Archive for February, 2009

Steven Meisel and Kohei Yoshiyuki

February 28, 2009
Steven Meisel, from Dogging, V56

Steven Meisel, from Dogging, V56

This came out a while ago and has been posted about elsewhere, but Steven Meisel’s shoot “Dogging” in V56 is a boldfaced ripoff of Kohei Yoshiyuki’s seminal series, The Park. Yoshiyuki received a lot of press and attention over the past year and a half, with The Park exhibited at Yossi Milo Gallery and included in the Berlin Biennial and Gwangju Biennale in 2008.

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1971 from The Park

Kohei Yoshiyuki, Untitled, 1971 from The Park

There is a precarious line between drawing inspiration from another artist and simply copying their work. The Park was highly stylized to begin with, and Meisel turns it up another notch by infusing fantastic colors. It’s odd however that the editors (or Meisel) decided to cloak the series as an “original” commentary on current sexual mores among British youth, called “Dogging,” when in fact the source material was clandestine trysts — homo- and heterosexual — in 1970s Japan. Is this a process of Westernizing the content? It’s not exactly news that advertising and editorial content lift strategies from the “avant-garde” arts, but I wonder what was gained by Meisel’s shoot rather than running the original images. The shoot certainly doesn’t highlight the clothes, so what it is presenting is an lifestyle oriented. I’d be better convinced of the validity of the concept, except it doesn’t appear that Meisel has added anything, merely transporting Yoshiyuki’s form and edginess into a new context.

Mark Ruwedel: Westward the Course of Empire

February 28, 2009
Mark Ruwedel: Picacho and Colorado River #3, 2000

Mark Ruwedel: Picacho and Colorado River #3, 2000

Yossi Milo Gallery

Feburary 5 – March 14, 2009

Karen Rosenberg has a nice review of Mark Ruwedel’s exhibition Westward the Course of Empire, and successfully covers the historical and aesthetic context, but the exhibition raises a number of additional questions. Ruwedel re-traces railroad lines across the American West, photographing the deteriorating infrastructure. In many instances the lines are completely abandoned, recognizable only by the scars left by their grading or the splinters of the ties and trestles. Beautifully printed, Ruwedel (I believe) shoots 8×10” black and white film and contact prints, dry-mounting on 16×20″ mat board. The artist titles each work in pencil directly on the mount, describing the name of the railroad line, for example Canadian Pacific #3. Rosenberg makes all of the right references to the New Topographics (in particular Robert Adams) and Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson.

The press release says Ruwedel “acts as an archivist,” but this is not the most accurate term. “Archivist” usually describes someone who organizes an existing collection of materials, whereas Ruwedel is himself creating material—to use the term is to de-emphasize his authorial role. Partially this misuse of terminology may arise due to fashion, witness the outstanding exhibition last year at ICP, Archive Fever, curated by Okwui Enwezor. Rosenberg perpetuates this idea, writing, “The presentation tends toward the archival.” But the photographs are framed and hung on the walls, in a typological style, and the pencil titling is an affected throw-back rather than an earnest attempt at filing and labelling. I’ve read somewhere that the artist considers the landscape as a repository of histories. Is the landscape an archive, or do landscapes simply bare the traces of prior events? Ruwedel is in a sense a person who creates an archive; he is documenting a set of sites that highlight technologic and historic entropy. Is to document the same as to archive?

What Ruwedel is doing may be more accurately attributed to atavism, that is, a reversion to a previous photographic form (a term taken from George Baker, again). As Rebecca Solnit’s book River of Shadows elegantly makes clear, the history of photography and the history of the railroad are inextricably bound as contemporaneous modern technologies at the height of Enlightenment aspirations. But in the American West the relationship is even more explicit, with photographic luminaries like Watkins and Jackson frequently hired by the railroad companies (as well as government land surveys) to document their industrious advances. Some of the most pristine prints from this era survive in large bound portfolios supplied by the photographers to their corporate employers. Photography and railroad were twin pillars of the Manifest Destiny propelling westward development. Ruwedel pays lip service to this spirit – albeit ironically – in the title of the exhibition, and also explicitly in compositions that echo his 19th century predecessors. The artist very deliberately adopts the formal strategies of a previous age, highlighting a genetic connection between photographs.

