December 25, 2011

Feierabend teaser trailer

  feierabend, the exposition by spurdertoene

Just when it had become obvious there was no way anything would happen anymore . . . Listen to the complete chain of events, and all that preceded them, over here.

December 23, 2011

Records of warfare: Monkeys vs. dinosaurs

Salon painting from the Planet of the Apes. This picture almost pulls it off. The way the monkeys seem to share a thought on times many generations ago, when their forebears still were born as goldilocks that had to be dressed against the weather, cute but useless creatures. How droll life must have been . . . But, boringly, the artist shows the mother monkey chained, giving away the set-up. This is no exploration of the post-Darwinian blues, telling us that evolution will lead nowhere and might as well be reversed, man being the primate that he is. It’s called The Anthropology Lesson, by Gabriel von Max from around 1900, and in its modest aim to stage a droll and entertaining scene about the similarity of monkeys to us human beings—which nevertheless stresses the difference through the meticulously observed gesture of apish back-scratching—this image is safely within a pictorial tradition centuries old, from before the event of evolution, monkeys having been dressed up as people for our entertainment since about the time they first turned up in paintings and engravings.

I found the picture in a catalog on Darwin: Art And The Search For Origins, and somehow nothing in their selection of 19th-century images of monkeys really carries the dread that might come with the knowledge that we’re still animals inside, fighting our way through society as if it were a second nature red in tooth and claw. See, for example, this painting by Frantisek Kupka, Antropoides from 1902. It feels like it should be more impressive, ape men doing battle unto the death in full ferocity of unbridled emotions. In fact the dramatic sky above signals impressiveness in its foreshortened clouds. But then instead the viewer’s gaze falls upon the flowers in the hands of the female, and suddenly this is just a lame society joke, more fit for the cartoon page of a women’s weekly.

So, the monkeys are a disappointment. By the way I’m interested in two things here, which I’ve already discussed upstream in my post on Edwin Landseer: the idea of a fierce and cruel nature without god (and it might be monkeys are just too close to us to separate themselves from our worldview sufficiently to figure in that), and the humanizing of animals in 19th-century art that seems like a starting point for the evolution of comics. It’s clear how domesticated animals like dogs, cats, mice, etc. would be the obvious cast for a humanized portrayal (as in children’s stories), but shouldn’t there be a special treatment for the monkey? Somehow he fails to inspire, so I turn the pages to see about the other protagonist of the evolution story, the tragic hero, the dinosaur. And funnily, I find that same reversal of the tides as in the Max painting, a Planet of Dinosaurs, exist as an idea in 1830. Henry de la Beche’s engraving Awful Changes looks and appears as a pretty funny cartoon, but on top of that holds serious possibilities of a story about a School of Ichthyosaurs.

With that apparent fitness of the dinosaurs for the evolution of comics in mind, let’s start again with the Landseer painting I discussed in my earlier post, Saved from 1856, depicting a Newfoundland dog who holds between his paws the body of an unconscious boy he has just saved from drowning. From him, as we have seen, it’s just a small step into the world of Disney.

Let us now look at another giant of Victorian painting, John Martin, and his Country Of The Iguanodon from 1838:

If you zoom in, the composition of the group is remarkably similar to the Landseer, only we’re not in a country where men and dogs are best friends, but where Iguanodons feed on each other in pairs and even groups. Three of them, one properly hunted down and patiently waiting to be devoured between the paws of its captor, who himself cries out in surprise, because unnoticed a third one has crept up on him and is taking a big bite out of the undefended back. Two more are fighting it out in the middle ground of the picture. They are surrounded by a beautiful landscape with the sun shimmering through the volcano dust that will soon kill the complete species off (that’s of course not what the artist meant to say, but it sure looks like it, doesn’t it?), and all that the dinosaurs do day in day out is eat and be eaten.

Here’s a famous quote from William Buckland, who found undigested vertebrae in coprolites (petrified dinosaur shit) of the same species of Ichthyosaurs, which to him suggested the cannibalism shown by Martin in the usually plant-eating Iguanodon. “In all these various formations our Coprolites form records of warfare, waged by successive generations of inhabitants of our planet on one another: the imperishable phosphate of lime, derived from their digested skeletons, has become embalmed in the substance and foundations of the everlasting hills; and the general law of Nature which bids all to eat and be eaten in their turn, is shown to have been co-extensive with animal existence on our globe; the Carnivora in each period of the world’s history fulfilling their destined office—to check excess in the progress of life, and maintain the balance of creation.” (I have that from Deborah Chadbury’s delightful book, The Dinosaur Hunters, on the early discoveries and the beginnings of a dinosaur bone industry, but it has been the most quoted passage right from the 1830s, coming up in penny magazines etc., and it’s a passage that also inspired a lot of the images from the time, see the Martin above, everlasting hills and carnage.)

