December 31, 2016

End of the Year Tales: Women and the Scarcity Economy of Love

Reading Susan Sontag’s journals from the early 1970s I skip the part that is about her unfortunate love with C. While leafing through the pages, there is one sentence, though, that sticks: “Scarcity economy of love”, written in the margins of the diary. 

We are standing in front of the shop window of the bookstore in Reichenbergstraße. I see Roland Barthes’ A Lover's Discourse, which inspired my 2016 resolution for the arts. A few more books about love are on display. “How surprising!”, I say. “It’s Christmas,” the artist responds with a bit of sarcasm in her voice. 

A female art person listening to a male art person who does all the talking: “I abstrahise,” she says. 

Two things I watched this year, which are remarkable in their turning around of roles for women. I mean, the women are strong and powerful, and not dependent on men. The first one was the movie Ghostbusters, the other one is the series The Catch. “Are you okay?” a guy asks private detective Alice Vaughan after some dangerous action. “Would you ask me the same if I were a man?” she replies. 

It wasn’t something that I gave much thought when it happened, but I was reminded of it this week. When I was 27, I applied for a Fulbright to go to the United States as a post-doc fellow. Walking into the interview, looking great with my platina blond hair, the first thing a man of the jury says is that they are not sending people to the US to go on a vacation. 

S from the bookstore tells me he doesn’t like Kirchner. In fact, he thinks Kirchner’s paintings are straight-down ugly. I laugh, it’s funny to hear somebody call shit what has been canonized, especially when it’s male.  

I have this French medieval poem I know from school, it’s about youth and basically it says; mignonne [female], enjoy your flower before it withers. I like reciting it, and I did so while drinking jenever with my Berlin friend S in Antwerp. S didn’t agree with the message of the poem, saying that in Japanese there is the concept of wabi sabi, which means the beauty of imperfection, of wrinkles, of things that are unfinished - a beauty you can find in a broken pot. 

S always mixes up the gender when he’s talking, which can be really confusing because you thought you were talking about a certain person but then he’s switching the “he” and “she” all the time. He explained to me that in Chinese spoken language there is no male or female, also no boyfriend or girlfriend. I think English and German language should catch up on that, it’s more 21st century. 

December 24, 2016

End of the Year Tales: What have human cultures made of time?

The artist, critic and activist Nine Yamamoto-Masson has a new radio series News from the Sun. The first part is on the topic of time, which is a great thing to reflect about in this time slot between 2016 and 2017. "What have human cultures made of time?" Nine Yamamoto-Masson asks. Yamamoto-Masson has a voice that is beautiful to listen to, one that takes you along, and she made the radio show into quite an art work, collaging different sources of inspiration together. She mentions that the listener might think of her like a stoner or like a wide-eyed child. And it's true that her journey on time has something of Walter Benjamin touring on hashish through Marseille, opening up to different powers of observation. She does so by conversing with all her favorites, like Chris Marker, Nina Simone, Audre Lorde, Maya Angelou, CG Ballard. “Don’t you want to transcend time?”, it’s asked at some point, to which is responded: ‘Of course, I have little time left.”

After listening to the show, I was inspired to give time, as I experienced it this week, some thought: 

On Monday evening, December 19, I watched Pina Bausch’ Palermo Palermo at the Berliner Festspiele. Theatre or cinema gives you time off: it can be dream time, condensed time, escape time. When you leave the show you need the real time outside to be the same as before so you can acclimatize your way back in. But during the show, a few blocks away of the theatre, a truck had been driven into a Christmas market, which seemed very unreal so that when we exited the show it was as if we were left hanging somewhere in between times.

Pina Bausch’ Palermo Palermo consists of vignettes of life’s struggles and the need for love. Interestingly, it’s the women who are in charge. Men are merely doing what they are told to do. The women demand to be kissed, hugged, and loved but the fulfillment of these demands doesn’t lead to satisfaction. Actually, most of the time everybody on stage is quite dissatisfied. A woman in the possession of  uncooked spaghetti screams: “I don’t lend them and I don’t give them away. They are mine.” At the end of the piece, a tale is told about a fox who wants to eat some geese. The fowl outwits him, asking the fox for time to pray. There is nothing he can do but wait until the geese are finished praying and, of course, they just keep on going, which is sort of hopeful.

