August 28, 2015

Open Letters. A Correspondence with Chilean Art Writer Ignacio Szmulewicz, 1

I know Ignacio Szmulewicz is an art historian who lives in Santiago, Chile. Like me, he is an art writer. But I did not have the pleasure to meet him. Instead we met the 21st century kind of way, on Twitter, where we "follow" each other. Curiosity at first, followed by sympathy and, not long after that, a writers' friendship. Twitter's 140 characters messages did not longer do the trick, so we got to emailing. Then I received a letter by Ignacio in my mailbox - not handwritten but a standard letter format nevertheless. It has something to it, letter writing, hasn't it? A sincerity? So here it is, the letter. And I'll be responding to it next week.

Edgar Ende

Dear An,

I begin this letter by saying that I have always wanted to write about the process of writing essays. My fascination, and yours too I guess, comes from a genuine admiration to all kind of arts: from cinema to architecture, literature, and specially the visual arts. I think that every personal story serves to understand the point of view of the writer. Mine begins this way: I had an early encounter with visual arts. I lived with my father in Valence, Spain, between 1998 and 1999, and we travelled all around Spain and later France, England and Italy. In that trip I appreciated the value of cathedrals, ancient cities, old museums, renaissance paintings, and of course, contemporary arts at Reina Sofia and Pompidou.

Growing up in a small town in the south of Chile, one of my favourites things was watching pop movies and listen to pop songs. I could stay up all night watching eighties films (Spielberg, Hughes) or revisiting classics of the sixties and seventies (Scorsese, Coppola). Listening songs of Dylan and Queen like they were my closest friends. 

My fascination with books began very late. I remember my mother giving me books of all kind and maybe it was by rebellion that I liked to reject them all. My attention was spotted by a strange and awkward book of Michael Ende call "El espejo en el espejo" (Der Spiegel im Spiegel), a mysterious collection of short stories. After that came Steinbeck's "East of Eden", a very dark book about the human condition through generations of families. After that I picked pretty much everything from science fiction or fantasy to classics of German (Thomas Mann) and Russian literature. 

I talked earlier in this letter about my fascination with arts. I think that this has to do with the possibility of telling stories. The construction of stories and the stories themselves came to me like a enormous world that someone had created just by imagination. I believe that the possibility of taking a person, anyone, and lift them up, shake them, or as North- American would say, to "rock their world", is one of the most attractive qualities of art. 
Then I became very interested in the context and background of writers. I learned that Ende's book came about as  a tribute to his father, Edgar Ende, a painter of surreal landscapes. I also learned the value of a well constructed character. In Steinbeck's book I first encountered the most terrible female character called: Cathy Ames. This very atypic woman was a disturbing and appealing child.

Kate (Jo Van Fleet) in the Elia Kazan's film East of Eden, 1955

How was your childhood? Which parts of your actual being would you say are deeply related to your earlier memories? And how do you think that earlier memories are something that you carry with you up to your present life? Is there something more defining to you, regarding your writing formation?

Ignacio Szmulewicz

August 26, 2015

Literary Dining 3: Truman Capote with Elisa Lago and Catherine Nichols

Photo: Iara Guedes

I haven't reported back to you yet about the third literary dinner, a homage to Truman Capote, that I organised at Entretempo Kitchen Gallery, July 17. That's because it was quite magic and it's hard to write about magic, how to put it into words? For instance, when Elisa Lago sings, which she did on that evening, there is that something. For the occasion she performed songs of Billie Holiday, about whom Truman Capote said the following: "Billie Holiday scarcely in her whole life ever sang a really good song, but she took these perfectly mediocre songs and turned them into amazing powerhouses of style and artistry. There was somebody who could take an apple out of a basket and turn it into a work of art no matter how rotten the apple was. Because she had style." 

