January 28, 2016

Open Letters with Chilean art writer Ignacio Szmulewicz, 12

This is the 12th letter in a correspondence with art writer Ignacio Szmulewicz, who just WhatsApped me that he's dwelling in Madrid. 

Mladen Stilinović, An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist, 1992, in Hito Steyerl's article on International Disco Latin

Dear Ignacio

I’m ignorant about the uses of lexica for Renaissance or Medieval art. I didn't study art history, so I have no clue and I wonder if this is a liberating condition for my writing on contemporary art or a restricting one. 

When I entered in the contemporary art world seven years ago, which words did I learn? I don’t remember. The vocabulary must have slipped in unconsciously or I like to think my writing is free from art speak and my language is as clear as a drop of water, the same as my ideas :-)  

The language of art speak is a foremost white (male) language, isn’t it, rooted in categorizations made by the politics of white patriarchal exclusion and with every categorization there’s a value and hierarchy that goes along with it. 

Language is political and can be aggressive on a daily level. I  get upset when art professionals use words like “old women” in their reviews or when an exhibition about art from 1933-1944 is called "The Black Years". 

Hito Steyerl wrote a nice essay about getting rid of International Art English, and she proposed an alternative called International Disco Latin. It sounds like a really great language, so I’m going to give you a full quote: 

“a language that is not policed by formerly imperial, newly global corporations, nor by national statistics—a language that takes on and confronts issues of circulation, labor, and privilege (or at least manages to say something at all), a language that is not a luxury commodity nor a national birthright, but a gift, a theft, an excess or waste, made between Skopje and Saigon by interns and non-resident aliens on Emoji keyboards.”

International Disco Latin is a language of accents. English is not my mother tongue. This means that the sound of my writing must have an accent. Maybe even its way of reasoning is a bit off, a bit un-English. I like the idea of writing in a language with accents, but I’m incapable to enjoy mine, because in my eyes my English is impeccable and it’s only when a native speaker edits it that it dawns on me, and only in a negative way. 

I'm struck by something I read today in a new online magazine called The Trans-African. According to Emmanuel Iduma “language is always superfluous in relation to images,” and he argues: 

“Yet it is through superfluity we gain access to images in the colonial archive, now and always. Today, the language of collective thinking about the past could be provisional, lacking the condescending specificity at the heart of photographs in the colonial archive. A provisional response, which suggests the possibility of revisions, of repeatedly making room for clarity, is in my mind an empathetic stance in relation to images. This is something writing makes possible. Texts, unlike the colonial photographs, do not serve as evidence. What they lack in finality they gain in nuance. By probing.” 

Writing as a way of provisional probing. I find this a most beautiful idea. Do you agree, Ignacio, that language is always superfluous in relation to images?



January 27, 2016

Chromosom XY. Valerie Solanas, SCUM and Ducks!

My favourite Berlin band Ducks! just released a new song Homo Inferior based on Valerie Solanas' 1968 manifesto SCUM. Awesomeness! I love Valerie Solana's manifesto, a radical message indeed (Society for Cutting Up Men), but put in such a smart and humorous way. I mean, Valerie Solana's turned around Freud's Penis-Neid and called men out for having Vagina-Neid: "The male is a biological accident: the Y (male) gene is an incomplete X (female) gene, that is, it has an incomplete set of chromosomes." How daring! SCUM, however, is often interpreted in a flat, black and white, good and bad way. Once I gave a private guided tour at the museum of contemporary art for a group of what turned out to be religious people. One person got really upset when I talked about Valerie Solanas' SCUM in the Andy Warhol space of the museum. Since there's no single woman represented in that particular collection of the museum, I always take detours to talk about female artists. And of course, as it happens to be the case, Valerie Solanas shot Andy Warhol (did you see the movie?). The person got in an angry fit, because he thought that one shouldn't speak of something that led to violence. Well, I said, then let's not talk about the bible, that led to a lot of violence too. And that's where our discussion ended. The good news is: on Friday Ducks! is presenting its new album Ding Ding Ding, which makes me think of another great figure, Dr. Seuss and his Oh! The Thinks You Can ThinkI myself can't wait for it to be Friday. Check out the event here and see you there! 

