November 25, 2015

Human Madness. "The Sunflower House" by Dan Thy Nguyen and Irakiis Panaglotopoulos at the Queer Art Audio Festival, Berlin

Dan Thy Nguyen discussing his The Sunflower House.

There's only one thing I could complain about at Echos + Netze - Das Trans’tonale Hörfest, a queer art audio festival in Künstlerhaus Bethanien / Kreuzberg. They shouldn't have taken real grass for the visitors to sit upon. What about good old fake plastic? I was so deep into listening that I didn't notice my behind getting wet. Overall, however, the atmosphere was cosy at the trans-tonal festival, with comfortable chairs to lounge in, platforms to stretch out upon, and even a nice piece of chocolate cake, and a hot cup of tea or coffee. A perfect way to hear audio plays. Wolfgang Müller had invited me over. He was showing his Séance, which he created for our 2012 exhibition Gesture Sign art. Deaf Culture / Hearing Culture. Séance is a rather unusual play in the audio play genre: there's no sound but instead a visual gestural performance, one that is performed by Simone Lönne in DGS (German Sign Language). It talks about the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America (or even in the world), which was hunted to extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. The last species died in the Cincinnati zoo on September 1, 1914. In the video Lönne gestures the passenger pigeon in its many variations and rhythms. To me, on this particular Sunday, it looked like a philosophic treatise on humankind: "Wandern: durchziehen, migrieren, bewegen, den Wohnort wechseln, gehen."

Séance at Echos + Netze. Photo: Wolfgang Müller

I had arrived late and found Wolfgang Müller together with a bunch of people in the act of listening in highest concentration. Das Sonnenblumenhaus (The Sunflower House) by Dan Thy Nguyen and Irakiis Panaglotopoulos was nearing its end. A talk with Nguyen followed and it took me a while to get what was being talked about. A pogrom in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, 1992. I do automatically associate Rostock with neo-nazis, but had never thought about how this image came about. Rostock-Lichtenhagen is a discursive weapon for leftists, Nguyen explained, but one with very little content. Later, on Wikipedia, I read that this 1992 riot is considered to be the worst mob attack against migrants in post-war Germany. Right-wing extremists attacked a refugee shelter and a residential home of Vietnamese contract workers while about 3000 onlookers were standing by and applauding. What Wikipedia didn't say is that the police did next to nothing and even withdrew during the mob attack, letting the extremists throw their Molotov cocktails and burn the house. Nobody was killed in the end, one of the reasons why this pogrom has been largely ignored. 

Nguyen himself came upon the topic in 2012 by googling on “human madness”. It didn’t take long for Rostock-Lichtenhagen to show up. This is how Nguyen set out to tell the story of the Vietnamese contract workers, and both the audio play and theatre piece Das Sonnenblumenhaus are based on interviews with time witnesses. Finding those, so he told us, was not an easy job - many of them are deported, or they mistrust media, or fear that exposure might lead to being attacked once more. Getting funding as such was troublesome for Nguyen - his project being considered to be a “multi-cultural” project, and not a “high culture” one. In a perverse way, he admitted, the year 2015 had brought his play to a broader attention, Pegida and new riots being a “lucky” coincidence for Das Sonnenblumenhaus. In 2015, Nguyen has been getting requests at least every two weeks. Yet, even now it seems to be impossible for the theatre piece to be performed in the theatre itself. "What happens in German theatre," Nguyen says, "is still very much, at least on the decision level, a playground of white, heterosexual men." Museums are more interested in the work, and so are schools.

Das Sonnenblumenhaus' strength is, however, not just based on “borrowed importance”. After Nguyen's talk I got the chance to listen to the full audio play. Das Sonnenblumenhaus doesn't start and end in 1992 but traces the pogrom back to a long pre-history in the GDR and forth to the long-lasting consequences. Doing so, a few myths get destroyed: the idea that anti-fa's can't be racist, the assumption that the white left helped the migrants out (in the story they rather disappoint by getting drunk) or that 1992 was only a one-time catastrophe. The pogrom has been systematically relativised, Nguyen told us. The fact, for instance, that the refugee shelter housed 1500 refugees instead of the allowed number of 300, has been labeled as "mismanagement" in the papers. 

Das Sonnenblumenhaus knows also how to transform its material into a good artistic form. The voices in the audio play are not those of the interviewed time-witnesses. Nor do the actors mimic an accent. Yet, the team of actors studied intensively the intonation, the slight pauses, and the little smirks, discussing the reasons for those and the way to include them in the play. In the play itself there is even a moment when the actors reveal themselves as being actors playing the vietnamese contract workers. "It seems to be an art work that acts as if it is a feature," so Wolfgang Müller noticed, "and a feature that acts as if it is an art work." Nguyen himself has high hopes for Das Sonnenblumenhaus, wishing it may "inspire reflection so that we're not imprisoned in a history of forgetting that keeps repeating itself." 

