Blogs Untitled (Blog)

A Reflection on Dinner with Andrea Büttner & Friends

Recently I was recalling a dinner party that was held on the occasion of the opening of Andrea Büttner’s first solo museum presentation in the United States. Like many dinner parties, the November 2015 event was a convivial situation staged to celebrate an occasion (the exhibition launch), but also to provide a social platform for connection and […]

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view Andrea Büttner. Photo: Gene Pittman, Walker Art Center

Recently I was recalling a dinner party that was held on the occasion of the opening of Andrea Büttner’s first solo museum presentation in the United States. Like many dinner parties, the November 2015 event was a convivial situation staged to celebrate an occasion (the exhibition launch), but also to provide a social platform for connection and understanding. Each course was punctuated by remarks—presented in their entirety in the following posts—delivered by curator Lars Bang Larsen, Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, exhibition curator Fionn Meade, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.

The dinner was open to anyone—which informed a motley crew of gallerists, curators, academics, out of town visitors, artists, and the public (both the committed and curious). This echoed Büttner’s co-mingling of “high” and “low,” where she pulls her images and references from a range of sources, from anonymous content found on the internet to the categorically “in”—validated by academia or aesthetic theory.

A half year on, I contacted Andrea to find out what has stayed with her from that moment.

On 22 November 2015, the Walker staged a public dinner connected to the launch of your solo exhibition. What do you recall from that evening?

It was the third day of the private views, the third evening, the third dinner. It was beautiful because it was a response to the exhibition on so many levels. Lars Bang Larsen, Fionn Meade, Keren Gorodeisky, and Elijah Ferrian each gave thoughtful speeches on my practice: Elijah spoke about foraging, Keren gave a paper on my illustration of Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, a work on display in the show. Lars spoke about appropriation, and Fionn finished the evening with a jubilatory speech on JA/Yes, on affirmation as a mode of criticality and being. What I recall most is the joy of the response to a show—a very silent cultural form in the end—a gestalt. A form of feast and reflection that served as a way of holding the exhibition and overcoming the strangeness of the private view. As a cultural form, the private view can be pretty awkward for artists: the work is already completed, nothing much happens, nothing is performed to channel anxiety and concentration and give a meaning to the temporality and the sociality of the gathering.

This is not the first time that programming connected to a showing of your work has taken the form of a dinner. What were those other events, and did they differ in format or content?

At Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt I organized a dinner with speeches for a solo exhibition in 2013. It was the first time that I have done this. At MMK the dinner was an integral part of the exhibition, which dealt with notions of poverty in art history and centered on an installation of tables. These tables were both real tables, for the dinner, which was a symposion like in Plato’s texts: drinks, food, philosophy. At the same time they were display furniture for research I have done on the iconography of poverty.

At the MMK, the dinner was an integral part of the exhibition and shaped the installation, allowing me to think about display. At the Walker, the dinner was part of the programming, and it complemented the exhibition in a meaningful way. It allowed one to think of private views as a specific type of durational performance.

Noting that in your work you have explored notions of vulnerability and shame, interestingly—perhaps also ironically—you allowed yourself to be subject to a moment that awkwardly combined both the dynamics of invitation and display… 

You are right, it is important to think about the sociality of art as a moment of display and thus vulnerability at the same time. There is still much to discover within this potential. And it is important that vulnerability is contagious: both the person delivering the speech and the person the speech is about are exposed. But they share this moment in friendship.

I love speeches for that reason. If they are good speeches—if they are generous and if they have something to say—the exposure is mitigated. In this regard the generous and meaningful speeches are like art. They transmit a vulnerable moment and hold it, while at the same time giving form to it. I think the Russian toast is exemplary in that way.

Remarks: Lars Bang Larsen on Andrea Büttner (1 + 1: a simple premise, or an idiotic riff)

The following remarks were delivered by art historian, independent curator, and writer Lars Bang Larsen at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: exhibition curator Fionn Meade, Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, and forager and nature enthusiast […]

The following remarks were delivered by art historian, independent curator, and writer Lars Bang Larsen at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: exhibition curator Fionn Meade, Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.

Andrea once told me how the Swiss artist Dieter Roth at some point in the 20th century defined the work of art: One makes a work of art, Roth said, by putting one thing on top of another. An object on top of a pedestal, color on a canvas, figure on ground.

(Parenthetically, Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil (1968) was originally was originally titled One Plus One, but that is another story.)

An example of this one thing plus another in the work of Andrea would be Diamantenstuhl (Diamond chair), (2011) that consists of a rough brown diamond that sits on top of a plastic chair. Diamond on chair: art work.

Optimized-Diamond Chair 2011

Andrea Büttner, Diamentenstuhl (Diamond Chair), 2011. Image courtesy Artspace San Antonio

In her show at the Walker we can also think of the two versions of moss presented there, one digital and one natural. Or the way that Büttner the artist places her work on top of that of Kant the philosopher.

But of course things don’t add up that easily. To talk about the art work as one thing plus another is also way of saying that things are never just 1:1. This is definitely the case with Andrea’s work. It always looks pretty simple and straightforward, no bull—ohne Scheisse, as they say—but there is always more to her work than meets the eye. And what’s so wonderful about it is how it makes us see with our own two eyes again.