The most impressive thing to the minds of people wasn’t the cannibalism, but the diverse species fighting each other, each with their own special anatomical outfit, their attack and defense weapons, their battle characteristics. Here is an illustration by Éduard Riou to Louis Figuier’s 1863 book The World Before The Deluge. You see an Ichthyosaurus and a Plesiosaurus going to battle. The outcome seems obvious, the Plesio doesn’t stand a chance. His enemy has a mouth full of sharp teeth for biting, and its own long neck seems the obvious point of attack. But still it’s going into the face-off with quite a swagger. I fear though it won’t help that Figuier suggests “the length and flexibility of its neck may have compensated for the want of strength in its jaws, and incapacity for swift motion through the water, by the suddenness and agility of the attack they enabled it to make on every animal fitted to become its prey.”

If Figuier’s suggestion makes you doubt the outcome of the fight, here’s a detail from de la Beche’s immensely popular drawing Ancient Dorset from 1830, which shows a large chunk of the antediluvian food chain in action. And right, the teeth are for biting, the neck is for being bitten. (Though we should maybe keep in mind that the survival of the fittest is not yet officially in place, so the matchings have no deeper meaning, rather these are aesthetic choices made by researchers and artists.)

Now we have two dinosaurs as battle creatures with their own special sets of attack and defense weapons that would help them on their sole reason for existence: survival. Their limited set of character traits actually seems to bring them closer to us, we can read their roles. Tell me you can look at the following painting from the same time as Max’s monkeys and feel no empathy for the subjects:

These are Dryptosauri by Charles Knight (who was to become a leading dinosaur painter, creating many images that are still used in books today) from 1897. Well, maybe the feeling I have is entirely subjective, maybe the dinos don’t lighten your heart as they do mine until it screams bloody masterpiece. And maybe the monkeys just look like monkeys because they in fact were, von Max lived with and studied the creatures in his home, while the dinosaurs of course are imagined and would automatically contain more human brainmatter than beings one could observe. But no, the dinos are also much more like individual characters, not like case studies. They look generations more modern than apes. If I admire them, it’s not because they’re cute like 15 years later Winsor McKay’s Gertie the Dinosaur. No, it’s because like in good comics action is psychology, and my empathy is triggered by the joie de vivre of this soon to be extinct creatures, and by their unconditional readiness to do heroic battle for survival in the face of extinction.

Albert Oehlen knows all that when it takes him just a few generous brushstrokes to outline this beach scene. Barbecue this is called (food culture again, here from 1981). The artist is completely aware how much the dinos bring to the table, and again it’s a family scene: parent and two kids talking survival over a plate of, what is it, whale fingers? (The artist himself by the way explains his choice of subject in looking for something as old as painting, since painting already was very old indeed, and then he struck on the dinosaurs.)

(Painting of course has so far survived.)

In their readiness for battle, and the knightlike armor, dinosaurs are fit for a place further down the evolution of comics than Disney or McKay’s Gertie. The world they act out more closely resembles the world of superheroes and villains. (You will notice that all reptiles introduced so far seem to have more individuality and intelligence and altogether more sociability than that stupid monster Godzilla, for example. There are other works, too, like the silent film Lost World from 1925 after Conan Doyle, where a family of stop-motion Agathaumas heroically fights an evil T-Rex. The later heartless monsters of Jurassic Park have nothing to do with that tradition, they just reflect a lack of human empathy, whereas the recent infamous tearjerker of a dinosaur scene in Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life has a much better understanding of the ultimate meaning the dinosaurs take on when they become extinct for us.)

Impartial science, in its attempt to read the use of anatomy from a few strewn bones, not just happens to stress the fighting characteristics of each species (a tendency the discipline is of course critically self-aware of), but it enables the dinos to do battle in proper comic style. See this arbitrary illustration I scanned from my kids’ dinosaur book: it shows the most famous example of making weapons out of potentially harmless bones, the Iguanodon’s thumb. (Remember the guys from the Martin painting that are actually plant eaters. They do not kill for food.) It’s a little extra panel titled “The thumb spike in action,” and depicts how the Iguanodon would use this to slash an opponent’s face as with a knife. (I look the fact up on Wikipedia and they say one author has even suggested the thumb was attached to a venom gland. Awesome!)

The backside to their forward-looking awesomeness is that dinosaurs in comics are strangely unsatisfying, since they have nothing new to offer.

This panel is from Age Of Reptiles by Ricardo Delgado, the first book Tribal Warfare from 1993. Okay, there is something new, the dinos now know martial arts moves. And they can do tail swipes like a Batman backhander, with ornamental droplets of spray blood sailing through aesthetic zero gravity. They act even tougher than they used to, that corresponds to the fact you do not know if Batman is a good guy anymore. But if you look at the earlier pictures above, they all already breathe the same spirit. Our understanding of them is still the same: dinosaurs are about survival, that’s their task in life, and since we know they will fail, it’s their symbolic achievement. Evolution has given them weapons that slay like no natural weapons before or since, but in the end they must succumb to the law of Nature like the supervillain to the hero. But they will give awesome battle. The farthest Delgado can go is show a carnivore kill for pleasure, spitting out his victim after the deadly bite. Scroll up again to Martin’s Country Of The Iguanodon and you’ll find even more contentment in deadly violence.

Evolution goes on. Next up is the Jurassic Strike Force, I think they’re space aliens creating amped-up bodies from T-Rex genes for themselves to become the ultimate fighting gang of the galaxies (I kid you not), but that’s only next year. Until then, happy holidays.

