changed, either physically or psychologically. For instance, in Masaccio’s Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, while one red (vermillion) has remained vibrant in  the other (red lake, considerably cheaper, made with crushed dried insects or bark) has faded away, showing the stark difference between one and the other in terms of quality and durability.

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Masaccio, Saints Jerome and John the Baptist, about 1428-9, Egg tempera on poplar, 125 x 58.9 cm Credit Line:The National Gallery, London

In the same sense, the use of gilding is described as something that would have a lot more power for the Renaissance viewer by candlelight due to the flickering of the surface making it seem more tridimensional, while our electric light makes it flat and dull. In the same vein, flesh was painted with a greenish base to give it more volume but now that the flesh colour has faded away we see these painted figures as far more sickly than they actually were! These are only a few of the little tidbits of information and detail that made the exhibition so fun and refreshing, veering away from what we usually focus on in such paintings.

The visual impact of the pigment’s source versus the final work is often visually striking and makes for an informative and aesthetic experience. Seeing lapis lazuli evolve in a small display from its original rock, into pigment and then eventually object, breaks down colour from elaborate artwork to simple component in a way that mingled art history with science in an effective and pedagogical way. Another example is the delicate still life painting by Ruysch, just beneath an orange mineral in a glass display. The comparison seems slightly underwhelming until we read that the mineral in question contains arsenic, making its use very scarce amongst painters. Rachel Ruysch, however, was one of the foolhardy artists so intent upon using orange for her flowers that she took the risk…a risk that evidently paid off.

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Rachel Ruysch (1664 – 1750), Flowers in a Vase, about 1685, Oil on canvas, The National Gallery, London. Bequeathed by Alan Evans, 1974 © The National Gallery, London

The clear and concise information and descriptions are complemented by videos that show exactly how the artists mixed these pigments and then used them; several show the different effects of pigments mixed with egg yolk or oil, the first creating an opaque, fast-drying tempera and the second allowing for a more translucent glaze ideal for multiple layers. The final room even shows the careful process of gilding, in a reconstruction by students of the Hamilton Kerr Institute in Cambridge and the National Gallery Conservation Department.

I feel that in terms of variety and presentation the exhibition did remain extremely centred around Western European paintings from early Renaissance to the early 20th century; although some variety was provided in time period or format, I would have been glad to see more diversity. However, this can be explained by the fact that the main curators of the exhibition are Caroline Campbell, Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500 at the National Gallery, and Ashok Roy, Director of Collections at the National Gallery: where their expertise and choice is obviously tied to their own tastes, knowledge and collection. This is also reinforced by the fact that most of the scienfic observations about pigments and their application is born from the microscopic study of the fragments of paint on the dedge of canvases: it is therefore logical to keep the range of works presented to those that can be most effectively studied (for example, the work beneath, Degas’ Combing the Hair, was studied using a fragment of paint made into a cross section and then observed under a microscope to discern its different red pigments).

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Hilaire Germain Edgar Degas, Combing the Hair (‘La Coiffure’) about 1896, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 146.7 cm, Credit Line: The National Gallery, London

This crucial aspect is actually shown to us through the final part of the exhibition, a short film showing us the scientific study of colour, and the way in which the colours of the past and their uses are rediscovered. It also allows us to partake into small experiments around our own perception of colour, which will be assembled into data for a survey, advancing the research the exhibition showcased in a different light. It gave a sense of interactivity and involvement as well as a definite sense of ambiguity surrounding colour and its interpretation, either optical or psychological.

This exhibition was a perfect example of the way in which a large and extremely technical subject could be broken down into a simple yet intelligent way for a diverse audience to understand and appreciate further the use of colour. It definitely felt as though this was an exhibition in which definite new skills and visual tools could be acquired and then applied to paintings beyond the exhibition’s walls, in the National Gallery and elsewhere. Highlighting the expertise of both artists and the scientists dechiphering their works’ colour, it did not clutter itself with additional historical context, leaving the colours speak for themselves and letting us appeal to our own senses and artistic taste. Like a few primary colours creating a large variety of tones, I think that a simple yet intense exhibition such as Making Colour will be able to provoke different interpretations and ways of seeing in its wake.

The  Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular
Moses Harris, The Natural System of Colours Wherein is displayed the regular and beautiful Order and Arrangement,… 1769/1776 Book, Credit Line: Royal Academy of Arts, London

Making Colour, at the National Gallery, from the 18th of June to the 7th of September

Did you see the exhibition? Want to talk about colour and its history? Do you think there are better ways of talking about colour? Feel  free to speak up here, on the new Facebook page or on Twitter!