Some aspects of Andrea’s work—her woodcuts for instance—spell tradition and craftsmanship but she is not that kind of maker. In fact she doesn’t “do” a lot in the conventional sense that artists do. As much as a doer, really, she is a borrower, a channeling medium, somebody who makes versions of existing images, recombines art history, and employs the voices of other people.

You can call her an appropriation artist. All of culture is the palette of the appropriation artist, who also works in the 1+1 way by taking over objects and introducing them into works of art. These objects can be pre-existing ones, or even existing works of art that are treated as things. We can think of Sherrie Levine’s wonderful piece over at the Walker, Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A.P), 1991 in which she has remade Duchamp’s urinal as a contemporary urinal cast in bronze. Here Levine in a sense puts her 1991 remake on top of Duchamp’s 1917 Fountain, as a layering of versions of an art work that lacks an original.

The appropriation artist isn’t committed to any single medium, but picks and chooses between things that culture has already produced, and she moves them around between different contexts and frameworks. The appropriation artist is concerned with art as a sign, and she traffics in difference. The appropriationist is a ventriloquist: she lets an existing object talk, but with a voice that she lends to it.

The appropriation art from the 1980s and’90s was impersonal, de-subjectified. There is nobody “behind” Sherrie Levine’s urinal. When we see a work by Levine or Jeff Koons we don’t go, “Oh, this is just so Jeff. I hear Jeff’s voice so clearly in this. What Jeff wants to express here is this and that.” There’s none of that. In this sense appropriation is not 1+1, it is 0+1; because the artist here takes a certain pleasure in being a nobody, a blank. In the work of Koons or Levine, it is in a sense a question of who has chosen who; is it the artist who chose the object, or in fact the object that chose the artist and thereby makes the artist become someone?

Andrea’s style of appropriation, on the other hand, is anything but blank or smooth. It is dirty and sticky. Her question seems to be: “Well, do I have a choice? Do I have a choice—given who I am, which is not my mistake—do I have a choice to make art about something else than German philosophy, about my fascination with nuns, about my mobile phone and the other mundane stuff that surrounds me?”

In her work Andrea in a sense is more than she does. She gives us small clues about who she is: She is a German woman. She is a sister and a daughter. She has some kind of affiliation with Catholicism. She likes to do things with her hands. She has certain political ideas. She is a contrarian who likes to swim upstream and go against the grain. At the same time, as we never really get to know who she is, her biography is leaking a bit into her work, always just enough to introduce opacity. She would of course never present herself as the full-bodied artistic genius, as the chosen one. Instead, the version of Andrea that we get to know through her work is always half a person—half artist and half amateur, half part professional and half part laywoman, half part private person, half part public persona.

So when an artist makes work by putting one thing on top of another, the one thing plus another never equals two. Instead you break open each of the things as they previously existed. When they are together they form a conspicuous ensemble, a combination that is new but at the same time stands out as suspended or even broken—because it breaks down functions, rules, conventions, and so on. To add one thing to another to break things down, split them into fractions in order to try and get the proportions right.

One makes a work of art by putting one thing on top of another. We can speculate that there was a dirty joke in there for Dieter Roth, the old womanizer. To beget art. I seem to remember that Andrea also knows a good one about a nun, a Wurst, and the holy ghost.

In any case, the two constituent parts of the art work can also indicate a becoming-many, a multitude. This concerns how Andrea’s work, apart from being aware of itself as art, also has a strong social dimension. Not in the sense that she sets out to fashion utopia from whole cloth, but that she shows ways of being together that arises out of the gaps that divide people from one another in everyday life. We can think of how the Rastafarians define their community; they never say “we,” but “I and I” – “I and I,” 1+1….+1+1+1+1. This idea of a collective existence that takes difference into account, and whose qualities are up to us to define, is something that I think resonates strongly in the work of Andrea—and the special way that it is self-effacing and performative, radical and gestural, fundamental and elusive.

I and I: raise our glasses—cheers to Andrea!

Remarks: In Praise of “JA!”

The following remarks were delivered by Fionn Meade, artistic director at the Walker Art Center, at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: curator Lars Bang Larsen,Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah […]

ex2015ab_ins Visual Arts, Exhibitions, installation views. Andrea Büttner, November 21, 2015 – April 10, 2016, Burnet Gallery. The Walker presents the first US solo exhibition of the work of German artist Andrea Büttner (b. 1972), including a newly commissioned installation. Büttner’s work often creates connections between art history and social or ethical issues, with a particular interest in notions of poverty, shame, value, and vulnerability, exploring and challenging the belief systems that underpin them. Curator: Fionn Meade

Installation view of Andrea Büttner. Photo: Gene Pittman

The following remarks were delivered by Fionn Meade, artistic director at the Walker Art Center, at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: curator Lars Bang Larsen,Auburn University associate philosophy professor Keren Gorodeisky, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.

To start off my toast this evening, I want to acknowledge the moss garden that we’ve brought into being over the past months and that now marks the entry to Andrea’s exhibition. I’d like to offer a tribute to its “bold little beauty” as written by the American poet Emily Dickinson within a poem sequence dedicated to Nature and published as it were almost 120 years ago in 1896.

Nature

Pink, small, and punctual,
Aromatic, low,
Covert in April,
Candid in May,

Dear to the moss,
Known by the knoll,
Next to the robin,
In every human soul.

Bold little beauty,
Bedecked with thee,
Nature foreswears
Antiquity.

