I recently visited The Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Their permanent collection is well worth the visit, but I was lucky enough to see a pair of exhibitions: Man Ray — Human Equations: A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare and Hiroshi Sugimoto’s Conceptual Forms and Mathematical Models.
The centerpieces of Human Equations, Ray’s series of paintings Shakespearean Equations, are simple compositions, but they resist attempts to enter them. The paintings’ titles push back, resurrecting Shakespeare’s ghost in the titles of his plays without grounding us in the plays. They toy with the question of the authorship of the plays, linking to Modernist tomes that slowly reveal layered meanings in the lengthy end notes, but the doors they seem to reveal remain locked. This feeling is compounded by the incomprehensibility of the objects depicted in the paintings — undulating, vaguely organic — a referentless surrealism. These veils over the paintings fall away, however, in the context of the objects and photographs throughout the exhibition.
The mysterious objects in the paintings are three-dimensional renderings of mathematical equations – Real Part of the Function w=e ; Imaginary and Real Part of the Derivative of the Weierstrass Elliptic Function; Algebraic Surface of Degree 4.The objects were first photographed by Ray at the Institut Henri Poincaré years before he made the paintings. The objects and photographs of those objects bring the exhibition to life. I could not take my eyes from the vitrines filled with the models, absorbed in the physicality and human touch of these immaterial mathematical concepts made tangible. The models demonstrate that the paintings are the culmination of a long process of many individuals engaging with these mathematical concepts over years, places, and materials. The transformation from concept to object to photograph to painting exemplifies a deep engagement with the many manifestations of mathematics — the idea, the manifestation, the lived experience. The multiple individuals considering, crafting, photographing, and painting these objects layer a human experience onto these distant, complex concepts. Ray’s paintings are one iteration, one exploration of what it means to live with these ideas.
Sugimoto’s spare exhibition is stunning in its starkness and simple beauty. He presents photographs of models similar to those in Ray’s paintings and machined aluminum sculptures of computer-modeled mathematical concepts. His prints magnify the human touch and imperfections of the handmade models. The sculptures are perfect beyond human observation. If Ray’s paintings exemplify a layering of meaning iteratively accrued over time, Sugimoto’s sculptures embrace a further step beyond the human into a technological age in which humans can produce objects that surpass our understandings of perfection. However alien they may seem, Ray’s paintings are decidedly human; they attempt to make sense of the worlds we cannot see. Sugimoto simultaneously memorializes the human and enshrines an ideal which we will never be able to perceive.
In contrast to the cerebral, contemplative temporary exhibitions, Wolfgang Laib’s Wax Room: Wohin bist Du gegangen – wohin gehst Du? (Where have you gone — where are you going?), permanently installed in The Phillips Collection, surrounds and envelopes you. The small room is enclosed by walls and ceiling completely covered in beeswax, illuminated by a single bare bulb. The scent is overpowering, as you approach and enter the small room. It saturates your nose, immediately reminding you how little your nose is purposefully stimulated in this context.
The smell says that we enter the realm of bees, but we have again entered the realm of humans. The visual texture of the walls does not resemble bee hives or at least what we think of as the perfection of bees’ work — stacked hexagons and danced communications. The room does not evoke the ideals of community and industry of Langstroth hives that dot the sides of farm roads or the skeps on Utah’s highway signs. The mottled, fleshy walls are imperfect, fragile, human. The clinging weight and scent of the walls is palpable, grounding us in the human experience of flightlessness, as it reminds us of the manifold power of its winged pollinator originators. We do not enter the world of bees, as we enter Wax Room. It does not help us understand them and everything they do for us. It lays bare the folly and destruction of mankind as we continue to believe we can control and manage the abilities of billions of lives without consequence.
Laib reminds me that it is hot and humid in our world; he grounds me in the messy, complicated days I wake up to and fall asleep in. My lived reality cannot exist solely within the frigid, perfect world of mathematics and its representations. I need tools and experience and compassion that can move beyond perfection to encompass my human failings. I leave those rarefied worlds behind, but they pollinate my mind. I await its fruit.