Baker sees contemporary photography operating between the dialectics of abstraction and atavism. Extending Baker’s argument, Ruwedel clearly operates according the Barthesian this has been. There is a timeliness to such images of collapse, but from a certain liberal or neo-Marxist position such a reading might be inevitable regardless of the S&P 500 rating. Given the formal elegance of the images and their loaded aesthetic history, in as much as they suggest an “infinite return,” they are also an ode to entropy, and therefore point to the future as well as the past.

Allora & Calzadilla: Stop, Repair, Prepare

February 25, 2009
Allora & Calzadilla: Step, Repair, Prepare

Allora & Calzadilla: Stop, Repair, Prepare


January 23 – February 21, 2009

Saturday afternoon your faithful correspondent briefly absconded from his desk, slithering down the block to Barbara Gladstone to witness the final performance of Allora & Calzadilla’s exhibition Stop, Repair, Prepare. The artists have cut a hole in the center of a Bechstein piano, from which a rotation of seven pianists performed Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” every hour on the hour during gallery hours for the duration of the exhibition. The performer is given license to improvise, and pushes the instrument (on large casters) throughout the gallery. Blending sculpture and performance, the result is incredibly fascinating. With the keys arranged backwards from their normal progression and forced to play the entire composition upside-down, the virtuosity of the performer is an endless source of wonder.

At least 14 strings are missing from the piano to accommodate the performer; as a result the musical score has been re-arranged, pushing notes to the higher and lower registers of the keyboard. Towards the end of the final performance, pianist Sun Jun began to play the keys from which strings had been removed. Despite lacking the intended tune, the rhythm of the music was maintained—creating a surprising experimental interlude. The anthropomorphism of the piano creates a surreal object that suggests Jamie Isenstein’s sculptural explorations of performance via David Cronenberg’s Crash—the apotheosis of man and machine intermingled. It is a fantastical, strange sight to see a piano shepherding a crowd of over one hundred people around the otherwise bare gallery, bottlenecking between rooms.

Without the aid of the press release the viewer might not know that “Ode to Joy” has played a role in historical events as far ranging as the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the Third Reich, and the European Union— raising questions about the many lives of canonical artworks, and their appropriation into systems and ideologies beyond the intents of their authors. While the specific history of this composition might not be self-evident, the work successfully engages the same conceptual interests through the literal embodiment of the performer in the instrument. Breaking down the boundaries between performer and instrument, composition and performance, all of these normally distinct categorizations are intertwined. As such the music is malleable to the identity and will of its handlers, incapable of transcending its context under such conditions. Thus politics, history and ideology come to bear on the performance or presentation of a work of art.

Japanese Whiskey Consumption is Down

February 22, 2009

santori_perrinpostIn order to give this post some relevance to the art world, I’ll mention that the dominant “rhetorical” flourish in Chelsea right now would have to be a gallows humor.

There’s an interesting article from the Grey Lady about the culture effects of the 1990s economic downturn in Japan (and by obvious extension, what could happen in the United States today). Here’s the lede:

As recession-wary Americans adapt to a new frugality, Japan offers a peek at how thrift can take lasting hold of a consumer society, to disastrous effect.

But my favorite part:

Sales of whiskey, the favorite drink among moneyed Tokyoites in the booming ’80s, have fallen to a fifth of their peak.

To someone who was about three years old when Tokyoites reached the apex of whiskey consumption, this mostly recalls Bill Murray’s half-hearted attempts as Santori spokesman in Lost in Translation. (By contrast my whiskey consumption is up by 950% since the 80s, with no decline in sight – I’m thinking of releasing bonds.) Japanese businessmen may have cut out their favorite vices cold turkey, but somehow I don’t think that will be the case here…

When Consumers Cut Back: A Lesson from Japan

Moral Calculus

February 22, 2009

“Tis better to have made out with a Spaniard
than to not have made out with a Spaniard.”

—My brother, Peter, after several bottles of wine.

Killed Negatives: Lisa Oppenheim and Etienne Chambaud

February 20, 2009

I am frequently drawn to occasions when artists arrive at similar results in response to very different modes of inquiry. To use a term from evolutionary science, this might be called convergence.


Etienne Chambaud: Personne, 2008

Both Etienne Chambaud and Lisa Oppenheim have recently created work using the publicly accessible Farm Security Administration archive of the Library of Congress, specifically appropriating “killed negatives” by Walker Evans. Killed negatives were those rejected by the Farm Security Administration (early on program administrator Roy Stryker was primarily responsible for editing contact sheets); often variants of other images, these negatives were punched through with a hole to destroy their reproductive capacity.

