Bronzino rescued from Limbo

•January 25, 2011 • 1 Comment


Last week I made a pilgrimage to Florence to view, church by church, the Renaissance chefs-d’oeuvre I had read about in the course of my studies and unashamedly forgotten about. It was also the last chance to see Bronzino’s first ever retrospective as a ‘painter and poet of the court of the Medici’ at the Strozzi Palace. The show generated a flurry of scholarly and less scholarly reviews about this said second-class High Renaissance artist who, although praised by Vasari and his contemporaries, had been dismissed for centuries for his wayward painterly ways and, even during his second ‘renaissance’ in the 20th century, was never given the chance to measure himself against the other grand masters of the period.

In 1527, Rome was about to be ransacked by Charles V, the Medici expelled from Florence and the Catholics to further counter-attack against the Reformers. Shuffled through these social and economic upheavals, art moved away from the classical ideals and equilibrium of the Renaissance to a new style, which Luigi Lanzi would identify as ‘Mannerism’ in 1872 and which would develop throughout the 16th century in Italy and Europe. The maniera moderna of the great Renaissance masters was emulated so as to create a style awkwardly strange and artificial as if removed from reality. The classical contrapposto was so exaggerated that figures look languid and overly sensual. Naked or clothed in tight garments, the bodies revealed their forms – as if airbrushed in a sleek-and-smooth fashion, they looked like shiny, rose-tinted porcelain. The cold light used by Mannerists and their juxtaposing of colours such as purple, apple green and orange also enhanced the weirdness and mystical aura of the paintings. Pontormo’s Deposition is probably the quirkiest and most baffling Renaissance altarpiece I had the chance to scrutinise, my head in between the railings surrounding the Capponi chapel in Santa Felicita. In this painting, there is no cross, no tomb, the figures seem to be floating above the ground – their intertwining and contorted bodies create a nervous agitation in the composition, reflecting the intense emotionality of the subject matter. Three of the four tondi in the corners of the chapel, representing the four Evangelists, are attributed to Pontormo’s pupil, Bronzino – one of them is particularly puzzling, his head leaning out of the picture, an arm squashing an angel and his wide eyes starring intensely into mine. His golden curls, luscious mouth and distraught expression are similar to the features of the crouching figure in the Pontormo’s Deposition altarpiece. Although copies of the three tondi were exhibited at the Strozzi Palace, the crowds prevented me from approaching them and I had to move on with just a hint of exasperation. This will be my main criticism of the exhibition – the swarming of groups with impossibly loud Italian guides following me around and shouting in my ears, denying me the pleasure of contemplation (the other criticism goes towards the London National Gallery which didn’t lend the fantastic Allegory with Cupid and Venus to the Strozzi).

Among Bronzino’s court portraits were delicious discoveries such as the Portrait of a Woman (Matteo Soferoni’s Daughter?) whose relatively mature (she is probably less than 30) and irregular features had none of the frozen looks associated with his style of portraiture such as the impassive Eleonora de Toledo or the beautiful but cold Lucrecia Panciatichi. The Portrait of Guidobaldo II della Rovere also moved me – or rather, the bottom half of the portrait which includes the magnificent head of a white Labrador next to the prominent orange codpiece emphasizing the power and virility of the great military leader. Beside these stunning portraits, the painting which gave me the most pleasure was Resurrection – an overt celebration of flesh, I found the body of Christ particularly attractive, and the two teenage boys with angelic faces flanked by his sides a rather sexy pair. Unfortunately, this was also the view of his contemporary critics who found them too ‘lewd’ for a public altarpiece (but appropriate enough for smaller, devotional paintings). The fabric of the soldier’s uniform on the right is so thin it reveals every muscle and twist of his formidable back and the full roundness of his buttocks. Another man lying at the bottom clearly couldn’t take the ecstasy of the vision and lost both his consciousness and sense of modesty.

The painting that attracted the strongest opprobrium, during and after Bronzino’s days, was the Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552), which I stumbled upon in the Refectory of Santa Croce. Like the Resurrection, its huge scale (about 4.5 x 3m) and mass of intertwined semi-naked beauties makes for a great show. It is the naturalist portraiture, which Bronzino included in his religious paintings that aroused criticism. Among the contemporary Florentines he portrayed in Descent into Limbo, he daringly included two great beauties of the day that he clothed in transparent veils and little more – a practice that religious extremist Savonarola condemned as an ‘insult to God’ in his Lentens sermon in 1496. This was backed up by the Council of Trent in 1563.

