31 May 2006

Out of Beirut

Today I read about an exhibition going on in Oxford England. It is called Out of Beirut, and features a number of contemporary Lebanese artists, who all seem to be more or less responding to Lebanon’s civil war. The civil war was a relatively recent event, so recent in fact that it resides squarely in the active memories of everyone except the very young. That reality—-that it is an event too recent to have receded into history—-places it into the domain of memory, the very topic I have been burying myself in for months.

I admit, in a moment of weakness, I thought to myself, “Hey, I’m in Beirut, I’m here in the middle of it. I could become the world’s only expert on Lebanese memory and add that dialogue to those discussing Jewish memory, American memory, German memory etc. etc. And the pain, the suffering, the working-through of it all is so present here, and I’ve got a corner on it.”

Reason set in quickly. First, I don’t speak Lebanese Arabic or any Arabic for that matter. More importantly I don’t want to, and I don’t think I would be able to really investigate Lebanon’s memory without that. But even if I did want to, and could, and would, I still think I wouldn’t.

It reminded me of something I though back when I was an undergraduate in a seminar given by a candidate for a faculty position in the Art History department. She presented an overview of her doctoral dissertation, which was up for several nation-wide awards. Her subject: sculptural depictions of women’s headdresses in ancient Palmyra, Syria. I went to the seminar because it was about modes of dress, the history of which I find completely fascinating. But as I was sitting there listening, all I could think was, “I never want to know so much about so little.”

I am not saying Lebanon’s experience of war, pain, suffering, crimes, atrocities, violence, etc. is in some way inferior, smaller than (even if it was), or less significant that those of cultures that memory scholarship currently focuses on. I have no desire to invalidate the very valid experiences or their memory. That isn’t the issue. The issue is that, in Beirut, it is easy to forget that hardly anyone outside knows or cares.

30 May 2006

Mark Lombardi

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about images that represent information, as described yesterday. First it was the images of html code, and then it was the discussion around it that jogged my memory of Mark Lombardi, who is probably best described as an independent scholar/artist who committed suicide a few years ago. Anyway, his art is more clearly connected with the present discussion than any other artist I know of.

Here’s a detail from one of his images:

It is called George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90 (5th version), 1999.

Lombardi has made a visual representation of the people, events, places, with lines that indicate the transference of money, litigation, sales of property, meetings, etc.

Here’s a statement of his (from this site)about how he creates these webs of information:
Working from syndicated news items and other published accounts, I begin each drawing by compiling large amounts of information about a specific bank, financial group or set of individuals. After a careful review of the literature I then condense the essential points into an assortment of notations and other brief statements of fact, out of which an image begins to emerge.

Like the little applet that transformed (what to me is) html gobbledygook into something I could grasp more readily, Lombardi has similarly reduced a huge amount of data into something much more instantly available. That, it seems, is precisely the point. Lombardi began arranging information into forms like these as a note-taking tool while researching topics for a book he was writing. As these arrangements became more complicated, his interest turned to them as an end in itself.

29 May 2006

The art of Impart Art

This is what happens when art historians and computer scientists share a computer.

The image I posted yesterday is a graphic representation of the html code that runs the main page of my blog. My husband read about it on one of his techie-news sources, and the page was up on the browser when I got to the computer yesterday. The site linked to a page that contained similar representations of other sites, and a legend so that you know what the colors mean. It also included a link to a java applet that I ran to create the image of my site, and it can make one of your favorite page too. Here’s a link to try it out, and I recommend that you do. It is oddly beautiful to watch.

There are some web pages out there that generate orderly, systematic constellations, and the beauty of these impressed me in two ways. First, I know nothing about programming, but my husband has often complained about “messy” code; which is to say superfluous, inefficient, improper code that waddles toward its destination. This graphic exposes the structure of a site, and by displaying it in this way, even I can tell (roughly) how a site is doing what it is doing. And I like the symbolic representation—colors for kinds of data. It has translated html, which I simply don’t get, into something I do get—the image. Of all the other things art ought to do, this is among them. Taking something otherwise incomprehensible and bringing it within reach of a viewer or an audience is one of art’s least dispensable qualities.

25 May 2006

Art History: Problematic situation #6

This is part of an ongoing series discussing Art History's issues.

It has been ages since I wrote about Art history's problems. Some of my posts have been relevant, but its time to really speak to the point.

