The Daily Pic: Arlene Shechet reveals the inner workings of Meissen.
The sculptor Arlene Shechet, who was showing this piece of hers at the Sikkema Jenkins booth at Art Basel, once told me that she started working in ceramics almost by accident. It seems she was never a classic art-school mud bunny, obsessed with clay and the potter’s wheel. With her latest project, however, executed during a residency at the great Meissen clayworks in Germany, Shechet may have to buy herself some mud-bunny ears, after all. This fascinating porcelain piece, titled “Mold of the Mold #29694 Pushed”, was cast from the exterior of one of the ancient molds that Meissen still uses to make precious objets, and then was painted by a master in the mode of such treasures. Riffing on the venerable blue-and-white tradition has become something of a trend on clay’s cutting edge (see my posting on Robert Dawson). Shechet adds to it smartly. To go a bit Greenbergian here, I think clay’s at its best when it talks about clay – or at least when it knows its history.
The Daily Pic: David Horvitz shows sunset and sunrise from opposite points on the globe.
These two iPhones are all there is to “The Distance of a Day”, an installation by the young Brooklyner David Horvitz that I just saw at the Art Basel fair, in the booth of Berlin’s Chert gallery. Last February, Horvitz got his mom to record a video of the sunset over the sea near Los Angeles, where he was born and grew up. At the same moment that she was taping, he was at a point almost opposite her on the globe, in the Maldives, taping the same sun as it rose. There was something poignant for me in imagining our great sun as a tenuous link between mother and son. There was also a kind of almost scientific rigor in the piece, as it demonstrated a basic truth of astronomy. And, of course, it was also about virtuality: A deeply physical project that involves two people and the places they’re in comes to us care of an ephemeral digital record – in fact presented on the very phones that recorded the scenes.
The Daily Pic: In Basel, Marijke van Warmerdam's cherries sell themselves.
This is a moment from a peuliar video shown at the Art Basel fair – and the only piece in it that moved my thoughts forward. The projection is called "Kersentijd (Cherry Season)"; it was made in 2012 by the Dutch artist Marijke van Warmerdam, who shows with Annet Gelink Gallery in Amsterdam and others in Oslo and Tokyo. Across its 2:25 of 35mm footage, the camera pans from a fancy bowl of cherries, shot like a painted still life, to the hand of the young woman eating them, to her mouth as she pops one in and then to her ear as she hangs a pair of cherries over it, with a nearby window reflected in one of the fruits. What I find most compelling is that van Warmerdam manages to use the language of advertising – the most potent visual language of our time – to achieve Old Master-ish, Vermeer-like effects. Or maybe it was Vermeer and his peers who invented that language, and passed it down to us.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): The Chinese dissident sculpts his own (six) Stations of the Cross.
(Photo by Lucy Hogg)
As my last Venice image, I give you one of the dioramas from Ai Weiwei’s new Biennale project, which he was not permitted to see installed. Six metal shipping containers, looking like huge minimal sculptures made of Cor-Ten steel, contain waxworks scenes based on Ai’s memories of his jailing by Chinese authorities in 2011. Each one is sculpted at half of life size, and can be viewed through a porthole in the container’s side and its top. This view from on high shows Ai showering as his inquisitors look on, as they did whenever he did anything, however intimate. It’s important that Ai keep making art about his plight, and the plight of the other persecutees of China. There was, however, something just a touch in bad taste in his taking on a martyr’s role (the piece is called S.A.C.R.E.D., an acronym for the titles of the dioramas: Supper, Accusers, Cleansing, Ritual, Entropy, Doubt). After all, he still commands the resources to have such posh objets manufactured, to have them shipped to Venice and then to have them installed … in a Baroque church no less. Is he trying to pass, camel-like, through the eye of a needle? We must remember, and he must remind us, that he stands for the plight of others who fare much, much worse.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): Rudolf Stingel points Venice back toward its Eastern roots.
At Francois Pinault’s Palazzo Grassi museum, Rudolf Stingel has covered every inch of every floor and wall of its palatial spaces with industrial wall-to-wall printed with blow-ups of classic Eastern carpets. Yes, it’s a one liner, but it’s loud enough to be impressive, and its Islamic accent gives it special leverage, in Europe and the world now, as well as in a city that once made its money (and culture) from ties to the East. Once upon a time, no self-respecting Venetian altar went without a carpet like these ones.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): The Prada Foundation shows how Richard Serra's heavy metals once seemed vanishingly conceptual.