Countless criticism against the painter’s lascivious poses and inappropriate nudity were recorded thereafter, the most vigorous of them being voiced by – you guessed it – 19th century Victorian prudes of the likes of John Ruskin. The French didn’t mind so much. Stendhal wrote in his diary that, after seeing the painting for the first time in 1811, ‘je fus touché jusqu’aux larmes… je n’ai jamais rien vu de si beau’ et ‘la peinture ne m’a jamais donné autant de plaisir’ (‘Painting has never given me so much pleasure’). My friend and I sat in front of it for half-an-hour without uttering a word, hanging in the balance between virtuous grace and devilish beauty. Whether it was the accumulation of fine art and dizzying splendours seen along our daily eight-hour pilgrimages, or the physical and emotional exhaustion as a result, that led to this ‘Stendhal effect’ remains unclear. Placed underneath Cimabue’s Cruxifix in the noble Santa Croce’s Refectory after having undergone a 4-year restoration scheme, it was a sight for sore eyes – its naturalistic stunners only matched by the hideous demons and other fantasmagorical creatures hanging, tits and claws, from the ceiling. There is also an interesting anomaly in this painting: instead of Christ alone rescuing the unbaptised souls from Limbo, a woman is helping them to get onto the rock… Grace in the form of a ravishing female nude?

The very last work we saw was Bronzino’s fresco The Martyrdom of San Lorenzo (1569), requested by Cosimo for the wall of the church of San Lorenzo, otherwise known by my friend and all-things-mannerist guide as ‘the gay sauna’. Here, the maniera of Michelangelo is taken to its extreme and near comical end, the mass of convoluted poses and anatomical display verging on the grotesque. Rather than arousing pain and torment in our poor souls, the lackadaisical saint, his torturers and supporters seem to be enjoying the hot stove, hanging round strutting their stuff – the group of women and children in the foreground look almost out-of-place in this display of vane and detached masculinity.

Modern scholarship suggests that Bronzino’s assemblage of Michelangelesque inventions should be viewed within the complex relationship between Bronzino and his contemporary artists and critics – notably Vasari and his own vision of the arts, which placed Michelangelo at the centre of the Florentine artistic galaxy. As art historian Carlo Falciani puts it, ‘those unnatural nudes… are the parody of a conception of the arts that had transformed the impenetrable path and quest for the absolute of Michelangelo into a hollow rhetoric of form’.More than a century before then, Masaccio worked on the frescoes of the Brancacci chapel, which were to become the starting point of the Italian Renaissance in painting. His revolutionary use of linear perspective, foreshortening, atmospheric perspective, cast shadows, unified light source and contrapposto contributed to making the scene so immediate to the viewer – an extension of his own space. The expressions and poses of his Expulsion of Adam and Eve were to be particularly influential on Guirlandaio, the teacher of Michelangelo, and thus on the Master himself. Seeing and breathing both Masaccio’s and Bronzino’s frescoes in the course of an afternoon was an absolute eye-opening treat.

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Des Dieux et des Hommes (Of Gods and Men)

