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Exhibition review London Ongoing exhibitions

Rachel Whiteread at Tate Britain

You could almost miss it – a small house-like structure, whitish-grey under a pale January sun, like a shy guest in Tate Britain’s front yard. Rachel Whiteread’s Chicken Shed (2017) is one of the many outdoor structures which the British sculptor has chosen to cast from the inside out – recording its absence rather than its presence, making it a ghost of its former self. She calls these works from this recent series “shy sculptures” – usually located in remote landscapes that are far less accessible than a museum in Pimlico – an endearing term that gives them a personality and life while also establishing their relationship witin a space. There is a paradox in showing a “shy” sculpture in the gardens of Tate Britain, as an opening note to a major retrospective of Rachel Whiteread’s works. Yet, in many ways that is precisely the point – showing the way in which a shy idea, a shy presence (or absence) can create a quiet murmur in our head, calmly question and make us reassess our relationship to objects, their presence and the way they relate to our own memories.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Yellow Torso), 1991, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

Curated by Ann Gallagher, Linsey Young, Helen Delaney and Hattie Spires, the retrospective exhibition is a testimony to the power of a single idea to be broken down and turned up on its head…or in this case, inside out. Starting with early domestic experiments in the late 80s, the artist’s fascination with the nature of the plaster cast is established from the very beginning is established ; so is her obsession with casting not the presence of an object but filling in its negative spaces. Her takeover of domestic objects and those she finds in junk shops or on the streets soon expands to take over a variety of materials such as resin and rubber. The power of such a simple but perfected experimentation is shown with series such as the Torsos series. Aluminium, wax, concrete or rubber poured into a “torso-like” structure are laid bare in their cast final form. It feels very weird to say that you spent twenty minutes in front of the casts of the insides of water bottles or enemas (yes, enemas) but…somehow it works. There is something immediately attracting and satisfying about the way these structures play off each other with their change in colour and texture while retaining the same basic shape, one that Whiteread has described as resembling “headless, limbless babies”. In any other body of work (pun intended), that would be ideal nightmare fuel, yet Whiteread makes it work and throughout the display manages to create this visual tension between the material used, the industrial processes of filling and destroying and the organic elements it reminds us of. An obsession with the material to convey the body but also its immateriality, its absence, its ghost.

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Rachel Whiteread, Stairs, 1995, Private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread 

Whiteread’s works on paper provide a rare insight in the way in which these sculptures take shape, showing her dissection of the structures whose presence we take for granted : houses, staircases. As a response to these small sketches, two monumental results : Untitled (Room 101) (2003) and Untitled (Stairs) (2001), both white, hollowed out fragments of two fragments of literature and history. The first is the cast of a room of BBC’s Broadcasting House in which Orwell was said to have found inspiration for the Room 101 in 1984. The second is a cast of the stairs of an East London warehouse repurposed into an old synagogue in which she moved her studio. One immortalises the legacy of a room on modern literature, the other the life of a building reflecting the life of London itself, made of repurposing and transformation. The monumental is contrasted with the minimal – in the case of a small selection of composition presented on neat shelves, small still life composition cast from mundane objects like loo rolls. Here shape counts as much as colour coordination, a rare splash of colours together in a room of plaster whites and green and pinkish resins. In a display that at first sight looks so polished and neat, ghosts and remnants of memories abound and surround the objects. The cast boxes in a corner may seem like another formal experiment ; yet they indicate a childhood spent moving around, box to box. The power of everyday objects to convey memory and make us reflect upon the spaces we live in – and how we live within them – is never drowned out by the monumental sculptures around. Among these is an arresting fragment of the process behind the public commission of the Holocaust Memorial in Vienna (2000) – a cast of books in a library, a library that cannot be opened or perused, walled into silence and commemoration.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Stairs), 2001, Tate (c) Rachel Whiteread, Photo (c) Tate (John Humphrys)