December 15, 2011

. . . and will of course continue to do so in a minute. Before we get to that, though, there are some art news from below: I’ve started contributing to Ed Howard’s comics blog, Thinking In Panels. I hope I will manage there what I had planned for this place also, to write quick posts about staring at things in awe and wonder. I have one or two longer crossover efforts in the works that you’ll get to read both there and here, but on the whole I will keep contributions separate, so if you’re interested you need to follow the other place, too.

Then, I have just ventured on a sort of project exploring certain aspects of sound in early film. It will take months before I will start writing on that, but for now you can go to this page, where I’ll collect audio digests I make of the movies in question. These will not so much focus on the quality of the sounds and ambiences themselves or be like little radio plays, rather I’m interested in the narrative possibilities of sound events, themes underlying the dialogue, andsoforth. I’m cutting them down for listening pleasure, and if you want you can download. As I write, only the first one is up, White Zombie from 1932.

The panel above is from the wonderful Alexander Ross (no not that one), one of the crossover posts I’m threatening you with.

November 28, 2011

An unseen painting of the future

I’ve written 14 entries on paintings for Taschen’s new modern art primer. If you know me from this here blog, you might hardly recognize me, since they are proper introductions that go by all the rules and suffer from a lack of space, but I’m reasonably proud of them and I’ve tried to give every single one an original morsel of research or at least an unusual glance on things. Of course I can’t very well reprint anything here, but I’m listing the works in the comments, and if anybody for some strange reason should be interested in my take on one of those, drop me a line. Anyway, as a big hello to any reader arriving at this blog after checking out who wrote what in the book, here’s an extra for you, a piece of research that got lost when Julian Schnabel paintings were switched during the writing.

I was happy to get a chance to explore Schnabel more deeply, first because it finally made me go and rent The Diving Bell And The Butterfly, which of course is a marvelous movie against the overwhelming odds of both premise and style—just how crappy this should have been becomes clear in that screamingly bad 15 minutes from where that dreadful U2 song kicks in and turns a flashback into a corny commercial against narrative, fate, love or generally emotion . . . where was I? The second reason I wanted to work on Schnabel was because it allowed me to spend most of my fee on that marvelous sort-of-autobiography of his, CVJ: Nicknames Of Maitre Ds And Other Excerpts From Life, which I’d seen before and had wanted to own and read. And indeed it is now in my top three of books by artists, along with Christopher Wool’s Cats In Bag Bags In River and any novel by Félix Valloton. The book is great for the way Schnabel uses images of his work as sort of a counterpoint to the text, telling their own story, setting their own punchlines, teasing the author’s thoughts on art with their own part-irrelevance, used freely in complete disregard to dimensional proportions or other stuff you would usually not go against in an art book. Maybe more surprising is how good the writing actually is. Here’s an artist unashamedly full of himself, but humble before the art, his own and that of others, always wondering what it is that makes a painting great, that small detail that maybe doesn’t even work which makes the whole come alive. Yes, it’s all so full of life, with maybe the most vivid marginal artistic observations outside of George Moore.

I had a plate painting to discuss, a portrait of Ross Bleckner from 1985. Here’s how Schnabel describes how he hit on the plate paintings (right beside the image of a plate painting of Jesus on the cross): “I had had a funny idea that I could make a painting the size of the closet in my hotel room in Barcelona and that I could cover it with broken plates. A rendering of the shadows of the plates on the closet seemed futile. I couldn’t draw it so I thought it would be a good painting. Maybe the image of an unknown painting freed me to make a mosaic. My interest, unlike Gaudi’s, was not in the patterning or the design of the glazed tiles, it was in the reflective property of white plates to disturb the picture plane. The disparity between the reflectiveness of the plates and the paint were in disagreement with each other and the concept of mosaic, because they fractured its homogeneity. To be honest, I didn’t know what I was interested in,” but he continues to fabricate the beginnings of academic interpretations of this yet unrealized way of working.

Finally in the studio: “I laid one armature on the floor and started placing plates around. I started breaking them with a hammer. The absurdity of this act spurred me on. I didn’t know what kind of glue to use; I used tile grout, tile adhesive, I mixed joint compound with Rhoplex to make my own binding glue. I went to a dental-supply house and bought dental plaster for the surface, thinking it would be durable. The plaster came in beigish-pink and Naples yellow. Both colors looked like rotten gums . . . Before going to bed, at five in the morning, I stood the painting up. I knew it was too soon but I did it anyway. I was beat. I had glue on my hands and was too tired to wash it off. Lying in the dark I heard a little clink. You know when you’re driving your car and you hear a ping and you hope it’s nothing serious and then your engine falls out? I heard a big crash. I figured what was left on the painting when I woke up was what it would look like. I fell asleep to the rain of plates.” Of course one can feel he’s putting on a yarn, but it fits the paintings very well—and he rightly concludes this passage: “I had something in my studio, I thought it was alive.”

There is also a beautifully appreciative passage on the art of Ross Bleckner, the subject of my painting, in the book. And in it there is one detail that struck me, a sort of coincidence that somehow does leave a nagging feeling of not being quite coincidental, at least not if you’re fresh from watching The Diving Bell And The Butterfly. The middle paragraph goes like this: “Ross’s interest is in the unfolding on the inside, from one painting to the next. The real battle isn’t trying to make a finished product, whose product is only its own objectness or an attempt to please the art audience; the battle is to use a painting to locate some unseen painting in the future.”