In the beginning of June, Moyra Davey premiered her most recent video Notes On Blue for the Walker Art Center’s 2015 Walker Moving Image Commissions. (The video is available for public viewing for a limited time at: http://www.walkerart.org/channel/2015/moyra-davey-notes-on-blue). Notes On Blue takes as its starting point Derek Jarman’s final 1993 film Blue. Visually, Blue is one 79 minute shot of Yves Klein’s International Blue, a resemblance of Jarman’s deteriorated eyesight. The voices of Nigel Terry, Tilda Swinton, and John Quentin, as well as Derek Jarman himself, compose an autobiographical oral narration of memory and daily experience alongside the ever-present color.
Notes On Blue continues Davey’s three decades-long production of discursive videos, essays, and more recently, postage-stamped photographs. Woven from multiple voices within a shared conversation of blindness, blueness, and confession, in the video Moyra repeats her pre-recorded script in voiceover as she listens to her own words in playback via an earpiece.
Notes On Blue. 2015. Video. Courtesy of Moyra Davey and The Walker Art Center.
Erin: The first segment in your video Notes On Blue features your early one minute 16 mm film Blue Ruin from ten years ago. Do you often save footage for reuse in the future?
Moyra: I realized when I started thinking about this commission, that Blue Ruin was germane to the new film. I often cannibalize older footage from my entries in the One Minute Film Festival that Jason Simon and I ran for ten years. I also do shoot stuff and just put it in a folder and keep it in mind.
Erin: Like a video diary.
Moyra: Kind of, yeah.
Erin: You mentioned during Notes On Blue that you were listening to youtube interviews with Sylvia Plath. Has access to internet sources changed the kind of research that you do? Would you have sought out that kind of interview in a library twenty years ago?
Moyra: Absolutely, the internet completely changed how I work. While writing “Notes On Photography & Accident” in 2006, I really started to use the internet. It’s such a handy tool. You get an idea, and you think “Oh, this is pertinent,” and you Google it, and you realize, yeah, it is, it was the same year as another thing — you fabricate a connection, and start to weave things together. It’s absolutely facilitated and enhanced the process of writing.
Erin: Does the element of surprise change? Before the internet, a surprising piece of information I would find in reading struck me much more than a surprise I might find now through the internet.
Moyra: Maybe it feels like it hits you deeper. Perhaps it feels more authentic, because you’re reading it in a published book…
Erin: Or harder to have found, like a secret –
Moyra: Exactly. It’s true. It definitely feels much more like a personal discovery — a find — than something on the internet that millions of people can easily access as well. On the other hand, it’s all about the idiosyncratic construction you make as a writer, so that even though the facts are there for all to ingest, it comes down to one’s interpretation, the particular slant you put on the material.
Erin: When The Walker Art Center commissioned you to make a video in response to Derek Jarman, you chose Jarman’s Blue, the Jarman film that is textually the closest to a book. Blue is a 79 minute voiceover atop a blue screen. This form of reading – listening to Jarman’s words – prompted your own written narrative. Your narrative is then read aloud, forming a loop of reading and writing. Similarly, your photographs pass hands through the mail, stamped and received by acquaintances before being considered works of art. Could you imagine making art outside of this system of passing hands?
Moyra: Passing hands, how do you mean?
Erin: Within your videos and essays especially, you are gathering people, staging a conversation between people who may not have met each other in their own lifetimes. You are passing information between historical figures, so that this transaction of information seems as important as the information itself.
Moyra: It’s about forging contacts between unlikely participants, like Fassbinder and PJ Harvey, or Borges and Derek Jarman. I get a lot of pleasure out of connecting disparate voices. It’s very gratifying when I read something by Fassbinder about story telling, and then come across a comment by PJ Harvey, and realize she’s saying almost the same thing in a slightly different way. Both of their comments, to the effect that ‘the more you put yourself into the story, the more that story will concern others as well,’ resonate with the way I feel about auto-fiction and boundaries. How much information can you divulge? What’s appropriate? What’s going over the edge? I’m fascinated by that line.
Erin: Derek Jarman’s physical limitation of blindness becomes the strong editorial voice in Blue. The narrative follows rumination on the color blue because blue is the only color visible to Jarman. Is there something to be said for a chance occurrence becoming the editing force in a piece of art, such as a response to a color?