—Emily Dickinson

 

It is fittingly a leap year that we are in as we gather on a cold November night to celebrate Andrea’s exhibition at the Walker, her first solo exhibition in the United States. More specifically, on February 29, 2016, in what will still feel like winter, we will have our leap year moment, a punctual hole in the calendar during the run of the show. As we are here together, I invite us to think through this addition beyond the usual calendar and toast to this “pink, small, and punctual” fact of the year ahead, time that leaps from the earth askew and revitalizing, just the right imbalance to remind us to keep meaning and direct communication at the fore over the upcoming seasons.

Let us toast to this extra time that keeps us seasonal, that keeps us with and close to what Emily Dickinson aptly describes as the bold little beauty we should all hope to be bedecked with!

And so these remarks on “JA” take permission from Andrea’s embrace of the word “JA (YES)” at regular moments in her work. The “JA” of this evening asks us to leap from one thing to another and celebrate the linking with such permission, allowing a space in between, the kind of in between permission that Andrea asks of each of us regularly in her work, the permission to leap and connect, to encounter both difficult and warm things, and to accept both.

Andrea is not afraid of history and brings a readiness equally to both the tactile surface of her material choices, sharp and reduced compositions, and to the concentric rings of research and questioning that characterize many of her projects. I can readily attest that Andrea is not afraid of being and experience, and to be at large in the world. To be ‘at large’ is a phrase I’ve been thinking about during Andrea’s presence over the past two weeks leading up to the opening of her exhibition. From the enfolding gesture of the blue fabric walls that now ring Burnet Gallery, to the enlarged smear and stain of “desire/search/knowledge” within her new enlarged smartphone etchings, to the exposed gesture of the moss garden to the white walls and terrazzo floors of the Walker galleries,  a garden with no space for withdrawal, no moisture. Throughout the exhibition, the arms of each work are open to and facing each other with clear lines and difference.

And yet these ‘”at large” confident gestures also remind of the equally strange word “largesse,” the state of giving away, divestment, and a willing letting go. I would say that the largesse of Andrea’s work is in its imprinted overlaps, gaps, and in between spaces and low conversations. Moments of true respite meet moments of real doubt, emerging forms of order and index meet gestures of release and falling down. In between there is “largesse.” And so a further fragment of poetry, as we need to be reminded of the largesse of the pebble that Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writes of when he proclaims:

Pebbles cannot be tamed
To the end they will look at us
With a calm and clear eye.

And of the stone that Herbert’s compatriot the poet Czeslaw Milosz gives for us to consider as a counterpoint and host, “known by the knoll,” as Dickinson says:

“We should not think of our past as definitely settled, for we are not a stone or a tree. My past changes every minute according to the meaning given it now, in this moment.”

And this response to the stone and pebble that cannot be tamed by the human eye is the “JA” of life that Andrea so regularly reminds us of. This is the “JA” of being and experience, and the threaded connection that exists and must be traced between forms of life, forms of thinking, and forms of feeling. When Andrea herself writes that: “Shame marks the threshold of visual representation and might at the same time be impossible to represent. Shame means that we resist what we desire,” she puts us squarely in experience, and challenges us to respond with a series of “JA” moments, acceptance and acuity, the specificity demanded of living and thinking as equal demands, the enigmatic move around negation toward something more affirming that approaches an admixture of divestment and acceptance.

Indeed, as Milosz continues in his musing: “What is this enigmatic impulse that does not allow one to settle down in the achieved, the finished? It is a quest for reality.” For reality does not leave us with a no, but with something else, with the “JA” sequence of being and experience. Andrea challenges us to pay attention and be present with what we show and what we hide, what we expose and what we veil, to be ventriloquist, and adopt other voices, other genders, other life forms in our quest for reality. Indeed, to bring these into close contact with each other, to allow for shared experience and research to be imprinted by each other. And so I hope you will indulge one more ventriloquist gesture as I read part of a passage from one of the great “JA” detours in all of literature, the close of Irish novelist James Joyce’s Ulysses, also invoked by a leap year and the skip and jump of divestment, and the breathing in and exhale of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy.

“… yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that  was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him  because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I  gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer  first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of  Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all  birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of  the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish  girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and  the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street  and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep  and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts  of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white  and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old  windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops  half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman  going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson  sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the  queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine  and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I  put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me  under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my  eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I  put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Untitled (JA), 2012 Woodcut on paper from Kabul Portfolio (detail), 2012 © Andrea Büttner, VG

Andrea Büttner, Untitled (JA), 2012
Woodcut on paper from Kabul Portfolio (detail), 2012 © Andrea Büttner, VG

Remarks: Keren Gorodeisky on Andrea Büttner and Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment

The following remarks were delivered by Keren Gorodeisky, associate professor of philosophy at Auburn University, at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: curator Lars Bang Larsen, exhibition curator Fionn Meade, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian. […]

Bilder in der Kritik der Urteilskraft (Images in Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement)” (2014

Visitor’s to Andrea Büttner (Nov. 21, 2015–April 10, 2016) view Bilder in der Kritik der Urteilskraft (Images in Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgement), 2014. Photo: Gene Pittman

The following remarks were delivered by Keren Gorodeisky, associate professor of philosophy at Auburn University, at a program taking the form of a dinner that coincided with the exhibition Andrea Büttner. It is presented along with remarks by fellow speakers at the dinner: curator Lars Bang Larsen, exhibition curator Fionn Meade, and forager and nature enthusiast Elijah Ferrian.