•December 31, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Retour sur image – nous sommes le 20 septembre 2010. La campagne autour de Balleure, le village de ma grand-mère étalant ces quelques maisons dans la contrée clunisienne, est encore baignée d’une douce lumière de fin d’aprés-midi. Sous ces dehors paisibles, la tempête couve dans l’ignorance et l’hypocrisie générale. Je suis allée au cinéma pour calmer l’agitation colèreuse qui bouillait dans mes veines et me donnait des brûlures d’estomac depuis ce matin. Des hommes et des dieux de Xavier Beauvois est à recommander à la gente balleurienne, à Jean, Joseph et Janine, à tous les racistes et anti-islamistes du coin, enfin à tout le monde, croyant ou pas, français ou algérien, américain ou belge. Puisqu’il s’agit moins de religion que de foi, d’amour et de haine, et de l’incroyable folie humaine, quelque soit son visage. ‘Je deviens fou’ dit l’un des moines trappistes, mort de trouille sous la menace latente du GIA (Groupe Islamiste Armé), et Lambert Wilson de répondre: ‘mais il était déjà fou de devenir prêtre!’. Portraits filmés en gros plan de ces moines réclus, sur fond panoramique de l’Atlas décliné sous les lumières des quatres saisons. Dans une des dernières scènes, qui ressemble à la cène, ils sont beaux comme des dieux qui laissent échapper des sourires et des larmes d’hommes. On dirait qu’ils prennent un trip: l’un deux apporte 2 bouteilles de vin et met Le Lac des Cignes de Tchaikovsky, et alors la cérémonie commence. Ils ne parlent pas, ils se sourient, ils échangent des regards de connivence, ils boivent un peu, ils communient, ils s’aiment. En quelques minutes, ils passent de la joie triomphale de vivre ensemble, à la peur de la mort qui prend aux tripes, qui rend humble et sombre, et pourtant les yeux brillants, ils s’envoient en l’air, au seuil de la connaissance, de la renaissance. Et l’autre, cet ange épuré, dénué de chair et de peau humaine souffle déjà l’espoir de la délivrance… C’est certain, ils sont en plein trip, le leur est de marcher dans les pas de Jésus, de vivre la Passion, le sacrifice ultime pour leur dieu et le reste de l’humanité. Ah folie passionnelle, quand tu m’entraines… Je pleure, j’ai le ventre noué, les machoires me font mal, j’expire longuement… me laissant emporter par ce sentiment d’extase, je revois papa pleurer dans mes bras cet été, maman rire de joie avec les écureuils dans Hyde Park, Manu, Gégé et moi communiant avec nos djembés sous la pluie, et le regard de James aprés un de ces coups de gueule sans espoir qui nous portent à bout et nous laissent pantois.

Le frère Luc, médecin asthmatique, est fatigué de ses 150 consultations par jour. Pourtant, il affirme au prieur de pas avoir peur des terroristes, ne pas avoir peur de la mort. ‘Je suis un homme libre’. Camus disait que tous les gens se croyaient libres – de circuler, de converser, mais qu’on ne pouvait pas être libre tant qu’il y aurait des fléaux. Des fléaux contagieux comme la peste, qui se répand par gènes et côtoiments physiques, et des fléaux comme la guerre, qui s’étale misérablement de par les mèmes, mèmes de nos religions et idéologies à la con.

Des dieux et des hommes (Of Gods and Men) de Xavier Beauvois – sortie en salle en Angleterre fin décembre 2010

Eclectica

•December 19, 2010 • Leave a Comment

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.

Primal sounds of the machine

•October 21, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Since Kurt Schwitters wrote his Ursonate in the 1920s, dozens of performers have paid their respects by interpreting and performing his highly influential sound poem. Now is the turn of a digital German speech software programme to have a go at translating it for us.

Czech-born artist Pavel Büchler fed the software programme with the score of the entire sound poem, which is currently diffused in its electronic spoken form through a wall of megaphones at the Max Wigram gallery on Regent’s Street. The result is expectedly strange and lacks the scratches and rawness of Schwitters’ own 21-minute recording of the sonata and the distinctively German intonation of his voice. It is also twice as long, the machine stuttering over the original score’s impossible syllables and amalgamation of consonants, producing an even more alien-sounding language.

In the art-as-life spirit of Dada, Schwitters created his poem with the intention to move away from the rationality of the art being produced in his lifetime, placing the accent instead on subjectivity, individuality and nonsensicality. He asserted that ‘I prefer nonsense… until now it has been so neglected in the making of art, and that’s why I love it’.

Although the poem is built on a highly-patterned structure and was written for German vowels and consonants, the score is left to the imaginative interpretation of the reader or performer. In the words of Schwitters himself ‘the letters applied are to be pronounced as in German. A single vowel sound is short… Letters, of course, give only a rather incomplete score of the spoken sonata. As with any printed music, many interpretations are possible. As with any other reading, correct reading requires the use of imagination’. Memorising the text and performing it live, the Dutch artist Jaap Blonk pronounces the poem with a clearly-identifiable Dutch accent, giving fluidity to the harsher sounds of German. His energetic delivery transforms the more severe tone of Schwitters’ recital into a jovial sonic performance. Schwitters himself varied the rhythm of his sonata to perk up his performances and insisted that each reader – and by extension, each listener – had their own capacity for making up associations of ideas, saying that ‘everyone has different experiences and remembers and associates them differently’.