Now the background of Schnabel’s portrait quotes paintings Bleckner was making at the time, in the mid-1980s, lights hovering in front of a dark ground. The broken plates, though, not only age the face of the artist somewhat prematurely, but also seem to presage certain more circular, cell-like forms in Bleckner’s work. Now look at this here photo of the man and especially his art in his Sagaponack studio, which he moved into in the early 1990s. In retrospect, he’s making true the words his friend had published in 1987, who, as we can see, herewith provably at least once has literally won that which he has called the real battle: the battle of using a painting to locate some unseen painting in the future.

October 29, 2011

Coming to

It’s probably safe to say that during his invention of acousmatics Pierre Schaeffer did not listen to a Graham Lambkin record.

I’m reading up Schaeffer because I’m listening to Softly Softly Copy Copy, and there’s the sound of breakers crashing in the background, while upfront somebody’s stepping through the snow, very deliberately crunching each grain of snowcrust because the sound is so good, and over that enters an orchestra of meadowlarks (I don’t know birdsong, that just seems an appropriate bird name here) from up in the wings . . . and I start to feel queasy, and I swear it’s not because I would imagine myself to be in those incongruous places all at once, as Schaeffer keeps insinuating. Rather, my reaction is to an illicit violation of craft, an undisciplined buttering-up of layers of field recordings.

Schaeffer sees sound as an object removed from the circumstance of its production. When we listen, we are only to hear a sound, not the thing or the person or the circumstance that made it. His perspective is not so much analytically minded, but rather that of the creative artist who feels the need to push sound toward greater abstraction. So he bases his theory on an assumption that sounds would implicate their source, and he tries to severe that connection, while I, more of an art-historical bent, am not primarily interested in how a sound came to be, but more in what it references. This may still lead to the same questions, it is just a switch in perspective. Obviously I at once start wondering if the noises referencing wind, which permeate the record, are actually field-recorded through an unshielded microphone, or if they’re a distorted undecipherable something else. The recording perspective is important in Lambkin’s work, the fact of the recording stands between us and the sound, the recordist acts as the unreliable narrator, so explicit that Lambkin will occasionally do dreaded Beavis and Butthead impersonations (that’s not my comparison, but standard terminology) over the recordings—and I cannot remotely imagine the frame of mind necessary to listen to these kind of skits. I guess as blank comments on aural proceedings they make sense (though I’m not sure if they’re not taking the piss out of the dutiful listener, but anyway, you can safely listen to Softly Softly, no grunts and mumbles here).

Sound objects, that is what Schaeffer calls the sounds he has abstracted from their source and that are now realized in recordings. It’s a wonderful word, and a concept that helps listening to this music, where sound objects in time are presented and rearranged; and sometimes they fall in place harmonically, and sometimes our unreliable narrator barely keeps them together with a kind of sloppy determination, because this is a music that also speaks of accidents: rough-hewn loops and unexpected dropouts.

As the music switches between field recordings, instruments, and more unidentifiable noises, I start categorizing figurative sound objects (those that reference nature), then non-objective (the noises) and maybe representational ones (the instruments). This sort of gives me a framework where my curiosity about the sounds will not get in the way of listening to the music. I still lack the right attitude to keep the ears uncluttered . . . until I notice that I sort of listen to the entry of each sound as if I were just coming to . . . from a darkness, not knowing where I was, and the sounds were the only sensory input available, and I had to read them if I wanted to make sense again. These amplified details of sound might carry messages to tell me what I needed to know, if only I could fit the sound objects into a larger narrative.

I found this excerpt on youtube, you may press play now.

There’s a storm out there, compressed into an old movie soundtrack mood, and for a moment it seems as if a deep voice wanted to escape from its fold, but the storm transmission wins over, sometimes emulating feedback frequencies, soon calming a little. Dropping out, then starting anew as if a sample had come to an end without the performer noticing and were hastily triggered again to paste over the silence. The storm rises once more and then really dies down, and when after a pause it begins again, cued in by some crackle, this time I’m sure it’s the same sample, because the same deep voice seems to want to escape from the whine right at the beginning. Immediately the birds come in, solo birds that I’m sure are field recordings, but the accompanying flock, flying formations, seem to break into pure noise when they fly too near, so maybe I just imagine they’re birds because I expect them to be by association. This theme of sounds appearing to be figurative objects maybe only in context, but turning abstract when cranked up to more menacing foreground volume, stays throughout the record. Metal clangs mark time, later chimes are added, more obviously musical objects that act like a background score to the sound protagonists. Then there are steps in the snow, leftovers from another part of the story, again birds swelling into white noise (surely this also is a reference to the trautonium avians in the Hitchcock movie, wild turns of badly superimposed patterns of flocks of birds flitting across the aural landscapes). More wind, this time imitating a simulation of itself on a flute . . . Then creature noises . . .

