Sunday, March 30, 2008

Don't Stop

I'm not going to mention everyone in the show The Way That We Rhyme: Women, Art, Politics at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SF. Suffice it to say that this is a substantial introduction to the currents in the contemporary wave of feminist art. What is gratifying is that this is the third West Coast show in a row of feminist art (Wack! at Geffen Contemporary LA and Small Things at New Langton, SF are the other two I'm thinking of.)

One artist of the survey I am going to mention is Eve Fowler, who I love for appropriating the masculine purview—even when it doesn't quite work as in the photo series included in this show. Seems to me, the glory hole is well... a hole, an apeture that waits to be filled. The cock trusts through it to the other side, to the waiting mouth. In this re-make, the hand thrusts and the slit on the other side waits on it. The set up seems to reinforce the inny-outy distinction of the female-male parts. But I gotta say, I will always stand up for the glory of girl-bits, boy-bits on display.

Which leads me to my favorite installation of the show: Vaginal Davis' intimate cubical of a girl-boy room. Covered top to bottom with naughty bits, boy-bits mostly, photos, drawings, all the imagery my prurient self could desire. Things to bump into, hung like a laundry list of party-life; things to skim, pick up, rummage through—just like snooping—yeah, me and everyone else wandering through this life laid bare. Talk about innies and outies. The private made public.

Both Fowler and Davis are working the tension between private-public. I can gaze on privates in private, but in public, I become self-conscious, uncomfortable, sensitive to the gaze or passing graze of the others. It feels Too Close. So the questions arise: What is acceptable in public? and What am I afraid of? Why do I feel exposed?

In the panel discussion, Remembering, Rhyming, We Won't Stop I loved hearing the matter-of-fact way Tammy Rae Carland discussed her work arising right out of her life—and as a matter of fact, that is how I might describe Laurel Nakadate explaining how she arranges the situations for her video interactions with the unlikely men she meets in her life. (That's her on her knees in one such situation.) And hey, Nao Bustamante was pretty matter-of-fact even if she was talking about her wacky space-exploration video, Earth People 2507, being shown at Sundance with her poodle FuFu in the starring buffalo role. Is it a generational thing? Or are rhyming women just comfortable-in-their-skin, nice women? Whatever. Don't stop. Please. You are the future, just like Vaginal said, a future feminist state is possible. This is how. Remembering. Rhyming. Not stopping.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Bloody Hell

It begins with a bang, literally, and doesn't let up. 95 minutes of a masterful, funny, bloody mess of a movie. If I hadn't seen it in an art-house would I have enjoyed it as much? As it is, I saw Summer Love: The First Polish Western by Piotr Uklanski at SFMoMA and enjoyed it immensely. Every twisted turn, every Westernism, every bloody god-awful painful violent act and evocative stance.

What is evoked? Every great gritty Western to come before it, and then some.

If his Nazis, that collection of 166 film still portraits of actors as Nazis, exposes the "continuing allure of fascist aesthetics as the ultimate form of fetishized power," to quote Kate Bush (ArtForum 11/2002), then Summer Love lays out the continuing raunchy attraction of the downward spiral of the abjectly misplaced, degraded, forgotten. Sideswiped by the train of history, out of reach of collective order, individuals retreat into an inner chaos of raw emotions and brutal instincts. It's the ultimate breakdown of nameless people in a nameless town. And we've all been there.

Uklanski works here within the confines of the Western genre, using the standardized building blocks of this type of saga, yet this is a Polish Western and so it is clear other frontiers are being evoked as well. One of the more disturbing, in a film of disturbing scenes, is the degredation of The Woman, the only woman in this outpost run on conflicting masculine thrusts and parries. She is beaten, shamed, violently shorn by the genitally-wounded Big Man. Her bare, bloodied scalp looks mightily like the news photos of women likewise abused in The War. It is the Woman Taken In Adultery story (John 8:2-11) yet again. The veracity of these primal scenes underlies the Western varnish.

The man who set himself afire in a performance called Full Burn, works with shock and awe. Things get bloody and then bloodier in Summer Love. He works the image of violence—this in itself a reflection of the fact that most of the violence—torturous insanity—we respond to every day is mediated: the image of violence.

So what happens? Given the context of the man's work, the ironic, self-aware craft of the man's work, we laugh. I did. Out loud.

"In the end," he says, "what happens is that we end up looking at things with our mouths open, fascinated, regardless of what we watch, whether it's a Nazi flick or people on fire."

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Joseph Beuys—Katharina Sieverding—Carolyn Radlo.

Well not quite. But as I shook the hand of Katharina Sieverding this evening, I felt some kind of line if not lineage. Invisible line, threadlike, quantum-level vinculum. Two greats and a nought.

I didn't know what to say, really. I can't really explain it either, the desire to make contact. I wanted to press the flesh of she who is the person behind, inside the image that she has worked so often. Because tonight in a small lecture/presentation she was in person, not the image, but the image-maker and she was accessible, even if I had nothing to say except that it was an honor to meet her.

An honor to meet you, Katharina Sieverding.

