Category: ART

ADRIAN PIPER’S UTOPIAN GESTURE

In the summer of 2015 Adrian Piper initiated a peculiar email correspondence. Shortly after garnering the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for The Probable Trust Registry: The Rules of the Game #1-3, she approached Udo Kittelmann, director of the Nationalgalerie in Berlin, trying to persuade him to buy her installation. As a Berliner by choice, Piper wanted her installation to be on display in the German capital and advertised her piece with the declaration that it cost “a mere fraction of one of Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dogs”. And isn’t it a delight, for once, to see mirror-polished white mediocracy being pushed to the sidelines for the sake of Black artistry?

As one of the pioneering conceptual artists of her generation, Adrian Piper has been exploring the topic of personal subjectivity throughout her career. Her body of work spans from an intimate meditation on Black womanhood, as in works such as Vanilla Nightmares (1986) or Cornered (1988), to more philosophically grounded themes including language and infinity, as in one of her more recent works, Everything #21 (2010-2013).

In The Probable Trust Registry (2013-2015) we see these two fields collide: a way for Piper to demonstrate that the personal and the political are inseparably linked. After the installation was on view in New York in 2014 and in Venice in 2015, the show was acquired for Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof and opened this February – marking Piper’s first solo exhibition in Germany.

Upon entering the main hall at Hamburger Bahnhof, one is faced with acorporate setting: ceiling-high dove grey partition walls divide the space into three standardized segments. In front of each partition there’s a gold and circular reception counter with a friendly staffer dressed in black smiling from behind it. The sheer endless partition screens are embossed with golden letters; each of them displaying one of the following sentences:

I WILL ALWAYS BE TOO EXPENSIVE TO BUY.

I WILL ALWAYS MEAN WHAT I SAY.

I WILL ALWAYS DO WHAT I SAY I AM GOING TO DO. 

Here the visitors to the museum can approach each desk, engage in a brief conversation with the receptionist and ultimately sign a contract to commit themselves to one, two, or all three of the declarations. Once inside the exhibition space, the viewers inevitably participate in a collective experiment, regardless of whether they decide to sign a contract or not. In this respect the piece is as performative as it is introspective.

After the end of the exhibition on 3rd September 2017, the museum will compile a digital collection of all personal declarations gathered throughout the show in order to send it to its signatories. Said documents become part of the inventory of the Nationalgalerie – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, and will only be made available to the public 100 years later.

At a time when right-wing movements are on the rise in both Europe and the US, it seems more vital than ever, to uphold democratic values. And just like society itself, The Probable Trust Registry is intrinsically political. As a collective and ongoing artwork, it reveals its success or failure subsequently to its construction. As a philosopher, Adrian Piper savors the quandary that occurs in the process of such performative pieces. Still, trust is never a given and even setting up a registry in form of legally binding contracts does not guarantee confiding relations. Thus, more than anything else, the installation’s title and its key word “probable” hint at its principle of uncertainty.

In this light especially, positioning the installation in the main hall of Hamburger Bahnhof seems like an interpretive misdirection. While the curators at the Elizabeth Dee Gallery in New York as well as the Venetian Arsenal fittingly referred to the bureaucratic lunacy of the experiment by making use of a cramped interior space, the luminous and spacious placement at Hamburger Bahnhof evokes a delusive openness. Hence, a coherent spatial strategy falls prey to conspicuous placing.

The stage-like presentation of the installation lends the act of signing a social contract an impression of showmanship. This seems hardly surprising at a time when performative politics have become a widespread modus operandi. But instead of making this ill-at-ease element of theatricality a subject of discussion, the numerous readings and exhibition talks that accompany the show circle around the obvious themes of responsibility, sincerity, and transparency. This, furthermore, reveals a curatorial concept that prides itself on taking a political stance; as if the exhibition itself were a paradigm of humanism.