November 20, 2015

Open Letters: A Correspondence with Chilean Writer Ignacio Szmulewicz, 8

What do you tell people when they ask you why you became an art critic and not an artist? This question Ignacio Szmulewicz asked me last week in our ongoing series of open letters about art writing. Well, this was the first time somebody asked me this question. My answer right here below.

Wolfgang Müller's release of Valeska Gert's proto-improvisational music Baby in 2010,
of which the release was originally prevented in 1962. 

Dear Ignacio,

I like critical thinking. I love critical writing. My favorite writers are the critical thinker ones, yes, the intellectuals, like Walter Benjamin, Audre Lorde, or Susan Sontag. Critical thinking is a dangerous activity. It’s not only about having an opinion, but also to make it known, to put it out there, which is always scary. I think art criticism can be conducted on that level of critical thinking.

You asked me about being a critic or an artist. I would say also art is based on critical thinking and observation. There’re some who express this critical thinking with, for instance, the body as a medium, others who express it with words. Together with Wolfgang Müller I curated an exhibition about Valeska Gert at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Berlin in 2010. She was a (proto-)performer who worked with her body as  a material. In the 1920s, the body was practically the only medium that women were allowed to work with. She did what Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer were doing in writing, except that she used her body to do so. 

Of course, art criticism as such takes the art object as a subject. Something that has art as a subject, isn’t art itself? But writing is an art, and critics use writing as a tool to express their criticism, so... critics can be artists?

And of course, art criticism has a serving role: it tries to open up the art work to the audience. I find that to be a very important role, because I believe that art is vital to change in society and it makes me happy when I can bring art a little closer to people. The artist doesn’t have to think about the audience (isn't it only bad art that tries to “please”). So the art critic plays an intermediary role there, but does that mean that the art critic is not the artist's equal?

Gertrude Stein’s definition of art was that it’s not about complicating things, it’s about looking at things in a new way. Art criticism can shed a light on the contemporary art that is  shifting our vision in our current society and by that shifting the composition of our society - this is a very hard thing to do, because most things only become clear in 20 to 40 years time.  

Amerika Gedenkbibliothek, Berlin

By the way, I’m a little envious of that summer breeze in Chile. I’m here at the library, the Amerika Gedenkbibliothek, and just a moment ago, a little bit of blue sky and “rayons de soleil” appeared in the perpetually overcasted sky. Were you saying hello?



November 18, 2015

How I started to use the f word in art reviews. And why Will Furtado is to blame

My favourite Jerry Saltz on his erotic art Instagram

I wrote for Sleek Magazine about the latest exhibition "Jonny" at insitu Berlin. The write-up has its pre-history here in my blog. It started at the exhibition opening with a sensual feeling, which extended in the following week while gallery hopping (marking the beginning of a What Would Jennifer Do? or WWJD-series) and was finally released for Sleek Magazine. Released indeed, I mean, I even used the f word, something I don't even do in my own blog. Sleek editor Will Furtado is actually to blame. I had nicely put it as "f*", thinking that the little star behind the f would make it sound a little cuter, but then Will didn't see the point of not spelling it out. So there it appeared online: "fucking" (it's nicer sounding in German: "ficken"). Will Furtado (who has made his appearance already a few times in this blog) was the one who inspired me in the first place to use a certain sensuality in writing. He has this sex column going on for, one that is for both men and women a highly interesting read, talking about body odour, and other sexy stuff. 

Talking insitu, my theory is that the exhibition Jonny is not primarily about seeing art: it teaches you how to feel it. How? That, you can read here

November 17, 2015

Guest Blogger Sujin Jung Reporting from South-Korea: Three Women and Three Cups of Tea

This is the third story of Seoul art blogger Sujin Jung in her fiction non-fiction art series. It's a story about feminist art, on show in two exhibitions: East Asia Feminism: FANTasia at the Seoul Museum of Art and Dancing Mama at Coreana Art Museum. 