Chambaud’s recent exhibition A brief history of the twentieth century used one of these killed negatives as the turn key to the rest of the show. Titled Personne, 2008, Chambaud sees the subject as a (now) nearly 100 year old child, and says that the exhibition is made for Personne. The artist has re-presented this killed negative, but has chosen to print the negative as a lenticular print. Seen from one angle, the scar of the punched hole is black. Seen from another the hole is white, dissolving in the bleached out details of the child’s shirt. As if by magic, the photo editor’s bullet hole seems to disappear. Chambaud performs a resurrection of the image. Personne as object and as protagonist provide a framework for entering an exhibition which takes a series of fragments and interrogates their representational capacity. In the press release Chambaud writes, “the question is of the object of the objects presented here, in the way these objects unveil or hide, conceal or expose theirselves, in the way some are reflected in others, luminate or simply regard them.” (sic, translated from the French)


Lisa Oppenheim: Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans (Corn 2), 2007

Lisa Oppenheim’s series Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans similarly works from the abandoned negatives. Oppenheim re-photographs at or near the location of the original image. She then apparently re-enacts the killing of her own negatives, leaving a punched out hole. This is then printed, with the “chad” placed in the same position as its inverse in the original Walker Evans image that Oppenheim prints. This process of reconstruction creates a complex circuit of temporalities. In contrast to Chambaud she is not “resurrecting” the image; in fact she performs the same violence on the negative, but then rescues the inverse space—the excised chad. This is further complicated by a number of strategies. Oppenheim sometimes presents multiple variants of her modern exposures. Evans’s images are from black and white negatives, Oppenheim’s are color. And of course, by analogue means she could never arrive at a perfect replacement for the excised chad of the original negative. Oppenheim’s presentation acknowledges this as she does not attempt to overlay the two image fragments—rather than a purposed unity, multiple possibilities are invoked. The title of the works quotes Sherrie Levine’s now canonical series, but one senses that the “after” of the title emphasizes a temporal relation, as well as suggesting the artist “chasing after” Evans.

Both artists clearly share an interest in the archeology of visual culture and highlight the subjective processes which have left these images out of the dominant, official histories. But Chambaud is less concerned with material (or medium) specificity than in the overall theoretical underpinnings put into play by the constituent parts of an exhibition. By contrast Oppenheim’s investigations are explicitly photographic. The checklist information explicitly notes that the photographs are “hand printed,” another anachronism in comparison to the technological sophistication of Chambaud’s lenticular print.

Etienne Chambaud is currently exhibiting at the Palais de Tokyo. Lisa Oppenheim co-curated A Twilight Art at Harris Lieberman, reviewed here, up through February 28.

Altermodern: It’s a Walk-Off

February 18, 2009

Yesterday I started reading the UK reviews of Altermodern, the new Tate Triennial curated by Nicholas Bourriaud. Bourriaud is best known for coining the term “relational aesthetics,” and Altermodern deliberately attempts to develop a similar catch-all label for contemporary production after Modernism and Post-Modernism. The exhibition website includes a Manifesto of the Altermodern and hilariously, a Mix Tape (quite nice actually). In the interest of melding content and form the website needs some more hyperlinks, but let’s not quibble just yet.

picture-11For obvious reasons I am skeptical of this desire to label and posture, etc. I find the book Relational Aesthetics to be a useful rubric for understanding forms of contemporary artistic production for the particular time period. Bourriaud’s follow-up, Post-Production, is more nebulous in it’s focus, and although it was intended as continuation of the previous book, it has never acquired the same influence. Altermodern is the crystallization of these concepts, an Uber-interconnectivity no longer simply applied to people but also to words, images, objects, ideas, ad infinitum. It’s also very difficult to come up with a rebuttal, as it is something of truism. The manifesto immediately brought to mind Okwui Enwezor’s Documenta 11, and conveniently Enwezor contributes a catalogue essay.