While The Probable Trust Registry is certainly perceived as a meditation on moral integrity, it may just as well be interpreted as a critical reflection on the increasing rationalization and accountancy of interpersonal values. For the particular beauty of Piper’s piece lies in a utopian gesture: the impossible attempt to quantify the incalculable.

THE INTIMACY OF CHANTAL AKERMAN

To this day, women face lots of barriers in the film business: while being frequently objectified in front the camera, they are hardly in charge behind the scenes. It comes as no surprise that so far, there has only been one female filmmaker to win the Oscar for “Best Director”: Kathryn Bigelow.

Nonetheless women like Sofia and Gia Coppola, Ava DuVernay, Miranda July or Lena Dunham remind us that the future of film has lots of #girlpower to offer. And today’s “Woman We Love” is to reminisce about one of their undisputed pioneers: Belgian film director, screenwriter and effortless cool cat Chantal Akerman.

Akerman was born in Brussels in 1950 to Polish parents who were also Holocaust survivors. She broke off her studies at a Belgian film academy after only a few months, then took courses in theatre studies until she became exclusively devoted to film making. At the tender age of 18, she made her first movie, Saute ma Ville, which was not for the faint-hearted. Numerous short and feature films followed, a total oeuvre of 40 works that has influenced generations of filmmakers. Last year (2015) Chantal Akerman committed suicide at the age of 65.

Throughout her entire career Chantal Akerman dealt with the cinematic representation of women, which is why she had such a lasting effect on female empowerment in the European film scene of the 1960s and 70s, along with directors like Agnès Varda and Marguerite Duras. Akerman fought against the one-dimensional, often unjustly labelled image of women, who had been mostly depicted as helpless ninnies, self-sacrificing mothers or femmes fatales, until then. Besides, female main characters were rare, at best they were found in second-rate melodramas. As a convinced feminist Akerman advocated for emancipation, and her work was highly polarising. When showcasing Je Tu Il Elle in 1974, she caused a scandal for showing a sex scene between two lesbian women, long before Blue Is the Warmest Color. In Jeanne Dielman she documented the everyday monotony of a housewife on the brink of breaking down, thereby giving a voice to the marginalised and the forgotten. Instead of considering films by women as individual works of art,  they were often perceived as a species with a collective objective. About herself she said, “I do not make women’s cinema, I make Chantal Akerman movies.”

The exhibition “Les Approches”,  which is currently on view at the Espace Louis Vuitton in Munich, takes a closer look at the works of striking visual artists, presenteing works that revolve around the realm of female intimacy. A video installation by Akerman, entitled Femme d’Anvers en Novembre (2008) and a tribute to the woman smoking, forms the centre of the show. On five screens five women are shown, enjoying a cigarette in a variety of situations: weeping, waiting or tidying their room – all women are connected through their lustful draws off of their cigarettes. A generally banal activity is captured in an intimate documentary style.

Of course this evokes images of the classic film noir and his female icons like Katherine Hepburn or Lauren Bacall. But for Akerman smoking is not merely an erotic act, but also a personal need that must be demystified and thus normalised. This is particularly important at a time when smokers are increasingly banned from public places but also because for a woman smoking always represented something emancipatory. Yet again, it’s the combination of Akerman’s feminist drive and her subtle aesthetic that comes to light, through subtle hints at our assumed certainties.

In imagery and aesthetics Akerman films differ from the popular entertainment cinema. Her plots are mostly minimalist and dialogues barely exist: a typical art film, one might think. Yet, appearances are deceiving. This slow way of storytelling is not boring, quite the contrary, it creates tension and makes the audience pay close attention to every detail. Behind the camera, Babette Mangolte set tone as the director of cinematography. Her fixed camera work makes for a casual, but privy setting, so that the film image figuratively turns into a keyhole, which we look through as silent observers. We see: careful glances, loving gestures and significant everyday actions which often make the spoken word unnecessary. The sound switches between background music and atmosphere: in Toute une Nuit for examplea window is opened and the road noise echoes in the room and we hear nostalgic melodies coming from the radio. Jean-Luc Godard called Akerman a “fighter against the cinema of favors” and proved to be right.