There might be a way to listen to this and not ask what it is. But what for? The changes in the shapes of the sound objects are so deliberate, and as mentioned there are the sounds that resemble natural sources by association which then dissolve into staged scenes recorded in the studio (so the percentage of field recordings is probably much lower than I would think). I’ve said it somewhere before that the idea of music as the most abstract art (the condition of which all other arts aspire to) seems strange to me, and I guess that idea only could work as long as you the psychology of a performance as completely outside the piece itself (which I think makes no sense, see my earlier post on Marina Abramovic) . . . Take the classic jazz situation, sax steps up to the microphone: maybe a character known to you from other recordings, with a clear-cut set of musical attributes, lean or heavy, cool or fiery, a musical persona often augmented through choice biographical anecdotes. That character now handles the narrative across the changes for a chorus or two, each note an anecdote that tells of the past and other players, but keeps possibilities open. While the frame of the story is sort of prescribed (well, at latest on the second listen to a recording), there is always the distinct possibility of failure, of not living up to the powers the player is documented proving at other times, of lacking depth of character. The music will be experienced blow by blow, and can be read as a series of decisions (one can review a 1940s small group session in the manner of teamsports aftertalk), but what I take from it and remember is a deeper impression of that fictional character, the player.

Less clear-cut, but similar, a character is built when I listen to Softly Softly, most obviously through the decision-making process whose traces have not been obliterated but rather are presented proudly. A perceived personality, an opponent on the other side of the speakers, who loves accident, the degradation of sound, and grafting together the surf, the snow, the birds, creating a hybrid monster. A comic book Shakespearean cutting up the unity of place and time.

And Pierre still looks unhappy because this music is just too damn concrete.

October 23, 2011

Over a hundred slaps

He Who Gets Slapped from 1924 is a somewhat lackluster movie, given what one would expect from the combined mad energies of director Victor Sjöström (watch The Phantom Carriage instead) and actor Lon Chaney (watch The Penalty instead). Apart from some refreshing moments, such as the main character’s open delight at the bloody carnage committed by a lion he has let loose (for reasons that would only disappoint you, so better watch West Of Zanzibar instead), it’s stale waters, with a storyline straight out of an impotent teenage revenge fantasy (as in: they’re gonna be sorry once I’m dead), and the clichéd circus setting also doesn’t help (watch The Unknown instead). Still, the movie is interesting for the brilliant setpiece it revolves around, a circus performance that deserves a reading separate from the machinations that it motors.

Chaney plays a scientist who has made a discovery which will bring him fame and fortune. Unfortunately his presentation at the academy is hijacked by his baron benefactor, who claims the discovery as his own and immediately proceeds to move in with the scientist’s sweetheart. The man barely survives this both emotional and professional shock, and lives on only “to laugh at life.” . . . Years later we meet him in the circus ring, where he is realizing his little scheme for maximum laughter and abjection: “The brilliant scientist had, with a supreme gesture of contempt, made himself a common clown,” a title card informs us. He has designed a lavish production number with tons of allegorical props carried around, which circles around HIM, the clown, receiving as many slaps from his entorage as he possibly can: HE will make commonplace pronouncements about the world being round or flat and receive immediate punishment. As the man is gang-slapped and carried around in mock burial procession, the audience fall over themselves in hysterical laughter. There is a simple correlation between number of slaps received and audience gratification: “Over a hundred slaps last night, HE—you lucky fellow! Soon you’ll be getting famous,” his colleagues cheer him backstage.

There is a subversive element in this a priori assumption that schadenfreude will give the viewer such immediate pleasure:

Well it isn’t true, since I don’t laugh, I protest, but of I course know a whole industry of physical comedy was then thriving on the automatized feelgood factor of schadenfreude. So other people laughed, and they still do. It’s a nice touch that the title card is putting the physical slap last, to insinuate that when you have laughed at somebody slipping on a banana peel, you will of course have laughed at somebody taking a spiritual beating. The performance builds on cultural assumptions that are true even if you don’t recognize yourself in their generalized features. You are made to take responsibility for why the others laugh.

The clown takes each beating with glee, because every slap raises even more violent laughter and thus makes the performance worthier, as if being slapped were somehow a personal achievement, as if the quality of performance and the feedback of an audience under the artist’s control would only in turn provoke the slaps from extras who have been hired to perform that task. Again, shifting responsibilities toward an audience that is given no choice, and stressing the involuntarily participatory nature of this work.

The most famous slapfest in art history is of course the performance Light/Dark by Marina Abramovic and Ulay from 1977. The score is simple, it reads: “In a given space. We kneel, face to face. Our faces are lit by two strong lamps. Alternately, we slap each other’s face until one of us stops.”

In the beginning, the two are almost like a slow kinetic sculpture. Arms are stretched, their weight is made visible, hands are placed on cheeks with great deliberation. Volume in space, skin over bone, movement against mass. There seems no great psychology involved—here are merely two performance artists taking their craft seriously. Soon the slapping becomes automatic, and the need for development arises, for a sort of story arc. Thus the slapping accelerates. Abramovic sets the pace, she hits quickly, impatiently, to get each slap over with, she doesn’t really hit for effect. Ulay keeps up the deliberation, giving his slaps a little twist from the wrist. He’s obviously the more powerful, the one more into the act. But also, he anticipates each slap he receives, screwing his face up harder and harder in anticipation. He is closer to play-acting, or maybe one could compare him to a guitar soloist making discrete faces. 