Searching in its limited coding a rational sonic translation to non-sense, the digital programme reiterates the original text in a standard spoken German pronunciation, reproducing an uncannily faithful rendering of the human voice. After a short while, one detects in the phoney voice identical patterns in the pronunciation of syllables repeated over three or four phrases and an incredibly monotonous tone pervades throughout the sonata. It starts to feel as unnerving as a corporation’s telephonic pre-recorded message or an unintelligible platform announcement. While these robotic messages have a fairly innocuous effect on our social lives, one can easily imagine the extended use of such technology that aim at standardizing and codifying speech. Pavel Büchler originates from Eastern Europe and issues such as state control, censorship and propaganda are close to his heart. By associating new communication technology with old instruments of propaganda in the forms of megaphones, and juxtaposing them with Schwitters’ ideal of individual creativity and artistic freedom, Büchnel sabotages the machine of social management and control, making it look ridiculous and powerless in its rational attempt at brainwashing us. Like Schwitters, he subverts codes and rules to overthrow the power of logic and, collating sense with nonsense, allows for greater artistic expression.

Pavel Büchnel Studio Schwitters is at Max Wigram Gallery until 13 November

The Body in Woman’s Art Part 2: Flux

•October 18, 2010 • 1 Comment

The second part of the trilogy The Body in Women’s Art Now deals with the body as the permutable site of the self and women’s identity. Pushing on the line of enquiry started by the likes of Cindy Sherman who produced an image of the body as simulacral self, performative and open to interpretive intervention, the artists represented in the show have absorbed the postmodern body in their own depiction of selfhood in the 21st century. Their work reflects a cool, self-possessed attitude towards the representation of female sexuality, and show a willingness to embrace the multi-layered complexities of womanhood.

Tracey Emin uses the direct, spontaneous technique of print-making to reveal her self in the most intimate act of masturbating, outlining the contours of her body while taking special care in the depiction of her left shoe. Her legs are disproportionaly long and her hand too large but what could appear as a grotesque, crude erotic drawing in the tradition of Schiele is a sensitive evocation of woman’s lust and loneliness, faithful to Emin’s personal exploration as artistic motive and graceful in its seemingly effortless, flowing execution. Incidentally, Emin used a similar print as the basis of her animation projected on a large wall in the White Cube gallery in May 2009. I had found the flick book-style animation a rather harsh bodily display – it felt as if the brutal jerks and associated hand movements were violating my sense of self in a continuous, spasmodic loop. Sophie Platt of the F-Word discovered that masturbation remains a taboo for both girls and women, but dismissed the glittering Rampant Rabbit and glamourous series such as Sex And The City as possible remedies for increasing women’s bodily and sexual awareness. Emin would certainly provide a genuine and bald, no-nonsensical one.

Also dealing with sexuality in a most open manner is Cecily Brown. She is said to appropriate the macho techniques of abstract expressionism but New Louboutin Pumps reminds me of Bacon’s darker, figurative world. It depicts a couple in an animalesque, sexual embrace. The paintbrush seems to have licked the flesh-coloured surface like an avid tongue and a caricatured, smily face – perhaps the mirror’s reflection of the viewer’s own self – appears in the background as an ironic, voyeuristic clin-d’oeil. I had discovered the work of Brown a few years back at the Saatchi Gallery and had unfairly compared it to the more seductive, if no less radical and daring, paintings of Marlène Dumas. Even today, the large canvas, from which striking gestures and sexual matter are dripping with excess, confound the conventional expectations of a female painter.

Helen Carmel Benigson’s sugary world of pink floral wallpaper, cupcakes and over-sexed, girly attitudes addresses the liminal experience of teenage girls growing up with Beyoncé and Lady Gaga as role models. Her performance as ‘Princess Belsize Dollar’, her rapper alter-ego, is as gauche and comical as the lyrics are sharp and witty, cleverly playing on the contradictory messages delivered by the media, the (mostly commercial hip hop) music industry and the multifaceted, popular and academic feminist discourses, from the pop to the punk to the postmodern version. Throughout the performance, I couldn’t stop thinking of Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs of young girls on the beach or going out clubbing, dressed up like mature, sexy women on the pull but so obviously uncomfortable in their tiny bikini and mini-skirts that they appear painfully grotesque.