Photo: Iara Guedes

Guest of Honour was art writer and curator Catherine Nichols. And let me just tell you what she told us. She read to us the questions that Truman Capote asked himself in his Self-Portrait of 1972. You can imagine both Capote's answers on these self-imposed questions and your very own:

1. If you had to live in just one place - without ever leaving - where would it be?
2. Do you prefer animals to people?
3. Are you cruel?
4. Do you have many friends?
5. What qualities do you look for in friends?
6. Are you often disappointed by a friend?
7. Are you a truthful person?
8. How do you like best to occupy your spare time?
9. Of what are you most afraid?
10. Then what does frighten you?
11. What shocks you? If anything?
12. If you hadn't decided on writing, a creative life, what would you have done?
13. Do you take any form of exercise?
14. Can you cook?
15. If Reader's Digest ever commissioned from you an "Unforgettable Character" article, whom would you write about?
16. What is the most powerful word in any language?
17. And the most dangerous?
18. Have you ever wanted to kill anybody?
19. What are your political interests?
20. If you could be anything, what would you most like to be?
21. What are your chief vices? And virtues?
22. Suppose you were drowning. What images, in the classic tradition, do you envision rolling across your mind?

Catherine gave us Capote's answer to the last question. Let me just quote the last paragraph of that:

"Once more, the creek. The taste of raw turnip on my tongue, the flow of summer water embracing my nakedness. And there, just there, swivelling, tangoing on the sun-dappled surface, the exquisitely limber and lethal cotton-mouth moccasin. But I'm not afraid; am I?"

August 24, 2015

Guest Blogger Quinn Caroline Hannah, BLUE GOWN AESTHETIC: Exploring the limitations of art criticism

How can certain limitations be used to free the imagination in art criticism? Is it possible to make a show "come alive" in your writing when you haven't seen it yourself? Guest blogger Quinn Caroline Hannah explores the issue of blue gown aesthetic.

Hinda Avery's series Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch, Vancouver

The immateriality of my mind swims around me in a foggy hue, like the clouds that hang low and silver outside my window. I’ve been in the hospital going on four weeks now with nothing to wear but a blue hospital gown and pajama bottoms with people skiing on them. I have two, my wardrobe has expanded since entering the hospital: one for inside, one for outside. 
My first destination was the ER where I received phone calls, text messages and images of an exhibition that was happening in Vancouver. Being unable to leave the hospital creates a new understanding of limitations. In the ER at least I was able to use my mobile phone and computer. Four days later I entered a new unit, what I termed limbo two, in the Family medicine unit. Each ward I moved to I was in a room by myself with a bed and no window. I received my three meals a day, wore my gowns, drank gingerale and tried to stay in contact with the outside world from within a new world. Two days later I made my final journey within the walls of the hospital: to the acute adult psychiatric unit.  I no longer had access to my phone, my computer, the internet, speaking to any of my friends or family except on a phone shared by 20 other people and monitored by staff. I shared a room and requested printed versions of images of the exhibition I had seen when I was in the ER.
In the psychiatric unit, we were allowed outside for Fresh Air Breaks – known as FABs – for 15 minutes at quarter to each hour. We were served our three meals a day. Given our medications, checked on at night with flashlights to make sure we were asleep and in our beds. The ward was a locked ward. There was no way out unless you were allowed out. I was truly limited in a new way. 
Hinda Avery’s Resisterrrz: Scenes from a Resistance at The Cultch featured large scale paintings of the artist’s family acting as feminist Resistance fighters in Nazi invaded Poland and Germany. In fact her family were driven from Poland and Germany by the Nazi and many members were killed for being Jewish. Reclaiming her Jewish identity, Avery’s paintings are joyous while critical in their endeavour to resist limitations her family experienced simply because of their heritage. Each painting features a group of women, the Rosen sisters, dressed in Burlesque like attire. Brightly coloured underwear and bras are worn over full bodied colourful jumpsuits. Corsets and chaps in ebullient colours cover white bodysuits. Women laughing and wearing space suits float around a space with glee. In each one the women are all delighted, smiling and laughing, brandishing hand guns or drills. There is no fear in their eyes or expressions. Only jubilation and triumphant at taking back their inherent power. 

Hinda Avery's series Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch, Vancouver