While the plan indicates a loose chronological narrative which can be experienced counter-clockwise, the immense room breaks down any notion of chronology and fragmentation in its very format. Its layout without walls or partitions means visitors are left to wander around, either free to follow a loose sense of chronological order around the room, abandon it halfway through or ignore it entirely, creating erratic patterns that lose the obsession with a timeline or “progression.” The curators and designers of the exhibition may have anticipated the way in which Whiteread’s works creates latent ripple effects that often produce their first effect after you have wandered away ; you feel compelled to return, look closer, look again. You also probably want to bite into some of the resin. I’m sorry, but we were probably all thinking it, especially with sculptures as mouth-watering and beautifully executed as Hive (2007-8) below. One of the highlights of the exhibition was actually to see it work on so many levels, with many children within the space taking full advantage of this experience of sculpture conveying so many different sensory impressions and recollections. Touching with the eyes is a passé expression, but it works here, for a series of works which feels so sensuous and tactile at times. For a popular and crowded exhibition which did actively welcome such a free pattern of wandering around, it never felt claustrophobic – proof that the response to the increasing popularity of museums is not to limit entry or hike up fees, as some have unconvincingly argued lately, but to adapt your exhibition design accordingly. As people took the time to sit on the vast bench at the centre of the room, rest and talk amongst themselves within the vast negative spaces between works engaging with that very idea, and as the space became visibly more accessible to people with pushchairs or wheelchairs, the experience felt a lot more restful than it usually does, without the sensation of being shepherded through a succession of corridor-like rooms on to the next decade, and the next, and the next.

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Rachel Whiteread, Untitled (Hive), 2007-8, private collection (c) Rachel Whiteread

Furthermore, this could not be more fitting for a body of work which many have often qualified as repetitive, but which, in the artist’s books, is intentionally embracing this by responding to an issue whose variations and possibilities are endless. The white room does literally respond to the idea of an impersonal white cube, but in this case it beautifully fits the very spirit around which Whiteread’s work finds its sources of inspiration : an immaculate shell encompassing upside-down casts, fascinating and unearthly in their pristine nature. Yet in some ways this could be seen as an issue : too white, too clean and too polished in contrast with the artist’s process and her sources of inspiration rooted in a very real, dirty, organic world. The elements of this inspiration and process can be found outside the ticketed entry to the exhibition space, in an interesting corridor display that displays a collection of eccentric found objects. It feels odds to have such a strict seperation of these in contrast with the finished work inside  and it would have been interesting to compromise with a few more sculptures on display in this freely accessible corridor with, in exchange, a few more found objects inside. However, the format of an exhibition spreading beyond its ticketed  room is interesting and shows a willingness to acknowledge not only different ways of experiencing an exhibition within a museum space, but also a conscious effort to have new, free alternatives for visitors outside of shifting collection display for people who understandly find the price of exhibition admission too steep.

This is the same corridor which displays a series of her public commissions – also questioning whether or not the cast bookshelves within the main room could have been shown here in some shape or form. While her works such as Monument for Trafalgar Square (2001) or the Holocaust Memorial are documented through photographs, perhaps one of her more famous projects, House (1993) benefits from its own film to replace the work itself destroyed back in 1994, a step by step exploration documented by the artist herself of the casting of an entire Victorian-style house within an East London park. It is fascinating in its uncovering of the « messiness » of her process in contrast with the pure, finished results. The vacant home she takes over for the project also shows something of the violence in stripping down and hollowing out not only a historically relevant piece of housing but perhaps one that could have still been lived in. An arresting moment in the documentary shows Whiteread filming a set of clothing drying on a hanging line near the boarded up house just before it is to be emptied and expressing concern because the house is “meant to be unoccupied.” The owner of the clothing is not found nor is the incident mentioned again ; a ghost and a visible absence within a documentary about making a house a shell of its former, lived-in self. The finished result is arresting, disturbing : seeing the process of upturning an object full of context has almost more impact after marvelling at the neatness of the translucent shells within the room.

Documentary of Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) (Online version via Artangel)

Wandering outside of the corridor, the Duveen Gallery is invaded by two displays facing off on one another. There is Whiteread’s installation Untitled (100 spaces), translucent, gelatin-like resin casts of the underside of chairs, glistening as they are walked around (okay, my first serious art critic thought was actually “Gummy bears”, and I stand by that). Facing it, another fascinating sidenote to the exhibition : a selection of sculptures from the Tate collection selected by Whiteread in collaboration with curators. These are fascinating in their lack of an obvious narrative linking back directly to Whiteread’s work, instead allowing for a look at sculpture’s play with monumentality, texture and perception, playing with what we think we expect from sculpture and what it makes us discover instead through experimentation and risk-taking. This is a great idea, one that allows to link back a temporary exhibition to a wide-ranging experience of both the collection, British sculpture and contemporary sculpture as a whole.  Modern British sculpture such as Barbara Hepworth rubs shoulders with Sarah Lucas and Rebecca Warren, a casual fragment of sculptural art history seen through the eyes of one of its contemporary pioneers.