January 21, 2016

M/F: What Are The Numbers? Jonathan Jones, Sarah Lucas, and Some Counting

We go to the gallery, by M. Elia and E. Elia (Dung Beetle Ltd, London, 2015)

If you haven't read my Sleek article about the first all-female show at Saatchi Gallery yet, check it out here. What actually disturbed me more than the lame Saatchi show, was Jonathan Jones' review about it in The Guardian. I'm wondering if he was paid extra by Saatchi to write it. He made the ridiculous claim that “Saatchi’s Gallery’s all female exhibition could start to shift male gaze of the art world.” But his review is also a serious case of over-interpretation, especially where it concerns Jelana Bulajic’s portraits of what Jones defines as “old women”. Here it’s important to say that he did use the parentheses too, probably to show his awareness of the fact that he’s using a stereotype (women are always described as old, men never age, they just become more charismatic). But why he doesn’t use “elderly” instead of “old” in the first place remains unclear (His word choice is questionable in general, using expressions like “black hole.”) Jones always has a penchant for the dramatic (check out his article on the lack of outrageous art, where he did make a good point) but in his Saatchi review he goes over the top with the pathos: “These [“old women’s"] faces seem to represent not just themselves but all the oppressed generations who never got the chance to pick up a paintbrush or sell an unmade bed at Christie’s.” Is that cynicism right there? No favour is done by presenting women as poor victims, and certainly not in a cynical way. 

In my Sleek review I counted the female and male artists in Johnen Galerie and Johann König. For the blog's sake, I counted some more, and I made the surprising discovery that my favourite (feminist) artist Sarah Lucas is represented by the most male dominated gallery in Berlin, Contemporary Fine Arts. I wonder if she knows?

Sprüth Magers: 43 male artists, 17 female artists

Galerie Neu: 22 male artists, 11 female artists

Eigen + Art Galerie: 16 male artists, 10 female artists

Esther Schipper: 17 male artists, 6 female artists

Blain Southern: 22 male artists, 7 female artists

Thomas Fischer Galerie:  8 male artists, 2 female artists

Isabella Bortollozzi Galerie: 18 male artists, 8 female artists

Contemporary Fine Arts: 26 male artists, 6 female artists

January 20, 2016

Art Blogger of the Week: Kevin Buist in Grand Rapids, USA

I came upon Kevin Buist's blog on Twitter, and reading his favourite shows of the year 2015 there were 9 out of 10 I could agree with (I just wasn't wild about the Hito Steyerl's video at the Venice Biennial). His blog is also named after his own name, just like mine. So I felt like Kevin Buist and I are very much on the same page. His answers below reminded me about the differences between a blog and an online journal. Somehow blogging is in the first place a thing one does for yourself, in an urge to clear one's mind for one's own sake. This gives it a certain honesty and authenticity. Writing for a magazine, one can't help but think about what the editor wants, what the voice of the magazine is like, and if its audience will be satisfied. But let me give the floor to Kevin Buist:

Art scene
I live in Grand Rapids, Michigan. It's a mid-sized midwestern city that's fairly conservative, but has some interesting history in public art and design. I write on my blog sporadically, and I spend most of my time at my day job serving as Exhibitions Director of ArtPrize. ArtPrize is a huge international exhibition, competition, and festival that takes place for two and a half weeks in Grand Rapids each fall. Art is installed all over the city, 400,000 people come, and we award half a million dollars in prizes by jury and public vote. I'm responsible for artists, curators, and the jurors and speakers we bring in. It's a great job, but it doesn't leave a lot of extra time for writing.

The art scene in Grand Rapids is interesting. My perspective is skewed because of my role with ArtPrize. I think it's also fair to say that the scene itself is skewed because of ArtPrize. It's such a huge event, that locals have either figured out how to use the energy, or attempt to ignore it all together. Of course there's art being produced and exhibited here outside of ArtPrize, but the scene is small. Some of the most interesting things are done by students or young faculty at local universities, but both of these have a tendency to not stick around for very long. There are only a handful of full time artists carving out a career here, and there's not a large base of collectors. There are promising glimmers, but a lot more could be happening.