They speed up. Once they’re over a hundred slaps each, this looks like serious work. While the determination doesn’t flag, the steadily but slowly accelerating tempo drags a bit storywise, though. There is no place this can go really. Except of course if real emotion were involved, and they’d start hating each other, or pretending to. But they are too damn professional for that. The slaps get faster and harder, though the arms must ache by now, still the actors/actionists stay neutral. Cheeks are deformed and lazily wobble back into shape. Ulay makes ever sillier faces. Then he swings, and Abramovic feints, moving her head back, and that’s it. The merest hint of a disappointed expectation of post-coital relief.

There is a traditional reading to this, how it is about violence, preferably domestic violence. The male indeed does appear dominant, his slaps have a power that forbid true equality of the sexes. If Abramovic’s reactions wouldn’t be so short-tempered, if she’d put more thought into strategy, things might look better for womanhood—as it is, the man gets way more slapping time. I, the viewer, support all of this, I am again a responsible bystander. And I’m not just part of the narrative, like in the Chaney film, instead my pretenses to being an art connoisseur endorse these acts of violence (and that’s not mere theory, remember the performance where audience members had to save Abramovic from suffocating after she had fainted inside a circle of fire).

Still, since everything remains in control, I can gauge my own emotional reactions as if under laboratory conditions in real time: does it hurt me more when the woman is slapped, why is that, how come it seems 
wrong both when I feel for the woman and when I don’t?

I would want to see Ulay cry . . .

I cannot work up any emotional involvement, though, these are just reactions my mind tells me I’m supposed to have. Because what I see is still only two professionals who are damn good at doing their work. I see two athletes trying to overcome their physical limitations for the best possible performance. On top of that, their show has a solid theme. Their images translate immediately and with force. The audience reaction is as hardwired as the laughter in He Who Gets Slapped. Only, where the film had the fictional audience on the screen react as a postulate of my own behavior, and I was free to react against that, Abramovic and Ulay leave me no freedom except to quit reading their performance figuratively and instead view the abstract effort.

And then she dodges a hit, and, though after 20 minutes as a watcher you’re somewhat blunted, you still think: that’s it? No more? The average boxer takes much more. Lon Chaney took much more, he’d been stabbed and stood up dying to take another slap. That was the limit? Pussies.

If this were not my blog but I was paid for 500 proper words, then I’d have to give you the whole iconographical works about domestic violence and such. Funnily, though, I suspect I’d have the artist’s support in not believing the iconographic implications of this piece. The catalog for Abramovic’s 2010 MoMA retrospective comes with a CD that contains her commentary track to the catalog, page by page (a brilliant idea which unfortunately lacks in the execution, since her voice mostly repeats well-chewed over statements to the works illustrated). Her comment on Light/Dark was still a surprise to me, the shortest of all, a mere ten seconds: “Light/Dark piece was really about the sound. It’s about how to use the body as a sound instrument.”

Now if one took that seriously, this would be the most crappy piece of sound art ever. Instead I take it as a permission not to believe in the psychological implications that this performance's iconography seems to suggest.

September 13, 2011

The Placeholders

“I wonder,” thought the Hedgehog, “if the horse lies down to sleep, will it choke in the fog?” And slowly he began to make his way downhill to get into the fog and see for himself what it was like inside there. “Oh, look! I can’t see my paw!” S. Kozlov

Look here are human beings too

Let us begin at the beginning, in the primordial stew, if you will. A sauce made from fresh tomato, zucchini, and canned tuna fish, cooked by the artist himself in 1998. It struck me then that while this was his first painting which had immediately to do with our reality, it wasn’t a simple still life, wasn’t about a hard stare at what’s in front of you. Instead I called it an icon as it guarded over what mattered in our lives: this sauce over spaghetti independently served as our staple food all through our student days. It must have been a spiritual thing, since it didn’t even taste good, none of us ever found out how to prepare it correctly, so the tuna tended to take on an awful wet cardboard texture. Still we cooked that sauce, again and again. The painting now sits on my bookshelf and stares me hard in the back of the neck as I write this.

And here we should be reasonably close to the real beginning in art-historical terms. It’s a phalanx of small paintings which contain a lot of the formal explorations to follow while still being grounded in a small patch of home turf. These are Stadien from 2001 in an early playful hanging. The title translates as either arenas or as stages in a development. And truly these pieces contain several stages, most apparent a balancing of the representational versus the abstract that very systematically tackles right at the outset of Tim Eitel’s oeuvre a fundamental problem every painter has to find a stance on. The choice of a sports court feels obvious for that task, since it has straight and regularly curved lines painted on it—a utilitarian drawing from real life that can be balanced into a satisfying composition.

Even in paintings that might seem to exist for purely formal reasons, we should at least take the time and check the subject for emotional content. So suppose these were sports courts in the life of the young artist, who wouldn’t take to ball games naturally. Out on the court, in his attempt to avert the gaze from active play so that his teammates would not pass him the ball, his eye would necessarily hit on these angles . . .

I ask him if there’s anything to that and he says no.