The exhibition is strong through its fluidity, perfectly reflecting the way in which Whiteread’s work has articulated itself through a single, shy but persistent notion : inner lives, presences and absences. She shows a vision of the world in which we should question why we preserve things, how and why – and does so in a way which always feels deeply intimate yet casual, like a quiet but engaging conversation. Shyness sounds underrated. Rachel Whiteread’s expression of the quiet but magnetic power of objects over the past few decades shows that it is anything but.

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Rachel Whiteread, Chicken Shed (2017), the artist and Galleria Lorcan O’ Neill (c) Rachel Whiteread, photo (c) Tate 

 

Rachel Whiteread, Tate Britain, 12th September-21st January

 

 

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris

WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, at Palais de Tokyo

The refugee crisis seen through the lens of contemporary art has been a recurring source of debate in the past year. What can the art world could do to raise awareness around refugees’ travelling and living conditions? How can artistic engagement change our society’s relationship with migration? Where do we draw the line between awareness and emotional exploitation, education and pathos? Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Green Light’ participatory installation working with refugees at the Venice Biennale attracted both praise and doubts about the efficiency of such a manoeuver, at risk of instrumentalizing a crisis in spite of good intentions. Similarly, Ai Weiwei’s political artistic initiatives made headlines and provoked debate about the limits of art’s activist efficiency. These works revolving around visual impact and participation contrast with focused documentary work, such as Daniela Ortiz’s recent exhibition ABC of Racist Europe   at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. In a series of interviews with refugees and grassroots activists she explores the nature of migratory control systems and European states’ hypocrisy in waving a public “Refugees Welcome!” flag while secretly organising deportations.

Artistic reactions and involvement are therefore wide-ranging and diverse in nature. However, while there are no right or wrong ways of educating and raising awareness or support, there is a recurring sentiment artistic and charity organisations do not neccessarily have a shared network allowing for productive exchanges around the subject. This is why initiatives such as WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY are essential, providing a framework for collaboration between two systems sharing the same ideals with different tools at their disposal. The charity auction, precededed by an exhibition till the 21st at the Palais de Tokyo, will be organized by Christie’s at the Gallery Azzedine Alaïa. Its proceeds will benefit five NGOs working directly with refugees and migrants to advocate for their integration and rights. The initiative is led by Julie Boukobza, Chantal Crousel, Blanche de Lestrange, Niklas Svennung and Marine van Schoonbeek, in direct collaboration with the NGOs La Cimade, Migreurop, Centre Primo Levi, Thot and Anafé. Charity auctions benefiting refugees in Paris and throughout France have thankfully already existed – involving contemporary art but also photographs taken by refugees themselves, as well as the locks from the Pont des Arts. However this is first of its kind in Europe to involve an internationally recognised selection of contemporary artists with strong museum and gallery representation. 

The exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo showing the donated works of 26 contemporary artists should not be mistaken with an exhibition specifically about or illustrating the refugee crisis. While many of the works do reflect some of the artists’ concerns with political and migratory themes, others do not neccessarily draw an immediate comparison, nor are they required to. This is not a show in which the refugee crisis become the direct, quite literal subject of works so much as part of an underlying, broader theme. As Chantal Crousel indicated in her speech during the exhibition’s opening, the aim is to show how refugees’ situations reflected concerns artists harbour about identity in a context of displacement and doubt. In this particular context, this approach gives space for many of the works to reflect broader aesthetics and feelings around the theme of migration, identity and society.

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Rirkrit Tiravanija untitled 2017 (we dream under the same sky, new york times, january 26, 2017) 2017 Peinture à la main sur papier journal / Handpaint on news paper 228,6 x 185,4 cm / 89.7 x 72.8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (we dream under the same sky, new york times, january 26, 2017) (2017) is a new work created for the exhibition which immediately responds to migration and xenophobia by directly painting his statement on the pages of the New York Times announcing Donald Trump’s devastating “Immigration Ban”. A comparison can be drawn with Wade Guyton’s work Untitled (2016), using screencaptures from the same newspaper to challenge the way in which migration is being represented by the media. Oscar Tuazon’s Reading bench 5 (wild ways/services for nomads) (2016) is a bench through which the pages of the magazine Vonulife by an Oregon collective in the 1970s can be read. Standing for VOLuntary Non vULnerable, the collective advocated freedom and nomadism in a refusal to interact with state structures. Its presence in the exhibition allows for the work to take on new meanings around nomadism, freedom and identity.