I started the blog several years ago as a place to publish things I was writing that weren't destined for another outlet. I think the first thing I posted was a list of my favorite articles I had read that year. I wanted a blog for both sharing and posterity. I write for ArtPrize's blog and other volunteer and paid outlets, but it was important to me to have a platform that wasn't associated with any other entity. It's just me and what I think, I'm not promoting or serving anything else.

I'm connected with other bloggers both through my freelance writing, (on mnartists.org blog for example) and through my work with ArtPrize, where I've been able to get to know bloggers I really respect like Paddy Johnson of Art F City and Hrag Vartanian of Hyperallergic

Before helping start ArtPrize seven years ago, I produced a podcast about film and wrote for a film blog. I was making art and running a gallery at the same time as well, so I've been thinking about how to do criticism in a vernacular, accessible way for a long time. ArtPrize, as an event, really specializes in exposing new audiences to contemporary art, so the challenge of how to talk about complex things in ways that invite more perspectives is a thread that runs through everything I do. I travel a lot and see a lot things as well, and it's nice to have my personal blog as an outlet for things I'm thinking about.

I don't monetize my blog at all. In the scope of what I do, it's a small side project. It has helped me pick up paid freelance gigs, however. At least once I published something on my blog and someone liked it enough that they paid me to publish on their site as well, so that's nice.

January 15, 2016

Open Letters with Chilean Art Writer Ignacio Szmulewicz, 11

Are books important for art writer Ignacio Szmulewicz? I've never thought about the sounds, smells, movements connected to reading. But Ignacio doesn't. Here it is, another  open letter from our series, but no longer from Chile, because Ignacio relocated to Spain. 

Dear An.

A part of this letter was thought in Santiago, incubated in Sao Paulo to finally see the light in Barcelona. How small is the world? 

It’s the first time that I came to Europe thinking Latin-American. I have no idea why, but during previous visits I was always feeling comfortable of getting back home. Now, when the plane flew over Santiago a part of my body stayed there. I contemplated the New Year party from the air in Sao Paulo: an infinite flow of lights from all the parts of that gigantic city. And also a part of me stays there. My first image of Europe came from the northwest corner of Africa.

Here, in Barcelona, i’is still depression, so they say. Eight years have passed since I’ve been here and the city feels glorious, enormous, and full with attractions. I don't know and don't understand the whole problem but much of the sensibility its part of me. I will always feel half home here. My last visit was in the Chilean summer of 2007, and that was maybe the last college summer spend like a true college. No job, just fun. The whole city appeared to me like a beautiful ongoing museum-by-day-party-by-night. 

It’s very curious but this fragmental feeling came just at a time that I enter the whole “social network” experience: Instagram, WhatsApp, and others –the you-know-who of apps for travelers. I take some pictures, take some notes, talk with friends, answer emails, and stay in touch. In the end, I still need some print magazines and notebooks (I bought two very beautiful ones). What I’m trying to say is that the whole experience of travel has changed and I still don’t understand. 

You ask me about my library and I have to say that my mind and body still are connected to my house and life in Santiago. There I have not just books but a location, movements and smells. When I began college, I thought that I was going to accumulate lots of books but in the last years I began to feel different. My library is small, located mostly in my office. I have contemporary art, modern, Renaissance and Chilean art books; literature, history, and movies there. In the living room I have magazines, newspapers, and some selected art history books, some catalogues, and a couple of art books, presents of friends. In the bedroom I have a small but very specific library of public art. As you can see I have trouble to separate work and living space (sounds like a Woody Allen quote), I have things to read in every corner but I read it also in different moods and ways in every place of the house. So, I have more to say about the way of reading than of the library in itself. In short, I like the idea of different kind of experiences in different places: some with the sun on my face; some with the sound of the neighbors; some nights in the well illuminated office and others in the obscure bedroom.