There are many prima facie reasons to think that Andrea Büttner’s work is as far from Immanuel Kant’s philosophy as can be. For one thing, Kant has for many years been regarded as interested mainly in natural beauty and its judgment, while discussing art and its criticism merely as an afterthought. Why should an artist, particularly one who is so versed and interested in the history of art as Büttner is, turn to Kant? Why not engage with, say, Hegel’s Lectures on Aesthetics, given that they are standardly considered to contain as much art criticism as they contain philosophy? Moreover, one of the characteristic marks of Kant’s oeuvre is systematicity. Not only did he propose a systematic philosophy that claims to unify diverse aspects of human life—the knowledge-seeking, the practical and the aesthetic spheres of human life—but he also instilled the very idea that systematicity is a value. One might think that this is precisely one of the values that are put in question in Andrea’s work, by her use of diverse media and techniques such as woodcut printing, video, photography, fabrics, clay, borrowing, and commenting, among others, and by reflecting on diverse contents such as the organic life of a moss, shame, art, philosophy, convent life, and poverty. Rather than a systematic system, this multiplicity may constitute what the German Romantic philosopher and critic Friedrich Schlegel sympathetically called a “system without a system”: a system that challenges the ambition to systematize as much as it complicates conventional dualities and distinctions.

One may wonder, then, how a systematic philosopher who—it is widely thought—merely pays a lip service to art can meet the artist whose work often devotes itself to humility and to the unassuming life of such organisms as a moss; and if they can meet, where would the meeting point be? Since actuality entails possibility, the two clearly can meet because they actually do. Andrea Büttner meets Immanuel Kant in the gorgeous book, Immanuel Kant, The Critique of the Power of Judgment, a book compiled, indeed made by, Büttner (and thus authored by whom? By Büttner? By Kant?)[1] They meet in this book that, rather than merely questions, also displays love, attentiveness and great efforts at understanding Kant’s work, word, and world; a world, which through the lens of Büttner’s work, is seen to be both his and ours, alien and familiar all at once.

Perhaps, then, first impressions are just that—impressions or mere seemings. Perhaps the dualities with which I opened these remarks—dualities between art and natural beauty, systematicity and the lack thereof—are to be suspended or overcome, just like the many dualities that Büttner’s work challenges. Here is one way of thinking about their suspension. In recent years, more and more philosophers have acknowledged that art and art criticism may be as important to Kant as natural beauty and its judgment. There is a growing consensus that the order of his “Critique of the Aesthetic Power of Judgment”—an order that starts with a discussion of natural beauty and its judgment and only then moves to art—is merely an order of exposition rather than an order of priority, an order required for a perspicuous grasp of the phenomena but one that does not privilege natural over artistic beauty.

There is also no reason to think that the systematic ambitions of Kant’s philosophy leave no room for disruption, heterogeneity, and conflict—for a system without a system; nor that they come at the price of humility. The core of Kant’s critical turn in philosophy—roughly, the view that knowledge and science are possible only insofar as we keep them within the bounds of human reason—can only be viewed as a call for humility. The inclusion of art and aesthetic appreciation within his overall system, as a central aspect of human life alongside knowledge, science, morality and religion, suggests that, not unlike Büttner’s work, his system also includes heterogeneity and even conflict. It may be seen as posing a challenge to the long philosophical tradition, stemming from Plato, of thinking of aesthetics and art as marginal, as an outcast, particularly in comparison to knowledge and morality.

A challenge to conventional dualities is also part of Kant’s picture of aesthetics, his view of art and his understanding of judgment. On Kant’s view, aesthetic appreciation includes a necessary tension and duality. It is based on a paradox inasmuch as it is both subjective and universal. On the one hand, aesthetic appreciation is subjective insofar as it is based on feeling. To properly judge a work to be great or an object beautiful, one must express one’s liking for it. When it comes to art and beauty, Kant tells us, judgment, approval, and responsiveness to value are a matter of feeling. At the same time, unlike judgments based on sensory feelings—for example, judgments about pains or the taste of the palate—aesthetic appreciation is also universal. It makes a claim on the agreement of others. When I make an aesthetic judgment—for example, when I evaluate a work as poor or great—I demand that others appreciate the object just as I do and share my feeling for it. Though based on feeling, aesthetic appreciation is never fully passive or merely sensory, but is itself a form of judgment: a feeling judgment or a judging feeling. This is not only Kant’s way of poking at the alleged opposition between subjectivity and universality, but also Kant’s challenge to a conventional picture of judgment. If Kant is right, judgment could not be understood as the act of applying a concept to a sensory given or as the expression of a belief about a fact. Judgment, he suggests, may be as affective as it may be intellectual and imaginative. While some judgments articulate beliefs, and some articulate intentions to act, other judgments—particularly, aesthetic judgments—express feelings. The feeling expressed by aesthetic appreciation—the feeling that is aesthetic judgment—is not merely sensory, brute, or passively drawn from us, but a feeling that always already involves understanding. As many of Büttner’s works suggest, aesthetic judgment, as Kant understands it, requires an attempt to understand, even though no concept, assumption or knowledge with which the judge comes to the work can constitute proper understanding. Judging beauty and art requires attentiveness, slowing down, and willingness to be challenged, and even confused by the work.