Tiina Heiska remains one of my favourite female painters working today, having discovered her by chance in a Parisian gallery a few years ago. Her series Butterfly Caught, in its small, intimate scale and tryptich format, evoke the subtle changes in the day-to-day life of an adolescent girl – the troubled, transforming self, hiding within the folds of the flashing pink dress, half-dreaming about fairy tales, half-aroused by the first erotic pulses of womanhood.

The most compelling works in the show are the paintings by Sarah Lederman. Ascension also deals with the disruptive changes of adolescence portraying a naked girl on a washed-out background, the red paint on her nipples emphasising her nascent sexuality. She stands upright, twitching her arms behind her back, lowering her chin into the hollow of her shoulder, her features blurring with the plain background. Her awkward pose recalls that of Munch’s vulnerable girl in Puberty (1894) as well as the ambiguously shy but provocative looks of Schiele’s Standing young girl (1912), both reflecting a psychological malaise associated with the sexual awakening of adolescence. The clumsiness of the (trans)forming body becomes an unpleasing, almost humiliating sight in Ascending in Tights I. The unflattering contours of the black tights that only succeed in shaping the legs of an otherwise formless body and ghostly face, could also belong to the body of a mature woman, evoking the aging process and the psychological pressures of growing old in our youth-obsessed contemporary society.

The Body in Women’s Art Now Part 2: Flux is at Rollo Contemporary Art Gallery, London, until 6 November.

The Listening Chamber

•October 12, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The map of the town isn’t all that good. I am being followed by the hideous look of a satyr protruding its long, curly neck from the corner of an ancient house. I swiftly turn my back on it, guided by some intuitional sense of direction. The river is still running on my left, I cannot hear its dark, heavy waters, only people and their dogs strolling happily at its sides. Soon it will be as large as the sea, its myriad of branches spreading out and merging into the Med.

I find the entrance of the Réattu Museum by chance. Upstairs, in the outdoor gallery, a couple of old ladies are sitting on the sofa, resting their legs and chatting about the weather, oblivious to the artwork within earshot. I seat next to them and put on a headset. They instantly disappear, shapeshifting into shrieking and flapping seagulls, while the soft, slightly unpleasant voice of a young ornithologist, who prefers the company of birds to that of humans, arises from a clear, blue sky. I walk with him, together with Elise the field recordist, trampling the grass under my feet, accidently knocking the microphone, feeling the weak autumnal sun warming my nose. I listen carefully to his ramblings about birds and reproduction. His voice is close to my ears and a strong wind is blowing in his hair. He doesn’t know what being in love is. ‘The only purpose in life is to reproduce’ he says, making me feel useless. A woman voice now murmurs her thoughts to my right, she is hesitant, yes she loves the birds, she comes and watches them at sunset, they give her pleasure. From the observatory, she can touch them at a distance, without disturbing them – just as I touch them now, the birds and the birdwatchers, from even further away. Through sound, paradoxically, I’m getting closer to people I don’t know, that I can’t even see, I’m infused with sociability, a feeling of sympathy and palpable intimacy, the kind of intimate bonding I sometimes create with characters from my favourite novels. The lady is single but she still would like at least one child. She stops talking and we let the birds fly over us. I would love to stay with her a bit longer, savouring a moment without talking, a momentary connection. I wonder if Elise feels the same. The old lady sitting next to me is trying to say something. I signal that I can’t hear her, that I’m not here for her – I choose to accompany the bird lady. When I return to my soundtrack, she’s gone somewhere else with Elise.