Notes On Blue. 2015. Video. Courtesy of Moyra Davey and the Walker Art Center.
Moyra: When you’re limited, you come up with solutions you’d never have thought of. Limitation and chance can be really productive, giving you ideas born of processes that would not have occurred otherwise. It’s pretty exhilarating when that happens.
Erin: Not being able to anticipate every step.
Moyra: Yes, exactly. It’s the lifeblood of good art.
Erin: But it’s hard to stage that situation.
Moyra: You can’t stage it. It’s working with what gets dropped in your lap.
Erin: In Blue, do you think voiceover becomes equated with blindness?
Moyra: To some extent it does, because there’s no image, only color. You are thinking about what it’s like to just be a hearing individual, a sightless individual.
Erin: That works as well in your video, between both the out of focus nature of the camera when the subject is in close range and then also in your stilted reading of your own script.
Moyra: It was an experiment. I set up the camera in a narrow hallway in the apartment, knowing that I wanted to change the look from previous videos. In the past you can see a wide expanse of space. You can see a whole room. I set up the camera in such a way that the depth of field would be shallow, and I would be out of focus, or I would be backlit, very much in contrast to the look of Les Goddesses, where you see everything with great clarity.
Moyra: Yes, crisp. When I started to shoot Notes On Blue, I wasn’t convinced that I could use this device again: myself as the microphoned performer walking the rooms. Then I took a quick look at what I had shot, and I thought, oh this looks different enough. I ended up hiring this incredible editor named Alexander Kaluzhsky and he worked a kind of magic. He broke up all of the super-8 and the 16mm and inserted it into the narration. I am eternally grateful to him.
Erin: In that process, are you sitting with him, editing?
Moyra: I am. I’m making suggestions and he’s making suggestions. Filmmaking has always been a collaborative enterprise, and art making has been more traditionally solitary.
Erin: And you communicate both things – solitariness through textual communications.
Moyra: Reaching out from a private, solitary space.
Erin: The stiltedness of the speech from your reading of your own text, as well as the shallow depth of field of your video, reinforced the Jorges Luis Borges quote in Notes On Blue, when he says, “poetry must be aural, not visual.”
Moyra: Yes, the shots deny the viewer visual complexity. You’re not getting the full focus. You’re getting something blurred, a bit claustrophobic, so I think it definitely resonates.
Erin: The super-8 film in your video looks a little hallucinatory, the way that some of the speaking in Jarman’s film sounds hallucinatory, a side affect often accompanying a physical demise. Was your super 8-footage an escape from the body and the neuroses of the body?
Moyra: I was trying for that – a celebratory escape in the spirit of Jarman’s super-8.
Notes On Blue. 2015. Video. Courtesy of Moyra Davey and The Walker Art Center.
Erin: As well, Blue is a diary of Jarman’s sobering life condition as lived through his imagination. Your videos are recorded in the sober reality of the rooms of your apartment, and yet, this sober delivery of information encourages a wandering mind in the viewer. The camera takes views out of your windows, and you narrate as you pace from room to room in your home. Do you find that a reduced environment leads to a wandering mind?
Moyra: A friend of mine just wrote to me, and she said that even though the ‘mise-en-scene’ is reduced visually, there are all these details. In the bathroom, you can see cans of cleaning powder, Barkeeper’s Friend, there’s kind of a grungy look. She said her mind wandered because it was taking in these meager details.
Erin: Is that also a reflection of your own practice, of a wandering mind between sources, or the way you generate writing?
Moyra: I have a very wandering mind, and I guess it’s useful and sometimes it’s to my detriment. But yes, you could say that wandering the apartment is a reflection of my thinking and writing processes.
Erin: I think it seems like a deliberate working method to work through diversions or distractions –
Moyra: And to work through fragments, because you can have a shorter attention span. You can complete a fragment and then put it together with something else. I don’t know how people write long books where they have to keep the whole picture in mind. It seems staggering to me.
Erin: I wonder too, and I think the writer must storyboard the piece like a long film through index cards. Can you speak about your choice to narrate through a recited, rather than memorized, script? Does it slow the viewer down in order to enable understanding?