Making art, like appreciating it, is also paradoxical, according to Kant: it is both free and lawful. Making art never merely follows principles of production, never merely applies the laws of a tradition or a genre and is never fully governed by the concept of what a thing is supposed to be. (For what concept would that be? Of a work of art? A painting? A realistic painting? Or the concept of a specific artist, such as Andrea Büttner?) And yet, art is not lawless, arbitrary, devoid of any connection to (or a break with) traditions, genres, and concepts. Art is active and skillful and yet receptive and accepting. It is, or should be, Kant holds, open to surprises, to nature beyond individual agency.

Like Kant’s aesthetic theory, Büttner’s Immanuel Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment—or as we, Kantians, like to call it, Kant’s third Critique—is also a kind of system without a system, a heterogeneous unity of challenged dualities. Introducing the beautiful book, Büttner claims that the pictures she placed alongside the text have always been there. They belong to the text, invoked by Kant himself, by the very language that he uses. And they are. These pictures are Kant’s as they are Buttner’s. And yet, many of them would have been inconceivable to Kant: scenes of food street culture in Asia taken from the internet; a 2014 photograph of a living room, furnished by mid-century modern furniture pieces that are mainly covered by sheets and blankets, taken from a personal blog; a 2004 DreamHack LAN party taken from Wikimedia Commons; 2014 drawings by Andea Büttner; and many more. The pictures, unified indeed as they are as pictures that belong to the Critique of the Power of Judgment, come from diverse sources—from Kant’s archives and books, from other artists, like Goya, Diego Rivera, Rosellini, and the contemporary artist David Raymond Conroy, as well as from the internet, from Wikimedia Commons, from personal blogs and more. They are made, they are borrowed, they are reproduced. But they are pictures of the text—“of” in the sense of belonging, not in the sense of being about it. These images emerge from the text, comment on it, bring it to light, make it explicit, while, as Büttner once said about criticism, also cover it.

In the same preface to the book, Büttner endorses yet another duality. Some of the pictures, she says, support the text, the passages that they are paired with, while others disturb or disrupt it. She offers no further explanation of the support or the disruption, but the pictures do; more precisely, they offer one explanation of this duality and then challenge it. Or so I will claim in what follows.

At least on the surface, finding the disruptive pictures is a challenging task. You might think that pictures like the 2004 DreamHack LAN party—a party of video games from Wikimedia Commons—and of a food street vendor in Asia taken from the internet can only disrupt a philosophical text from the 18th century. But do they?  Büttner pairs the picture of the video game party to, or rather she finds it in Kant’s discussion of, “games that involve no interest beyond that of making time pass unnoticed” (Immanuel Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 5:306).[2] The Asian food street vendors are invoked by Kant’s recollection of an anecdote in a book about France, an anecdote about “the Iroquois sachem that nothing in Paris pleased him better than the cook-shops” (CPJ, 5:204). Are these examples of supporting or disturbing pictures?

Perhaps better candidates for disruption are a picture of the facade of a Dior store, from a fashion blog, and the 2011 work of the artist David Raymond Conroy, titled Sometimes I Wish I Could just Disappear—a picture of a gilded, decorated mirror, leaning on a pile of cushions and reflecting a high wooden ceiling and a camera held by a lone hand, as if dismembered from the whole body of the unseen photographer. The relation of the former—the Dior picture—to the passage with which it is paired is at best oblique, for the passage argues, “The highest model, the archetype of taste, is a mere idea, which everyone must produce in himself, and in accordance with which he must judge everything that is an object of taste” (CPJ, 5:232). Perhaps the picture of Dior is meant to disrupt Kant’s discussion of what he regards as the highest archetype of beauty, the beauty of a human being as the only beautiful object who is completely free, determining its own ends through reason? But perhaps it is meant to support Kant’s thought here, the thought that genuine taste requires that each person judge on her own, independently of accepted cultural and social archetypes of taste, like Dior? Conroy’s work too might disturb Kant’s way of connecting art with spirit, but it might also support the passage where Büttner finds it—a passage about objects presented as artworks that are lacking in spirit, if spirit might stand here for the artist’s own agency, the agency that is both in and lacking from Conroy’s work, the agency that Conroy both wishes to remove from his own work and is incapable of removing. (Think here too about Andrea’s wish to let the work fall down.)

On the surface, the placement of a photograph of a horse where Kant speaks about the beauty of a horse, a photograph of a roman sculpture of Doryphoros where Kant speaks of the beauty of the human figure and diagram of a flower from a 1763 book where Kant speaks of the beauty of a rose seem representative of the supporting group of pictures. But are they? Many of the pictures in the book seem to function similarly with relation to the parts of the text with which they are paired—pictures of birds where Kant speaks of beautiful birds and of palaces where he speaks of beautiful palaces. These pictures are literal, perhaps overly literal. In their literalness, they are, I believe, disrupting as much as they are supporting. They disrupt in a myriad ways. For one, most of the pictures in the book are pictures of Kant’s visual examples, not of his arguments, disrupting his main claims, pausing the process of reconstructing the argument for the sake of visually imagining. Does a diagram of a rose support Kant’s claim that the beauty of a rose makes a claim on everyone’s own satisfaction? Does it bring to light this complex thought about the value of art and beauty, its difference from other values, like goodness and truth, the demand it makes on its appreciator and the kind of responsiveness that it calls for?