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Anri Sala Le jour de gloire 2017 Encre sur papier minéral, triptyque / Ink on stone paper, three parts Chacun : 40 x 29,7 cm / Each: 15 3/4 x 11 6/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

A beautiful and sensitive triptych by Anri Sala explores his work practice working directly with refugees in relation to his exploration of sound. Le jour de gloire (2017) is the result of a three-day workshop with refugees in which each of them produced images, drawings and objects related to their experiences. The tonality and rythm of Le jour de gloire corresponds to the layout of the apples in the triptych while presumably challenging the integrity of French republican values facing the welcoming of refugees in terms of our hymn and, implicitely, the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité. This subtle approach relying on several layers of interpretation and viewing also applies to Adel Abdessemed’s Chicos (2015) for whom migration and violence are recurring themes. His use of porcelain to represent two smiling children refers to kitsch decoration and imagery, subverted here to refer to the plight of child soldiers and the loss of innocence.

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Mona Hatoum Afghan (red and orange) 2008 Laine / Wool
 107 x 180 cm / 42 1/8 x 70 7/8 in. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris © photo : Florian Kleinefenn

Abraham Cruzvillegas’ new work specifically conceived for the sale, Self Constructed Upside Down Shelter (2017) associates his interest in the dynamics of craft and reclaimed materials with the theme of migration, with a copper-plated, reversed world map on which all borders have been erased. The world map reclaimed and reinterpreted outside of a Eurocentric or American world view is a common theme in Mona Hatoum’s work, while letting domectic and socio-political issues confront and collide as part her practice. Her work Afghan (red and orange) (2008) reprises this subject. The eroded shape of a world map on the traditional carpet reveals a view of the world based on the Projection of Peters,  rendering each country to scale and thus allowing for a more realistic representation of the African and Asian continents. Danh Vō ‘s work Promised Land (2017), created for the sale, relates to the themes of migration and cultural identity present in his work. His gilding of the lettering on a piece of cardboard seems to poke fun at the expectations and ideals we can ascribe to objects and the countries they are associated with. Its light-hearted but intimate message reflects Vō’s practice, which often resonates with his experiences as a Vietnamese-born Danish artist.

The abstract and multifaceted nature of the works does not soften the project into a feel-good, do-good initiative without any hard facts on migratory policy in sight. On the contrary, an integral part of the exhibition and week-long initiative leading up to the sale on the 27th is to raise awareness around each of the beneficiaries’ works by letting them have centre-stage. Every evening, free and open conferences take place in the exhibition space during which each NGO has room to launch conversations and debates about their activities and the condition of refugees in France. The fact that this is happening in Paris is all the more important. The refugee crisis here is not an abstract concern but a tangible and shameful reality in which individuals in seek of asylum or a better life are denied basic human rights and living conditions. Xenophobia and racism have not died down since Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections. “No room for homeless people, but at the same time centers for migrants continue to open,” declared journalist Jean-Pierre Pernaut earlier this month, on privatised and most widely watched French television channel TF1. This is only one example of the way in which the refugee crisis is either scapegoated or normalized. This was notably the case for a recent French maths textbook using the increasing arrival of refugees to teach children about percentages. (The manual has since been withdrawn to be reprinted).

Thus, the involvement of five NGOs with five different priorities is all the more essential, raising awareness about what needs to be done on so many levels and educating exhibition-goers about many unhealthy assumptions we may have internalized (such as picturing refugees as more worthy of being welcomed than migrants coming for economical purposes). Migreurop are a network of activists conducting research on the EU’s exclusion policies, raising awareness around detention and deporatation as well as the closure of borders. The Centre Primo Levi focuses upon refugees suffering from trauma related to torture and political violence, while Thot is a school for migrants and refugees, teaching French and facilitating their inclusion into society. While Anafé concentrates on human rights at borders and “waiting zones” with dire living conditions, La Cimade deals with asylum and integration rights. The focus on different needs for refugees and migrants alike is all the more important to give the visitor increased awareness of what needs to be acheived, beyond a blanket “refugees welcome!” statement. It is genuinely rare to leave an exhibition with so much activist information at your disposal. At the door as I arrived, peaceful protesters were holding placards with a familiar name – that of Cédric Herrou, condemned for his help towards refugees as a concerned French citizen. While grassroots activism and individual involvement are admittedly not a part of WE DREAM’s activist representation, it is difficult to leave the space without considering our individual responsability towards the people we welcome into our countries.