Moyra: Absolutely, because I’m listening to my recorded script through an earpiece and then repeating what I hear. I think the halting nature and the repetitions and the stuttering sometimes mimic a more naturalized conversation. I’m trying to mimic a person thinking and speaking rather than reciting from memory or reading.
Erin: Like the conversation we’re having now?
Moyra: Exactly. I think that method – leaving in all the slips and not having it be perfect and having some of the words get garbled – does come closer to mimicking natural speech.
Erin: Do you have the ability to speak at your most direct when you record yourself speaking?
Moyra: It frees me to a certain extent, because in the writing I’ve already figured out what I’m comfortable saying. It happens that I’ll write something, narrate it for the camera, and see that it doesn’t work — it’s a cliché, it’s too much. When you perform something for the camera and see the playback, it makes you a better editor of your own writing.
Erin: To cut a jumbled sentence.
Moyra: Definitely. In Fifty Minutes I didn’t use the ear piece. I was either memorizing or reading, and I realized that the parts where I gave a perfect delivery were far less interesting than the takes where I made a mistake, because in those takes something spontaneous and unexpected is happening. You see me reacting to a fumble and that’s way more interesting than the unflawed take.
Erin: Performing a reading is certainly performative.
Moyra: I do think of it as performative. I’m performing myself. I’m performing not myself. I do hope it comes across that way, because I don’t want it to read as straight autobiography.
Erin: It reads as you channeling all of these people together into an edited section of your biography. Do you think the extras that you bring into conversation in your videos are people you idolize in some way?
Moyra: In My Saints, I had Gregg Bordowitz, I had my nieces and nephews. I do idolize Gregg. He was in another video as well (My Necropolis). He is an incredible responder. You give him any piece of text and he’ll have a totally original, brilliant take, on the spot. All my subjects are people I adore. With my nieces and nephews, I had no idea how they’d respond, and I was astonished by the things they said. My nephew, Leo, in My Saints – he didn’t even read the text. It was read to him over the phone. He hung up and he delivered this incredibly profound interpretation of the Jean Genet passage from The Thief’s Journal. I ended up idolizing all of them – they, including Genet, are the titular saints of My Saints.
Erin: And Genet for example? Is he an idol or an ambivalent character?
Moyra: I’m more ambivalent.
Erin: You still are, after all of the research?
Moyra: He’s someone I idolize. He was an incredible writer and public figure, but on a visceral level, I have trouble with some of the novels, and I write about that conflict, even the revulsion, in Burn The Diaries. In some ways the ambivalence was the motor for the entire project.
Erin: I’ve been thinking about idols lately, and what it is that anyone wants from their idols. Is it just to be near them? What is wanted?
Moyra: In the case of Genet, and perhaps many other idols, even ambivalent idols, if there’s friction, it can be more productive than focusing on someone you idolize in a pure way. The resistance, if you try and analyze it, gives way to new thoughts, with unexpected twists and turns. It’s the old adage: you figure out what you’re thinking by writing it. And perhaps an irritant gives you more to sink your teeth into.
By Kevin Blake
“Ahoy down there” I yelled, acting out a drama I had seen before and would see forever–over and over. Again and again.
I thought I was calling down to her from the top of a gigantic sand dune. From the peak of the tallest mountain. From the apex of the world. Only she could hear me. She would call up to me in response, “ahoy up there.” The image of her I create now, for that memory, is one from a picture I have of another time. It is the only picture of her in my possession–one I have carried with me. From home to home. Place to place. Year after year. She was undoubtedly younger on the beach–as was I. In the picture she is wearing a matching pink. Pale. Soft. Sheer. Pants, of course, I don’t think I ever saw my grandmother’s legs. Her top fit like a sweatshirt, though it was short-sleeved. It was puffy like, with some sort of white pattern embroidered in the middle–likely flowers. She has a full head of curly hair–hints of a dirty blonde tinting a grey field. Her hands are folded atop a stack of importance. At the bottom of the pile is her purse–a black leather clutch with a gold clasp. Then a little pouch that housed her Pal Mal cigarettes and lighter. The lighter facing up for easy access and to avoid an uneven surface had it been facing down. Her hands complete the stack. Smoking hand on top. A burning Pal Mal protruding from her fingers. In the photo she is still. She is stoic. No smile. She didn’t know how to smile for a photograph. In the memory she is alive. She is present. She smiles. I’m satisfied with this being all I have, because it is somehow everything she was.