Art is (and as far as I can tell) and has always been self-referential. Among other things, art quotes art. When I wrote about identity, I commented on the long tradition in art of eye-candy-cuties. The Bouguereau I used as an example echoes so many others like it--maybe it even references predecessors. I don't actually know.

But I do know that artists continue to rummage through the past for ideas, and sometimes they even simulate the past. The thing is, though, that the past was the present at one time. The ruins of ancient civilizations weren't ruins when they were new. Sure, that's obvious. But often, what artists pick up is not the original "new" look of the art of the past. Rather, they copy the aged appearance that the thing has in the present.

This is Auguste Rodin's 1900 sculpture called Walking Man. Put simply, it is without arms and head because lots of sculptural antiquities are missing a limb here or there. Not that they were originally made without arms, heads, or both feet. They were. But the way we see them today, more often than not, something is missing.

Rodin's work was a century ago, but there is still at least some hearkening to the look of age, even in a new work of art. I think Sally Mann's antique camera and process fall into this category. Some of her more recent images from Deep South and What Remains look like they have barely survived from a much earlier period. In this case, new looks really old, referencing things that look old only because they are old.

24 May 2006

Idyllic Domesticity

that above is
Jeff Wall’s 1978 Destroyed Room.

If you look closely at the image (it’s small, I know.) you’ll see high heels, ladies under-things, etc. This is the destroyed room of a woman. Does that matter? For a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking about femininity and its unrelenting equatedness with domesticity, as though cleanliness is a prerequisite to true womanhood. Maybe that’s why when I see the Destroyed Room my knee-jerk reaction is imagine the room’s owner has a boyfriend, and to blame said boyfriend for the havoc doubtless generated by some kind of jealous rage. The heels indicate the woman, and the destruction indicates the man.

How sexist. Especially in view of what was happening in the 1970s and what life is actually like now, I’m really shocked by my own gender bias that this reveals.

23 May 2006

Guerrilla Girls

I wrote a little while ago about feminism and art, and sort of wondered what the whole thing was for.

And although I would like to believe that gender discrimination plays virtually no role in contemporary (western) society, I’d be fooling myself to do so. I’ve been good at fooling myself over the years. What can I say? I’m gullible. The faith-in-humanity side of me has a huge tendency toward denial, particularly the denial of any real injustice, unkindness, inhumanity. I have, for as long as I can remember, been good at finding other explanations that have allowed the general goodness of mankind to remain intact.

I don’t buy it anymore. In saying that the current status of men and women is not just, two questions immediately surface.
1. Whose fault is it?
2. If this isn’t just, what would be?

Both are tough questions. The first is an important one, because whenever someone says “Feminism”, somewhere a man gets defensive. But more importantly, there are women who are doing feminism no favor through their actions. Women are part of the problem, either by contributing extremist viewpoints that fuel contention or for defending the status quo on some kind of moral ground. For the most part in contemporary (western) society, women are limited by their own view of themselves more than by an outside, repressive authority. We waste time and money on things we believe we want or even need to be “feminine” without questioning that standard or the reason we seek to fulfill it.

The second question is more elusive, and I have no idea how to articulate an answer for it.

These questions also relate directly to art and industry that surrounds it. Why is art still dominated by white men? If white men aren’t actually superior artists (and come on folks), what is wrong with the system? Why are they still the profound majority?

Guerrilla Girls is the art world’s very own feminist activist group. They grapple with these and many other issues all the time. I’m not sure I’m with them because their tone is more aggressive than I deal well with. But there’s an interesting interview on their site anyway, focusing on who they are and why they do what they do.

22 May 2006

Four kinds of Memory/Art

For those of you who would like some clarification on my last post, I’ve made an attempt here to discuss ways that memory and art overlap. The reason this is significant, is that our evolving notion of history influences our notion of art and art history. As memory gains significance in the formations of history, it will, I think, carry over into art, and contribute to our ideas about images and image making.

Memory in Art 1.
Images from memory
Drawing something from memory is a lot different than having it in your studio, or on your table, pinned to your bulletin board, or in your backyard. Memory isn’t really the best tool for recording the details of a thing, a vista, or an event, but all the same, there are a lot of realistic-looking, though probably imperfect images out there that were painted from memory.

