Blogs Untitled (Blog)

Philippe Vergne: A Tribute

by Betsy Carpenter, Doryun Chong, Peter Eleey, Siri Engberg, and Yasmil Raymond, visual arts curators Philippe Vergne is a brilliant curator and that rare combination of sparkling intellect, humor, and grace. He has an infectious love of art and an incredible, innate gift for working with artists–understanding them, connecting with their creative process, and communicating […]

by Betsy Carpenter, Doryun Chong, Peter Eleey, Siri Engberg, and Yasmil Raymond, visual arts curators

Philippe with JudyPhilippe Vergne is a brilliant curator and that rare combination of sparkling intellect, humor, and grace. He has an infectious love of art and an incredible, innate gift for working with artists–understanding them, connecting with their creative process, and communicating that to audiences in fresh, sensitive, and unexpected ways. He absolutely believes that a contemporary art center can and must keep the artist at the core of its thinking, a vision that has gone far in shaping our department, our exhibitions, our collection, our institution, and has had significant impact on artists themselves. He also fiercely believes that a museum is a place where artists and their audiences share, around works of art, their uncertainties and dreams and has strove to make and protect an environment at the Walker where, on scales large and small, everyone could experiment.

Philippe excels at the basic, but difficult, art of installation, and organized some of the most essential Walker exhibitions of the last decade. The highlights include: Let’s Entertain: Life’s Guilty Pleasures (2000), How Latitudes Become Forms: Art in a Global Age (2003), Shadowlands: An Exhibition as a Film (2005), House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective (2005), Cameron Jamie (2006), and Kara Walker: My Complement, My Enemy, My Oppressor, My Love (2007). If there is a trademark to his exhibitions, it is that they consistently invite us to see the familiar in a new light, and make the unknown positively beguiling. In his tenure here, he has been able to keep sight of both the Walker’s edge and its rich history; its reputation as a veritable petri dish for young artists, filmmakers, and performers; and its extraordinary collection, which has at its core a mandate to form relationships with artists for life. He immeasurably enriched the Walker’s collection by bringing important young and emerging as well as established and historical artists’ works, from around the world.

His aspirations, however, were always broader than whatever single project or acquisition he worked on, because they involved those of the larger institution. The ambitions of his staff became his own. He embodied so many aspects of the work we do, and the values that underscore that work. In the trust he bestowed upon his colleagues, the respect he accords his audiences, the faith he places in artists, and the vigor of his curiosity, he set a simple and powerful example. All of this he did with a remarkable degree of modesty, an incisive wit, and a spirit of generosity.

Philippe has been the perfect mentor, colleague, and friend for all of us over the past years. He encouraged us to take greater and greater creative risks and keep “ gambling” to build upon the Walker’s legacy of risk-taking and experimentation. At the same time, we have relished his ingenious and adventurous mind, hilariously quirky and unashamedly egalitarian view of the world. It is obvious that we are “ not dancing” (as he often says) about his departure, nor can we express our appreciation by making him a knight. The French government already did so in 2004 when it honored him with the medal of the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. What he will forever have from us is our respect, admiration, gratitude, and love.

Photo: Philippe Vergne with Judy Dayton, long-time Walker supporter

A Chinese Homecoming

In the dawn of the Walker blogs, I had the privilege of writing the first post on the Visual Arts site. Some of you, our faithful readers, may remember my little adventure in the Mojave Desert in search of a used airplane part. You may also remember the very slow march of the elephant sculpture […]

Installed in Galleries 4, 5, 6, Walker Art Center Installed in Galleries 4, 5, 6, Walker Art Center

In the dawn of the Walker blogs, I had the privilege of writing the first post on the Visual Arts site. Some of you, our faithful readers, may remember my little adventure in the Mojave Desert in search of a used airplane part. You may also remember the very slow march of the elephant sculpture down the Hennepin Avenue through the Walker’s main entrance, down the sloping Hennepin Lounge, then up the stairs into Gallery 4. Both of these rather unusual manoeuvres were accomplished in preparation for the 2005 exhibition House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective, which the Walker chief curator/deputy director Philippe Vergne and I organized. In the last two years since the end of its run in January 2006, I’ve been often approached by our local audiences, who told me that it was one of their favorite exhibitions at the Walker (despite the fact that they knew nothing about the Chinese-born, Paris-based artist).