This is an edited version of an article, that first appeared on hey-woman.com in March 2016 under the title “Women We Love: Chantal Akerman”.

OPEN WOUNDS

When the KW Institute for Contemporary Art was started 25 years ago on Berlin’s Auguststraße, founder Klaus Biesenbach and his peers found themselves in a climate of upheaval and political uncertainty: the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s reunification were, at the time, still very recent history. Reflecting on our own very recent history, it was in the midst of another politically charged year – 2016 – that the newly appointed director and chief curator of KW Institute for Contemporary Art introduces, Krist Gruijthuijsen, took up his position last spring. And while KW has been known for decades as an indispensable force within Berlin’s art scene, the time had come for a clear alignment, as well as a clear distinction from its fraternal twin: the Berlin Biennale.

And so last week, after a three-month hiatus and extensive redevelopment, KW reopened its gates with an abundant agenda in tow. On January 19th, press and public alike were invited to the introduction of their new program. As part of renovations advised by architectural office Kuehn Malvezzi, the main entrance was relocated to the side wing of the building and equipped with a new reception, a seating area, a book stand displaying selected publications, as well as much needed lockers. Exposing the raw brick ceiling of the former margarine factory, the exhibition area was stripped down to an industrial look. Newly opened walls in the exhibition areas make for a beautiful subdivision of space and lots of light.

South African conceptual artist Ian Wilson’s oeuvre is the key reference point of the coming exhibitions. While his art practice spans from the 1960s until present today, his work is best characterized by what isn’t there – for instance in works like Circle on the Floor (1968) or his renowned series The Discussions. Using the stylistic means of reduction and omission – and with aid of the circle as his signature symbol – Wilson examines the delicate relationship between art and language. Over the course of the next four months, solo exhibitions by Hanne Lippard, Paul Elliman, and Adam Pendleton will keep Wilson’s immaterial, yet rich body of work a constant point of debate at KW.

The inaugural exhibition by Norwegian artist Hanne Lippard revolves around experimental uses of communication. Utilizing sound installations, readings, and performances, Lippard’s work deals with the discrepancy between form and content. Her artistic medium, however, is a rather unconventional one: the human voice. Born in Milton Keynes, England and raised in Norway, she grew up bilingual – one of several reasons why the spoken word bears special importance to her. Her work at KW is entitled Flesh and takes up the entire hall on the ground floor. At the center of the room lies a spiral staircase with 29 steps mounted to a single, load-bearing pillar. The beige-painted metal railing leads the viewer, or perhaps one should rather say ‘participant,’ up to a new dimension.

This top room, a light-suffused cube with a view of the roof garden, barely reaches a height of one and a half meters. Its floor is carpeted in a peculiar shade of brownish pink, the color of “an open wound” as Lippard describes it. Here, there is nothing but Lippard’s voice emerging from the speakers. Hers is a language full of piercing consonants and rich vowels that forms a musical interplay of rhythm and melody. “To me, the title is almost onomatopoeic. You feel the word flesh when you say it,” says Lippard. She perceives her art practice to be personal as well as public: “I think you can hardly work as an artist without being political in some sense or another. Especially if you work with the female voice and with language.”

Today, in light of social media, communication seems to be ever-present. And therefore “language can be a dangerous, albeit necessary tool,” Lippard ponders. The resurgence of reactionary movements, a growing disbelief in science, and the distortion of truth (like Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump’s adviser, whitewashing blatant falsehoods as “alternative facts”), seem to be the order of the day. But if we really lived in a post-factual age, communication would be nothing but a one-way street – and don’t we know better?

As a matter of fact, now is the time to listen: Extensive dialogue is what we need more than ever. The obvious upside to this geopolitical mess is the recent rebirth of protest culture, like the Women’s March on Washington and the solidarity demonstrations it spawned worldwide.