Chiharu Shiota, The Wall, 2010

Woman1 is drinking a cup of tea, it is a lemon tea. 
Woman1 : Using the body extremely as a way of resistance is still common in feminist art. Maybe I could give as an example art works like Regina Jose Galindo’s Tierra and Chiharu Shiota’s The Wall. These art works are kind of typical ‘feminist art’. Well… maybe it’s a cliché: using the own body in a performance that involves intensive work while giving a direct and strong message. This is what people usually think of when they hear of ‘feminist art’, isn’t it? Well, but, I don’t know why though, but when I see these kind of artworks I feel a bit uncomfortable, as if it is violent in a way. It seems like a woman ‘should’ fight with a man in a way. It could be seen as a dichotomy. Of course, I know this kind of message is still needed in our society, actually it’s needed a lot. Even though it might be true, somehow this kind of art work could cause the misconception of feminism, couldn’t it? 
Woman2 is drinking a lemonade.
Woman2 : Yeah, I got it. You mean you feel like adding some carbonated water and ice to your hot tea! Your lemon tea is hot. Well, if I could stretch a point, I could say your tea is too hot and dangerous. However, if it carbonated water and ice is added, then it is much easier to drink and it tastes fresh. 
Woman1 : Well, what the hell are you talking about? I don’t get it. 
Geumhyung Jeong, Munbangu, 2011
Woman2 : I mean, nowadays, there are some art works that still use the body, but are doing so tactfully and wittily like Eunme Ahn’s Dancing Grandma, Geumhyung Jeong’s Fitness Guide, Mungangu, and Hyunsook Hong Lee’s Ceremony of the Pulmonary System. Eunma Ahn’s art work shows grandmothers’ random dancing as an archive of their work through their life. Geumhyung Jeong presents a deconstruction of herself by showing a form of quasi sexual intercourse with ordinary objects. Hyunsook Hong Lee’s artwork passes over the fixed and limited social boundaries. All those art works are approaching the subject ingeniously and surprisingly. It could be said that they’re not creating this binary structure, but doing ‘deconstruction’. And we could laugh while talking about these artworks and then start to talk about other more serious topics starting from these artworks. I think it’s great.
Today’s feminist art is sometimes surrealistic like Inci Eviner’s Runaway Girls and sometimes vague and divisive with multiple layers like Laure Prouvost’s Wantee. These kinds of art works make us approach easier and to explore the deterritorialised area. I think this is the point, ‘the enjoyment to explore deterritorialised area’! 

Hyunsook Hong Lee, Ceremony of the Pulmonary System, 2012
Inci Eviner, Runaway Girls, 2015

Woman3 is drinking lemon ginger tea or ginger lemon tea, with carbonated water. She is the one who prepared the tea matured in honey lemon and treated all things lemon today. Woman3: Interesting, really interesting. But what I want to add to what you said is that I just want to see these art works as contemporary art. Not as a feminist art. I mean, the exhibition title doesn’t need to be ‘feminism-something’ or ‘women-something’, using ‘She’, ‘Her’, ‘Mama’. I feel that kind of labelling limits my thought a bit…  And, I think feminist art is not only for women artists in the way that feminist art is talking about deconstructing and using the body in many different contexts – it’s not only sexual or cultural gender roles. In this way, I liked it very much that I could see Ming Wong’s Hong Kong Diary. And its subject does not need to be a woman, like a performer could be a man in Janine Antoni & Stephen Petronio’s Honey Baby or a man and a woman are doing something extremely unusual but funny, so that the fixed regulation collapses, like in Melanie Bonajo’s Genital Panik. Of course, it doesn’t mean that those artworks are brilliant just because the narrator or the participant of feminist art is not a woman. Well, people tend to think feminist art might be done by women artists talking about women. I just dislike that kind of thought. 

Melanie Bonajo, Genital Panik, 2012
I also would like to mention Airan Kang’s Re-voice. It shows that one can use the body not only on a just sexual but also on a different level. It is good to talk about the enforced sex slaves through divisive video installation. Well, first of all, I like this kind of character that is casually talking about a heavy subject, so that it makes us be more serious without burdens.  And I like this artwork in that it shows some kind of potential of solidarity. 

Airan Kang, Re-Voice, 2015

Well, if there’s one thing I wish, it’s that there were more artworks using the body from a different context, not just about sexual or cultural gender roles. Starting from the experience of the own body, there is a lot of potential to relate to many other different bodies in this society. For example, like Heung-soon Im’s Factory Complex, someone’s mother’s story could be everyone’s story and it causes empathy and solidarity. And through this kind of practice, we can talk about women and the excluded in the wider range of the working environment, human rights, human relations etc. Eventually this makes us realize the potential to pursue the change from the territorialized area. 
Suddenly, women1's mobile is ringing.
Woman1 : oh, it’s him, hold on.
And Woman1 is going out urgently. 
Woman2 : oh, it is already 6 O’clock. I have to go, I have a plan with my husband.
Woman3 : Ok, then. Let’s go. I also have a plan.
But, woman3 lies. Woman3 just gets upset that she is the only one who has no phone call from or plan with someone. 
And they go their separate ways.

SeMA and Coreana Art Museum
Accidentally, two art museums feature the contemporary art exhibition of which the subject is ‘women’, ‘body’ and ‘feminist art’. It was a good opportunity to see on-going feminist art and guess the future of feminist art. 
Speaking of these two art museums, first of all, Seoul Museum of Art (SeMA) is operated by the Seoul city government. After its declaration that it no longer wants to hold blockbuster exhibitions, it has become a center of controversial issues, for instance presenting a G-dragon (idol star) exhibition, being a sort of art fair in an art museum, etc.  I think that these discussions is a good thing.

 And, Coreana Art museum is one of the main private art museums. It is owned by a corporation (Coreana Cosmetics) like other private art museums. Personally, I think Coreana Art museum’s exhibitions always makes me have expectations in a positive way.