Art and activism must form more networks and initiatives to work together, to balance ideals with calls to action in spaces geared towards information and debate. This exhibition and its charity sale is important for a number of reasons, beyond the financial support and social awareness it will raise. It shows what can happen when artistic and charity networks merge to bring their individual expertise to the table for a dynamic and solidarous exchange. It would be sadly optimistic to think we’ll need less of these initiatives in the future. Nevertheless, these projects bring hope that the art world will know how to anticipate, mobilise and organise with increasing skill, passion and commitment to relieve further suffering and injustice.

WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY, at Palais de Tokyo till the 21st of September, charity benefit sale at Galerie Azzedine Alaïa on the 27th September

Categories
Exhibition review Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Beauté Congo Kitoko at Fondation Cartier

If I had to be quizzed about artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo a few months ago, I would have to admit that I would not have been able to list many off the top of my head. On a wider level, the lack of exposure of arists from the African continent in terms of international exhibitions and collection displays is an issue that must be acknowledged and confronted. Nevertheless the tide is changing in the art market, with a significant amount of African art fairs and opportunities for artists from Africa emerging which still need to make their way to museums and exhibition spaces. This is precisely Fondation Cartier’s aim with Beauté Congo Kitoko, the first and long-overdue presentation of a selection of Congolese art from 1926 to 2015.

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Chéri Samba, La vraie carte du monde, 2011, acrylic and glitter on canvas, collection of the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain, photo (c) Florian Kleinefen, (c) Chéri Samba

The display starts at the ground level of the Fondation Cartier, with its luminous glass walls allowing full appreciation of some of the iconic painters of Congolese art from the 90s onwards, such as Chéri Samba, the leader in popular painting and the first to incorporate text in his works as well as his own image, like a succession of surrealist and omnipresent self-portraits. This smooth, realistic and colourful paintings are comments on society and politics, somewhere between a mural and a comic – appropriate for the traditional custom in Kinasha to display paintings outside the artist’s studio, open to the street. Cheik Ledy addresses the issues behind immigration, malaria and contemporary art, while Pierre Bodo uses a fantastical, festive style to describe “La Sape”, the iconic and showy fashion of the young Congolese scene. Meanwhile, Chérin Chérin calls out political corruption and Monsengo Shula imagines an utopian space. Political opinions and severe criticism on a country recovering from its colonial past seems to go hand in hand with bright colours and an optimistic vision of the future…however it is a brightness that does not sugarcoat the issues at hand, instead portraying the hopes and aspirations of a country with the complexity and ambiguity they deserve.

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Monsengo Shula, Ata Ndele Mokili Ekobaluka (tôt ou tard le monde changera), 2014, acrylic and glitter on canvas, Private collection, (c) Monsengo Shula, photo (c) Florian Kleinefen

The liveliness of the works is all the more striking since they are not accompanied by quiet contemplation. Indeed, this exhibition ‘s main strength and particularity was the incorporation within its display of something I am extremely enthusiastic about: music to go along with the works. Even better, rather than a single; looping playlist for the entire display, these are different playlists of Congolese music for every single part of the exhibition, which relate closely to the works in terms of subject-matter, style or simply inspiration. Placed to the side, under a small acoustic roof, this allows you to sit down and listen more closely, also viewing lyrics and the particular context or curatorial intent behind a song, or to walk around the display with a music which seems to give contemplation a particular life and rythm. The selection and correspondence between image and sound was perfect and only strengthened the vibrant and diverse works present. I discovered not only new artists but also new musicians! However, quite frustratingly, there was no CD compiling all this music on sale, due to copyright issues…as though to remedy to this, Fondation Cartier invited the pan-African news station Chimurenga to install their web radio Pan African Space Station to take control of the exhibition space with interventions, concerts and performances in September.