This is at least the third time I have Pic’d the early works of Richard Serra, because I find such evident pleasure in looking at them. This installation, however, shows that this was not always how they came across. The photo was taken at a fascinating show now at The Prada Foundation in Venice, whose ancient palazzo has been mashed-up with an inch-by-inch recreation of “When Attitudes Become Form”, the great 1969 exhibition at the Kunsthalle in Berne, which first brought conceptual art into focus. What comes across most strongly in the Venice revisitation, however, is how much more present the “forms” now seem than the “attitudes” that shaped them – with these Serras as a classic example of how object-heavy this conceptual show really was. Period works that now seem all about their aesthetics, that is, once felt entirely about the ideas behind them, since their visuals had yet to gel in our minds as art. Here’s my bet: That that’s true of a huge number of Old Master objects as well. They once would have seemed full of attitude, couched in almost illegible forms.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): Mathias Poledna uses Dumbo-era craft to score current points.
This is a moment from "The Imitation of Life", Mathias Poledna's projection in the Austrian pavilion of the Biennale gardens. It's a three-minute animation of a singing donkey in a sailor suit goofing around in nature, done in the most traditional Disney style and screened on classic 35mm film. It could absolutely pass for a pre-feature short from the 1930s, although all its characters are newly conceived by Poledna and its cels were drawn and painted in 21st-century Hollywood. That makes the piece a strange hybrid, sitting somewhere between appropriation and nostalgic craft. Or maybe it's a kind of remade readymade, and gets its power from using Disney as "serious" contemporary art. Among other things, its endless scroll of credits makes you realize how few resources are normally poured into fine art, compared to even a minor animation.
The donkey sings the phrase "I've got a feelin' you're foolin' with me", which makes me think he stands for all of us watching the work – or at least for all jackass critics.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): The Romanians give us tableaux vivants of past works from Biennales.
In the brilliant Romanian pavilion, the artists Alexandra Pirici and Manuel Pelmus have paid a troupe of performers to act out an anthology of works from a full century of Venice Biennales, presented in the old-fashioned mode of tableaux vivants. This photo captures them enacting one of Jeff Koons's images of himself having sex with La Cicciolina, the porn star who was then his wife, as shown in Venice in 1990. At other moments the troupe performed the 1924 "Black Circle" by Kasimir Malevich (by lying in a circle on the ground) and a 2007 piece about the political neutrality of the Venice Biennale (a single dancer simply stood there, looking noncommittal). They also gave us charades of a national hero on horseback, in Venice in 1897, and of Edward Hopper's "Hotel Lobby" from the 1952 Biennale (some performers crouched as the lobby's chairs). On first encounter, the Romanians' anthology felt like a wonderful one-liner. On sticking with it, as I did for close to an hour, all sorts of profundities opened up. It came to be about all art as depending on human actions, about how interpretation always trumps the objects themselves, about how everything artists make can be leveled-out to a single cultural genre, and about the "migrant labor" of artists at any Biennale. (This last point I've cribbed from the project's rather good introductory text.) I also came to realize that Pirici and Pelmus's single "gesture" required as much craft and care as any high-realist painting: The performers have memorized all the dozens of works in their anthology, and will be presenting them daily through November.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): Artur Zmijewski presents the work of sightless painters as futile, and necessary.
A still from "Blindly", a coruscating video from the brilliant Polish artist Artur Zmijewski, in the Biennale's group show. If Zmijewski's greatest video showed deaf people learning to grunt out a Bach cantata, this more recent one shows the messes blind people make when asked to paint. In my full review of the Biennale in this week's Newsweek, I argue that Zmijewski's video represents the dilemma at the heart of all artmaking today, including in the Venice show: A sense of absolute pointlessness and powerlessness, and a determination nevertheless to go on making art. My review argues that the Biennale's group show valiantly tries, and notably fails, to return art to a time when it had a real function in life. Zmijewski's video acts as the show's own declaration of that failure, but also as an insistence that the effort of artmaking, whatever the results, counts as a success.
