August 30, 2013

Christine Sun Kim with Thomas Benno Mader Online. About the Website of the MoMA Show "Soundings"

Christine Sun Kim. All. Night. 2012. Score, pastel, pencil, and charcoal on paper, 38.5 x 50″. Courtesy the artist

I have been drooling over the website of the MoMA New York, wishing I could go jet-setting and see the exhibition Soundings. A Contemporary Score, the first sound art exhibition of the museum. Then I suddenly discovered I was lucky. My favorite artist Christine Sun Kim - the reason überhaupt why I would go to see the exhibition - has an art piece online (for free!) on the MoMA website to check out. I can now draw the conclusion that Soundings. A Contemporary Score is a success. A show with at least one great piece in it is much rarer than one would think.  

Thinking about Christine Sun Kim’s work the name of John Cage might come to mind. Both have a conceptual and experimental approach to sound. Many believe that after Cage an expansion of music is no longer a possibility. Yet from a very different perspective Christine Sun Kim steps in conceptually with what one can consider to be a musical-artistic expansion. John Cage comes from hearing culture. Christine Sun Kim comes from deaf culture. One is tempted to draw the quick conclusion that silence is what brings Cage’s and Sun Kim’s approach together in the first place. But that would be a too easy short-cut. Not only because Christine Sun Kim seems to have by character - her energy, the red lipstick -  an intense presence and drive: meeting her you can think a lot except silence - in contrast I imagine Cage to have been one of these persons who keeps quiet most of the time.

Could one say that Cage, in all his interest for silence, thought sound to be dominant, showing in his 4’33’’ that there is never an absolute silence? In a soundproof studio he discovered that even in these ideal circumstances he could hear two sounds, one of his blood circulation and one of his nervous system. In her TED-talk  (she was awarded in 2012) Christine Sun Kim brought forward a different approach: silence is imposing in music, she argued, as it is inherently used to shape sound. She concluded that calling her an expert in silence, is a big misconception: “Since I do not have direct access to sound, what does silence equate to then? Maybe, silence as you know silence, as we supposedly know silence, doesn't exist in my book.” The audience of the TED-award must have had a moment to think that through. Christine Sun Kim’s artistic work takes you off guard because it opens up a space for a new thought that you’ve never thought before. Isn’t that remarkable, such kind of art? In my opinion one can say it is the ultimate definition of good art.

The funny thing is that Christine Sun Kim doesn’t produce such new thinking by looking for the exceptional. No, she just looks deep into “plain” reality and shows what is apparent, yet hidden. She thereby irritates the culturally produced borders. In the piece that is online, with the title When Not Concentrated,  she worked together with her friend, the Berlin artist Thomas Benno Mader. Mader told Sun Kim that she makes a particular sound when she is concentrating as if she has “a very heavy weight” on her chest. Sun Kim asked Mader to put that sound into words. She used his text to reenact her unconsciously made sound. An impossible endeavor for both deaf and hearing people. First, Sun Kim takes a situation where also hearing persons are “deaf” to their unconsciously made sounds. Second, it is quite impossible for Mader to put the sound exactly into words. Third, it is impossible to reenact consciously an unconsciously made sound, thus the title “when not concentrated”. In this collaboration with Thomas Benno Mader Christine Sun Kim challenges and explores her own limitations and starting with that she irritates also the ones of others. Yet her work is radical but not invasive. That is another great thing about Christine Sun Kim’s work: she shifts borders but is at the same time very well aware of keeping certain ones intact.