In one respect, it is exactly in their literalness, in their visual insistence, that these pictures disturb more than support the passages they display. And yet it is exactly in their disruption that they also support those passages, discussions, and arguments. For they slow us down just as required for judgment. They do not allow us to go on. They force us to dwell on the arguments as well as on the pictures and the examples, to explore their connections. These pictures prevent us from taking these examples, the pictures, to be mere examples, mere visual decorations or instruments in the service of promoting the arguments. They challenge the distinction between a claim and an image, between reason and perceptual imagination. They suggest that Kant’s arguments are not made merely in the service of establishing conclusions, philosophical views, ideas. Rather, when we slow down and dwell—when we judge—we see how these arguments and their conclusions are part of a complete world, which is both rational and visual, just as it is both Kant’s and ours.

As in her other works, and as in Kant’s aesthetics, here too, then, in the Critique of the Power of Judgment she made, Andrea Büttner invokes a duality—between supporting and disrupting—in order both to reinforce and to challenge it. Displaying Kant’s pictures both to support and to disrupt the text—to support by means of disrupting and to disrupt by mean of supporting—Büttner’s work, once again, challenges her audience, slowing it down. And insofar as she makes us more reflective by making us more visually perceptive and more imaginative, she is doing philosophy by means of making art and making art by means of doing philosophy. For that, we should all thank her.

Notes

[1] Andrea Büttner, Immanuel Kant, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Hamburg: Felix Meiner/Museum Ludwig, 2014).

[2] Citations from Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment will appear with the abbreviation CPJ, followed by the volume and page number of the Akademie Ausgabe: Kants gesammelte Schriften, hrsg. von der Königlisch Preußischen Akademie der Wissenschaften [Ak] (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1902-).

A Radical Presence: Remembering Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016)

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by […]

va2014po_patterson Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo by Erin Smith.

Portrait of Benjamin Patterson, October 10, 2014. Photo: Erin Smith

What struck me most about the artist Benjamin Patterson was his lightness of spirit, and his playful way of approaching just about everything. I met Patterson in 2014 when he visited us at the Walker to present several performances as part of the exhibition, Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art. I was amazed by his generosity, his fierce memory, and his remarkable ability to tell stories, especially at the noble age of 80. Patterson, who passed away June 25, was a founding member of Fluxus, an international, postwar art movement that challenged traditional art-making modes by combining visual art, music, and performance. Like his Fluxus peers, Patterson created instruction-based works—what he called “compositions for actions”—that encouraged situations allowing for direct engagement with participants or the audience, often through humorous actions. Fluxus unlocked the potential of art to be fun, engaging, and accessible to all people, making it perhaps the most influential and significant experiments in the history of art. (more…)

Magazine as Storehouse: Merce Cunningham and Aspen 5+6 (1967)

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1] ―Phyllis Johnson It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art […]

LIB2000.57.1-.46_001allissueforblog

Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

“In calling it a ‘magazine’ we are harking back to the original meaning of the word as a ‘storehouse, a cache, a ship laden with stores.’”[1]

―Phyllis Johnson

It was while attending the Aspen International Design conference in 1964 in Aspen, Colorado, that editor Phyllis Glick (1926–2001) came up with a groundbreaking idea for an art magazine. Named after the town where it was conceived, Aspen would not resemble a run-of-the mill publication, but rather, as Glick wrote in the inaugural editorial note, a “storehouse,” a multimedia magazine in a box that would house artist projects, writings, and objects, all of which demanded a new kind of reader—an active participant. Instead of a fixed format, each issue, of ten produced between 1965 and 1971, reflected the conceptual concerns of different guest editors and designers invited by Glick, who, under the nom de plume Phyllis Johnson, oversaw all aspects of the magazine’s production.[2]

Aspen’s innovative and shape-shifting format defied the very notion of the mainstream magazine. It stymied many, including the US Postal Service, but was welcomed by the American art community who craved an alternative platform for experimental work.[3] The mass-produced, ephemeral magazine format was well-suited to the conceptual art practices of the time, which eschewed the elitism of the art world gallery system in favor of reproducible, photographic, and text-based works.[4]  With its expansive reach through the mail delivery system and price of $8 an issue, Aspen enabled greater access to art and ideas in the United States and abroad.

Aspenthisaspenforblog

Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Edited by artist Brian O’Doherty (1928–) and designed by Lynn Letterman and David Dalton, number 5+6, “The Minimalism Issue,” remains one of Aspen’s most ambitious efforts. O’Doherty, in his editorial note, referred to the double issue as a “miniature museum,” which had indeed replaced the white cube of the gallery with a small off-white box.[5] Secured by a string and button, the box enclosed an abundance of diverse media that provided a curated selection of 1960s conceptual practices out of New York[6]: artist projects by O’Doherty, Dan Graham (1942–), Sol LeWitt (1928–2007), Mel Bochner (1940–), Tony Smith (1912–1980); reams of art films by Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), Robert Morris (1931–), László Moholy-Nagy (1895–1946), and Hans Richter (1888–1976); five flexi-disc records that included music by John Cage (1912–1992) and Morton Feldman (1926–1987), and recordings of Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Samuel Beckett (1906–1989), Richard Huelsenbeck (1892–1974), William S. Burroughs (1914–1997), and Alain Robbe-Grillet (1922–2008); as well as musical scores and advertisements. It also included three staple-bound essays by Susan Sontag (1933–2004), George Kubler (1912–1996), and Roland Barthes (1915–1980). Incidentally, this was the first publication of Barthes’ famous essay in which he pronounced the death of the author, a claim that subsequently launched an entire field of literary criticism.