Memory in Art 2.
Images of memory
Here’s where it gets a bit strange. Before I wrote that memory is its own medium quite apart from any other medium (language, art, etc.). Memory can include smells, sensations, moods, and each of these can be hard to put into a hunk of marble or communicate through oils on canvas. Dali’s Persistence of Memory is a great example, and so is I see again in Memory my Dear Udnie by Francis Picabia, 1913 (pictured at left). Dali and Picabia’s abstracted, fanciful images assert the very great difference between how it feels to experience memory and how it feels to look at images. I imagine that Picabia was trying to express what his memory of Dear Udnie felt like. I think he hoped that his composition would communicate that better than something more literal. Images of memory tend to embrace abstractions, ambiguities, and expressiveness that other forms of modernism rejected as simply too personal, too self-ingratiating, too much like subject matter.

Memory in Art 3.
Image as memory—memorial
Religion and Government have given the world a lot of memorial images. Think of the huge epic paintings of the French Revolution, copious images of Chairman Mao, the gigantic Lincoln memorial, all the Buddhas I’ve ever seen, and the scores of European museums filled with innumerable Christian images. These straddle the categories of art and memorial, made to do both. Of course, some images are made as one and do the other too.

Memory in Art 4.
Image as material memory, remnant of the past.
We use art like this all the time, as a window into bygone centuries or decades. We look for clues as to what people thought, what was taboo, what was shocking, what was desirable. Art preserves and conceals these things all at once, and the task of sorting out what the artist meant and what we only think s/he meant will likely continue to keep art historians busy for years to come.

19 May 2006

Memory Art

One of the central ideas in my thesis is that memory influences art in unique ways. As a concept, memory seems simple enough but it is actually complicated and problematic in unexpected ways.

Think of an intense memory from your childhood, or some other distant period. What is that memory made of? A smell? A feeling? A mood? A chain of actions or a single scene? Is the significance of the memory bound up in these things or in something else? Can you differentiate between the way you felt at the time, and the way you feel now as you remember it? If you were to share that memory, how would you ensure it was accurately transmitted?

First, memory is its own medium, like music, language, or vision. When you try to translate that medium into something else (like paint, photography, etc.) content and meaning are lost or modified, as they would be in any translation. Memories can never be totally shared.

Unless they are collective memories, which are tied to groups with similar ideas about a thing or event that resides in the past. Within Judeo-Christian theology, there are many references to doing things in memory of God, which points to the very big difference between your memory of something and a thing you do in memory of that thing. There is a kind of collective memory that is indicated by, communicated through, and perpetuated in monuments, memorials, and memorial acts.

And then there’s another kind of memory. The memory of your dead grandmother, for example is something independent of what you remember about her. It is more like her legacy. Our individual memories take us back in time, or do we draw the past into the future by remembering? Where dead loved ones are concerned, as we hold them in memory they are propelled into the present.

A final form of memory is pretty close to the monuments and memorials mentioned above. Physical things can be described as memory—like a souvenir not of a vacation, but of the past. Unlike the ‘official’ aspect that monuments frequently have, materials are incidental, chance, less contrived and as such, may be a more accurate window into the past.

What, if anything does this have to do with art? Well, memory has become a significant force in the social sciences, history, and literature as a remedy, cure-all, or counterbalance to oppressive, totalizing, and limiting historic discourses. Art has long been influenced by these ideas that surround history, and with memory’s blossoming there, it won’t be long until art is singing memory’s song.

I don’t mean for that to sound as condescending as I think it does. Memory is a beautiful, mystical, unfathomable thing. I welcome it into art’s expansive domain.

18 May 2006

Thesis Update

Last week I submitted my second 'official' thesis draft to my advisor. She is fairly confident that it will be ready for the other readers in July and ready for the Graduate office's editing check shortly thereafter, and ready for the university library to bind in good time (September?) meaning that I will likely qualify for graduation in December.

I still haven't decided who I should thank and who I should not, but the dedication page was decided even before my topic was. And I don't know if I should bother with a preface.

If any of you want a copy, you can have it for $20. Just let me know, and I'll have an extra one bound for you. This is a one-time publication, so it’s now or never. And by now, I mean any time before the library gets it which will maybe be in September, so you can take your time making this decision. I know it’s a tough one.

My thesis will likely be titled "Death, Memory, and the Photography of Sally Mann", and will include 7 images, if Ms. Mann approves my use of them.