Lippard’s conception of language as political is one that corresponds to the newly-redeveloped program at KW. Whether it’s the return of the legendary Pogo Bar (now: Bob’s Pogo Bar) or the newly launched event series The Weekends, Krist Gruijthuijsen’s new direction envisions the art space as a community hub, one that fosters a mutual exchange between artist and audience. Artistic discourse as a form of political dialogue? In 2017, KW Institute for Contemporary Art might just become the place for that.

 

This article first appeared on hey-woman.com in January 2017 under the title “KW Institute for Contemporary Art: Krist Gruijthuijsen & Hanne Lippard”.

Foto: Hanne Lippard, Detail der Installation Flesh, 2016, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, 2017; Courtesy die Künstlerin und LambdaLambdaLambda, Prishtina; Foto: Frank Sperling

LILLIAN SCHWARTZ

You hear about it time and time again, about art taking place in the margins. And sometimes it can take years – sometimes decades – for an artist to receive the public recognition they so rightfully deserve. If anyone fits that category, it’s Lillian Schwartz. She is what you could call a self-taught artist par excellence: a woman who didn’t quite fit the norms of Western postwar society. Schwartz’s multifaceted vita alone is full of twists and surprises, yet it was her cutting-edge work that lead her to become one of the key pioneers in computer-generated art and art analysis.

Born in 1927, she already showed artistic interest as a child and enjoyed experimenting with mud, chalk, and wooden sticks as tools for art. Years later, at the age of 22, she moved with her husband to occupied Japan, where she fell ill with polio – and ultimately cured her paralysis by taking up calligraphy. A recovery through art, so to say.

After returning to the US, she began her studies in Fine Art at St. Louis University, where she specialized in free-hand drawing. However, it wasn’t until 1968 that she had her first big breakthrough: Schwartz participated in her first major exhibition after submitting her work Proxima Centauri to the now legendary MoMA exhibition The Machine as Seen at the End of Mechanical Age.

It was here that she met Leon Harmon; an encounter that marked a turning point in her practice. Harmon invited her to the renowned AT&T Bell Laboratories, a science and research center located in Murray Hill, New Jersey. Acting as their artist in residence as well as a consultant, Schwartz continued to hone her craft working among a male-dominated group of physicists and chemists – a position she would hold for more than thirty years to come. It was there she first experimented with coded icons and still graphics via trial and error. And it was by coding relentlessly, alternating zeros and ones, that she fell in love with computers. Her first art film Papillon, a work made of contour plots whose shape reminded Schwartz of fluttering butterflies, came about in this process of iteration.

By 1972, her craft had matured into an actual applied science. With the help of a colleague, she began experimenting with laser projections, turning the colorful light beams into film footage. The result, entitled Mutations, would turn out to be her most prominent work. Oftentimes these clips were musically supported by contemporary composers, thus her work developed a real synaesthetic quality: sculptural figures, in radiant colors, dancing through a pitch-dark void to the sound of abstract music.

Schwartz continued working at the verge of art and science over the coming decades, holding exhibitions and performances and lecturing worldwide. Her work was way ahead of its time, perhaps marking the beginning of animated film as we know it. Lillian Schwartz is now in her late eighties and continues to inspire all those who dare to swim against the stream.

This article first appeared on hey-woman.com in February 2017 under the title “Past Perfect: Lillian Schwartz”.

PREPUBERTAL LUST

A PERSONAL OBITUARY ON THE LATE PRINCE ROGERS NELSON

I precisely remember hearing Prince’s crystal voice for the first time as a pre-teen. I had known his music all my life, but up until that point I hadn’t really listened to him closely. When I did, while secretly catching glances at the TV when his 1984 movie Purple Rain was on, he had me star struck.  I loved his flawless features: the signature curls framing his face, the cutthroat cheek bones, embellished by an iconic beauty spot, that was only topped by the outline of his perfectly trimmed beard. His hazel eyes, were both gentle and piercing, with a gaze that invited, taunted and declined with thanks. Today, I think it’s safe to say, that the only set of eyebrows rightfully described as #onfleek would have to be his.

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