Mass MOCA Mass MOCA Vancouver

You may be surprised to learn that the exhibition is still on view. The airplane cockpit, the elephant, and other works have traveled to three subsequent venues, rather slowly but surefootedly, across the North American continent then crossed the Pacific Ocean: first, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams, then the Vancouver Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC, and finally the spanking new Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, opening on March 22, 2008. Yes, that’s right–Beijing, China. Founded by Guy & Miriam Ullens, dedicated Belgian collectors of Chinese contemporary art who long dreamed of bringing their collection to the country of its origin, the Center is an ambitious institution that strives to bring international art to the heart of the emerging superpower and also to give in-depth treatment to the important contribution Chinese artists have made to global art in the last three decades or so. The center opened its doors in last November, and House of Oracles is only the second exhibition. The magnificent exhibition space was remodeled from a former ceramics factory in an East German-built industrial complex known as 798, now also known as the Dashanzi Art District.

My first visit to 798 was a little more than two years ago, in November 2005. The district had been in existence for a couple of years by then, and the future Ullens Center was a cavernous, evacuated space, with a soaring (I’m guessing, about 50-60 feet-high) ceiling and a now defunct industrial kiln/chimney. The on-site engineer explained to me how the space will be remodeled–a big exhibition hall here, a smaller gallery there, the office up there, etc.–which I, while nodding politely and sympathetically, could not really visualize. Many things had happened between the 2005 visit and when I attended the opening of the Center in November 2007. Certain things were still the same, or more and more of the same–for instance, the acrid yet strangely fragrant, hallucinogenic smell of burning coals and leaded gas that hover over the sprawling metropolis. And the proud capital city of People’s Republic of China keeps on expanding in a clearly measurable way but with a mind-blowing velocity. Beijing is one of the most centralized and organized cities I know of (I realize that that sounds totally paradoxical), with the Forbidden City and the Tian’anmen Square at the dead center and concentric circles of “ring roads” rippling out into yesterday’s suburbs and surrounding villages and quickly turning them into today’s peripheral hubs. In late 2005, the area around 798, which is located on the northeastern corner of the city between the Fourth and the Fifth ring roads, still felt a bit sparse. In late 2007, it was as busy as any other business districts far closer to the city center. Trying to recall what things were like a month ago in China these days is a completely futile exercise. I digress.

Beijing-Tokyo 2008

Late night on March 17, I arrived again in Beijing after a 15-hour-long flight from Minneapolis via Tokyo. The next morning, I walked from my hotel to the Ullens Center. All looked very familiar since I had been there only four months prior. Except that a giant sand storm engulfed the city–something that happens in the Northern part of China as winter changes into spring. Brutal. At the Center, the installation of “ House of Oracles” had been going on for almost two weeks, with the artist and two of our veteran exhibition technicians, Phil Docken and Bob Brown. I have to admit that I was a little worried when I first saw the Ullens’ spectacular main gallery, which had been left more or less intact from the original structure, because a lot of space with a high ceiling isn’t necessarily a good thing for showing art. That is, even when art is the size of an airplane. It was rather ironic that even Huang’s “ Bat Project 4”–the sculpture that actually incorporates the used airplane cockpit we found in Northern California–seemed dwarfed by the hangar-like space. Yes, their gallery is that big. Nonetheless, Huang is a master at dealing with spaces (as anyone who saw the exhibition at the Walker or at any other subsequent venues would know). He designed a couple of enclosed rooms inside the mammoth hall, and I was immediately struck by the incredible sightlines he was ingeniously creating with various combinations of works in the exhibition.

Beijing-Tokyo 2008 Beijing-Tokyo 2008 Beijing-Tokyo 2008

Thus I was reminded of how fortunate and privileged I was to be part of the incredible journey of this project. I got to see the enormous “ Bank of Sand, Sand of Bank”–a scaled replica of the 1920s’ colonial Beaux Arts-style building in Shanghai made out of a mixture of sand and cement–going up four times, and slowly crumbling each time, as a regenerative metaphor of the enduring legacy of colonialism. In Beijing, thanks to the ample space we had, we were finally able to erect this 20-ton work completely in the round (in the three previous versions, the backside had to be against an existing wall of the building). I got to see “Python,” a more than 50 feet-long wood skeleton of a cosmic serpent, rising and falling, dancing up and down in four different spaces. And I got to see four reincarnations of “Theater of the World,” a gladiatorial arena filled with insects and reptiles left to their own devices that sparked at-times heated exchanges between our blog readers (the piece was shut down by the British Columbia SPCA on the day of the exhibition’s opening in Vancouver).