August 18, 2013

Meeting Friedrich von Borries. About My Worst/Best Job Interview Ever

Trying to get the face right for the photo on my German CV

People have asked me how I feel about the new piece that interacts (or not) now with The Right to be Lazy by John Knight in Hamburger Bahnhof. It is called “Weltverbesserungsmachine” (“world improving machine”) and it is a huge pyramid. It’s made or curated by Friedrich von Borries and his design office. I didn’t see the object yet. But I did meet Friedrich von Borries once. That meeting did not exactly take place in the best circumstances. It has been labeled in my memoirs as my best and worst job interview at the same time. That might seem impossible, but I can tell you, it is possible. The story goes like this:

It was a few years ago in the art school in Hamburg where Borries is a teacher. I’m there for a job interview for a post-doc for his project “Urban Interventions”. The interviewees are invited for the closing party/exhibition of the art academy the night before the interview. Excellent. So I take the train to Hamburg, go to the party, and introduce myself to Borries. That’s where it starts to go wrong. Borries is apparently so super interested in me that he can’t wait to ask me questions. I joke that the interview is supposed to be happening the next day at 9am. But to no effect: Borries thinks it is good to have a first impression without having his colleagues nosing around. Alright, in the mid of this party I do my best to come up with smart answers. It is very hard to do so in a consistent way since we get constantly interrupted by Borries’ cell phone or by people saying hello (for the non-Germans reading this story: no, this is not the occasion where I get exclusive introductions to the arty people Borries knows. This is not America, this is Germany where “us knows us” so you must imagine me being transparent, which did not exactly improve the consistency of my answers). 

Okay, I was a little bit shaken by that “interview party”, I admit, but what the heck: the next morning at 9 I show up in the academy for the real interview, all dressed up in a suit - that’s what they taught me in the European workshop “For Women Scientists to Advance”: wear a suit because otherwise women don’t convey authority during the job interview. Thanks European Women to Advance: I’m totally out of place at the art school that morning at 9am. It smells like beer all over the place, dripping out of left-behind bottles from the party the night before. A bunch of people is waiting in front of Borries’ office door. We look at one another with great surprise. We were expecting a private job interview. At 9am Borries comes out of his office and that’s when I look even more out of tune. His shirt is hanging out of his trousers, his hair is messed up. He looks as if he just jumped out of his bed... and he apparently did. Everything under control: I just try to play it cool and change my face accordingly. 

We are all called into Borries’ office and he explains the “concept” of this job interview. We get colors, scissors (not enough for everyone of us, we have to share), and a paper and we have to make something creative out of it... I’m forgetting the details of the assignment because we are all so baffled  (our jaws dropped, there goes the coolness) being in the (apparently wrong) belief that we left kindergarden a long time ago. We don’t have a space to be “creative” but we can just chill and sit down somewhere in the academy. On the door there is a paper that tells us what time we can come back for the private interview. After that, at around 2 in the afternoon, we have to come back to interact with one another. This way Borries can see from up-close how we do socially and who is most fitting for his project. A job interview of half an hour for a half-time job is so passé: you can spend a whole day with your (hopefully) future boss so you reveal your authentic self and drop your act.  

My personal interview is at 11.30 am. It’s still 9 in the morning, no living soul except for us, the poor victims of Borries’ originality, and no open coffee shop nearby. We are all standing there kind of lost. Somebody tells me that Borries made already clear to him the night before that this is a half-time position, but one is expected to work full-time - a very common practice in the German academic world (about the anti-intellectual tendencies in Germany, that’s another story). That is the final drop that makes the bucket run over, so to speak. I head out of the academy deciding to call it a quit. Yet the little devil on my shoulder is having its impact and so midway between school and train station I turn around and walk back. I ask the interviewee who is waiting in front of Borries’ office if I can have 5 minutes of his interview time. He welcomes it. So I walk in and tell Borries where exactly he can stick his “Urban Intervention” project. I was totally out of line, I guess, but hey, what seemed to be the worst job interview ever - actually in the end it turns out I have even fond memories of it.  