November 12, 2015

How To Pitch? Or Why I Write a Blog. Feminism, Frieze, The Wire

Conceptual sketch for a composition by Christina Kubisch, Rumpsti Punpsti Berlin

Early this week I wrote a pitch for Frieze Germany. Idea was to write a piece about Christina Kubisch, who’s exhibiting her awesome 1970s compositions with vibrator and flute at Rumpsti Pumpsti in Berlin. It would be part review, part discussion on feminism and new music in the 1970s (think the great Charlotte Moorman), and part reportage of 1970s sex industry (it was not easy back then for a woman to buy vibrators). I got the answer that the topic is “not quite right for Frieze.” Of course that made me wonder which part of the topic is not quite right for Frieze - feminism, 1970s compositions with vibrators, or Rumpsti Pumpsti? I wrote back and suggested an exhibition opening at a big museum, one that is curated by a famous male curator - I’m waiting for a reply and hope this might fit Frieze better. This week The Wire published an interview with sound artist Christine Sun Kim. In 2012, I asked editor Chris Boon if they were interested in featuring an article about Kim, who was then performing in Gesture Sign Art, an exhibition curated by Wolfgang Müller and me. Chris Boon, as such, was supposed to write a piece about Kim for our catalogue, but somehow, after postponing the deadline several times, he never managed to finish his contribution. Now, three years later, when Christine Sun Kim has been interviewed by many big magazines and is showing in big places like PS1, The Wire finally tackles along. 

Is it possible that magazines and media only write something when they have sufficient coverage (through galleries, awards, art market, etc)?  They don’t seem to want to stand out, they rather wish to blend in with what the other magazines are doing. This playing safe is quite depressing and boring. It might have to do with money - being sponsored by advertisers to survive (Frieze magazine consists of almost only advertisement) and those advertisers might no want to take risks but instead focus solely on the art they invested in (the one that is exhibited in museums). But I think it’s also a mindset of our age. Take for instance Monika Byrne, who revealed on her blog a while ago that she had “a cultural column at WIRED. And then I didn’t. Here’s what happened.” The editor of Wired had told her what every writer wishes to hear: “If you have something to say, you have the platform.” Byrne’s first proposal was to talk about some trends in society, like for instance how theatre is ignoring nonwhite theatrical forms. The response: “I’m sorry, but we don’t do zeitgeist-type pieces, and we only cover pop culture.”  Byrne didn’t give up and suggested some film people like Priyanka Chopra, Lupita Nyong’s, Diablo Cody. She never got a reply. She started to wonder if it was because she was a woman who wants to write about a lot of women? 

Installation by Christina Kubisch, Rumpsti Punpsti, Berlin

Byrne’s agent told her there was nothing she could do about it. She was powerless. I loved Byrne’s reply to that, let me quote it in full: “I don’t feel powerless at all. I feel exactly the opposite: that they need voices like mine. That if they don’t take them, it’s their loss, not only morally and aesthetically but (in the long run) financially, and no one will wait for them to catch up with the new culture we’re creating. We’ll just go ahead and create it. And then who gives a fuck if they cover it or not, because by then, it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll be relevant anymore.” At the exhibition opening in Rumpsti Pumpsti I was a bit surprised and disappointed when Christina Kubisch said that the representation of women artists, unlike in the 1970s, was no longer a problem nowadays. In the 1970s women could only do interpretation of music, no composition. Her answer to this white male new music world was to give in to their cliché of the woman as a mere (sexual) body, while at the same time subverting it by using white vibrators. Kubisch is now a professor at the distinguished Universität der Künste in Berlin. Great! I would only have wished she had kept her awareness of the 70s awake for the sake of her probably dominantly female students at art school.  

November 11, 2015

Guest Blogger Quinn Caroline Hannah: Walking with our Sisters to the Psych Ward: The Power of Indigenous Women's Voices

Canadian guest blogger Quinn Caroline Hannah talks about art from a blue gown perspective. This time she recounts her experience in the psych ward in the context of the exhibition Walking with our Sisters, a memorial for the many murdered and missing indigenous women in Canada. 

Walking with our Sisters. Source: Edge. Photo Angela Gzowski

In late June of this year I arrived in Red Deer, Alberta (Canada). It was National Aboriginal Day and I was there to visit the monumental and sacred exhibition Walking with our Sisters. I had been anticipating seeing this exhibition for weeks, knowing the opportunity was finally arriving that I could. I had wanted to see it for much longer. And as I drove East on Highway 16, known as the Highway of Tears out of Prince George, BC (Canada) to see it this June, I was thinking of all the women, named, unnamed, murdered, missing. I passed Tabor Mountain, just 20 minutes into my whirlwind 1800 km road trip, thinking about 14 year old Aileah Saric-Auger, whose body was found murdered there in 2006. I had sage on my dashboard that I burned in her memory. 