The way we see is historical. Cultural. Social. The way we see is created by our experiences and over time. It is perpetually evolving. The way we recall our memory of these experiences is also a product of this same evolution–we associate memories with images. Images that are not necessarily adept at defining the memory, but rather serve as a stand in for the lost pictures of experience. When a memory is continually visited, the images become unusually vivid, as if actually visible. They become our understanding of our world and our time in it.
In Claire Sherman’s most recent exhibition at Kavi Gupta Gallery in Chicago, I saw this kaleidoscopic vision of the way one sees conflated with the imaginative experience of being present in one’s memory. On these canvases, Sherman seems to be at once a native of the places depicted–an observation of the self within the physical act of making a painting–and a stranger trying to find the natural world at work in her own psyche.
The main gallery is draped in predominately white canvases that wrap the room like stone monoliths–their energy–creating a circular movement in a rectangular room. For a paint enthusiast, this room is almost overwhelming. One painting would be plenty to satisfy the most robust appetites–the rest are a gratuitous banquet for the glutton. These paintings are top notch–a fine example of an artist hitting their stride–finding herself in her work.
Funeral Mountain is a real place. A real mountain. It has histories–some of which, we cannot know from any written words or photographs. The name of this range, that makes the eastern border of Death Valley at the California/Nevada boundary, is born in myth. Lumberjack folklore. Casket-headed beasts with wobbly legs that travel in herds and walk in procession is to credit for the Funeral portion of its title. In myth, there is often truth. The climate is challenging here, and no doubt, crossing death valley may have ended with many funerals in the mountains beyond. It is arid. It is hot. It is unforgiving.
This climate is felt in the main gallery. From afar, the paintings appear to be dry flat grays with the jagged edges of rocks. Powdery whites and chalky pastels. The room feels bare and stark. Naturally lit by a hot sun bearing down through a cloudless afternoon sky. It is this picture and this feeling of place, that I carry with me through the exhibition.
As I approach the first painting that is beaconing me, Rock Wall 2015, I realize how important this action is to understanding this exhibition. The in and out. The perspectival changes. The idea of making paintings versus making images. The threshold between representation and abstraction is somewhere in the middle of this room. The closer you are to these works, the closer you are to entering a smaller world of direct experience, indirectly known through the symbolic language of painting.
Rock Wall appears, from a distance, to be exactly what the title suggests, but it has a vortical flow insisting the viewer nearer. There is a lot of impact in this painting–both small and large– generously buttered onto the canvas to depict the striations and gradients of stone. Working wet paint into wet paint, Sherman achieves the deep cracks and fissures that penetrate the stone of the mountains by penetrating the wall of paint she has amassed on the surface. I get the idea that Sherman is using her photographs of these spaces she visits as a way of situating her memory of her own experience, but uses the paint to feel the place again. And again. And again. These paintings in the main room place the artist outside looking in-an alien’s approach to an unknown landscape.
In the adjacent smaller gallery, two large paintings act as the antithesis to its counterparts in the main room. These works place the artist inside looking out–emerging from womblike darknesses into a world of painted light. In, Cave and Sky 2015, an electric blue commands the space of the physical room and flattens the surface of the painting at a distance. Again, a movement toward the painting reveals more. Manic brushwork in the dark, mixed purples, and reds make the black of the cave walls. The blue covers you. The painting unfolds by enveloping you–you feel the darkness on your sides as you stand at center covered in sky. It is sublime.
The history of landscape painting is vast. The sublime in nature is an abyss of discourse concerning abstract ideas, easily congruent with most attachments. To read a bare list of names, theories, and ideas of lore is to become aware of a widely distributed and loosely tied family resemblance of contingent traits that would merely undercut this body of work. We can always find the history of constructed things, if thats where we look to define something new. To me, this work is about encountering oneself in an eidetic place–a place that exists between one’s ears, and made real by the act of painting. It is about the power of memory to fill in the holes that inevitably crater our reality. Sherman finds just enough memory to reproduce a feeling remembered. That dialogue continues over and over–from paint to place and back again.