In one of the paintings, there is a fashion-conscious woman standing with her gaze directed toward the left edge, and another canvas sees a female figure partly outside the frame. The shadows they cast on the scene make it clear that they’re standing in front of a landscape painting within a painting. People gazing at paintings or at nature as if it were a painting, viewers striking poses as role models or model recipients, this kind of double play, with or without a single remove, was to become central over the next work period . . . but the two paintings also reach out toward the present work: a boy in a fog bank, throwing a shadow unto the thick soup surrounding him, as if it were a picture he was considering to enter.

I have what feels like a distinct recollection of staying in the artist’s studio at the old Leipzig cotton mill for a visit. I’m sure it’s a composite memory, patched together from different situations, still it’ll have to do: waking up very early as the light hit unrestrained through the huge windows of the old redbrick, I was lying on a mattress on the gray concrete floor—a smooth, unreal gray, since the artist had just painted over the traces of earlier occupants with a fresh coat of color. Somebody was up already practicing cello down the hall, sounding like a hangover from the relentless pounding of the downstairs club called Tangofabrik through most of the night. I looked up at a painting on the wall hit by yellow sunlight, there was the half figure of a young woman in profile, with her gaze directed toward the left edge of the canvas, and where as a backdrop I remembered there used to be sky and a landscape with trees and stuff when I’d last seen it yesterday, there now was something like a smooth concrete wall with a huge round window, inscribing the figure in a near perfect circle, and somehow the thought bothered me of the landscape buried beneath the clean outlines as I tried to go to sleep again.

Now these were the two work groups at the heart of the oeuvre until the mid-decade: people viewing art within gallery spaces, inscribed into the dynamic of modernist architecture, or people out in recreational areas, as close to nature as one would get on a daytrip from urban civilization.

The museum interiors felt absolutely spot-on, because it made immediate sense for the artist to explore the uses his paintings would serve at that early point in his career. So yes of course these would become commodity objects for the white cube (within that strangely apart system, the art world, that strangely allows an artist to do great work both for and against it), and they would become respectable carriers of cultural tropes hanging on museum walls. Both his own paintings or classics from Mondrian to Murakami made their cameos, and the painted viewers measuring up to them brought their own self-conscious pose into the painted exhibition space, and the resulting confrontation made both parties look good. The spaces could become quite close, though, the paintings quite dark, especially when there were no discernible artworks to fix the gaze and the museum architecture became a tailor-made enclosement of the pictured viewer frozen in the futile defense of a doubtful gesture.

 The full impact of these paintings could of course only be experienced in an actual exhibition situation, when the real-life viewer was all but forced to relate to the posturing on view. Here are two snapshots I took at the solo exhibition in Backnang in 2005. The first reaction you see is imitation (the woman mimicking the pose in the painting was by the way not talking about the art, while she drew the sleeves halfway over her hands instinctively feeling cold for the bathing figure behind her).

The second photo shows the self-consciousnesses of a whole catalog of viewers side by side, trying to emulate the reflective pose of the protagonist on the picture itself. Here the classic back figure, which we know so well especially from romantic paintings—and Caspar David Friedrich has often been cited as a main influence on the artist—is extended into the room by the viewer, of course referencing the pretty sorry tradition of installation photographs that show the work with a viewer in front of it to gain a sense of proportion and not make the artwork look quite so lonely.

Of course I do not know how a contemporary viewer would really have felt facing the back of a figure in a Caspar David Friedrich painting; today at least these have aged less well than the landscape in front of them. Maybe it’s just the clothing, but these back figures are hard to identify with, instead I’d rather elbow them out of the way because they stand between myself and the (sublime) subject. I may be aware that the figure does the same thing as me, staring at nature in more or less wonderment, but the distance in time and fashion has become so great that it doesn’t make me empathetically self-aware.

The fact that I find it much easier to identify with Tim Eitel’s paintings, no matter if they take place in nature or a museum, may be because they depict people just like me. But then it also may be that they in return identify with me more closely. You will probably know Friedrich’s Wanderer Above The Sea Of Fog, an arrogant fop standing on a boulder looking down on ridges drowned in clouds, all lofty aspirations, and if you want to read uncertainty of fate into that master figure (as is usually done), you have to paint both man and nature as two superheroic forces holding each other in deadlock.

Against that, for the kid standing facing the fogbank we’ve seen above, it is composure in the face of the unknown that is his own little victory. “Oh, look! I can’t see my paw!”

So when we went out into the countryside, as far as daytrip would take us, we went there to view nature as if it were art. So estranged were we that we managed to consume what we were supposed to be part of in the first place, be it art, or nature. We were not scrambling about as the figures in Friedrich’s Rügen, that satire on mass tourism, but kept our distance, not out of awe, more out of an awkward sense that the pose would not resonate as in more accustomed surroundings.

Landscape is a huge topic, and a painter will have to compete against, say, both a Ruysdael, who portrayed the gnarly souls of trees, and a Gainsborough, who painted deliciously feathery brushes straight out of landscape gardening. Today, the backdrop has receded even farther. The woman in Abend from 2003, after she has overstepped the sand trail that marks the visual borderline between foreground and distance, will still remain a tourist in her own painting. While the artist takes us as far as we’re willing to go, there can be no beyond within that line of questioning.