Arriving at the Red Deer Museum I could smell the sage. I removed my shoes, out of respect, as the volunteers and elders requested, and put on a long skirt. These were traditional measures the Métis and Cree elders in Red Deer put in place to show respect for the exhibition and the women whose lives were represented therein. As I waited to enter the space I could feel the emotion swelling in me, honour, sadness, confusion, for the nearly 1200 missing and murdered Indigenous women. They are not just one of a sum of parts in the figure 1200 – they are daughters, mothers, sisters, wives, nieces, aunts, friends. These women lost their lives brutally, some have been missing for decades. Some were babies. Some grandmothers. How much I felt for these women, some of whom lost their lives at the age I am now. A profound sadness, deep in my belly. 

Walking with our Sisters. Moccasin "Vamps" by Dolly Assinewe, Photo exhibition website.

As I entered the space a beautiful elder smiled warmly. She held eagle feathers and an abalone shell – both traditionally used to smudge in ceremonial practice – as she wafted the sage over us. 

“I smudge your feet, as they carry you on this journey. I smudge your belly, for the life it can bare. I smudge your heart for the emotion you feel and carry. And I smudge your head, your mind, that carries your thoughts that you bring to this space.”

With this simple gesture I felt cleansed, nurtured, prepared to embrace the project before me. Overcome with its power, I allowed the tears to cascade. I was held ceremoniously in the warm embrace of a tradition beyond my understanding. The endurance of it washing away fear, cleansing me, freeing me, readying me for the journey to honour all of our sisters, all of our women. 

I approached a second elder, gentle and kind. “This is ceremonial tobacco” she explained. “Hold it in your left hand to your heart. It will carry your prayers for these women, our sisters.” I nodded and began my journey through the exhibition. 

The exhibition Walking with Our Sisters organized by artist Christi Belcourt consists of nearly 1200 pairs of vamps, or uppers – the top part of the moccasin – beaded and decorated by volunteers namely from Canada but also from across the world, to represent each of the murdered and missing Indigenous women. Some vamps are traditional, others not. Many are beaded, others painted. They are all unique, beautiful and intricately crafted. The time and craftsmanship that goes into creating a pair is evident when looking at each individual set. The vamps are laid out on red fabric running the perimeter of the room and directing our journey as we walked side by side each of the women, metaphorically, who are missing or who have lost their lives. Traditional and ceremonial songs played quietly in the background. I felt much sadness, for the families of these women who still have no answers.

Our government stands idly by. Our voices continue to rise in opposition, in protest, calling for a national inquiry. The Idle No More movement was born from this kind of oppression. And my voice is one among these voices. 

A week later, I was in the hospital, in a blue gown, waiting to go “upstairs” to the Psych Ward. Waiting through Limbo one, in the ER, Limbo two, in Family Medicine and finally arriving at Limbo three where I could shed my blue gown skin and start to absorb experiences, hear voices anew. 

In the Psych Ward I met several First Nations women as well as many other people: women and men who lived on the streets, who come from upper or middle class homes. Yet I was still in that space among the minority. 

We all have our own trauma. We all have our own demons. I was lucky my demons never led me to drugs or the streets. I was a lucky girl because of my privileged situation in Canadian society. I still fought with my demons. I arrived in the psych ward in July 2015 after downing a handful of pills. I told them I wanted to sleep. I wanted to check out for awhile. My diagnosis upon arrival: major depression. I saw a psychologist, three psychiatrists and countless social workers and mental health clinicians. I was given two antidepressants, a mood stabilizer and three anti psychotics to take. I was doped up, sad and despondent. I stayed in my room, I had a room with a view, like Virginia Woolf. I stared out the window, I read, I slept. I had already cried all the tears I had in ER. Now I just stared, doped up on meds. Diagnosis in the psych ward: bipolar disorder, major depression and borderline personality disorder. But diagnoses and what brought you to the ward are off limits. No one asks about these things, as if it’s an unspoken rule. 

I saw Aly when I stepped off the elevator, accompanied by my caring mother-like counselor, when I arrived on the third floor, the Acute Adult Psychiatry Ward. She gave me a death stare that would stop anyone in their shoes and I cowered behind Nadia as we made our way to the nurses station. Pregnant, tattooed, arms covered in scars, sitting by the phone, I knew she owned the phone at that moment. She was wearing Psych Ward clothes – hospital pajamas, recycled t-shirt and hospital footies – what Marya Hornbacher in her book Madness called the little slippers they provide you with in the hospital, if you don’t have your own shoes, or they won’t allow you to wear your own shoes. The first time I went out for a FAB (Fresh Air Break), Aly was on the elevator nicking out, as she would put it. Sometimes they wouldn’t allow her cigarettes, not because she was pregnant but because she wasn’t trusted to go outside on her own or even with a nurse accompanying her. That day she ran out of the elevator and met her boyfriend. The next day she was gone. Later, I found out that she had been smuggling drugs into her room and doing them and was put in isolation. 