However, my understanding of these paintings and the exhibition can only be read from a limited perspective. I sat on my bed, watching the silver clouds hang low outside, or the rain pour down in sheets followed by fat rainbows, or the sun shine brightly in cloudless blue skies; clear cloudless nights with full moons that illuminate my room. Sitting on my bed while the days passed by one after another I looked at these images of Hinda Avery’s paintings. Printed out they lay scattered amongst a series of books on everything from pop psychology to curatorial studies and novels about hiking in the wilderness, worksheets on self-esteem, mood journals, managing stress, scale your day, EMDR info sheets, medication pamphlets and a big, fluffy stuffed cat a friend brought me. 
The world of art criticism predicates that the reviewer of an exhibition sees it in person. This is an unwritten rule almost. See the exhibition. Experience it in person, as a whole, an entirety. See the light on the canvas, the arrangement of works, the spacing, the levelness of the labels. The interaction of the works amongst each other. However, how is this dealt with in a situation where the exhibition is inaccessible for one reason or another. In this particular case it was the limitation of being confined to a hospital. In other situations it may be accessibility. Thus, in situations such as these, are critiques of exhibitions written from outside the exhibition space itself valid? Is it possible for the reviewer to curate their own version of the experience and arrangement of the work that allows for a reading that takes into account the limitation of being unable to attend in person? Or, does this predicated understanding of seeing the work in person disallow such a reading? Invalidate it?

Hinda Avery, Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch, Vancouver

Seeing Hinda Avery’s exhibition Resisterrrz: Scenes from the Resistance at The Cultch through printed and digital images while being limited to a hospital bed within the walls of a hospital, 900 km north of the city it was being shown in, required my mind to imagine the exhibition on a different level. I equally wondered at length about my own limitations in that moment, as well as the limitations that are enforced in a way through the area of art criticism as well as the limitations of living in a regional centre where access to exhibitions is limited by cost of travel. In her paintings Avery allows for a powerful reclamation of identity – both feminist and oppressed – through the redressing of bodies as well the as rediscovery of roles. Here I would like to reclaim my own identity: I am a woman, writer, art critic, curator and someone who suffers from mental illness. I reclaim my ability to interpret exhibitions despite limitations whilst wearing my blue gown. 

Quinn Caroline Hannah

Great Times in Mons 2015: Atopolis / Jardin Suspendu / Café Europa

The Mundaneum, founded at the end of the 19th century in Mons
by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine to gather the world's knowledge

I've been gone for a while. Yeah, I was busy vlogging in Belgium - indeed, this mysterious kingdom at the North Sea! Have you ever heard about the Walloon region in Belgium? I bet you know the films of the Dardenne brothers (La Promesse, Rosetta, Le Fils, etc.) and then you might not be too keen on visiting this place of hardship unless you're attracted to a sort of realness. But: it's not the whole picture. Do you remember the Eurovision Song Contest 1986? Every Belgian does because it was the first and only time we won the Grand Prix Eurovision. Sandra Kim from Liège (Wallonia) did the job with a most optimistic message: J'aime la vie (I love life). Being only 13 years old she became the youngest winner ever because in 1990 the minimum age for participation was set at 16. I myself was 8 years old in 1986 and whenever I hear the song J'aime la vie, I still get this victorious feeling. But I especially love the stubbornness of Sandra Kim, who kept on singing "J'aime le vie" whereas the choir answered with the grammatically correct "la vie". Du vrai liégois quoi!  

Mons is a city in Wallonia I had never visited before but now I had some really good reasons to do so: Mons is the European Capital of Culture in 2015 and for the occasion my friend Charlotte Friling curated a show together with Dirk Snauwaert, director of WIELS in Brussels. So here it is, VIP, an exclusive interview with Charlotte about her exhibit ATOPOLIS, which I can only very much recommend to go to and check out for yourself!

And that was not all! I had such a good time, eating mussels with pommes frites, walking around in this surprisingly beautiful city of Mons and being even more surprised (coming from Berlin) about how friendly people are in Mons.  Plus, it's always nice to discover new things and I came upon this cool art project Mon(s) Invisible going on in a Jardin Suspendu, where I met two Berliners and one Française, all part of the collective ConstructLab:

Wherever I go, I have a good nose for finding the best cafés,  and also in Mons I ended up in Café Europa where I had the occasion to talk with Mladen Bundalo, one of the creative minds behind this experimental project in which art and science meet:   


Now I'm back in Berlin and no no, reality doesn't bite. Lots of things going on here too and I will get back to you very soon.

August 9, 2015

Berlin Art Lovers: Onika Simon - Art and Design

Onika Simon at the Havana Biennial. Photo: Kwame Charles

Lazy days, Leo days? Somehow Onika Simon and I always get going in August. Remember last August when Onika and I started a conversation on art and design, which materialised itself in an exhibition titled Sorry for Laughing at KN gallery, showing work by Ditte Lyngkaer Pedersen and Raphael Abrams. For this second conversation, one year later, we decided to turn the dialogue into an interview that is part of my ongoing Berlin Art Lovers series. And yes, this interview exceeds your normal attention span (which, according to YouTube, is 2 minutes), but it won't be a problem this time because Onika opens eyes until the very last second when she talks about pattern recognition in contemporary art! Check out her Berlin based company Spokehub for more.