Beijing-Tokyo 2008

The opening of this Beijing presentation, I can say, was a truly historic occasion, because this was not only the first Walker-organized exhibition to go to China (in fact, Asia), but also the first full-scale retrospective exhibition of a Chinese artist to take place in China. Thanks to the incredible commitment on the part of the Ullens, the comprehensive monograph the Walker published to accompany the exhibition was translated in full into Chinese–another first for us. I don’t want to sound too self-congratulatory here, but this exhibition and tour has been a truly special event of which Philippe and I couldn’t be more proud.

At the same time, I feel a little bit sad. Perhaps it’s only natural. Having witnessed the exhibition’s evolution over more than four years, I was seeing its final arrival in perhaps where it all started and where it always meant to come back to. And I was able to this in the company of a remarkable artist–the most generous and wise soul I know of. (Most Chinese audiences who came to the exhibition’s opening called him “ Huang Laoshi,” i.e., “ Master Huang.”) But you can’t have too much of a good thing. All good things must come to an end. So I bid you farewell, Master Huang.

à bientt.

Zai jian!

Neanderthal Dance: Doryun Chong interviews Dylan Skybrook

When artist Catherine Sullivan approached choreographer Dylan Skybrook about collaborating on a film project, details were deliberately scant. “ Catherine was almost comically stingy with information,” he told exhibition curator Doryun Chong. “ She told me: Neanderthals, Vizcaya [Museum and Gardens in Miami, Florida], Nigerian email scams, and that’s it. No context. She said the […]

8216600.jpgWhen artist Catherine Sullivan approached choreographer Dylan Skybrook about collaborating on a film project, details were deliberately scant. “ Catherine was almost comically stingy with information,” he told exhibition curator Doryun Chong. “ She told me: Neanderthals, Vizcaya [Museum and Gardens in Miami, Florida], Nigerian email scams, and that’s it. No context. She said the dancers are the Neanderthal layer and set me free.” Skybrook set out, assisted by local dancers Justin Jones and Kristin van Loon, to create movements inspired by the now-extinct cohabitants of humans’ ancient ancestors. The result of their exploration is on view in Triangle of Need, a multichannel film installation now making its world premiere at the Walker August 23.

This most recent and ambitious project by the Chicago-based artist topically addresses class and evolution, among other things, and draws inspirations from a variety of images and ideas. Chong recently discussed the process of collaborating with Sullivan in a wide-ranging interview with Skybrook. (more…)

Wonged Women

“The women!” was the first thing blurted out by my colleague, Yasmil Raymond, as the credits rolled and lights went up. On last Thursday night, the sneak-preview of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 at the Walker, just before the film’s theatrical release in the Twin Cities, was PACKED, despite the fact that the notice for it went […]

“The women!” was the first thing blurted out by my colleague, Yasmil Raymond, as the credits rolled and lights went up. On last Thursday night, the sneak-preview of Wong Kar-Wai’s 2046 at the Walker, just before the film’s theatrical release in the Twin Cities, was PACKED, despite the fact that the notice for it went out, like, the day before.

Though the film’s US release only began a couple of weeks ago, it’s been out for awhile in different parts of the world–it premiered at the Cannes film festival in 2004, where our film/video curator Sheryl Mousley saw and got excited about it, and I saw it playing in Shanghai in September 2004. And I had already seen it on an imported DVD. But of course, it goes without saying that to watch it again in the Walker’s beautiful new cinema was an experience of a whole other nature. When I first saw it, I thought 2046, a sequel (kind of) to Wong’s In the Mood for Love from a few years back, was “mannerist” and “decadent” while “In the Mood” was vintage Wong. and I mean that in the best possible ways. Really. While the earlier film was a relatively straightforward narrative about an unrequited love between two people (played by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung), the more recent story involves a much larger cast and several strands of plots that weave in and out and run parallel one another. While lush palettes, quick edits, long, drawn-out shots, and purely atmospheric visual touches are all trademarks of every film by Wong, there’s a sense that 2046 pushed those well-honed techniques to maximum extents–thus “decadent.” Make sense?