Veronica arrived a week after me. She was cheerful, kept to herself watching movies to get through the day.  She watched movies, and used the treadmill in her hospital footies, pajamas and recycled t-shirt until they allowed her to have her clothes back. Like Aly, she was brought in under the Mental Health Act: she was certified. I was not. I was there voluntarily. After Veronica got her clothes back we became friends. We bonded instantly like sisters. We went out for FAB’s each quarter to the hour and called it the FABulous break, and the fabulous basket was where we could find our cigarettes. 

And, Alice. I met her a couple weeks after I arrived. She was shy and tiny. So thin. She too was wearing hospital clothing and I later found out why I hadn’t seen her when she arrived: she had been in isolation, coming down from psychosis. Soon Alice emerged from isolation a bit bedraggled (do they have showers in there? I don’t know.) She had been on the street for six months, her own mother turning her away. She was starving, homeless, living in different shelters, could never shower, never knew if her things were safe, and being harassed by the police for no reason. 

While Alice, Veronica and I became close friends, Aly never opened up. She didn’t have girlfriends, or friends really on the ward. She was tough and mean. But soon she started to be nicer. And I found out when she was a child her mother was imprisoned for murder, and died in jail. She must have ended up on the street at that point. Or living in bad circumstances.  This is the story you hear about many First Nations families, fathers and mothers. And their children carry on this tradition. It is all they have known. 

In Canada, it is now a time of reconciliation. The government has officially apologized for the residential school system – a sector of catholic schools that young First Nations children were forced into: taken away from their families, forced to speak English, forget their culture, their languages, their ways of living, their traditions and ceremonies. All kinds of abuse happened in these schools that continued for decades. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada ruled that the Residential School System was in fact a form of cultural genocide that the Canadian government perpetrated on the First Nations people. A hard truth to hear, a truth that needs to be spoken. This legacy is what has haunted First Nations for generations, and continues to haunt them now. Resurfacing from a legacy of abuse of power, violence, and colonialism has silenced First Nations. Not just women, but women are particularly susceptible to such abuses, as we’ve seen through history with the suffragettes and the raising of the feminist movement. 

Walking with our Sisters provides a sensitive forum for First Nations women who have been murdered or who are missing to be heard. Through this project they are no longer silenced. This is what I heard: “My life is important, I am important. We are important.” It wasn’t until arriving in the Psych Ward and listening to Aly, Alice and Veronica share their stories, in a place where we could all share openly and know our truth was being respected  that I truly understood the power of their voices, and of all Indigenous women’s voices.

PS: Since writing this we have had an election, and our previous government lost their majority meaning we have a new Prime Minister of a different party. Justin Trudeau is going to start a national inquiry into the epidemic of murdered and missing Indigenous women, when is not yet clear. However, this is a huge deal for First Nations, a huge victory already. 

Quinn Caroline Hannah

November 9, 2015

Open Letters: A Correspondence with Chilean Writer Ignacio Szmulewicz, 7

This is an ongoing correspondence about art writing between Ignacio Szmulewicz and me. You can read the whole series here.

Poster The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Dear An, 

I just finished watching The Royal Tenenbaums. I’d seen a picture of Wes Anderson’s movie on Twitter and I don’t remember how but I kept it in the back of my mind for the entire week. For some reason, the things that we do, have most of the time a larger and hidden connection to who we are. In this case, I can enter a film every time of the day, as if falling down a rabbit hole. Measured by the standard definition of “working,” this may considered to be a form of procrastination –take a look at the stand-up comedy of Ellen DeGeneres about this–, but in some cases, movies –and also listening to some records or reading a novel– serves as the kind of food that I need to feel alive. It’s the kind of food that keeps me wondering. The city often gives me an enormous and overwhelming sense of life, like on that painting of Caspar David Friedrich. I feel like that character, king of the hill, with the soundtrack of Frank Sinatra, contemplating the marvels of the megacities. I can easily imagine the infinite stories that are going on in that second, like in the opening scene of The Royal Tenenbaums

Caspar David Friedrich, Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer, circa 1818

In that regard, I consider myself very lucky to have this kind of job. Writing came to me as natural as riding a bike or climbing a tree. Some people write as a form of expression, as a kind of material that is very private and it needs to get out of the body; other people write as a form of survival. Like Robert Walser's Microscripts, which he didn’t stop writing, even when he entered by his own volition in the psychiatric hospital. I write, as you said in your letter, for the pleasure of transmitting the beautiful things, thoughts, and experiences that I have with different kind of art works. 

Manuscript of Robert Walser

I’ve always felt that the part related to this wondering about the experience of arts –the space, lighting, composition, story– is very important for any kind of content. Enrique Lihn, a wonderful Chilean critic, who died at the end of the eighties, wrote once a perfect metaphor for art writing:  once he said that an exhibition is like a forest where it is very hard to see the outside. For a while I though that he was talking about the need to order things or the fact that the critic was like a guide to get out of the forest. I never realized that he was talking about the need of ever person to find a way out, and that the movement, the search was the most important part of it. In any case, the art experience is like being in a very thick forest. 