Transformer, a multi-slide projection of blended images of Sieverding and Klaus Metting created in 1973, is part of a show of early media art from the SFMoMA collections. On all four walls of a rectagular room multiple large portraits appear, disappear, with slight variations, blend, him, her, the third other: mutations and metamorphosis. It was the reason for the lecture/presentation which included a half-hour reel, a mini film retrospective of her work beginning with her documentation of Beuys happenings through her self-portraits to China films and beyond.

The theme of deconstruction and reconstruction of identity she has explored again and again over the years, her own visage reworked, painted gold, colorized, blown out, oxidized, repeated, repeated, repeated. And then there she was in person and she wore ... her face.

After 40 years, death would come into it too, you'd suppose. And it does. This last image is from an installation at Köln Art Fair, 2002.

In an interview with Harald Fricke, she talks about the on-going tradition of gender-work:

This possibility of changing gender identity is very popular, even among people of various generations somehow interested in the idea of reincarnation for whatever reason; it creates a general sense of relaxation – away from competing identities and towards individual responsibility. That’s a future model… Seen in social and technological terms, Transformer from 1973/74 is an expression of self-perception that does not exclude the other, and is a model for integration.

This work, she says, is a "deconstruction of the male in art’s dominion," which in German is a deconstructive play on words: "Kunst-Herr-Schaft" = "Kunst (art) "Herr" (lord or sir) in "Herrschaft" (dominion).

Of course there is more going on for her besides an exploration of gender and identity (if that weren't enough). Her large-scale photos grew larger, and in the nineties, went public. Her work, Deutschland wird deutscher (Germany is getting more German), depicting herself in a circus knife-throwing act, was presented on 500 billboards in and around Berlin. "The 'larger than life' idea resulted out of an interest in using my own artistic production," she says, "to investigate the entire complex of mass media and popular culture, film and optical technology and then to 'develop' them in these 'spaces.'" She's working similar cultural zones as Warhol and like him, her work is recognizable, distinctive.

What I wished I'd been able to see was more of her films. This description from the press release from her show Close Up at PS1 in 2006 has to suffice.

While a visiting professor at the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou/Shanghai, Katharina Sieverding produced the film, Shanghai, 2002/2003. Never before seen in the US, the film, comprised of two five-minute loops, document (extra)ordinary street life in and around Shanghai. The first loop, Hongmeilu, which was shot in slow motion in a postmodern Shanghai suburb, depicts two private security guards as they follow a man, throw him into a hedge, and remove and discard his shoes. Unmoving, the fallen man lies there while a white-gloved guard confiscates his papers. The second loop, Nanjing, Road, takes place at night in one of the most infamous shopping malls in all of Shanghai; it portrays a crowd of Chinese workers as they systematically dispose of a fashion boutique's entire inventory. The merchandise is piled high into the center of the store. The very next day the store is transformed into a clinic for cosmetic surgery.

Here's looking forward to a West Coast survey of her work.

*images courtesy of Art Candy, ArtNet, and Reloading Images

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Double Take

After seeing the kaleidoscopic yet enigmatic works of Gilbert & George at the de Young Museum, SF, I read some texts about them online. Despite their stated desire to make accessible art, ("'We want our art to speak across the barriers of knowledge directly to People about their Life and not about their knowledge of art. The 20th century has been cursed with an art that cannot be understood.") I needed some guidance to get into their personal language. So I looked 'em up on Wikipedia.

The work is stunning—light & bright—and huge (though somehow cramped in the de Young's halls), and amazing in both repetition and subject matter. Their slogan, Art for all, is sort of reversable: all is art, and this too holds true for them. Everything: themselves, their clothes, their neighbors, their shit and piss and plants and body parts—it's all worthy, all worthy subject matter. It's all up there framed within the stained-glass-window hallowed presentation which says, It's all good.

Of course, I can get behind this, for my slogan is Art Saves.

It does.

A cross of feces, a cross of wood. Same same.

I just wanted some more familiarity with them. Their lives laid bare, as it were, on the museum walls, wasn't enough. I wanted to know if "ginko" is British lingo like "pansy" is here. So I read around.

I learned that they are incredibly productive, have the most powerful graphics workstation computers in the UK; are very regular in their habits, eating in the same restaurants each day; are always seen together and always in form, in art. They are fixtures in their neighborhood, rarely travel, see movies or go to galleries. They tell the story how once on a visit to the coutryside, they came upon a young couple with a pram outside a lovely church. "Good morning!" they said to the couple. "Fuck off you weird looking prats!" came the reply.

They appear conservative, excentrically so, but are also always working that strange place in between irony and innocence, between what's genuine and contrived. Their personal and professional world turns things upside down and inside out. Obsessively so. That is their genius. They have entered the subjective universe that is of their own making and it is gloriously brilliant, self-reflecting, life affirming.

I never found out about the ginkos, but I did learn that their embrace of themselves, everyday, all the time, as living sculpture, was not inspired by Joseph Beuys, but by a visit to the Knock Shrine, County Mayo, Ireland where, in 1879 a number of people beheld an apparition of the Virgin Mary and Saints Joseph and John the Baptist. Jesus appeared to them as a little lamb standing on an altar. Gilbert & George have since been commissioned to produce a work of art for the site.

Shake your head and blink. What is and isn't real? What is and isn't art? What is and isn't worthy? A manifold mystery. Puts you on a wonder.

*pic of G&G strolling courtesy of Norf London Urbscape.