August 5, 2015

Art (Blogger) of the Week: Claudia La Rocco and The Performance Club in New York, USA

Photo by José Carlos Teixeira of Claudia La Rocco in front of her poem 173-177 [or: Facebook Is Inescapable]a site-specific wall text for Teixeira’s Translation(s) at Headlands Center for the Arts.

This week's Art Blogger is not about a blog as such. It's about a club, which is equally awesome (remember, I foresaw that clubs were going to be the new thing to do?!). Plus, The Performance Club takes place online, involves art writing and is about creating a conversation. It was started in 2008 by Claudia La Rocco, who is of the opinion that criticism "is also, or at least aspires to be, art...." And that's exactly what brought me to Claudia La Rocco in the first place. I came upon her book The Best Most Useless Dress (Badlands Unlimited, 2014) and I was excited. Finally, a criticism that dares to play with the "genre", extending it to poetry and fiction, yes even going as far as creating a kind of phenomenology. Let me quote one of the many excerpts that I highlighted on my kindle: "Why do we repeat? To emphasize or distort, to drown out the world and make strange the banal, to give a lie to the impossibility of perfection. Why do we repeat? Why do we repeat?" 

Art scene  
"Hmmm. It’s difficult to say anything sensible about America as a single entity, or to make sensible generalizations about its art. There are so many scenes, so it depends what region you’re in, and then whether we’re talking about traditional or progressive work, and so on and so forth … the world I’ve been most embedded in for the bulk of my career has been the New York performance world, which itself is several worlds." 

"I’m not sure I even think of myself as a blogger! Would you say I am? These days I’m more connected to folks through social media, mainly Twitter, which I am always thinking about quitting … 

But here’s the Performance Club history: I started it in 2008, while working as a cultural critic for WNYC New York Public Radio. WNYC had gotten a big chunk of foundation change, with the mandate to promote online community. With the initiative languishing and the foundation demanding results, WNYC ordered its contributors to drum up proposals for its website. Mine was the Performance Club, which I imagined as a sort of book club for live art, one that would unfold in the flesh and virtually, so that people could take part in the discussions through monthly social gatherings around performances, while also having conversations that would continue on my WNYC blog, forming an archive of discussions and debates.

My proposal was responding to two things which had been frustrating me for a while. One was that I would take friends to the live art I was then writing about and, in spite of being smart and knowledgeable in other fields of contemporary culture, they would come out of these performances and just say “I don’t know how to talk about this stuff.” The critical minds they would use to read any other sort of text were not being activated. 

At the same time, conversations with my colleagues, the actual critics, often tended toward the petty. Little clusters of us marooned in lobbies throughout New York, spending our intermissions making these hierarchical distinctions that were not about reading the work either, but about taste-based assessments: “So and so was better than so and so” or “This work used to look better than it does now.”

I was interested in the possibility of creating a third space. If we brought together people who were already intensely knowledgeable about live art and people who were curious but felt they had no way to talk about performance, I wondered if we could collectively create a more fruitful conversation.

Since then, the site has had several different lives … after I left WNYC it folded for a bit, but I was urged by two members to restart it, with their help. The site was awarded a Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant, and for awhile it ran in the same way it had at WNYC. But then … I needed a break from the organizing aspect of it, and I was more and more interested in it as a little archive. So it’s right now functioning as a space for writing. And it’s idiosyncratic—there’s no schedule of when things need to or should go up, or what should be addressed, or how … I always call it my island of misfit toys."

"I’ve worked for the last 15 years as a critic, journalist, essayist, dramaturg, collaborator, teacher…my education is in literature and poetry, and early on I was writing more about visual art and books, and then I got pulled into the dance world, which led to a wider interest in performance. For many years I was pretty strictly a critic, writing for The New York Times  and other publications, and while I still do that work, including as a columnist for ARTFORUM, I am these days working much more in collaborative veins with other artists and institutions. For example, earlier this year I was the guest curator for Danspace Project’s Platform 2015, Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets, for which I also edited the catalogue. And I’m right now collaborating with the composer and saxophonist Phillip Greenlief to make an album and gearing up for the publication at the end of this year of my first novel—it will be published by a theater, The Chocolate Factory, and there will be a “live copy” that will be performed … so I’m kind of all over the place, but anchored by a few things, like teaching at the School of Visual Arts’ graduated program in Art Writing and Criticism. 