That is why I get very moved by every form of art that has to do with a journey, a search, and also with opacity, with the sense that there is no way out. On the other hand, despite what I told you in a previous letter, I consider it very important that the text delivers a sense of communication, a charming connection with others. That is why I feel like our job is pretty close to the essential motivation of Amélie Poulain: to put people in touch with the beautiful, dramatic, terrible and amazing things of everyday life. That’s why I could never have the conviction that most brilliant artists need to have to produce their own ideas, but I could spend my whole life telling why this or that book, painting or movie is worthwhile. 

The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain (2001)
How do you feel about this? What do you say when people ask you why you choose to be a critic and not an artist? 

With the summer breeze that has just arrived here, I say goodbye. 


November 4, 2015

Art Blogger of the Week: Vivienne Chow in Hong Kong

Vivienne Chow as pictured in her blog post "How far will you go for a dress?"

I'm impressed. How I love art critics that speak up and ask questions about what everybody takes for granted. Vivienne Chow is such a writer. Sure, her biography is remarkable: in 2004 she was named one of the world's best young journalists at the inaugural Berlinale Talent Press, and in 2014 she founded the Cultural Journalism Campus, a non-profit educational initiative to promote cultural journalism and art criticism. But Vivienne Chow's writing for her blog Culture Shock. Digital rants on cultural anomalies is what thrills me most. Take as an example that post on Hong Kong's "I don't get it-phobia": "Asking Hongkongers to decide what an art work means to them is no difference from asking them to stop speculating in the stock market or property market. It's almost a mission impossible. Most Hongkongers don't like the journey to search for an answer. Cut the chase, they WANT a model answer. [...] This "I don't get it-phobia" is an incurable disease in Hong Kong. But little do many know, that things that you don't get are in fact great stuff, because they will force you to think, which is what the authorities fear the most."
By the way, what I also love about Vivienne Chow is that her mind set is quite pop. She doesn't confine herself to contemporary art as such, she also inquires about cultural phenomenons in a larger sense, for instance by asking: "How far will you go for a dress?" I follow Vivienne Chow eagerly on Twitter and on Facebook and I can only advise you to do so too!  

Art scene
"Hong Kong is being put on the map of the art world thanks to the vibrant art market. Compared to other countries and regions in Asia, Hong Kong's status as an international financial and trade centre makes businesses easy - including the art business. Headline-grabbing auctions, the launch of international art fairs and top Western galleries opening outposts in Hong Kong have put the city under the spotlight. In addition, the art world is watching construction of the HK$21.6 billion West Kowloon Cultural District,​ plus the opening of other cultural landmarks such as Central Police Station. 

The art scene in Hong Kong is very much market-driven. Despite all the buzz, few homegrown artists can benefit from this trend. Many are still suffering from the lack of resources, high rent and high living costs, which force them to take on other odd jobs in order to support their artistic endeavour. The city's lack of a holistic cultural policy that maps arts and cultural productions with the economy and the city's development makes it even harder for long-term sustainable development. The lack of a well-informed group of audiences is another issue, as arts and culture are still seen as hobby or extra-curricular activities rather than part of people's daily lives." 

"​I enjoy writing creatively and I like sharing my thoughts. These were the ideas behind the blog that I started in 2011. It was intended to be a fun thing for myself outside of my work as a newspaper journalist covering cultural affairs. As there are limitations to writing for a newspaper, a lot of stories and perspectives can't make it to publication. So I might as well write them all out in my personal blog in a style I like.

Compared to writing for a newspaper or other publications, blogging is much more personal and it offers greater freedom to art writing, for you don't have to conform to any particular style. I write much more extensively than just art - I write about anything but from a cultural perspective. The question I have in my head all the time is that - how so things happen in our society affect our culture? I think I tend to ask questions rather than offering answers."  

​"I'm trained as a journalist specialised in cultural affairs, which means besides art, my main area is cultural policy and cultural and creative industries. I researched on Hong Kong cultural policy for my master degree in cultural studies, which I would like to pursue further. Art is an integral part of culture but while there are already plenty of people dedicated themselves to art writing, I'd like to focus more on the cultural anomalies and how cultural policy affect our society's cultural development. There aren't that many writings about cultural policy and I'd like to further develop that area." 

"Well I have Google ads on my blog but not they don't generate any profits. Blogging certainly helps me think and it helps raising my profile in the digital world. I guess it brings in value that is not exactly in monetary terms. "​