The balcon d’écoute was installed in 2007 on the loggia of the Reattu museum in Arles to present and promote radiophonic and audio-documentary works, notably from the winners of the Phonurgia Nova prices. Elise Andrieu’s Parmi les Oiseaux was selected for the Prix Découvertes Pierre Schaeffer 2009. A secluded listening chamber has recently been added to the museum’s pioneering department of sound art. I’m searching this oasis for the ears and wander about the rooms. There’s a formidable wooden woman reclining on the floor, playing the lyre, and lots of Picasso prints and drawings on the walls. A series of six photographs by Dieter Appelt skimming the surface of water pulls me near. My eyes involuntary turn to the window where they meet the Rhône flowing below. I push a door and enter a small but comfortable space, entirely carpeted and designed, I am told, by Christian Delacroix. I lay on the largest cushion, flat as a stone, which I place strategically in the centre of the room. The quadrophonic recording soon invades the whole space, including my body. I feel a sudden chill as a cold and damp air is blowing from under my neck and is making my hair stand upright on my naked arms and legs. I am being pierced with tiny, swishing pieces of sound coming from all directions. They feel as pure as water, as hard as steel. Regular hammering blows on metal and softer, muffled strokes echo intensely in my head, leaving indents on my skull. Panning back and forth across the soundscape, they now come closer to me, I am descending deeper into a hole in the ground. As I close my eyes, a sweating darkness bleeds on the warm colour of the wallpaper. Soon the space opens up to a vertiginous cavity filled with swooping and steaming sounds, my heart lifts up in my chest as I start floating in this enveloping underground miasma. Among the beeping of cars, the screeching of trains on rusty rails, the human screams – or are they chants?, the burping and splashing of a giant overflow, I hear a distant bell, the chirping of birds, and the high-pitched grating of night insects gradually blending into the strident yell of a police siren. The banging noises have now become rhythmical, amplified, and my body gets the urge to stand up and dance wildly while watching over a dark cityscape. They abruptly stop and the clean and bright silence of the room takes over for a couple of seconds, giving way to another, lighter journey. Hanna Hartman’s whole composition is broken up with unexpected turns and brusque changes of intensity, which jostles me around and forces my mind and body to constantly re-adjust and focus on the sounds, all of them plundered from the concrete world and craftily hashed up. That way, she doesn’t let me drift away from them, nor being swallowed by them. They resonate in their pure soundness. Sometimes a melody appears, or the sounds of a didgeridoo, or the funky rhythms of cowbells. Now something is bumping onto a hollow case that resonates like one of my favourite Pink Floyd songs and my heart lifts up for a few seconds. The melody ceases, and so my musical escapade. I am back in the echoing miasmatic strangeness, walking upside-down in a cavernous metropolis and, in my semi-consciousness of being here and there, I feel no urge to return to the surface. On the contrary, I relish being led by the ears on this phantasmagorical journey, which I listen to as much as I create. The sounds enter my ears, my body and my mind and, as I perceive them, I simultaneously live them bodily and mentally, I interactively experience and produce them, inventing what I hear as I stroll about on my listening trip, never certain of where I am going next. It is this interactive, producing perception of the world which my listening to Hartman’s Cikoria brings to the fore, a world oscillating between the real and the imagined, the concrete and the ephemeral, the familiar and the unearthly.

Just before the end of the 40-minute piece, a couple of visitors enter the room and interrupt my listening, slamming the door and blurting out excuses. While we can shut our eyes or remain exclusively involved with a visual object, in the listening chamber ears must necessarily remain open and generous to others. On the balcon d’écoute, the binaural recordings diffused through headphones allow for the listener to shut out the world around and remain undisturbed. Quadrophonic compositions such as Hartman’s Cikoria demand that one stands in the middle of four speakers, enhancing the phenomenological listening experience, which includes the unwanted disturbance of a busy gallery. I secretly wish I could be left alone, immersed head-to-toes in my sound box, to create my dreamworld out of the soundwaves that I selfishly experience. This – the desirable individual immersive listening of quadrophonic recordings, poses an obvious challenge to galleries and museums. Musée Réattu’s spaces for sound art are, so far, relatively crowd-free, but I keep wondering how, when sound art becomes a ubiquitous medium in institutional spaces, the optimal listening experience will be preserved, unless crowd-filtering systems and precise time-management of listening areas are put in place. Of course, sound installations are sometimes designed for interpersonal interaction or intersubjective intimacy to take place. Hartman’s installation downstairs is designed for the listeners to walk on its false floor underneath which speakers have been placed, and to feel the soundscapes through their feet and up along their spine, vibrating in their whole body. Like in a Buddhist temple, one is asked to take their shoes off before climbing on the shiny red floor. Some people systematically stride around the room along its four walls before climbing down again, while others sit or lay down, attempting to listen to the murmur of the ground through their bottoms. While entertaining for the viewer, it is above all distracting for the keen listener. The sounds for Acoustic Catacombs, recorded in Arles’ underground tunnels and catacombs, leek through the floor in weak vibrations, failing both to seduce my body and to captivate my imagination.