And speaking of the cast–boy, what a cast. And “The women!” I never noticed this in Wong’s previous films, but 2046 is punctuated with exquisitely fetishist shots–of high heels and, as noted by New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis, who called the film “an unqualified triumph,” of women’s backs slightly bent forward. But it’s not just the backs of his actresses Wong is fixated upon but also their jawlines, necks, hands, etc., all lovingly framed and caressed with the camera–largely, thanks to his long-time collaborator/cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Well, I don’t really need to go on too much about the camera and fetishism, at the risk of being a bit too nerdy or obvious or something.

The point more fascinating is the combination of these actresses. Ziyi Zhang, of course, is the hottest young thing of pan-Asian cinema, having emerged from playing the bratty martial arts phenom in Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to a supporting role in Zhang Yimou’s Hero to the sole leading lady in House of Flying Daggers (also by Zhang) to the title role of the upcoming Memoir of a Geisha, which I’m anticipating with some, shall we say, reservation.

Personally, I never thought much about her acting. Just fine, I’d have said. But her portrayal of… I guess… a courtesan who falls for Tony Leung’s character was fierce! With all the vulnerability, jealousy, pride, shame, and whatnot seething under her delicate features. Impressive, I thought.

Then, there’s Faye Wong, who’s probably still one of the biggest pop stars in the Chinese-speaking world. She’s not really known as an actress but did appear, in her first cinematic outing, in Wong’s Chungking Express (1994). Faye has a fascinatingly ethereal quality about her–most of the times, completely unreadable–which makes her brief emotive expressions all the more surprising and humane. The director took advantage of this quality of the actress to maximum advantage by having her play a Hong Kong woman yearning for her Japanese boyfriend despite fierce objections by her father and an android in the futuristic novel written by the film’s protagonist.

Then, Gong Li, who hasn’t been as visible in recent years after having been the actress for new Chinese films by playing the muse in a series of Zhang Yimou’s films, including Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. Her presence in this film, as the most mature and most mysterious of the women, is also the most haunting–and by having the same name as the heroine of In the Mood for Love, she provides a concrete link to the prequel.

Maggie Cheung, probably the most internationally renowned of all Hong Kong actresses and my personal favorite, makes only brief appearances in this film–two fleeting shots, according to my count. In many ways, other women in the film are substitutes for her character in In the Mood for Love, and the melancholic philanderer played by Tony Leung in 2046 is in eternal mourning for Maggie’s Su Lizhen and le temps perdu. And the picture on the right is Maggie as the title character in French director Olivier Assayas’s film Irma Vep, which had very mixed reviews when it came out. In my mind, though, this quirky semi-fiction is brilliant, especially its final sequence. Check it out. And a little celebrity gossip: Maggie fell in love with the director after this film was made, subsequently got married to him, and then the marriage fell apart… But I digress.

I don’t really want to go on and on too much about the women in 2046 (well, I guess I already have…) so should say a few words about the men. There are Kimura Takuya, the Japanese pop idol playing Faye Wong’s love interest and Tony Leung’s surrogate in the future part of the film, Chang Chen (who in Hero was a desert-dwelling bandit hopelessly in love with Ziyi Zhang’s character), and of course, Tony Leung, who has been in almost all of Wong’s films, including Chungking Express (1994; as Faye Wong’s love interest), Ashes of Time (1994), Days of Being Wild (1991), Happy Together (1997).

One thing that’s remarkable about Tony Leung in Wong Kar-Wai’s films is that he always looks the same, himself or one persona he has created, while each performance finds a small range of emtions that are infinitely varied and subtly hued. It is never about overdramatization or blown-up histrionics. Happy Together, especially, in which he plays one half of a Hong Kong gay couple, with Leslie Leung (a long-time Cantonese pop/film hearthrob and later, openly gay public figure, who tragically committed suicide in 2003; read Time magazine film critic, Richard Corliss’s tribute here) stranded in Buenos Aires and in a torturous relationship that sprials downward was, in my mind, a tour de force: while he’s pretty much beaten down and glum the whole movie, little flickers of hope, sharp pangs of hatred and resentment, utter dislocation (that, in this movie, also has to do with the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997, which the movie is a kind of allegory of), melancholy and gravitas… it’s all there in his performance.