In the middle of Pina Bausch's drama on stage, an elderly man in the audience stands up and turns around while saying out loud: “There has been a terror attack in Berlin.” Then he leaves. The rest of the audience stays in its role of audience and doesn’t budge. A woman behind me sobs and keeps on doing so until the person sitting next to her proposes to accompany her outside. It isn’t the first time that stage and reality collide in Palermo Palermo. The piece starts with an enormous wall falling backwards on the stage with an enormous crash. When it was first performed in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down.

On Tuesday, December 20, I was on my way to Belgium and since my flight was delayed I had to wait for more than five hours. Finally, it looked like we could board any minute. From the waiting room we saw the crew getting ready in the cockpit. But then the crew discovered that because of the delay their limit of working hours had been reached. An announcement was made that they were looking for a new crew. Two hours later it was announced that "volunteers" had been found to fly the plane to Belgium. By then, nobody gave a damn about the volunteer part, it could have been interns and we would have boarded anyway. 

In the street where my mother lives (which you could call a village street if it wasn’t for the fact that Belgium doesn’t really do in villages but rather in suburbs) things have changed over the past few years. The grass in front of houses has been systematically replaced by gravel, the hedges by stone walls, and all trees have been cut. My mother says it’s because people don’t want to bother anymore with cleaning up the leaves and cutting the grass. It’s also nice because this way the street is in a kind of time free zone. The Belgian sky is always grey and now there is no longer an indication to see that it is winter when nature is so sad to look at. 

I looked in my notebook and found a list of words on time that I collected once. Don't ask me why, I don't remember, that's what time does to memory: 

these things take time
your time runs out
living on borrowed time
killing time
time has changed
time stands still
hard time
wasted time
the time of my life
free time
doing hard time
the right time
night time
time square
break time
time out

December 12, 2016

Uncertain States at Akademie der Künste, Berlin

Everybody kept telling me how great the current show Uncertain States at Akademie der Künste is, so I was excited to finally check it out. I love the architecture of the old academy at Hanseatenweg. The weather was rainy, it was a Sunday, and I went with my friends Lutz, who is a designer, and Olivier, who is an art historian. Circumstances couldn’t have been better. We debated if we would go immediately for the coffee and cake but then decided to do “work” first. Going upstairs we saw on our right side that the windows were covered with foot prints - a window installation by Graciela Sacco: the shoe soles refer, so the accompanying text, to themes of “escape and migration, leaving and arriving, bureaucracy, human suffering and individual stories.” I got a bit cranky: I can’t stand art work that takes things 1/1. Here I also must admit I’m not the best company to see exhibitions: I get grumpy really easily and have no patience (In 2017 I will meditate more regularly and get better). 

But then the first space upon entering was elegantly curated and this would continue throughout the whole exhibition. The exhibition has style and manages to create a nice dynamic flow between the contemporary art, the historical part, and the gathering space for readings and screenings. It was also good that the show didn’t start off immediately with the historical part but with a contemporary introduction. I liked the red colored things in the cages of Mona Hatoum but not the cages. Olivier shrugged his shoulders and he was right: it didn’t amount to much. Making your art work out of reinforcement bars just isn't good enough. Same with the art work of Ayse Erkmen next to it, showing landmines on kitchen tiles. I can only say that the color green of the landmines fitted with the red of Mona Hatoum’s work, but that is also very cynical of me. 

Around the corner was the historical part, which displayed migration stories of German artists in the 1930s. At the sight of it I got a little depressed of having to do so much reading. But then the frustration disappeared and I started to get moved. The texts were very well written and the display was wonderful: boxes, carrying an object like the “sweetheart jewelry” that John Heartfield gave to his beloved one and the last letter of Walter Benjamin to Theodor Adorno in 1940, six weeks before his suicide. Also my favourite Valeska Gert was represented by a letter from the German-Jewish émigré journal Aufbau, telling her she shouldn’t be critical of the USA in her performances: she was too unimportant a person to put the whole emigrant community in the USA at risk. The only problem with this historical part of the exhibition was that the designer made a mistake: the texts on the plexiglas were very hard to read and at first I thought it was intentionally but that would have been too tacky of the designer, wouldn’t it. 