It’s a privilege of close familiarity with an artist that you get to root for them and feel emotionally involved in every step of their development. You start guessing what’s up next, and will they hit the exact point when they need to come up with something new, or will they have to tread water until a pathbreaking idea finally materializes. Will the next exhibition reveal a luminous masterpiece, or will you have to apply your utmost connoisseurship to dig up the hidden qualities within the art to save face in front of anyone who knows that you somehow care.

When the artist went to the U.S. in 2005, first to L.A., then New York, I of course had placed my bets on how L.A.’s sunny, car-driven culture and New York’s picturebook metropolism must surely affect the painting (I’ve never been to these places, so I have to operate on suchlike clichés, I’m afraid). Just see these photos the artist as a young man took on a tourist trip to New York: the city looked like film noir and early Jarmusch alright.

In retrospect I notice that I’ve constructed a very pat narrative, where everything fits a little too well together, grounded just firmly enough in something resembling reality that I can’t help doing it. The storyline runs like this: as soon as the artist arrived at the West Coast, his paintings became all dark gray and muddy, like he was overcompensating beach life through some extra heavy interior sunglasses.

And when the artist settled in New York in 2006 (here a view from his studio window that, mostly due to the bridge, meets all my expectancies for a stylish locale there), it felt like his subject matter would change completely. He produced some large canvases that leant themselves to metaphor, showing detachments of people in environments whose level of abstraction seemed potentially hostile. And then there were pictures almost as blunt in topic as they were shadowy in treatment, of homeless people or still lifes of their belongings on shopping carts, all in shades of gray so dull they sucked the light out of any exhibition space.

When I see Rauch from 2006, my first reaction is to fondly remember how I read Jules Verne as a child. Verne’s calculated and rather pedantic sense of wonder taught me how to build something concrete out of the unruly figments of imagination. Even if that concrete thing might not be as sublime as originally projected, at least it now existed. Here, it’s the writer’s Journey to the Center of the Earth that the figures seem to fit into, when they’re traveling through cathedral-like caves made of thick smoke over a flat ground. Shrunk and sent on a fantastic voyage into their inner selves. These are just associations that I have, and not intended references on the artist’s part, but anyway, it is this kind of narrative space that opens up—running deeper than the media imagery of explosions and other catastrophes that you might associate with the smoke formations—when you try to decipher the gray ground in the paintings of this period. The gray isolates the anecdotal evidence appearing within, framing it, and attributing it special import. As we’ve seen, earlier figures tended to be isolated by abstract lines and planes that could have happened in real-life spaces, which meant a sort of home to them. But here in the smoke, there is nothing outside, all is concentration along the one sightline, a single, possibly inward view.

As these figures do not have an aestheticized arrangement of lines and planes to call a home, and they do not find themselves anchored within the socializing context of a clever composition, they instead become the sole focal points of their paintings, worlds unto themselves, their own centers of gravity, attracting discarded movable property. Their energy, though, makes that the pictures are not completely dark, there is some warmth, even tenderness.

It all happens in the safety of the studio (now set up in Paris), a laboratory for flattening the world ideally in a way that seems to add an extra dimension. So could this be an exploitation art, in the same way that painters have used the graphic violence of Christian mythology or the sensual thrill of perfumed exoticism? I’d say no, since the art will not use the individual subject as material for metaphor, or as an ornament in formalism, but instead it is an art about that individual, in and out of the picture.

You must believe in painting for this. You must believe in some sort of transfiguration taking place on the canvas. What that transfiguration might be, apart from the work involved and the skill and focus, is not easy to define. A simple camping bed can become pregnant with meaning when it is painted. Is that too easy an achievement? The outcome indeed depends on the layers of meaning hidden in the object itself (as it does in object art based on the readymade).

The most loaded subject of course is the human figure, but it also can be the most meaningless if it only suggests a vague “us” as a species. Then again, even when we can’t sufficiently read the figure’s alignments or its individuality, the surroundings might still offer it up as a placeholder for our own sensibilities. That is what most of Tim Eitel’s larger gray paintings do. The small canvases, on the other hand, often get quite close to the subject, sometimes approaching the anecdotal in the process, projecting somebody to identify with. Of course identification in art is different from the narrative media, like film: there are no role models, a painting will mostly offer a gesture or expression that has immediacy and a surprising similarity to whatever the viewer will bring to the picture with a desire for it to be completed. The process is subjective and mood-dependent, yet it has to do with truthfulness of depiction.

Or maybe the viewer identifies through the brushwork. Think of Adriaen Brouwer, who dealt in painting country yokels in pub fights for the urban dweller to feel superior to. As soon as his simple subjects take a breath, he can’t help lending them a sense of dignity that seems to almost unavoidably come with him being so fine a painter. I still do not feel very close to his people, again, like with Friedrich, I cannot bridge the centuries, and his original customers would presumably have felt a similar distance. But as we slowly begin to make our way into the painting and see for ourselves what it has to offer, the truth of it becomes delightfully clear, and we make connection. “Look here are human beings too.”

(This post is a slight edit of my essay for the catalog to Tim’s current exhibition at Hakgojae gallery in Seoul. No colors today, since that was our original plan for the references, large spreads in glorious black and white.)