The British dailys’ art writers are always a hoot, and not in a good way, so I figured I’d do an overview. Immediately after deciding this, I saw that the Frieze editors had beat me to the punch. There was no way I was going to log 3,000 words on the subject, so instead I will refer you , dear readers, there directly. I recommend reading the entirety of Dan Fox’s post, but for Cliff Notes here are few hightlights:

Here’s how Campbell-Johnston saw fit to broach the Triennial’s theme in the Times: ‘So what will this new Altermodern era entail? Don’t expect the catalogue to help you. Bourriard is a Frenchman. He has svelte Gallic looks and a Left Bank aroma of Gauloises. And he seems to have been brought up on Baudrillard and Foucault in the way that the rest of us were brought up on our ABC.’ Does that really deserve to be called art criticism?…

After the laboured references to French cuisine, he went on to assert that ‘The weakness of Bourriaud’s theory — and of all French theory — is that there’s too much philosophy and not much historical perspective.’ I bow before Lewis’s encyclopedic knowledge of continental philosophy. All French theory? Really? I’d love to see him argue that down at La Sorbonne…

Januszczak’s article contains a comparison that is worthy of mention. At one point he describes Nathaniel Mellors’ Giantbum film as ‘seemingly interminable.’ He goes on to mention the work of Iranian artist Tala Madani, currently exhibiting in the Saatchi Gallery’s ‘Unveiled’ show, saying that her paintings display ‘such astonishing courage and punchiness, the Middle East could be a significant location’ for new developments in art. (In the context of art exhibited under the banner of being Iranian, the word ‘courage’ here has patronising Orientalist overtones, almost suggesting that Madani goes to her studio everyday in downtown Tehran hiding paintings under her burqa.) The print edition of Januszczak’s piece was illustrated with a large image from Mellors’ Giantbum and Madani’s painting Holy Light. What neither Januszczak nor the newspaper’s picture researchers evidently know is that Mellors and Madani are partners, and that they exchange ideas and opinions about each other’s work on a daily basis.

The fires have been stoked. Get ready for the glossies. It’s a Walk-Off.


February 17, 2009


Via Amy Stein.

On Kawara Postscript: Qfwfq Reads the News

February 16, 2009


Participating in One Million Years inspired me to read Jeff Wall’s essay, “Monochrome and Photojournalism in On Kawara’s Today Paintings.” In the interest of extending Wall’s assessment of Kawara’s work, I’ll consider how this analogy might accommodate One Million Years.

Wall deftly connects photojournalism and the monochrome via Modernism’s reductive relation to history painting. The Today paintings consist of a field of color, leaving the date they were painted written inscribed in the negative space left unpainted. Each painting also comes in a box, which usually contains newspaper pages from that date. For Wall, Kawara’s paintings mark the confrontation between the conceptual “knots” of the monochrome and photojournalism, and in the framework of history painting their only “point of agreement” is in the dates. Both the photojournalistic function of the newspapers and the monochromatic reductions of the canvas share their sense of the manifestation of an event.

If the monochrome and photojournalism represent the historical antagonisms at work in the Today paintings, then perhaps we can consider the relevance of epic literature and the modern news media in relation to One Million Years as a literary form. Thus a parallel can develop with Wall’s exegesis. The difficulty in this assessment is that the Today paintings function on a level of duration relevant to a single human life, and part of the wonder of One Million Years is in contemplating how much larger it is than any individual. Yet the structure of One Million Years is also clearly connected to the epic poetry of Homer (or the histories of Thucydides and Herodotus) as well as the event-per-minute functions of services like Twitter or the 24-hour cable news cycle (with Joyce’s Ulysses as a literary precursor).

Because One Million Years functions as anti-news in relation to the human individual, we require an Archimedean point to understand this duration. Quite simply we do not have the distance for the duration invoked by Kawara to gain any perspective on the totality of time it creates. Hannah Arendt, writing in The Human Condition, says that with Galileo’s invention of the telescope,

The secrets of the universe were delivered to human cognition ‘with the certainty of sense-perception…’ Man realized his newly won freedom from the shackles of earth-bound experience; instead of observing natural phenomena as they were given to him, he placed nature under the conditions of his own mind, that is, under conditions won from a … cosmic standpoint outside nature itself… Without actually standing where Archimedes wished to stand, still bound to the earth through the human condition, we have found a way to act on the earth and within terrestrial nature as though we dispose of it from outside, from the Archimedean point. (260-262)

Projecting our selves beyond the earthbound in this way, Arendt says, that a process of “world alienation” takes place. Likewise, One Million Years performs a degree of world alienation, functioning as it does on the scale of cosmic time. Rather than Galileo’s telescope, such an Archimedean point might be possible in the form of an ideal narrator, one that could sufficiently appreciate the scope of extreme duration. Italo Calvino dreamed up just such a character with Qfwfq, the narrator of many of the stories collected in Cosmicomics.