It so happens that there's research on blind artists that bears this out.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale edition): Anri Sala achieves a masterpiece, by taking on someone else's.
Anri Sala's "Ravel Ravel Unravel" project, representing France at this year's Biennale, is the best thing I've seen so far, and one of the best I've ever seen here. I'd need thousands of words to get at its complexities, but here are a few hundred to get us started.
Sala's premise is relatively simple: He gets two great, heroic (male) musicians to record the concerto that Maurice Ravel wrote in 1930 for a pianist who'd lost his right hand in the Great War. In a grand central room of Sala's pavilion, two stacked screens show gorgeous, hi-def footage of each player's left hand as it strikes the keyboard. Although the pianists begin their solos at the same time, and the orchestra recorded with each is identical, their interpretations vary enough for the sights and sounds of their playing to pass in and out of sync. In one smaller side room – the first space you come to in the building – a smaller projection shows a close-up on a woman's face in extreme concentration; the soundtrack makes you think that she's playing the piano, except that her playing seems wildly distorted and fractured. In the building's final space, encountered after the main screening room, the camera pulls back and the woman's task is explained: She's standing at a pair of turntables, like a Hip Hop DJ, using her fingers to stop and start a pair of vinyl discs that bear the pianists' performances. Her goal is clearly to reconcile the two recordings so that their solos can be heard in sync, but the result is a series of hesitations and distortions in the sound as she "scratches" the twin records. The harder she works to make things right, the worse the result.
So much for the premise. Read on for some of my reactions:
– There's a sense of Sala "replacing" the missing hand of the original pianist, by doubling the players. Of course, his new, hybrid musician is a strange double lefty. A fractured body is healed, but its musicmaking is further damaged.
– There's a fascinating tension between the visually powerful moments when we see the pianists' hands flying across their keyboards, and the visually placid moments when those hands are at rest – despite the aural frenzy of the orchestra playing its parts offscreen.
– Surprisingly, the doubled recording of the Ravel is not cacophonous at all. At most, the piece underlines a common notion of Ravel as predicting later, more strenuously modern music. What you hear could be Ravel reworking his own thoughts on music, if he'd lived into the 1960s.
– There's also a sense that counterpoint, which has been Western classical music's most notable feature, has been turned into the aesthetic principle behind Sala's contemporary visual art. It's hard to sort out the echoes and repeats in Ravel's original score and the echoes and repeats introduced by Sala.
– The woman's attempt to sort out the musical jumble comes care of DJ culture, often seen as standing in opposition to the classical tradition and for a rejection of Bachian order. Yet her two hands, delicately working the turntables, come off as strangely close to the pianists' twinned left hands at their keyboards. (Could someone write a piece for a one-handed turntablist?)
– The project is about recording and playback technologies – visual and aural – as much as about live performance. Sala uses different speaker arrays in each room as well as different sound baffling (the central room has foam panels that eliminate almost all echoes off its walls). The separate content in each room is matched, and complicated, by different means of reproduction.
– There's a notable contrast between our sense of being in the presence of intuitive choices being made, as we watch each pianist do his particular thing, and our realization that the actual footage that we watch and hear is set down for good, without the possibility of alteration. In what sense, then, are we actual witnesses to improvisation?
–There's also a lovely match between the way the pianists seem to improvise, but within the narrowest of limits (hence their being often in sync), and the improvisations of the cameramen as they follow the movement of the musicians' hands, pull their focus to different parts of the keyboard or drag our attention from flying fingers of the left hands to right hands not moving at all. And all along we're never sure how much freedom there really is for either musician or cameraman to stray from a script set by Sala – and Ravel. This, you could say, is the tension at the heart of much of the West's performative art.
– There are gender implications. The piece underlines the "maleness" of the Romantic tradition in music – the concerto's one-handedness was "produced" by a war – and then positions its woman as stuck between gigantic male egos, hopelessly attempting to reconcile them.
– A final marker of the success of this strange collaboration between Sala and the long-dead Ravel: Despite the extreme complexity of the piece, visitors stayed riveted for longer than they ever would in front of a painting or photo, or with a classical album. There's no plot, but visitors don't want to lose track of it.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): Ellen Altfest succeeds when her paint fails to conquer the real.