Then contemporary art followed and I must say (and we all agreed on this) that the contemporary art on display didn’t manage to keep up with the historical part. How come?, so we wondered. Olivier suggested it was because the historical part is about a lived experience, whereas in the contemporary art it’s more of a presentation of an experience that was, in most cases, not lived by the artists themselves. It was all too much of a mock-up to be able to move. In my opinion, a lot of the art was just too eager to please. It was too intentionally looking for making an impression and it doesn’t work when artists are out to impress the audience rather than to think of things in themselves. Nasar Tur delivered bad work - one in which he is peeing in his pants, another one where he shows people who fire a gun for the first time - even the slow-motion here didn’t manage to create that little something more that good art has (call it poetry, excess, that little thing that pierces you). Most art was also too literal. I prefer art that makes a detour of some sort - that looks at a thing and shifts our perception just a little inch and  that does it all. Francis Alys is mostly great at this and his video work on kids making birdcalls in the ruins at the Turkish-Armenian border is quite beautiful but it doesn’t reach its full potential. I was surprised to see that he showed an historical explanation at the end of the video. That was unnecessary.

Zineb Sedira, Mother Tongue, 2002

The best work on show is unfortunately exhibited in a lost corner of the exhibition. It is the work by Zineb Sedira, titled Mother Tongue, which shows three videos in which the communication between the artist and her mother, the artist and her daughter and the grandmother and her granddaughter are examined. Both daughters talk in their language of schooling, whereas the mother and grandmother talked in their native language. Granddaugther and grandmother don’t share the mother tongue, which made the conversation difficult and uncomfortable. This art work is based on a simple and beautiful idea, it takes the own living experience as a starting point, it is unpretentious, it opens up the imagination, it is loving. What can be more adequate in a time of uncertain states? 

December 11, 2016

Things I Heard This Week

S told me at a Japanese plum dinner how it seems to him that all Japanese art has a same kind of sensibility: a bit of sadness, melancholy, and a bit of nature.  

Pickled Japanese plum is a very sour thing to eat - it opens up your nose immediately and all the rest follows. Not so many Europeans have a taste palate that can deal with a Japanese plum. At the Japanese plum party the host H. had fun putting the pickles in everything he was making - in the pancakes, the quiche, and the soup - while chuckling: “It’s okay...” It reminded me of Warhol who liked to say: “Why not?”

The Japanese plum party had a name, it was called Tschaikovksy’s Pickle Surprise. Tschaikovsky was gay, H. told me. The Russians consider him to be their national composer, which is funny, so H. said, chuckling once more, and then showed me on Youtube Tom Rubitz’s video Pickle Suprise.

In the bathroom of the host, there was an object with a vagina lying on the white tiles. My friend and I were looking at it, our imagination running wild. The host came in (it’s a special kind of bathroom, one that invites people in) and told us we could touch it. We backed off first, then to be informed it’s a sculpture made out of stone. I really liked the sculpture and went back to see it a few times during the evening. 

A told me she studied speculative design in London. You can also call it critical design, she explained to me. Most design is made to serve a purpose, an ideology. Critical design isn't and it speculates about the future. When she started studying speculative design, her dream was to build a huge machine on high voltage. She did build a machine, A said, but it's not on high voltage.

I watched an episode of Absolutely Fabulous in which Patsy is starting a new job at a fashion magazine in New York. When she arrives, they ask her what her program is, to which she responds: “I want to take the fun out of fashion!” 

B told me how he prints out stuff from the internet to read on paper. He can’t believe people still send these kind of emails which say at the bottom to please not print out this email. As if anybody still prints out stuff. If you read online for 30 minutes,  B. informed me, then you’re using up circa 32 CO2, while if you do the same on paper it’s only 28 CO2. Also, paper is a renewable resource and when you decide to print something out, you very much realise that what you’re doing has its consequences. With online surfing it’s much harder to visualize. 

Art theorization seems a very dry, stiff, and tough thing to do, only for those who have a sec, abstract mindset. The word “theory” itself has the sound of a nut that is impossible to crack. While teaching cultural theory for Node, however, my student T. wrote in his assignment that theorization comes easily: “It requires nothing more than imagination, fantasy.”