An omnipresent being, Qfwfq takes many forms across eons. He narrates the Big Bang; recalls the xenophobia of the era immediately following the extinction of dinosaurs; bemoans the unconsummated desires of beings falling in parallel through infinite space; describes how, as a mollusk, the cogs of sexual selection compell him to “evolve” eyes and sight. During the condensing of matter into the Earth, Qfwfq’s sister takes fright as the Sun lights on fire and she recedes into the forming Earth. Qfwfq doesn’t see her again, “until I met her, much later, at Canberra in 1912, married to a certain Sullivan, a retired railroad man, so changed I hardly recognized her.” (27) The mastery of Calvino’s writing lies in these astounding jumps in historical scale, resolving the human and cosmic in the same narrative register.

Qfwfq is able to represent both the epic and the quotidian, giving form to abstract theories and ideas, even equations. Had Archimedes found his lever and his place to stand, he surely would have found Qfwfq, standing right there next to him. Considering the totality of Kawara’s project in its ideal, spoken form, we might imagine One Million Years as Qfwfq reading the news.

Emily Jacir and the New York Times

February 13, 2009

Screen Cap,

Screen Cap,

Bizarre review in today’s New York Times by Ken Johnson of Emily Jacir’s exhibition at the Guggenheim. When Johnson decides he is against something, it sometimes seems to cloud his ability to actually see the art; as a result his reviews can be downright curmudgeonly.

Jacir seems to be constantly surrounded by controversy. This in no small part has to do with the geopolitical concerns surrounding her work, which generally takes the experience of living in Palestine as its jumping off point. (For an overview check out her Wikipedia page). A recent installation at SFMoMA made headlines around the blogosphere for its unusual wall text. And two weeks ago the Times published an interview with Jacir in which she refuses to answer questions and emits evident tension between interviewer and interviewee.

I have not seen the exhibition so I cannot really comment on the content or quality of Jacir’s work. But reading the review, I don’t get the sense that Ken Johnson really engaged the conceptual strategies Jacir puts in play. He alludes to their familiarity, but doesn’t throw out any references (some of Sophie Calle’s projects seem relevant), other than a strange plug for a John le Carré novel. Instead, Johnson gets caught up in the politics of Palestinian-Israeli conflict, questioning Jacir’s motives and truth claims. Whatever “truthiness” emerges, I’m guessing that where Jacir’s work may succeed is in how she organizes materials and information. Johnson alludes to “conventional devices of conceptualism and performance art” but doesn’t take the idea any farther.

The New York Times reviews more exhibitions than any other daily publication, so an “off” review on somewhat controversial subject matter is somewhat par for the course; they simply don’t get it right all the time. Where things get really screwy is when you view the accompanying slideshow. (Again, I haven’t seen the print version for comparison.) The first slide is a striking black and white portrait of Jacir in close-up. To put it bluntly, she is beautiful; it’s hard to imagine the Times leading a slide show of Richard Prince’s works the same way, especially in a multimedia piece acompanying a review, not a feature. So the slides begin by highlighting her status as an attractive (exotic) woman–hardly the best lead-in for an objective viewing of her work. This same slide is captioned by an excerpt from Johnson’s review, which is the standard way of captioning these slide shows. But by the third slide, the images no longer correspond to works on view at the Guggenheim, and by the fifth slide, the captions come not from Johnson’s review, but rather from a 2005 review by Roberta Smith of Jacir’s exhibition at Alexander and Bonin. Contrast the caption on the first slide, from Johnson’s review, with the caption on the sixth and last slide, by Smith:

Emily Jacir employs conventional devices of conceptualism and performance art to call attention to the plight of the Palestinian people. (Johnson)

Ms. Jacir’s deft extrapolation of the issues of identity from the specifics of experience, like her renewal and extension of what might be called classic Conceptual Art, is enormously impressive. (Smith)

As much as this highlights the differences in Smith’s and Johnson’s criticism, it also gives an interesting lens on this disconnect between the editors and the writers. The editors, designers, and photo editors probably decide on the visuals and multimedia features long before the critics submit their copy. Does it make sense to give a lot of visual space to an exhibition that receives a negative review? The entire slide show is apparently cobbled together from previously published material, but with no continuity. What we are left with is a strange amalgam that obscures rather than clarifies, and at worst misrepresents Jacir and her artwork.