Hanna Hartman’s retrospective, including Cikoria – a Journey (1999), is in the chambre d’écoute in Musée Réattu in Arles until December 2010. Also on display is her installation Acoustic Catacombs (2010) Elise Andrieu’s Parmi les Oiseaux is available for listening on the balcon d’écoute, as part of the Prix Découvertes Pierre Schaeffer 2009.

Drawing robots and war games at the V&A

•January 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

The V&A’s temporary displays dotted around the museum are designed to ‘highlight intriguing objects and untold stories’ – Digital Pioneers unveils such a story, the largely unknown practice of early computer artists, whose finely plotted and printed artworks, selected from the recently acquired collections of computer-generated art by the V&A, illuminate your way from the jewellery gallery to the Sacred Silver and Stained Glass rooms.

Scheduled to coincide with the V&A’s current Decode exhibition showcasing the latest developments in digital and interactive design, Digital Pioneers offers fascinating insights in the history of the relationship between art and technology. Back in the 50s and 60s, limited access to the new computer technology and the restrictive early printing machines such as the pen-and-ink plotters prompted a highly experimental and spontaneous approach. Chance and precision were allowed to mix, producing seemingly ‘crafted’ two-dimensional outputs. With the arrival of personal computers and sophisticated printers, the creative possibilities grew exponentially. Images started to acquire an increasingly digital appearance and, in the 1990s, computers became an everyday tool used in a multitude of creative environments. In spite of the technological advances, computer art pioneers retained their early experimental attitudes, preferring their tailor-made software to the standard applications increasingly available on the market, preserving their unique, personal styles.

One such artist, Jean-Pierre Hébert, has been producing computational drawings and mixed media since the 70s. He describes himself as a ‘algorist’, an artist who ‘creates one’s work of art using one’s algorithm’. Seeing the computer as a creative partner, his art making process is ‘very much akin to composing, choreographing or simply… thinking’ and his work reflects this musical and organic feel. His Masma (1990) is an exquisite ink-and-graphite print whose fine, undulating lines create a wonderful texture that seems to suck one into its centre. Mount Tai (2000), resembling the giant fingerprint of Mother Earth, is part of a series inspired by the mythical Chinese sacred mountain, Mount Tai in Shandong, with its roots in literary traditions, created entirely algorithmically and evoking a sense of timelessness derived from the art of numbers. Hébert not only prints on paper but also on film, glass, steel, copper plates, wood, sand and even on air and water, exploring all the possibilities of drawing. His sand works are particularly attractive, not only for their pure visual pleasure but also for the playful memories they evoke and their fragile, ephemeral quality.

Fellow algorist Roman Verostko also started to experiment with computers to explore formal possibilities and to delve into the unknown depths of abstracted landscapes. He was first to adapt plotters with paint brushes, viewing them as electronic scribes using procedures which are ‘the present-day equivalent of the drawing techniques practiced in medieval manuscript illumination’. His Pathway Series is a cross between Chinese calligraphy and the sound paintings of Kandinsky.

According to Charles Csuri, another algorist presented in the display, ‘the spontaneity of expression is in my mind and not in my fingers. My aesthetic sensibility becomes imbedded in the computer language. The computer responds to my excitement and feeling through my instructions’. In Csuri’s hands, the cool, abstract digital shapes are transformed into hot, political matter. He was the first to use figurative content in his algorithmic work, after having seen a computer-generated face in an electrical engineering publication back in 1964. His Random War (1967-8) reflects America’s troubled times in the grip of the cold war crisis and perhaps his own past as a WWII soldier who participated in the bloody Battle of the Bulge. Csuri created a data set from a toy soldier drawing and fed it to a random number generator programme, which determined the distribution and position of 400 red and black soldiers on a battlefield.  The names of real people, as well as other data such as ‘dead’, ‘survivor’ and ‘efficiency medals’ were entered into the programme, giving the work a more crucial, real-life dimension. The outcome of this randomisation programme, a series of battling, super-imposed black and red toy figures, symbolises the pointless violence of a pathetic game controlled by the hand of higher, political forces.