A visitor looks at Ellen Altfest’s “The Back”, painted over the course of many months of full-time labor in 2008 and 2009 and now one of the highpoints in the Biennale’s curated group show. Although the exhibition was stuffed with painting, most of it was work of the “imagination”, with all the attendant clichés. Not much of it had strong ties to the world. Although I have no interest in tired high-realist technique, Altfest’s studies of the male nude, said to have been painted from life, seem less about the final result than about the tireless observation that got her there. And there is some sense that all her looking and painting and looking and painting turns out to be a sisyphean task; reality refuses to cooperate with our desire to absorb it. Altfest's work may be closer to conceptual art than to standard painting: the canvases put on view are simply documentation of an absurdist process.
Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): Yuri Ancarani shows that medical magic can upstage the aesthetic kind.
This is a still from Yuri Ancarani’s video called “Da Vinci”, possibly the most striking piece from the Arsenale group exhibition curated by the New Museum’s Massimiliano Gioni. All the video gives us, more or less, is a fiber-optic, surgeon’s-eye view of the inside of someone’s gut, as it undergoes a laparoscopic operation. We watch, from inside and among folds of offal, as the surgeon’s tiny robotic tools push their way in, cut things up, burn things off then sew up what’s left. I’m afraid that the “magic” performed by the operating room’s Da Vinci Si model robot, and the real work that it does in the world, makes the best of art’s meager efforts seem almost impotent. This, you could say, is the true issue at the heart of Gioni’s ambitious curating … but you’ll have to wait for my upcoming Newsweek review to get all the – gory – details.
The Daily Pic (Venice Biennale Edition): Sarah Sze reps the U.S., and shows us at risk.
Barely a few hours into the 2013 Biennale, and here’s an image of the facade of the U.S. Pavilion, which this year was given over to New York artist Sarah Sze. In recent Biennales, a number of the artists repping the U.S. have had a strong political dimension, and at first sight it looked as though Sze was breaking that mold. Her fantastical accumulations of detritus and throwaway goods can seem to pack more whimsy than wallop. But as her trademark agglomerations mounted to the building’s pediment, half concealing the Italian words that identify its owners, there was a sense that we were looking at a possible future for our nation, where all the stuff we make and own leaves no room for a true civic life. Her work may also speak to the larger condition of art in our times … but I’ll tackle THAT in a few days, in my full-scale Biennale review for Newsweek.
This is a still from a film series called "Film Montagen", by the German artist Peter Roehr, born in 1944 and dead already 24 years later. (Click on the image to view a clip from one piece). There's a tiny Roehr survey up now in a small New York gallery called Osmos Address, run by the itinerant editor and curator Cay Sophie Rabinowitz. One wag described Roehr to me as a cross between Warhol (for his Pop and advertising imagery) and Sol LeWitt (for his rigor and grids and repeated modules). In Roehr's "Film Montagen", built from tiny loops of found commercial footage, there's also a big dose of the narrative experiments of Christian Marclay and Douglas Gordon – except of course that they were working with found film decades after Roehr already had.
And I love this factoid culled from the press release: "In 1968, in the midst of Vietnam and as part of a generation of determined, hedonistic, and controversial intellectuals Peter Roehr – only 24 years old and already in the last year of his life – decided to abandon institutional art, go underground, and open a head shop called Pudding Explosion."
The Daily Pic hits 100K fans, and they get a gift of this Titian miracle.
In celebration of the Daily Pic getting its 100,000th follower, I wanted to show the DP’s fans the single work of art that means most to me – which I’ve decided is this 1542 portrait of the 12-year-old aristocrat Ranuccio Farnese, painted by Titian and now in the collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington. I’m not saying (quite) that this is the most important work of Western art. I’ve already voted for Velazquez’s “Las Meninas” as filling that spot. I just feel that this portrait is the earliest work that seems to me fully modern, in its thinking about people and about paint (look at the stunning brushwork on Ranuccio’s doublet) and even about art, as a cultural game played independent of others. Also, it so happens that this portrait gives me huge pleasure every time I see it – maybe because it is one of the rare works where I can’t spot a single flaw, or any room for improvement.