Sunday, March 29, 2009

In Uniform

"You got it," Steven Wirtz said to me. "I'm so glad you got it!"
Oh yeah. I got it.
And the poster. I want to tape it to my wall.
Like I said to the gallerist who said encouragingly, "We have payment plans..."—"Free. Right now, free works for me."

Steven Wirtz (he's so nice) is showing new work by Melanie Pullen. Remember how she created crimes scenes, down to the last gritty detail in the dark back alley, trashy and smelly? That's how good they were—you could smell the sour fetid garbage. And then the victim, strangely well-dressed. High Fashion crime scenes. Un-nerving to snicker at the hanging corpse.

For the last couple of years she's been at work on the details of a very different scene. Studying and recreating historic depictions of battle, Pullen's been sussing out the high fashion sensibility of war.

First there is the glamour of the heroic pose. She's created these magnificent life-size portraits of soldiers. In period uniforms, models stand as in the original paintings. She had to recruit fashion models, because friends just could not carry the command of the gaze. It makes complete sense. The image of heroism is one of grace and strength, composure and a sort of humble assurance. The hero must be beautiful. The heroic transcends the ordinary. It is something to be admired and aspired to. A model or actor, trained to project, can fill those boots to affect the look. Achilles was always described as beautiful, he was the son of a nymph after all.

Man in a uniform
That's what I am
Man in a uniform, uh,
That's what I am

In 1918 when General George Patton was getting into the swing of things, he wrote his wife: "I often think with regret of how badly I used to dress... Now I am a regular Beau Brummel. I wear silk khaki shirts made to order, khaki socks also made to order. I change my boots at least once during the day and my belts are wonders to see they are so shiney and polished. I have the leather on my knees blancoed every time I ride and my spurs polished with silver polish. In fact I am a wonder to behold.... Tomorrow I'll have my new battle jacket. If I'm to fight I like to be well-dressed."

There is charismatic power in a suit—business suit, suit of armor, well-fitted uniform. The uniform makes uniform the ranks, but makes the person a soldier with all the strength, will, and containment that word implies. A soldierly demeanor is formed with discipline and righteousness. This is the very thing the old painters tried to convey and Pullen has distilled in these portraits. Out of the mists, back-lit the soldierly appearance, the embodiment of calm before the storm of battle.

I love a man in a uniform
I love a man in a uniform

The girls they love to see you shoot
(bang bang you're dead)
I love a man in a uniform
(they love a... they love a... they love a... bang bang)
(they love to see you shoot)
(Gang of Four)

In the second series, Pullen recreated scenes of battle on the streets of LA and in a Hollywood studio. The twenty realized scenes re-enact historic photos, in a sense replicating the iconic imagery which we understand as scenes of war. Depictions of depictions, as it were. This is a distancing from the mortality of engagement (with it's grit and grime and blood and guts) and yet at the same time an investigation of the very nature of creating an archetypal image—one that provokes a whole range of response. That is what is so interesting about her work. She is pin-pointing the image of war. And for there to be an idea of war there must be an attending image. Homer provided it. Capa. Pullen.

This is not "realism," not documentary photography. Not like the photos of combat by Eddie Adams or of wounded veterans by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. But this is also real, this examination of the creation of an idea. For our experience of the world is through our idea of it. So how does one create the image of history? Just so. And does this force the question of our belief in the depiction of history? I think so.

The show is called Violent Times and since the uniforms date back to the Revolutionary War, we're talking a long time. But I don't think Pullen is merely, ironically, critiquing the war effort. There is no getting around the fact that her portraits of these soldiers and the details of their familiar uniforms elicits a pleasing response. They are beautiful to look at. And the battle scenes thrilling. What do we make of that? How do we digest that appeal? Can we enlarge our purview to say, War is brutal: war is beautiful. -? I think we must, otherwise we will be at cross-purposes to our goal of living in harmony with ourselves. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Strange Light

This is Steven Cohen, performance artist.

Not just your usual gender-bending monster-mime drag queen clown.

No. Nor your ordinary homo-probe, eros-busting, crazy-assed Jewish shaman-priest. With a prosthetic leg. Or horn feet even.

No. This is Steven Cohen, performance artist, out of South Africa.
Didn't expect that, huh? I didn't either which says something about my own assumptions about what comes out of Africa. The fiercely bent alphabet and ferociously queer vocabulary that might peg him as Californian, say, still makes perfectly good sense for a white gay Jewish South African artist with drama queen pretensions. This is the ground he dances on; this the culturally complicated, politically implicated land he grew out of and belongs to. Denying history and denying the present to say his too isn't the face, a face of South Africa.

So. I went to see Test Patterns: Recent Video from South Africa at SF Camerawork. Steven Cohen's video, Chandelier, stood out—got me by the balls as it were—and not just because I like men in hose. No, this film, this performance, goes beyond the personal into the politically powerful and ricochets.

Seems to me, performance art is made with a certain amount—or a lot—of personal courage. Especially if the artist is doing particularly intimate material. And more so if the material is outrageous, which by definition is contrary and provocative and inspires outrage—then you never know what's going to happen. That's where Cohen likes to go. Ratcheting it up a notch, he goes off-stage, outside the gallery, into "art-unlikely" spaces, as he calls them.

In his list of past performances there are these which speak for themselves.

Jew at the Mall - Rosebank Mall and Mutual Square, Johannesburg
Ugly Girl at Rugby - SA vs Wales, Loftus Versveld, Pretoria
Crawling to register - Independent Electoral Commission, Johannesburg
Limping into the African Renaissance - public road, Sigangeni, Swaziland

And then in 2001 he did Chandelier - intervention at demolition of squatter camp, Newtown.