For now I get back to my life as a critic/tourist in Europe. I go to Madrid for four days. During this first week in Barcelona I thought a lot in words. How to say or how to name things. Can contemporary art be understood with the lexica that we use for Renaissance or Medieval art? I get fascinated by this idea of seeing simultaneously a modern building, an old church or a crocked medieval street. How do you feel about the use of words in art criticism? 

Still with the heat and sun of the south of the world,


January 12, 2016

The Monopolies Don’t Have A Monopoly. Internet, David Bowie, and the Exponential N E thing

Maximilian Schmoetzer, Preliminary Material for 2022, 2015

Can something be written this week without thinking about David Bowie? Browsing my Facebook-feed yesterday, I found out that David Bowie was quite genius about the internet, and this 15 years ago, in an interview by the British journalist Jeremy Paxman, who was probing him: "Isn’t it just a tool?" Whereas music had once attracted Bowie for its subversive potential, now the internet, so he said, carried “that flag of the subversive and possibly rebellious, chaotic, nihilistic...Forget about the Microsoft element, the monopolies don’t have a monopoly, maybe on programs.” In the interview the pop singer made an interesting philosophy about the development of the internet, visual arts and music. Whereas the 1960s and 1970s were all about singularity, about one person leading the forces, a fragmentation has taken place since then, one in which the audience is as important as whoever is playing, similar to the internet with its interplay between the user and provider. “I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg." Bowie said, "The potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re on the grasp of something exhilarating and terrifying .”

Maximilian Schmoetzer, Preliminary Material for 2022, 2015

As a blogger, I can only agree of course. But even in 2016, art blogging is not seen as something to be taken seriously. The art world is always running behind, funnily enough. And what about the arts themselves? The problem with new media is that it’s so quickly old media, so that when you’re only counting on the “new”-aspect you’re bound to be stuck. Take the Transmediale Festival, which still thinks it’s the hottest thing in town, whereas it couldn’t be more 1990s. Last Friday, however, I visited the (internet) exhibition Exponential N E thing, curated by Vera Tollmann, featuring the work of the UdK research group Objects as Media of Reflexivity, which, so says the internet, “investigates if and how reflexivity can be spread and sustained through the »mediation« of real, tangible objects (sculptures, alienated tools, etc.)”. If this explanation is hard to comprehend for you, then that’s totally fine, it’s the whole idea actually, just like the internet is hard to see. And that’s what the exhibition Exponential N E thing seems to be about: about things and anything. 

The emphasis on the “thing-ness” of internet seems bizarre at first sight since the internet is the least material manifestation ever and it occupies no fixed space. So why the need to fixate it? This might go together with the art world’s current tendency toward materiality, fighting a lost fight, because it’s the memory image that counts in the end, which involves exactly what David Bowie was talking about in his interview, that grey space between the art work and the audience. We know that contemporary art, unlike former art, is not there to last materially (conservators will tell you so), but that doesn’t mean it cannot sustain itself for a long time to come, just like oral culture. Anyway, I’m loosing track, but what I wanted to say is that I always have a slight resistance to internet art, thinking it’s much too 1/1 with our society. Similar to how you should transcend your parents in life, I think it’s good for artists to transcend the material of their time. I’m sure David Bowie wasn’t thinking about using flickering internet screens in everything we create, but rather about internet’s qualities, like its flatness and lack of original. Take for instance Picasso. When Gertrude Stein took an airplane in the 1940s and saw the fragmented landscape down below, she point out that that’s cubism, and Picasso had never been in an airplane. 

Exponential N E thing had me thinking though. I liked the curating, which was kept simple, without any hipster cushions on the floor to lounge in. Its location at the Museum of Photography was fitting and I was happy to see that the museum is finally open for some expansion of the medium of photography. The work that mesmerized me most was the one by Maximilian Schmoetzer, a video titled Preliminary Material for 2022 (2015). It's a quite surreal science fiction about the year 2022, which is not that far, but it was science-fiction nevertheless, cutting from one scene to another, resisting a cohesive narrative both visually and in voice-over, with a funny dancing robot. Funny, sleek, and flashy as it was, it scared simultaneously and it was able to maintain that particular mystery that makes art art. 