16 May 2006

Chocolate Art

No, we aren’t really talking about cuisine or fine dining or any of the culinary arts.

But I will pass along a recipe that I include among those arts and it’s yummy and it’s relevant to my art idea today. It’s at the end of the post.

So one afternoon, I made a chocolate desert and let my daughter have one of the mixing bowls. This is one of those childhood indulgences that I thought she ought to have access to, but she soon found a different use for the chocolate.

And she isn’t alone. Lots of artists have worked with chocolate, which is a phenomenon I can’t fully explain. Among them are Janine Antoni who made this piece called Chocolate Gnaw in 1992

and Vic Muniz who I wrote about back in January for his sugar art. He’s also done marvelous things with chocolate syrup. Here’s an example from 1999

Antoni’s huge hunk of gnawed-away chocolate deserves more attention than this, and I guess Muniz’s work could also use some more explication. But I'd rather have some chocolate. If you'd like to join me, here’s the recipe that became the medium of my daughter’s creativity.

Inspirational Chocolate Dessert *
4oz. semisweet chocolate
½ cup heavy cream
3 egg yolks
5 egg whites
3 tbsp granulated sugar

Line a jelly roll pan with foil, butter it, and turn the oven on to 425 F.

Roughly chop the chocolate and melt it together with the cream in a small-ish sauce pan, stirring constantly.
Remove from heat and add the egg yolks one at a time, combining thoroughly after each one.
Return the pan to low heat for a few minutes, stirring all the while to cook the yolks.

Beat the whites with a handheld mixer for a few minutes until they are fluffy but not firm. Add the sugar, and continue beating until stiff peaks form.

Fold the chocolate and beaten egg whites together.
Spread evenly in the jelly roll pan, and bake for about 20 minutes.

Remove from oven. Cover with a tea towel, and invert on a table or countertop. Place the pan to the side, and gently loosen the foil from the cake.

Allow to cool completely.
Cut away any crust that may have formed a the edges of the cake.
Spread with something ridiculously tasty, like peanut butter cream frosting (equal volumes peanut butter and real whipped cream, blended with enough confectioners’ sugar to give it the consistency and taste of frosting).
Roll it up and serve.

*yes, I named it all by my onesie.

15 May 2006

Wooloo's Asylum NYC

It has taken a while, but the web (which I have been sifting through regularly in search of the information you'll read here) has finally caught up.

A few weeks ago, I relayed some information about an exhibit called Asylum NYC. Remember? 10 artists locked in a gallery with access to nothing but pens and paper? My sister wanted to know who won and what they did to win. Thanks to an Artnet review, I can tell you. The review's main point was that, as far as politics and activism go, this project was a big disappointment. I however, think that politics and activism are not the best perspective to take on this exhibit. It addresses the significance of NY, the difficulty foreigners face to work there, and the power the system has to allow or deny them that chance.

Anyway, a woman from Serbia and Montenegro named Dusanka Komnenic won for doing this:

So, obviously, she has adopted the appearance of a prisoner. She made that little costume out of tape, which I think is quite creative, and I'm pretty sure that the markings on the wall are tape too. Like the exhibit itself, which examines the system under which foreign artists must operate to survive in NY, this artist's installation/performance addressed the rules the artists in this exhibit had to follow.

But wait, there wasn't just one winner. The other winning artist managed to win without doing anything. He wasn't even there. He was denied entry to the US even though he had been invited to participate in the exhibit. When it was clear he would not be able to participate, he sent all the letters and other documents that he had submitted to the government in his place. I bet the artists who actually did participate and didn't win have already burnt him in effigy.

14 May 2006

Identify Yourself

Believe it or not, the current concept of identity is a kind of new thing. Yeah, weird. I would have thought that identity was a sort of universal in time and space. Nope. Of the changes to constructs of identity in the past century, I am fairly certain that photography has had a major impact.

Today, your identity is practically synonymous with your photographic likeness. Passports (US) driver’s licenses, other official documents and identification forms include a picture of the identified person’s face. As simple as this is, there is a substantial weight of cultural prejudice against it. “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, “More than skin deep”, etc. are among the sayings that contradict the association between appearances and realities. But your likeness is your appearance, and your identity is reality. In practice, we simply DO associate a person’s face with their soul. Their appearance IS who they are, or at least an emphatic part of it.