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The way the music was presented

Veering into the second ground floor room the visitor is greeted with a selection of contemporary photographs, works on paper and comics – a hugely important part of the cultural scene and nowhere than in France, huge lover of the bande dessinnée, could they be more appreciated. However this time, most of the text on the comics covers is in Congolese rather than French and although that in itself seems pretty obvious, it was surprising not to have any translations provided, or some way of leafing through a facsimile. However Fondation Cartier has provided a creative way of allowing its visitors to read through a story, by collaborating with Papa Mfumu’eto 1er, who frequently releases a new comic on the Facebook page introducing us to everyday life in Congo from his perspective.

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Descending to the underground level opens up a far wider, opens space which reveals the futuristic structures of Bodys Isek Kingelez and Robert Nimi, made from a variety of materials and meant to be proposals for a bright, exciting future of expansion and urban wonder. They are surrounded with earlier examples of artist’s relation to new urban spaces and people, such as Moke’s depictions of boxers and nightlife, creating the ideal counterpart to Jean Depara’s black and white photographs from the 50s and 60s capturing people in snapshots that are sometimes spontaneous, sometimes theatrical and often a mix of both, with  a diversity of humor, sharpness and social insight.

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Moke, Kin Oyé, 1983, oil on canvas, private collection, paris, (c) Moke, photo (c) André Morin
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Jean Depara, Untitled (Moziki), c. 1955-65, gelatin silver print, CAAC – The Pigozzi Collection, Geneva, (c) Jean Depara, photo (c) André Morin

It is only after arriving at the end of this vast panorama that the visitor is invited to move even further back into time, through small, quieter corridors which explore 1920s artists and their use of abstraction, patterns and expressionism merging with a relentlessly figurative way of depicting the world. The delicacy of Antoinette Lubaki’s watercolours, the intricacy of Pilipili Mulongoy’s animals in gouache, oil and pastel works on paper and Mwenze Kibwanga’s enigmatic figures in oil on paper and many others, all in usually small formats using paper or panel, create a Congolese avant-garde whose creativity in technique and figurative art will create a strong precedent for all the works we have seen before. Even though the chronology may seem bizarre and slightly confusing at time, slowly unfurling this Congolese contemporary and modern art history in all its diversity is worth it.

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Pili Pili Mulongoy, Untitled, undated, oil on paper, Collection Pierre Loos, Brussels, (c) Pili Pili Mulongoy, photo (c) André Morin

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It is rare to emerge from an exhibition where I hardly knew a single artist or anything about the country’s cultural background and feel so utterly convinced and enthralled by what I have found out. The exhibition was obviously curated with a passionate drive and intelligence which allowed it to draw in its visitor and keep a good rythm and interest going within a relatively short display. André Magnin, the exhibition curator, has been championing artists from the Democratic Republic of Congo for decades now, and it shows through in the best way possible – a vision of the country’s artistic heritage which pushes the visitor to leave and discover more. Furthermore, the Fondation Cartier is good at creating additional events and documentation around its exhibitions which only further enrich the experience for visitors and allows to “follow” the exhibition right until the end. The best news in all of this is that the dedication in showing works almost completely unknown to the French general public paid off: the exhibition is such a success that it has been extended until the 10th of January. Hopefully, museums cautious about exhibiting exhibitions exclusively devoted to artists from African countries shall take note.

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Antoinette Lubaki, Untitled, watercolour on paper, Collection Pierre Loos, Brussels, (c) Antoinette Lubaki, photo (c) Michael De Plaen
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
Ongoing exhibitions Paris Uncategorized

Dark Waters at Galerie Chantal Crousel

Water has always been a fascinating subject-matter for artists, with its fluctuating nature and dangerous temperament, both a mirror of the soul in turmoil. The popularity of scenes at sea, ships and tempests, rose mainly amongst romantic artists of the 19th century. They never entirely left the peacefulness of pastoral scenes with their picturesque lakes and rivers, yet a definite shift occurred that made water a source of ambiguity and turmoil. Parisians lazing around on the riverside, or desperate shipwrecked sailors fighting against the waves?