August 14, 2013

About Deja Vu, Originality and Being First. "Wir sind hier nicht zum Spass", Julia Voss and Hedy Lamarr

Thanks to Patrick for borrowing me this book: Jochen Foerster & Anthony Loder, Hedy Darling. Hollywood-Ikone. Technik-Pionierin. Gefallener Stern. Das filmreife Leben der Hedy Lamarr erzaehlt von ihrem Sohn,  2012

Sometimes one thinks one is doing something of his/her own, then to discover it has been done before or somebody is doing exactly the same thing at the same moment. Synchronies, Zeitgeist and those kind of phenomenons.  I had a moment of deja-vu last week when walking through the exhibition Wir sind hier nicht zum Spass curated by Paul Paulun in cooperation with Stéphane Bauer in Kunstraum Kreuzberg/Bethanien. I was so surprised I couldn’t focus on the art on display. The display reminded me of the exhibition Gesture Sign Art. Deaf Culture / Hearing Culture that I myself curated there last year together with Wolfgang Müller. To me, it was as if was walking through its double - the same atmosphere, the same constellations. I’ve never thought that exhibition set-ups could be repeated with totally different art, and “work”. Because it did work: it’s a good exhibition (although I did not see the art pieces, ha! It worked visually at least.. but I might have been biased). 

To be the first - that was the topic of an art review by Julia Voss about the artist Hilma Af Klint. Julia Voss is an art critic for the FAZ. I read two of her reviews - the first one made me think she is great, the second one made me think the opposite. No problem, I’m now waiting to read the third one to balance that out. Some philosophical dialectic thinking underlies this expectation of mine - no doubt of a male philosopher, his name is on the tip of my tongue... bummer... No wonder Julia Voss is out to rewrite history, more specific, in her case, art history, so dominated by men that we can’t even think outside that box. Voss is definitely right in her wanting to set things “straight”. Therefore I really liked her article about Georg Baselitz and her critique on his calculated ways of dealing with the art market. Yet in her article “Die Thronstürmerin” (The Crown Striker) about the Swedish artist Hilma Af Klint, Vos aims to write the woman painter into the history of mankind. Not by pointing out the quality of the artist’s work, but by a very mainstream art market strategy - indeed the same art market she was criticizing in the Baselitz article. Hilma Af Klint, so claims Julia Vos, was the first abstract art painter, starting her abstract work in the year 1906. 

Julia Voss ends her victorious article with an heroic sentence: “Noch 2008 wurde Kandisnky in München, New York und Paris in einer riesigen Schau als Erfinder der Abstraktion gepriesen. Es dürfte die letzte grosse Feier aus diesem Anlass für ihn gewesen sein.” ("In 2008 Kandisky was still celebrated in an enormous exhibition as the founder/inventor of abstraction. It could have been his last one.") Héhé, take that one Kandinsky! Revenge is sweet! I always get stomach ace when I read in exhibition texts that the artist in question is “the first one to” ...  - it goes in the same category as “... is one of the most significant artists of the ... century”. Especially in the case of abstract art it seems to make no sense to claim to be the first. This art market strategy is on top of it such a male discourse that I wonder why Julia Voss even bothers to take it over for her own (or okay Hilma af Klint, but is she really doing this female artist a favor?) purposes now. A male discourse like in: discovering America, being the first man on the moon, and other male colonial endeavours.
"Secret Communication System" by Hedy Lamarr and George Antheil

So on the one hand I have this kind of repulsion for these claims to be the first (although I kind of did it too in the first paragraph of this writing, uhu), on the other hand I totally think there is a woman who deserves to be acknowledged as an inventor of new things. Her name is Hedy Lamarr. Sounds unfamiliar to you? Well, she made it possible that we are using cellphones, WLAN, Bluetooth, ect. nowadays. Hedy Lamarr used to be a famous film star, celebrated “as the most beautiful girl in the world”, in the same range as Marilyn Monroe, but now she is totally forgotten. Lamarr was intellectual, interested in politics, and she created together with the composer George Antheil during the Second World War the “frequency-hopping spread spectrum” invention. This system for frequency hopping was intended to make radio-guided torpedos harder for enemies to detect. Andy Warhol made a film about Hedy Lamarr in 1968, The 14 Year Old Girl, also known as Hedy or The Shoplifter. Hedy Lamarr was also an artist and I would love to see what she created. I do know the poem she wrote as a “pardon me” for her son and it’s pretty awesome:

Don’t get a tan
Your skin’s too fair
You’re a brunette
Don’t bleach your hair
You’re getting too thin
You must gain weight
It’s because you never ate
You can’t wear bluejeans all the time
You are a star and you must shine
After listening to this for many years
I stopped ------
I like myself the way I am
If you do not, well,
I don’t give a damn

August 7, 2013

"thank you silence." Ugo Rondinone in M - Museum Leuven

Ugo Rondinone, the river, 2011. © studio rondinone

I made a detour to M - Museum Leuven on my way back to Brussels airport, Belgium. It was the third time that I visited the museum and each time I am impressed by the exhibitions on contemporary art in this relatively new museum. Curator is Eva Wittocx and she has an amazing exhibition space to work with. That definitely eases the curatorial job yet Wittocx has, on top of it, a great, generous way of playing with these huge spaces. Her exhibitions - up till now I saw Dirk Braekman, Sol LeWitt and Ugo Rondinone - don’t clutter. They leave space around the exhibited art pieces. And that also counts for the spectator. Eva Wittocx’s exhibitions make you breath.  

That might sound like mindfulness, and why not. The exhibition on the Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone with the beautiful title thank you silence made me think of lines that I recently read in Kurt Schwitters’ Literarische Werke. In an autobiographical text “About me by myself” of 1929:  “If any one asks me why I go on living in this mad-house, I can give him the same answer as to the question why I have visited that museum where “the lemon trees bloom”: in order to observe and to register. Ecco.” Ugo Rondinone’s exhibit in Museum M gives the spectator an hour of splendid “Ecco” (in translation this latin word seems to have an exclamation mark added: See! Behold!). At least an hour in my case (airplane was waiting) but the after effect was much longer. Kurt Schwitters about the purpose of art in “Merz”, 1920: “Art is a primal concept - sublime as divinity, inexplicable as life, indefinable and pointless.”

Exhibition view Ugo Rondinone, 2013, M - Museum Leuven © Dirk Pauwels

Ugo Rondinone made new works for thank you silence: hanging, standing and leaning landscapes. These landscapes are enormous chunks of earth, which are hanging, standing and leaning - like humans do (except for the hanging, I guess, although as a figure of speech, “I’m hanging”). These landscapes are shown in combination with Rondinone’s sculptural series nude: hyper-realistic human figures (without clothes of course, yet with what seems to be a swimming cap on the head). These statues are in a seated position on the floor, and they are resting, taking a break from what Schwitters called the insane asylum that is our world. The figures all seem to have a moment of inner peace and stillness. There is only being. And isn’t that the only way to reach the state of no noise? (about the impossibility of silence, see John Cage).

The exhibition starts, however, with small sculptures of birds - many birds occupying the front space, not flying, but like the nudes squatting on the floor. And it is hard not to imagine the chirping that goes with them. The birds have names like “the water”, “the thunder”.”the river”, “the mountain” and “the storm”. Indeed, not “Rain”, “Summer” or “River” (Phoenix). The definite article is included. In the middle of these natural phenomenons there is another one, which did not take the form of a bird but came as an installation titled thank you silence: a kind of snow machine up in the air that has thrown little white paper cuts on the floor. True, also snow can create a situation of absolute silence.

Ugo Rondinone's exhibition finishes with the sun. In the top room of museum M, after climbing quite some stairs, one enters a space with a huge grey concrete rectangle form (or square... so huge, I couldn’t see) suspended in the air. One can slip underneath it to get into its center. The inside is decorated with children drawings of the sun -  a cooperation of Ugo Rondinone with children of Leuven. A mantra that my friend Stefano told me a long time ago, came to mind: “Imagine you are surrounded by a bubble of white light and all the negativity just gets absorbed by this bubble and transformed into pure love, that is the color of gold...”

My newest acquisition: Die Literarische Werke of Kurt Schwitters!