That’s probably why the though of being possessed is so freaky, why movies where people switch bodies with someone else just keep on coming, and it is so entertaining to see people do things that are completely inconsistent with their appearance (like a dainty Charlie’s Angel knock 15 thugs flat in under 30 seconds).

Within art, there are a lot of problems associated with the deep, inseparable connection that most of us draw between bodies and identities. I think that these fall into a few general categories.

1. Bodies with no specific identity usually allude to a general, identifiable group. Bouguereau’s nymphs as shown here are simply lovely eye candy; part of a long, long tradition of lovely eye candy cuties. These girls aren’t individuals and have no soul, but the eye candy tradition stands in for identity and makes their lovely presence in the painting make sense.

2. Bodies with a known identity call up that person. Portraiture usually is about the sitter. Sometimes it says a bit too much, and it often says too little, but the aim is to marry identity and image. That’s what any successful portraiture does, anyway.

3. There are times when a body is shown and there is no identity, and no substitute identity. The body is just a body and there is no identity, no context. Doubtless, like the thought of being possessed, people tend to find these works of art troubling.

This is a Philip Pearlstein that I think fits this description. There is nothing to tell you who this body might belong to, and it isn’t being presented for consumption the way Bouguereau presented his.

Frankly, I’d like to see a bit more separation between my appearance and myself. I've thought about making myself a t-shirt that reads “I am NOT my appearance”, but that would be marshalling my appearance to the definition of my identity, and I’m not quite that stupid.

06 May 2006

Homosexuality and Art

I recently read Tyler Green’s comments about Catherine Opie, who is one of contemporary art’s foremost photographers. She’s a lesbian, and has spent over a decade (among other things) documenting “the California gay leather scenes and the lesbian communities that she is a part of.”

That quote comes from Connie Samaras’ 1993 defense of Opie’s work, and the work of other photographers whose work presented “non-normative sexual behavior”. The art world, she claimed had too-long overlooked everything except white, male, heterosexual sexual content. Samaras’ description continues:

“Four photographs are from a series of tight head shots against yellow backgrounds of lesbians wearing moustaches. The images are not about the trompe l'oeil illusion; rather, they playfully destabilize gender boundaries, allowing for the kind of fluidity at work in lesbian gender sex play.”

You can see an example of this, an Opie self-portrait over at Mr. Green’s site. Like Samaras, Green defends Opie’s work, the risk of presenting every conservative’s worst fears about homosexuality. He claims that the homosexual community has tried too hard to conform to mainstream heterosexual norms. “One reason [Opie] takes photographs of her friends in the leather and other alt-sex communities is because she wants to remind people that not all gay people want what HRC wants, not all gay people are as assimilationist as HRC would like, and that there is a multiplicity of gay life in America.

Wow. I don’t even know if he is correct about that. I live in Lebanon. Need I say more? I have no idea if the “real” gay community in the US is more like Samaras and Green and Opie describe it, or more like Andy describes it.

02 May 2006

Keeping it simple

An arts group called wooloo is currently sponsoring a fun little project going on this week in New York City. 10 non-American artists are competing for a visa. The rules? They have to live in a gallery for a week, during which they are not allowed to leave. In the gallery they have access to nothing other than paper and pens (and they get a place to sleep and three meals a day). During the week they are expected to make art, and at the end of the week a couple of wooloo-ers will judge what they've done. The lucky winner will receive a three-year artist visa to stay in the US.

I love it, and I'll try to explain why. First, I love simple art. Sure, Damien Hirst's pickled sharks are cool in ways that ought to make anyone wish they too could get millions for pickling sharks. And I can't get enough of artists who find new mediums of expression. But there is something refreshing about a bunch of artists who (for whatever reason) are going back to something very basic (pen and paper!). Especially in contemporary art, which is overrun with people trying to stand out and be different, the simplicity of this project is a bit startling. I wonder how many of them will actually draw. I wonder how many will beg the gallery's visitors to bring them other things (which is allowed and even encouraged).

getting a visa to stay is a very relevant reward for a foreigner and an artist. I like that this project acknowledges how much these artists depend on the art establishment. Their lives (for a week at least) are both literally and figuratively right there in the gallery. It emphasizes how much power the art establishment has over everything else these artists might do. In this case, their connection with the exhibition will determine a significant part of their future. By extension, it acknowledges that success in art is nothing more than succeeding with a few well-placed people.

I can't wait to find out who wins.