And one small thing I noticed in 2046 was one paticular scene twice repeated–Tony Leung in front of a mirror carefully combing his pomade-slicked hair: almost identical to his extremely brief appearance in Days of Being Wild, which seemed at the time a bewildering non-sequitur. Perhaps a coincidence, or the reprisal of that shot is a tribute to his own early work by a director who, in Corliss’s words, the “most romantic director in the world.”

There are many other things worth musing about in this remarkable film: Shigeru Umebayashi’s gorgeous soundtrack and, as usual, a meltingly nostalgic compliation of songs of the past. I hope everyone, who wasn’t at the preview, will have chance to see it.

High and Dry in the Mojave

Sometimes, organizing an exhibition can expand a curator’s job description in ways previously unimagined. I started working with Philippe Vergne on the first retrospective of the work of Huang Yong Ping soon after I joined the Walker in 2003. As preparations for the show intensified this winter, a number of unconventional necessities started cropping up, […]

Sometimes, organizing an exhibition can expand a curator’s job description in ways previously unimagined. I started working with Philippe Vergne on the first retrospective of the work of Huang Yong Ping soon after I joined the Walker in 2003. As preparations for the show intensified this winter, a number of unconventional necessities started cropping up, required by the complex nature of many of Huang’s pieces. A highlight of House of Oracles: A Huang Yong Ping Retrospective, opening next month, will be Bat Project, an installation inspired by the collision of an American spy plane and a Chinese fighter plane in April 2002. The incident set off an intense diplomatic standoff between the two nations. Reading about the event in a newspaper en route from France to China for an exhibition, Huang realized that sometimes art can do no better than life. But what seemed like a simple plan–reconstituting part of the American EP-3 plane out of wood scaffolding and aluminum panels–touched a nerve with more parties than one could have guessed. Facing censorship on each of three attempts, Huang has never been able to fully realize the project.

When we considered including Bat Project (named after the stylized bat insignia on the US spy plane) in the exhibition, it seemed only fitting to find a real piece of an EP-3. After countless hours googling, I was not quite becoming an expert, but industry names and acronyms that had been previously alien to me–EP-3, P-3, Lockheed Electra, and Orion–started rolling off my tongue. Talking about planes is one thing, but finding one is altogether another. After more sleuthing, we identified an airplane junkyard in the desert highland of California where we might find a decommissioned EP-3. During a visit with Huang at the Walker in January, we decided, rather impromptu, to head to California to check out the junkyard ourselves.

One sunny day in February, I picked up Huang at the Burbank Airport and aimed a rented Jeep in the direction of El Mirage. After an hour and a half drive over the Los Angeles Mountains, filled by attempted conversations in my stilted French (the artist speaks no English), we came onto a high plateau. Suddenly, a mammoth, rat-colored military plane appeared overhead, swooping across the cloudless sky, as if announcing that we’d entered a military flight zone. Despite my best effort to be prepared with precise directions and maps, there were a few turn-arounds along the way, but we eventually got there–a bleak but sublimely beautiful flatland littered with forlorn-looking fuselages, cockpits, and piles of airplane parts.

Friendly staff invited Huang and I to look around, but we must have made a strange sight–two Asians looking utterly out of place, poking our noses into this industrial wasteland. Accompanied by an exceedingly solicitous stray dog, we climbed onto many fuselages–from mid-sized passenger planes and enormous military cargo planes. One particularly awesome Goliath, we were told, had been used for the recent movie Con Air. As Huang thoughtfully took pictures, I followed him around taking pictures of him taking pictures. But after several hours of reconnaissance, we couldn’t find an EP-3. We reluctantly left, a little crestfallen and dusty from the desert winds.

But the story has a happy ending. In the following weeks I continued to pursue a lead in the junk airplane dealership (who would have thought?) and eventually located an old EP-3 cockpit. As I am writing these words, it is being cut into manageable sections and will soon be transported to the Walker, where it will be recomposed in an installation work measuring more than 43 feet long and 13 feet high–the first ever fully realized showing of Bat Project. Sometimes life is better than art. And sometimes, art gives us better life stories.