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Exhibition view. Photo credits: Florian Kleinefenn Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris
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Jean-Luc Moulène, Drapé nuit, Paris, mars 2009

These deep, dark waters now reflected an inner melancholy or torment that the forces of nature could both show and channel. Is this romantic ideal dead? Not according to Galerie Chantal Crousel’s most recent group exhibition, Dark Waters. The theme of water is used to host a large array of interpretations in many different mediums and subjects. The arrival of water in the gallery space is welcomed by its sound as we walk in; David Douard’s sculpture MO: need sets the mood through its complex and elegant structure of plexiglas, cables, metal and flowing water, reminiscent of a urban, futuristic fountain. Its twisting forms seem to complement Jean-Luc Moulène’s Drapé Nuit, a twisting, serpentine work in rubber and epoxy resin, creating a shape “pulled inside out, creating a void…” according to the artist. It mirrors his work on paper Cristal Vague, that seems to create a strangely ordered chaos on the page.

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Jean-Luc Moulène, Cristal vague, 2004, Crayon noir sur papier 28.50 x 39.50 cm | 11″ 2/8 x 1′ 3″ 4/8

The desire to seek out an abstract way of representing water and its flow, while paradoxically immobilizing it, seems to haunt many of the exhibition’s works.This is particularly true in a less abstract but more cinematic approach, with Marcel Broodthaers’ projection and video installations from the 1970s, Bateau-Tableau and Chère Petite Soeur (la Tempête). In the first, fragments of marine paintings are projected, while the second captures in motion a boat in the storm. Set into motion through film it mingles into a video collage between picture and text. The words call out on the approximate capture through the image, seem to question how we could capture a storm in any aspect, either through video, sound or image, tie in with a vaster question of the way in which we can represent at all, only attempt to record a sensation.

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Exhibition view. Photo credits: Florian Kleinefenn Courtesy de l’artiste et Galerie Chantal Crousel, Paris

 

Sometimes the most potent creations depicting water or recording its effects are those created partly by water, such as Gabriel Orozco’s Set of Ringstones, which are in fact river cobblestones he found in Mexico. In a sense the water also becomes sculptor, shaping objects just as it may shape entire environnements and people. It can either smooth out or destroy, remain pure or become “dark” in many different ways. In Darkwater IV by Tim Rollins and K.O.S, the darkness of the paint and water obscuring and destroying the pages of an old book corresponds to its content: Darkwater, Voices from Within the Veil, by W.E.B Du Bois, where “ever below is the water, – wide and silent, gray-brown and yellow.”

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Wolfgang Tillmans, Buenos Aires, 2010, Inkjet print on paper in artist’s frame

It would appear as a description that is a far cry away from the introductory quote of the exhibition by Armelle Barguillet-Hauteloire in Proust et le miroir des eaux:  “Reverie begins before a brook’s running water, the still water of a pond, the unpredictable water of the sea, it ends in a gloomy water that imparts strange and funerary murmurs.” Yet again, there is no concession made between the prosaic, almost documentary depiction of water and its poetic, almost abstract appeal, such as Tillmans’ Buenos Aires photograph where the down-to-earth shot of a gutter contrasts with the multitude of senses and colours it conveys with extreme precision.

 

 

 

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Édouard Manet, Marina, 1964-1966

Most of these works I have mentioned, and those completing the exhibition as a whole, are more or less recent, from 2000 and onwards, with a few striking exceptions such as Broodthaers. These exceptions also include notably two works on paper from the end of the 19th century and early forties: the first is Marina, by Edouard Manet, a delicate and elegant etching on paper of ships at sea, a drawing reminiscent of his own maritime travels and sketches, when he was still aiming for a career in the Navy, before devoting his life entirely to his art. Its powerful dark lines contrast with the second work on paper, Untitled by WOLS (Alfred Otto Wolfgang Schulze). His watercolour depiction of a harbour seem lyrical and dreamlike, in soft tones of yellow and blue, yet its accumulation of details reflects the time he spent at de Camp des Milles concentration camp in 1939, fighting against confinement and anxiety. The presence of the two works on paper within a contemporary display give an additional sense of the historical context and aesthetic legacy surrounding seascapes, adding to the dialogues going on within the space from one work to another.

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WOLS, Sans titre, 1940-1941

The theme of ‘water’ could seem simple. Yet this group exhibition, far from only skimming the surface, delivers a thoughtful and sensitive display of an uncontrollable element that we nevertheless always manage to appropriate as our own, in abstract and poetic terms.

Featured image: Marcel Broodthaers, Chère petite soeur (La Tempête) film still, 1972

 

Dark Waters, at Galerie Chantal Crousel, June 12th to July 24th

 

 

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