Appropriately, I had a Whatsapp conversation with my friend Shuai about it afterwards:

“It’s like experiencing the not so distanced future all at once”; 
“Consumerism... Collapse of our society”; 
“Basically all that is current today”; 
“But with a glimpse of the near future”; 
“I thought it was quite funny, with the dancing. It didn’t look that pessimistic”; 
“And the quiet snow flakes”; 
“I think it was not overly negative”;
“But just kind of realistic”;
“But future realism”;
“I thought it was very sleek”;
“Why does everything that is internet art has to be so dystopic? Are they saying one can find a safe, alternative place in the internet? I think the curator said something like that”
“Like I said.... I don’t think it is depressive”;
“It is not dystopia”;
“It is like how it is today essentially”

January 6, 2016

2016 Feminism: Something To Do, Somewhere To Go?

My friend Wolfgang Müller gave me a present for the New Year, the novella The Life of a Good-for-Nothing - or more beautifully in German: Aus dem Leben eines Taugenichts - written by Joseph Freiherr von Eichendorff in 1826, the early times of Romanticism. Wolfgang thought it was a good read for somebody who tries to do her best at everything, haha! It's true, I'm a huge fan of The Right To Be Lazy, but in practice I keep busy doing things, and even in times I had no job, mysteriously, things got busier. I guess it's our 24/7 time, that Jonathan Crary was talking about. Aus dem Leben eines Taugennichts is about a guy who got kicked out by his father because he didn't get any work done at the farm when sleeping in too late. So he decides to travel the world, more exactly in direction Italy "wo die Pommeranzen wachsen" (where the oranges grow). He's the kind of person who can have a lot of happy thoughts just because of a pretty view. It also helps that he's not too smart and mostly has no clue about what is happening to him, and that kind of saves him from having a lot on his mind. Most of the time he can't speak the local language anyway so something might be going on but he never works out exactly what. The story is naïve, free of any cynicism - which is nice to read in the 21st century. It reminds me of that scene in the film Youth by Paolo Sorrentino that I saw on Sunday, where Miss Universe puts a condescending actor on his place by saying that she appreciates irony but when irony is drenched in poison, it reveals frustration. Our frustrated century!

I was reading another short story these days (I'm starting 2016 in a very slow mode) in a feminist magazine Persona I bought on an art book market. The story is in English but with a German title. It isn't explained why this is so, but some things, like the title above, just sound better in German, that's a fact. Frau mit viel Zeit (Woman with a lot of time) by Eva Kenny is about a woman who has many embodiments, one of them is the fashion magazine editor lying in the bath in an Upper West Side apartment, smoking a cigarette with the dry hand whereas the other one is on top of substantial pubic hair. "Fantasizers of the simple life: didn't you think you would be able to touch your job or even sense it as a tangible thing, near the tip of your tongue?" It's true that a job never feels like being on the tip of your tongue, almost escaping you, but rather as an all-invasive something. I had never thought about it really, but there's something about women and being busy, starting already at school, busy learning: "Looking busy becomes a way of inhabiting feminism, as one costume amongst others." Eva Kenny refers to the iconography of the busy woman in 1970s movies trying to counterpoint the 1950s bored housewife "drinking and pilling her way through restless afternoons and evenings. Having something to do and somewhere to go became the aesthetic of feminism as well as its reality." 

I'm feeling a little aimless at the beginning of 2016, but I could also formulate it as feeling open for unexpected things to happen, a "Freiraum" or, less directed towards a future, a nice immediacy. Let Eichendorff's hero speak: “'So I’m a good-for-nothing, eh?' I retorted. 'All right, then. I’ll go off and seek my fortune.' The idea was indeed very much to my liking. In autumn and winter the yellowhammer used to sing a lament outside our window: 'Farmer, please hire me! Farmer, please hire me!' But a short time ago I had seen him sitting proudly on top of the tree, singing his merry springtime song: “Farmer, keep your work!” – and this had given me the idea of making for the open road."