About these interventions into everyday surroundings Cohen says, "People of the outside step right into the work. They can change the choreography (deny access or 'come this way') and they can change the plot (yell and shout, hit, call the police)." This is in South Africa, mind you, where everyday surroundings include areas of abject poverty—just outside your studio door.

The story goes, Cohen had been working for some time on refashioning a wrought iron chandelier into a wearable tutu. When the piece was compete he decided to premier it in the neighborhood of his studio. So costumed in chandelier and hose, made up and twinkling with lights, he walked out on stacked platform heels down the underpass squatter lanes, camera trailing. As chance would have it, his inaugural presentation coincided with a government action—crews had been sent out to evict the residents and demolish their board and tarp homes.

Chandelier documents this most extraordinary collision, a synchronistic convergence of histories and meanings. The humble people of the squatter camp seem bemused and befuddled by the pale stranger, a statuesque apparition for sure, come turning, teetering, and gingerly stepping through the mud and debris. A woman steps up and curtsies; another holds back an agitated angry man wielding a fighting club. In his re-constituted emblem of higher living—the crystal chandelier—and his very skin, white, which together speak of colonialism and rank he towers over the field of residents, and yet he walks on fetish platforms in near nakedness, completely upending his gender position. One man, tweaked by this specific aspect, pushes forward. He's got Hustler magazine in hand. He gestures animatedly, "Same, same!" Cohen wearily sits down. The man flips excitedly through the pages, he opens the centerfold, waves it around, shows the camera, smiling. It's got to be one of the weirdest, most uncomfortable art-meets-real life encounters I've seen. Little black man grinning, he's got the white pussy shot and the girl-boy right there in the flesh, right there in the mud and mess of a sanitation-less encampment of apartheid refugees.

When the orange-clad workers enter the scene demolishing the ramshackle dwellings with crowbars, the performance turns from bizarre to deeply disturbing. Even as Cohen raises his arms in some fashion of supplication, there is nothing really but dull dejection in the act. People sit in the rubble waiting out the destruction. Ruination is everywhere. The chandelier is a light in the descending dusk. But there's one more thing. I haven't mentioned the Star of David painted on his head. There's plenty of time, as Cohen steps and stumbles through the wreckage, to consider the implications, to allow the host of associations to come to mind—the pillage and devastation the star has seen. History repeats itself.

It is difficult for me to dare to speak but even harder to keep quiet. And making these secrets public is to enter in a very dangerous relationship of confidence. Dancing up to our own limits, in the heart of contradictory forces, memory and imagination, the personal and the public mingle. I evoke our pride and shame about who we are, genocide and hope, fascination and reality, the macabre and the everyday. I am a Jew and an anti-Zionist. My works deals with the pain of being human and the joy of living and, as our lives are, this work is a complete and incomplete experimentation.

Powerful work. I love it. Steven Cohen does the dance and takes the cake.

Chandelier photos by John Hogg from Paris Autumn Festival and NYTimes.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Seeing is Believing

Just as painters from the 16th century onward (Titian, Rembrandt, Fragonard, Turner, Cézanne, and de Kooning, to name a few) began to foreground their medium and make it almost as much a subject of their pictures as what the painting nominally represented, photographers, over the course of the last 50 years [—] have been doing the same.

Reading this in an article by Peter Plagens in Art in America (Feb. 09) about the Met's exhibition Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography, made me think immediately of things said last night by Nathaniel Dorsky about his films screened at SFMoMA.

Still from Sarabande, 2008, 16mm, silent, 15 min.

Dorsky creates gem-like short, silent films of collaged takes of iridescent flickerings, shadows, and light. In his films, he says, the screen is a leading character. He emphasizes his preferred stock—16mm Kodachrome, and specifically its lower register of color. He says he's not interested in still photography—even if many of his sequences would be stunning still photos. He likens his work with film to painting.

He is dogmatic about his approach—in the old sense of the word dogma, a symbol of truth. His assertion seems to bristle people in the audience, but it is a positive affirmation of himself, the truth of himself. That he stands behind himself and the unique output that is a result of his own eye, hand, effort must seem an affront to those less self-contained... I don't know. It only bothers me when he suggests to do otherwise is to make rot. I think the word he used was poison. One man's poison is another man's drink. And as for the rest of us...

also from Sarabande

The photos in the Met's show are concerned with another truth. The exhibit tracks the evaporation of the belief in photography's ability to represent reality through the work of 17 photographers who mess with our assumptions. At issue here is Is it real?

This is from Hilter Moves East (1975, Gelatin silver print) by David Levinthal. These are little toy Nazis, but the effect is real. We know the long-standing discontent about Robert Capa's photo of the soldier shot in the Spanish Civil War. This step further into verisimilitude turns the question upside down.

Dorsky says he isn't a great thinker. His films don't come from ideas; are not about film as an idea, but film as an experience.

The rule was that photographs possess enough veracity to, upon occasion, help find people criminally guilty beyond a reasonable doubt and send them to prison. The 'truth' that a photograph represents (i.e., re-presents, presents again), its direct physical relationship to something that actually existed, can still make me weak in the knees. I tear up at certain 19th century photographs. My god, I think, those people picnicking at that lake, looking like living, breathing souls, walked the earth a century and a half ago. And then, today, there are photographs of ice on Mars, I get breathless looking at them.—Peter Plagens

Weak at the knees, breathless, that's the experience of watching a Dorsky film. What surprises me is that no one in the crowd gasps out loud, no one sighs in wonder. It may be a cultural thing, but here in a packed theater in California, everyone participates in the silence that holds the light. For 20 some minutes everyone interacts with the screen, taking in its truth, glorying in its veracity.

Dorsky's films are saving grace. See them when you can.

Levinthal photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Stills from Sarabande courtesy of The Auteurs recent interview with Dorsky and from Film Society of Lincoln Center.