Eclectica

Inspiration came in waves and sudden urges in the past week, reflecting my current state of mind and the eclectic range of exhibitions I found myself wandering through as if I had used the Serendipitor or played with Joey Steven’s personalised cultural catalyst device Cube of Art. High on my random list was Philippe Parreno’s video installation at the Serpentine gallery – and high it remains. It is one of the most uplifting shows I have seen this year. It enfolds like a theatre using the dramatic effects of Baroque art and technology but for the contemporary sensorium – the structure of the gallery is used as a stage for the four film projections, one in each room including the entrance hall. They start with the smooth rolling down of the electronic curtains and invite gallery wanderers to sit down and be enchanted for a short and vivid spectacle before moving onto the next one. The first film to grasp my imagination is Invisible Boy (2010), showing the fantasy world of a small boy living illegally in China Town, New York filled with strangely moving creatures and snowy cityscapes. Juxtaposed with an elevating, electro-orchestral soundtrack, this partly animated video (the fuzzy creatures are scratched into the film stock) has a Donny Darko-esque quality mixing the harsh reality of the Chinese immigrant community and the most enchanting means of escaping from it. I am hooked from the first images, from the first chords so much so that, when the whole show is over, I can’t resist the temptation to come back and watch it again – it feels like a dream, short, non-linear and wonderfully intense. June 8, 1968 (2009) has the same compelling intensity of viewing. Filmed in 70mm format, it retraces the train journey of Robert Kennedy’s dead body after his assassination, from New York to Washington DC. Parreno used old photographs taken from the train looking over the landscape and the people dotted along the railway tracks, and re-staged the journey with actors over beautiful background shots as the train moved slowly by. The recreation is spellbinding, poignant, superbly photographed, eloquently displaying a critical slice of American history – the immobile, mournful bodies of the onlookers are also shockingly bright and colourful, and we can hear the wind blowing in the big, wild tree exposing its roots and the colourful people lined up around them. Rarely does art feel so good to experience within the white walls of a gallery. Outside, Anish Kapoor’s field of mirror sculptures complete the feel-good escapade with illusory playfulness and sensual reflections of bodies and sunset skies.

The Bloomberg New Contemporaries at the ICA is a mixed bag of media and genres, most of which left me slightly perplexed and mildly amused at best. Two works stood out from the ill-structured, crowded exhibition rooms and corridor displays. Kristian de La Riva’s line drawing animation of a man’s multifarious attempts at self-mutilation is painfully difficult to watch. The perilous performance art of Chris Burden, Marina Abramovic and more recently, the body cuttings of Regina José Galindo came to mind. The animation doesn’t stop at the blowing up of genitals or dismembering of bodies, however, it explicitly shows the pain after the act, which I find actually sickening in a snuff movie sort of way rather than ‘hilarious’ as described on the ICA website. If thirst for violence and pain inflicted to self/others has always featured preponderantly in human history (unconsciously motivated by the feeling of hostility one feels towards a person or environment), the images of such compulsion has been reflected ad infinitum by tv and the big media industry propagating it as a heady mixture of self-indulgence and self-harm – product of our time and our hyper collective unconscious? De La Riva’s animation is located somewhere within that spectrum. In the 70s, performance artists sought to communicate this state of madness, clinically dissecting the (self-)violation or (self-)mutilation process for therapeutic or self-knowledge purposes. Marina Abramovic pushed the limit of the body in the ultimate aim of understanding the nature of the self, finding out in the process how vulnerable the artist (the self) is when left in the hands of the participatory audience (the others). Viennese Actionists’ bloody performance reflected a message of despair towards the potential for self-inflicted violence around the world. Being confronted to such apparently insane behaviour baffles, excites and repulses but above all moves us beyond the confines of our reality, making us question our impulsive nature but also the point of such art – and, more importantly, the point of art in general. What has been the political implication of such works? De La Riva’s work is an obvious parody of performance art, directly referencing the myths of Van Gogh’s ear chopping madness and Viennese Actionist Rudolf Schwarzkogler’s penis-slicing mutilation. Rather than being another twisted reminder of our self-destructive nature, however, it also seems to question the limit of such performing action. Where it succeeds is in the repackaging of body art into a brutally eye-catching and aesthetically refined drawing animation – to which we are only powerless voyeurs.