The Performance Club is all a part of the mix—sometimes I will publish things there that I’ve written for very small journals, so as to give the work a longer life, and writings on the site will often come out of collaborative relationships. I like for things to be all mixed up and jostle against one another—my first book, a selected writings called The Best Most Useless Dress, was very purposefully cross-genre. Categories can be useful, but mostly they’re just tedious." 

"So much of my work is bound up in the freelancer hustle … I like that this site isn’t really about that. Early on, it was funded by the Warhol grant, and I used that money to commission writers, pay designers and support my related editing/writing/hosting work. And yes, I am sometimes invited to give talks and workshops and such related to The Performance Club. But I don’t tend to chase those opportunities, and I think after the first grant I only applied for one other—it’s good to have something that doesn’t have an evangelical angle to it. I’m not trying to convince anyone about anything, or to make something bigger and bigger and bigger. It’s just a space for strange little bits and pieces of writing about art, mostly live art. And that to me is the value."

August 1, 2015

Tino Seghal at Martin Gropius Bau. Or the Cynicism of the Art Critic

In the 1920s and early 1930s, Walter Benjamin presented radio broadcasts for both adults and kids. One was about the Carousel of Jobs in which Benjamin asked his audience to describe the influence of their job on their mood and views and to think about the person they were when they took the job compared to the person they became in the job. Being an art critic it was last Wednesday that I noticed how I have turned a little cynical. And it was when visiting Tino Seghal’s exhibition in Martin Gropius Bau that I did so, which is funny enough, because it’s Tino Seghal who I always find a little on the cynical side. I especially disliked his work shown at the Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum of Contemporary Art, Berlin, which consisted of an actor dressed in the same uniform as the (real) guards, singing a short text whenever a visitor entered the space. I found it cynical that the actors were all casted to look like the (real) guards - a kind of stereotyping of people. I found it also cynical to play with a profession like that (just try to imagine an actor is casted to look like you, is then dressed like you to sing a high pitched song) - especially a profession that is certainly not highly paid and very highly respected. Why not clone the director of the museum and make him (no question it's a "he", right?) sing a song? Wouldn’t that be funny? On top of it, it was always a woman singing in a high-pitched voice the line “This is propaganda” - which I found cynical as well: women have no authority in our, oh so free, society - our higher voice, for instance, being one of the factors that is associated with low power. In general, I find artists cynical who belong to this privileged international art tribe and turn people into marionettes for their convenience.* 

So I was telling all this to my friend Fabio who joined me to the show of Tino Seghal in Martin Gropius Bau. And it was at the moment when I started to say what a calculated market strategy Tino Seghal had developed by not allowing photos to be taken of his work and only selling by handshake instead of a contract - indeed, it was at that moment that Fabio rolled his eyes and told me to shut the f* up. He said so in a nice way, of course, using a metaphor. Imagine, so he told me, you're in Hong Kong and it’s really hot. You would have two possibilities: or you keep complaining about the heat and make it worse, or you just surrender to the heat, let go of any resistance and melt in it. Alright, OK ...  I got the message and, anxious to be seen as a cynic, followed up by surrendering to the exhibition of Tino Seghal, which involved several dance performances going on in various spaces of the Martin Gropius Bau. And I did enjoy it, yes I did. I was happy to see my favorite dancer of all times, Justin F. Kennedy, performing. And I especially valued the fact that there is no material involved in this show, no set-up, no mise-en-scene - which is great in the current art world of materiality and mise-en-scenes. 

In the Tino Seghal exhibit it is not only about dancing, but there's also singing and philosophising going on. Fabio explained to me that Tino Seghal reads a lot of Lacan and Nietsche and stuff like that. OK, I could see that. My favourite scene was the one with children: a little girl acting like a manga character, asking the audience deep questions like “what do you prefer: to be too busy or not busy enough?” Fabio decided he’d rather be “too busy”. Well, he’s moving to Switzerland to work in a big shot gallery - I guess he will get what he wished for... (is this me being cynical again?)

* about artists using people as marionettes, read this great article by Ken Johnson in the New York Times.