Earlier in the decade, Desmond Paul Henry built drawing machines from modified ‘bombsight’ analogue computers, which were employed in World War II bombers to calculate the accurate release of bombs onto their target. Henry’s machine-generated effects such as the parabolic 2-headed Serpent (1962) were exhibited at the acclaimed ICA’s Cybernetic Serendipity show in 1968 and were promoted by the BBC. They were also to appear in American Life magazine but the article was scrapped following the assassination of JF Kennedy. The technological optimism that sprung early in the decade was gradually replaced by a widespread political crisis and a general suspicion against technology, partly due to its link to the military-industrial complex and its human and environmentally destructive potential. The increasing politicisation of the art world and the anti-technological stance of the 1970s were certainly part of the reason why these extraordinary artworks such as those produced by Henry’s war machine fell into the cracks of our collective memory.

Digital Pioneers also shows the creative evolution of another humanised drawing machine: Aaron, Harold Cohen’s artificially intelligent alter ego, which mixes its own paints, creates its own artworks and even washes its own brushes. Programmed in ‘C’ and developed in LISP[1], Aaron can produce unlimited variations of what it ‘knows’ about, namely a limited number of plants, trees, objects and the contours of the human figure that Cohen has gradually input into its code during the last 30 years. Untitled (1987) shows Aaron’s distinctive foliage intertwined with human figures emerging out of a jungle. While the picture reminded me of Douanier Rousseau’s snake charmer and exotic scenery, its clean, stylised lines and forms derived from Cohen’s coding, would not quite be classed as ‘naïve’, raising interesting questions on the nature of creativity and what makes the hand of the artist. Cohen describes style as the signature of a complex interactive system and admits that his own style certainly had an influence over Aaron’s creative output. Rather than a child robot learning to draw and becoming a self-aware creative intelligence, Aaron should be seen as an extension of Cohen’s brain, an external drive with its own independent workings adding to the complexity of the artist’s human mind – whether we are witnessing the beginning of a significant evolutionary process, as Cohen believes, remains to be seen.

Beyond the technological prowess and enhanced creative possibilities offered by the computer, the more attractive works in Digital Pioneers remain the ones that infuse a more political and personal touch. Csuri’s satirical take on war games and politics are incredibly prescient and one can easily see his influence in the works of later artists such as Vuk Cosic and the net.art movement of the mid-1990s. Vera Molnar, one of the two women artists showcased in this exhibition, displays a curious mix of personal sensitivity and concrete geometry. In her Letters from my Mother series, she used the computer to simulate her elderly mother’s ‘gothic-hysteric’ writing as she was getting increasing unwell and presented the result as an exercise in symmetry and counter-composition – with the ultimate goal to reconcile modern design with the classical rules of composition. In her accompanying notes Letter to my Mother, she realises that her will to ‘inject order and reason into the impulsive and eccentric’ was a betrayal to her mother, all for the sake of her experimental practice. She seeks forgiveness, swearing never to simulate a person’s writing ever again, other than her own. Her deeply personal and private reflections infiltrate her digital practice, exploring ‘la géométrie du plaisir’ and ‘la sensibilité numérique’ – a dialogue between emotions and methodical thinking. This gives her work an extra, humanistic dimension often lacking in more formal experiments with computers.

Digital Pioneers is a short but well-informed selection of delightful artworks that shed some light on the past fifty years of art, design and technology and presents itself as a useful preamble to Decode’s contemporary digital displays. Why then, is there no explicit reference to it in the introduction to Decode, nor are the V&A staff informed about it?

Digital Pioneers: Computer-Generated Art and Design from the V&A Collections is at the V&A until 7 April 2010.


[1] LISP is the second-oldest high-level programming language in widespread use today. From its inception, LISP quickly became the favoured programming language for artificial Intelligence (AI) research and pioneered many ideas in computer science, including tree data structures, automatic storage management, dynamic typing and the self-hosting compiler.