November 3, 2015

What Would Jennifer Do? Nr. 1: Let’s Talk About Sex, Baby

Christina Kubisch, o.T. / untitled (Hommage to Charlotte Moorman), 1976

Since the art opening at insitu’s Jonny and my luminous idea to create the female version of Jerry Saltz’ erotic art Instagram, a trigger went off and everything I’ve seen since then is highly sensual. I can’t even think of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain anymore without seeing that hole down below and the female curves of its basin. Is that sick? Every book I picked up at the Walter König bookstore of Hamburger Bahnhof was somehow about sex. I came upon Paul Chan’s poem Oh Girl. I’m fine. Sleepy that’s all (2008), and let me just pick out for you his moans: “mmf”, “ahhh”, “mmm”, “mmm mmm”, “ulp”, “mmm sssh hmm mmn”, “mhn hmm”, “mmm”. As a hardcore Andy Warhol fan I’d never heard about his book Blue Movie, but there it was, at the bookstore, talking about the penises of Greek statues: “Viva: Have you ever seen a Greek statue without- Louis: With a hard-on? Viva: Why did they all have hard-ons? Louis: Because it was considered -comic. Viva: Really? Louis: Sure. In the Greek theater when the guys came out with hard-ons everybody used to laugh. (Viva laughs.) They used to get’ em, too. They used to come out and it was called a joke. If you get a hard-on. There’s nothing funnier than to see a man walking with a hard-on... (Viva laughs.) back and forth.... and everybody used to laugh.” 

Blue Movie by Andy Warhol

The week continued like this. I’d never been to SomoS at Kottbusser Damm Berlin, but coincidentally passing by I decided to hop in, right at the moment that a performance of the Porn Film Festival was taking place in the basement. It was packed and I couldn’t enter, but still, sex was in the air. In the exhibition upstairs titled Fixation, Andy Warhol greeted me again, now with a poster of Flesh (1968) displaying Joe Dallesandro’s six pack. Meanwhile, on the subway through the city, I continued to read intensively Grace Jones’ memoir, talking about how she was cracking the whip at the disco, “bodies on bodies, some of them so close they were penetrating each other, lubricated by their own sweat” and the music was like “the sound of sex, foreplay to orgasm, first kiss to the little death.”

Fixation at SomoS, Berlin

On Friday the sensual week climaxed when visiting two shows. The first one was at Buchmann Box. My transatlantic friend, the artist Jennifer Danos, who moved from Berlin to the US a few months ago, recommended me to go, since one of her favorite artists was exhibiting: Wolfgang Laib. I went together with our common friend, the artist Akane Kimbara. And while Akane was chattering with gallerist Michael Schültze about a Japanese award that Laib had won, comparable to the Nobel Prize, I looked at these minimal sculptures in beeswax accompanied by a small heap of yellow floral grains, and all I could imagine was the humming of the bees’ unbridled sexual energy. In the press release I read words like “purity” and “untouchability”, which made me think that the writer of it must have been suppressing something. 

Wolfgang Laib at Buchmann Box, Foto: Roman März, Courtesy Buchmann Galerie 

At night I visited Rumpsti Pumpsti, a record shop and an exhibition space, where 1970s vibrators were happily vibrating together with flutes in a composition of Christina Kubisch. Apparently vibrators are one more thing that progress screwed up by adding pink colors and rabbit ears. The ones from the 1970s were aesthetic in their minimalism, but apparently hard to acquire back then, so the artist told us: you had to order them straight from the company. 

Akane, also a blogger, and I decided to share our posts on our gallery hopping as a “What Would Jennifer Do” series. When we’re on the road together, Jennifer is always on our mind. So what would Jennifer say of me putting her name in a title that also contains the word “sex”? “All of the stuff I love revolves around the breath”, Jennifer once told me, and this week I can only interpret that statement  in a sexual way. So I think she will be fine. Here below is Akane’s blog post in Japanese. As I can’t read Japanese, I don’t know what it says. That only heightens the mystery, and, as you might already guess, also this comes across as highly erotic to me... 


アンも書いているとおり、共通の友人ジェニファーが今年の夏アメリカへ帰ってしまい、彼女がWolfgang Laibの情報を『これ、私も見に行きたいっ!』とメールしてきたのがきっかけで見に行くことに。ちょうど展覧会がはじまった時期に、彼が高松宮殿下記念世界文化賞を受賞したので、私も興味をもってたところ。ギャラリーの人がこの賞はアートのノーベル賞みたいなものと言ってたけど、そうなのかな?たしかに名誉ある賞だけど、残念ながら知名度はノーベル賞ほどいき渡ってないような気がする。とにかく、賞うんぬん関係なく素晴らしい展覧会でした。

彼の作品は、蜜蝋でできたオブジェと小さく山盛りされてるヘーゼルナッツの花粉。蜜蝋1kg分には約15万匹の働きバチが拘っているらしいし、花粉も一年間で小さな瓶一本分しか集まらないとのこと。ミツバチとWolfgang Laibの地道な作業の集積がここにあり、どちらも命あるものの、”生きる”痕跡が見え、静かだけどずっしり手応えのある深~い作品。

ジェニファーが、この作家の作品を好きなのはよく分かるし見たかったんだろうなぁと、二人ともその場にいない彼女に思いを馳せちょっとメランコリーになってたかも。アンの今回のブログタイトルが、”What Would Jennifer Do? Let's talk about sex, baby!”だけど、私とジェニファーがLaibのことを語るんだったら、”What Would Jennifer Do? Let's talk about eternity, baby!”かな?うふ、やっぱり尼さんだわ。