Having finished his speech to the visiting journalists, Christian Ringnes picks a beer from a large bucket of ice and retires to a chair. The bottle has his name on the label. And perhaps if it wasn’t for his ownership of Norway’s largest brewery none of us would be here. Indeed beer, and interests in restaurants and hotels, have allowed the Oslo businessman to amass one of the world’s largest private collections of art. Just as they have allowed him to spend $70 million on the sculpture park that the UK press are here to see.
Ekeberg Park is on a hill to the East of the Norwegian capital. It commands views of the stunning modern opera house which sits on the edge of the nearest fjord. After lunch, Ringnes shows us round a few of his favourite pieces, a Dalí here, a Rodin there, a good showing from Scandinavia, a skyscape by James Turrell, a pavilion by Dan Graham. The philanthropist scrambles around the wooded hillside in suede shoes, oblivious to the drizzle, with evident glee about his collection.
Some 40 miles north is sculpture park Kistefos, which is expanding at the same rate as Ekeberg. Two days after Ringnes unveils new work by Damien Hirst and the Chapmans, rival and friend Christen Sveaas, is cutting the ribbon on a monumental new piece of steel engineering by Philip King. The colourful arrangement of beams and struts may be symbolic of a family unit but there is nothing homely about its juxtaposition with the forested landscape of Oppland county.
Subsequent to the applause and the de rigeur gasps, the assembled crowd, comprising some of the wealthiest people in Norway, make their way to the complex of museum and gallery buildings for a charity auction. At this former mill, they are raising money for water supply in the developing world. A man from Sotheby’s rattles through 49 lots while the guests drink prosecco and bid five figure sums, as if for fun. A smaller piece by Philip King goes for more than half a million Krone, almost $70,000. And when the final bid is sold, we are rewarded by a set from a local covers band.
Kistefos is another family business, an investment company which began life in the lumber business. Visiting their offices on the waterfront in Oslo, the contemporary paintings are wall to wall, all of them monumental. A suite of mirrored clouds by Tomas Saraceno has just been installed in the atrium. And the company employ a young man in an impeccable suit to direct the company’s art holdings on a full time basis. We have been in Oslo for no more than 48 hours and already it is clear that wealthy collectors are thick on the ground.
A few hundred yards along the waterfront, Astrup Fearnley glitters in the sun: a private art gallery with a private beach. This space stems from a merger between two foundations, the founders of which both descend from shipping magnate Thomas Fearnley, born in 1841; his father, another Thomas, was one of Norway’s preeminent Romantic painters and the family’s chief love remains collecting art. Unprepared visitors may be surprised to find Jeff Koons’ iconic statue of Michael Jackson and his pet chimpanzee has made it this far north.
Things get more unexpected in Asrtup Fearnley’s temporary exhibition space. Here lie holdings by another magnanimous collector, Erling Klagge. This famous character has published his own book on purchasing art. It figures he is also a lawyer. You might just buy the fact he’s a philosopher. But if you’re not Norwegian, the fact that Klagge is a polar explorer to boot is fairly hard to swallow. No one in the UK is so adventurous and at the same time as discerning, as this additional Oslo player.
In short, the capital of Norway is rich and rich in art. There are collectors with money to spend, plus an educated audience with time to kill. At the Office of Contemporary Art (OCA) we even learn that, despite having less than a million inhabitants, Oslo has among the highest numbers of artist led spaces of any major city. As the National Gallery and Munch Museum move to larger premises in the city centre, they bring with them two versions of that famous scream. If Munch could see the city now, he might have had no complaints.
A multi-site performance art festival.
Performances occur at various locations. Rapid Pulse runs from Thursday 6/4 – Sunday 6/7 and Thursday 6/11 – Sunday 6/14.
Work by Jillian Mayer.
Aspect/Ratio is located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Art Paul.
The Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art is locate at 2320 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Friday, 6-9pm.
Work by Claire Sherman.
Kavi Gupta Gallery is located at 835 W. Washington Blvd. Reception Saturday, 4-7pm.
A project by Negative Jam
Ordinary Projects is located at 2233 S. Throop St. Reception Saturday, 6-10pm. RSVP on website.