Jessica Harris’s film Rain Translation translates an audio recording of rain into language – or rather, into a suite of non-sensical English words. Using a system that measures the sounds and assigns them different letters, a strange poem is created. In Rain Translation Translation, the poem is read aloud as in a chanting canon, sentences are juxtaposed, building up to an amazing cacophony of sounds. The sounds gradually and randomly merge, slip into each other, reforming the sounds of raindrops as I imagine them falling from a dark, swollen sky. At times the curtain of rain is so heavy that I can’t distinguish any other sounds but an impression of white noise. Letters suddenly intertwine, a swashing sound comes to the fore, the rain becomes thinner and transforms into a trickle of water. I am listening to the language of rain, but this one feels more like a dance in my head, a rhythmic code dissolving and reforming as it penetrates my ears, body and mind. Sound poetry performing magic.

I leisurely wandered the rooms full of Treasures from Budapest at the RA, marvelling at the beautifully crafted Saint Andrew Altarpiece and the exquisitely coloured Northern Renaissance paintings. In Lucas Cranach The Elder’s Christ and the Virgin Interceding for Humanity before God the Father, adorable angel heads fly around an angry figure of God whose arrows aim at mankind – the superior kind of princes and churchmen whose lies and corruption made them susceptible to the all-mighty’s blaming and shaming. Nothing ever changes. The Virgin of Mercy gives them protection under her cloak – they look like chicks seeking shelter under their mother hen – not quite a celebration of our proud humanity. The figure of Christ is particularly attractive, flaunting a beautifully shaped body, long limbs and soft features. The Virgin is a pretty young woman with seductive blond curls as are the cherubs floating around. More than a religious artist, Cranach was above all a painter of suave and sexy female nudes and a great portraitist of the Reformation era. His style gradually became even more refined, tending towards mannerism at the end of his life. Jumping a couple of centuries ahead, I stopped and stared at Karoly Ferenczy’s Woman painting for a long while, feeling the warm sun falling on the hand of the woman holding brushes and palette in front of her canvas. Ferenczy had spent some time studying in Munich and Paris before moving to the artist colony of Nagybanya in today’s Romania where the plein-air method of Julien-Lepage was being fostered. The painting shows both the woman artist and her canvas in profile – as in a full-frontal confrontation. She scrutinises her work from a distance, grand and free within the natural background, looking up to her art. There’s a fantastic composition with trees, tripod, branches and brush and play with shadows and sunlight in the bushes. Her feet almost cut by the frame, the painter seems to be floating in a field of greenery.

The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2010 had a few beautiful shots and interesting subjects – Wafa by Felix Carpio, a young woman looking at me with a wry smile while playing with her fingers is particularly compelling. Shot in Damascus, Syria, her dark eyes sharpened by eyeliners and the green headscarf framing her pretty oval face made me think of one of these Northern Renaissance portraits of chaste but alluring women. The five winning portraits are also about girls. Teenage girl on the hunt, twin sisters, open-legged wife, obese girl looking down, thin-as-paper girl blurring with the naked landscape. One of my favourites is about a boy – Not even Magic Saved the Genocide by David Graham shows a teenager who lost his parents in the Rwandan civil war, clinging to a Harry Potter book. Beyond the irony that help should come in the form of a Western fairytale, the angelic face and somber eyes under his hood makes for a deeply poignant portrait of crushed childhood.

Finally, although I missed John Wynne’s award-winning untitled installation for 300 speakers at the current Saatchi exhibition Newspeak (it was unfortunately shown in part 1), I stumbled across two male nudes by Graham Durward, which made my visit worthwhile.

The delicate licking of the brush onto the contour of the torso, the low-key brown, white and purple colours and the sinuous posing of Untitled (Man with Fruit) and Hotmail brought about an intense feeling of sensuality. Both of them have their faces wiped up under a layer of white or black paint – the focus is on their attractive, sexually arousing bodies. Durward was interested in the numerous photos of solitary men on the net who mask their face to protect their anonymity. He sees them as ‘primitive paintings’ and wanted to explore this further. These 2 works shows a rare display of masculinity, which is still remarkably hidden in our visual culture dominated by heterosexuality in which women remain the traditional erotic objects for men’s pleasure. There is a vulnerability enveloping them which makes these men all the more desirable. I still have to come upon, and be touched by an image of a male nude by a woman exuding such seductiveness and eroticism.

Philippe Parreno at the Serpentine gallery until 13 February, Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2010 at the ICA until 23 January, Treasures from Budapest at the Royal Academy until 12 December, Newspeak: British Art Now Part 2 at the Saatchi Gallery until 17th April 2011.

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~ by lavivette on December 19, 2010.

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