Whether it was Tony Smith’s build-it-yourself model of his minimalist sculpture The Maze (1967) or the many films and audio recordings that required hours of attention, in the wake of the death of the author, issue 5+6 championed the birth of the reader, foregrounding his or her role in participating in the production of art and ideas. Therefore, the same year that art critic Michael Fried (1939–) published the iconic essay in which he declared himself against theater, specifically the theatricality of minimalism, which existed only for its audience, Aspen 5+6 was producing minimalist art on a mass level, disseminating the magazine to a reading audience located across the country, who were cast as active participants.

Among the many treasures of issue number 5+6 is a flexi-disc of two recordings by Merce Cunningham. Side “A” features Cunningham reading his seminal 1952 essay “Space, Time, Dance,” in which he expresses the views that initiated a “choreographic turn,” in modern American dance while Side B labeled simply “Further Thoughts” includes an interview with Cunningham from 1967 in which he expands upon his theory of dance fifteen years later.

LIB2000.57.1-.46_003Mercediscforblog

Issue 5+6 of Aspen. Rosemary Furtak Collection, Walker Art Center Library

Cunningham’s measured, but conversational reading of “Space, Time, Dance” comes through surprisingly clearly on the warm, crackling flexi-disc recording. This essay touches on many key artistic strategies that would characterize his dance career. His discussion revolves around the equal importance of space and time in the dance, and he describes his innovative “formal structure based on time,”[7] as well as his commitment to using chance operations to create indeterminate choreographies that objectify everyday movement, blurring the boundaries between art and life. Just a year earlier, John Cage had begun experimenting with chance operations in his music. Cage created extensive charts that catalogued different musical elements and used the structure of time to determine the order of those elements by way of chance procedures. This method had a profound influence on Cunningham, who sought to use the devices of chance and indeterminacy in his dances, which he experimented with for the first time in Sixteen Dances for Soloist and Company of Three (1951).[8]

johnsforblogfinal

Jasper Johns’ décor for MCDC’s Walkaround Time, which consisted of seven inflatable plastic “pillows,” each displaying a different image from Duchamp’s masterwork The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), 1915-1928. Collection Walker Art Center

Reacting to American modern dance that sought to express the “new” but could not shirk the expressionist and narrative forms of ballet, Cunningham saw chance operations as offering a new kind of freedom from the old forms, in which dance could be “a space in which anything can happen.”[9] Using the formal structure of time measured by a stopwatch as brackets that enclosed the dance, Cunningham would precisely choreograph a sequence of movements and then allow chance, the toss of a coin for example, to determine their arrangement. Cunningham insisted that all parts of his dances—choreography, scenography, music—be independently created and only come together afterwards, all corresponding in the same way to space and time. All of the elements of the performance on stage are thus “autonomous” but “connected at structural points.”[10] He describes his artistic process as “man-made” though “the final synthesis” has a “natural result.”[11] As a consequence, the “dance is free to act as it chooses, as is the music.”[12] Instead of being subordinate to one or the other, dance and music are free agents that only conform to the predetermined formal structure of time. In doing so, Cunningham was constantly challenging himself and his dancers. They would learn the choreographies in silence, using timed notation and often only hear the accompanying music for the first time in performance. Most of all, his dances challenged audiences who were accustomed to a linear progression of familiar, synchronized movement that took place center stage and in concert with the music. In Cunningham’s dances, audiences was presented with simultaneous but disparate choreographies occurring all over the stage that were independent from the music—a landscape of space and time they could navigate on their own terms.[13]

Klosty_Canfield_Morris_copmanyforblog

For his 1969 décor design for MCDC, Robert Morris created a mobile column complete with airplane runway lights. During the performance, the column traversed the stage from left to right and back, shining the bright lights against a reflective scrim hung upstage and the dancers’ costumes, which were covered in reflective paint. Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Canfield. Brooklyn Academy of Music, 1969. Photo: James Klosty

Rather than the expressive or symbolic movement, Cunningham’s interest lay in creating “pure movement,” performed simply as a thing in itself such that “what is seen is what it is.”[14] At the core of his fascination with chance is Cunningham’s embracing of the beauty of the randomness and the logic of everyday life. In a stunning turn of phrase, Cunningham asks the listener to consider an hour of their day, and all of the occurrences that naturally fill that hour, and how “each thing […] succeeds each thing.”[15] Cunningham wanted his dances to have a similar effect, of a set of seemingly natural occurrences taking place over the course of a period of time. Similar to Duchamp’s readymades, Cunningham saw everything in life as eventful and everyday movement—whether riding a bicycle onstage, getting rained on, running out to get a cup of coffee, or simply standing—as worthy in and of itself of a place on the stage. “Dancing,” as he explains, “is a visible action of life.”[16]

minutforblogfinal

Mobile enough to take on MCDC’s first world tour in 1964, Robert Rauschenberg’s free-standing stage décor for MCDC’s Minutiae prompted interaction by the dancers who moved around and through itRobert Rauschenberg  décor for Minutiae, 1954/1976,  oil, paper, fabric, newsprint, wood, metal, and plastic with mirror and string, on wood. Collection Walker Art Center, Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection

Issue 5+6 is dedicated to the French poet Stéphane Mallarmé (1842–1898), who famously declared that “things exist, we do not need to create them; we only need to seize the relationships between them.”[17] However, it might as well have been dedicated to Cunningham, whose dances grasped the rare and beautiful indeterminate choreographies derived from chance operations. Aspen 5 +6, in many ways, reflects Cunningham’s philosophy of dance. It also maps a network of influential artists and composers with whom he had collaborated or would do so in the future: Cage, his partner in life and art; Rauschenberg, who met and began working with Cunningham at Black Mountain College, served as artistic director of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and designed more than 20 costumes and stage decors for Cunningham; Feldman, who composed music for multiple productions; Morris whose work greatly influenced Cunningham and Cage, and who would design the stage décor for Cunningham’s Canfield in 1969; Stan VanDerBeek (1927–1984), whose film projections would illuminate the stage in Cunningham’s Variations V (and who filmed Morris’s performance Site (1964), which was included in the issue); and finally, Duchamp, whose experimental work with chance, the everyday, and the boundaries between art and life inspired and shaped the practices of Cunningham, Cage, and many fellow artists in their circle. A sustained look at Aspen 5 + 6 provides just a glimpse of the vast constellations of art practices grouped around Cunningham that will be on view in the forthcoming Merce Cunningham: Common Time exhibition in February 2017.

Peruse all ten issues of Aspen at Ubu Web.

 

Footnotes

[1] Phyllis Johnson, “Letter from the Editor,” Aspen, no. 1 (1965): n.p.

[2] Allen, Gwen. 2011. Artists’ Magazines: an alternative space for art. (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press), 43.

[3] Ibid, 49.

[4] Ibid, 52.

[5] Ibid, 49.

[6] Ibid, 49.

[7] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[8] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 58.

[9] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[10] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[11] Cunningham, Merce. 1951 “The function and technique of dance.” 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 60.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Vaughan, David, and Melissa Harris. 1997. Merce Cunningham: fifty years. (New York, NY: Aperture), 276.

[14] Cunningham, Merce. 1952 “Space, Time, Dance” Aspen no. 5+6 (1967), flexi disc recording.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Edson, Laurie. 2000. Reading relationally: postmodern perspectives on literature and art. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 63.

 

The Patron Saint of Ruined Media: On Lynn Hershman Leeson’s Lorna

As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b.  1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection.   And on […]

As evidenced by the wonderful interview between Lynn Hershman Leeson (b. 1941) and Juliana Huxtable (b.  1987) in Art Forum this summer, Hershman Leeson’s pioneering media legacy continues to provoke and inspire contemporary artists. Here is a look at one of her daring technological accomplishments, which is part of the Walker Art Center’s permanent collection.

 

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”[1]

 

Lorna (created between 1979 and 1983) was the first interactive piece of video art created for LaserDisc, and uses the technological capabilities of the LaserDisc to tell a compelling story about an agoraphobic woman.[2]  Renowned for their visual clarity (particularly when compared to other media at the time, such as Betamax or VHS) LaserDiscs were nevertheless never commercially viable due to their expense and inability to record television. LaserDiscs prefigured DVDs and Blu-rays in several capacities, not least in their ability to play, pause, fast forward, and select various options from a menu stored on the disc. All of these technologically advanced affordances are available to the player in Lorna, which combines long clips of video with interactions best compared to point-and-click graphic adventure games. Furthermore, because Lorna’s agoraphobia is facilitated by various kinds of technology (in particular the television and the telephone) it feels appropriate to access her story via obvious and almost obtrusive technological means.

Lorna opens much like a montage at the beginning of a television show—it is even accompanied by a strangely upbeat country song. After this introduction, Hershman Leeson’s camera pans around the room only to settle on a pile of mundane objects. These objects, which include a fish bowl, a television, and a wallet, introduce the player to the central mechanic of Lorna: branching menus. The player navigates the menu easily with a remote to select one of the objects. Similar to the home screen on commercial DVDs with forking options (Play Movie, Subtitles, Bloopers, etc.) this first screen helps launch the player into different parts of the piece. Exploring Lorna’s environment (which includes the ability to watch her television programs, look through her wallet, and even have sex with a delivery man) helps the player feel empathy for her and her condition. Lorna’s life is expressed and contained by the limits of her apartment, which is why Hershman Leeson’s camera lingers and repeatedly returns to Lorna’s possessions ̶ they, after all, have a heightened relevance in her life. The objects themselves can trigger a new video clip or take the player to another menu for other choices (for instance, selecting the television takes the player to a number of different television segments), and it is impossible to know in advance if the object you just clicked on will lead you back to the title menu, back to the screen you were just on, or to another part of the narrative entirely.

Compared to both Colossal Cave Adventure (1976) and Zork (1977), the key early adventure videogames which relied on typed text commands and had no visuals, the blending of film and photography with interactive menus in Lorna was a major technologic achievement. Merging film and game, Lorna stands at the edge of how media is often demarcated, requiring input from the player even as it remains primarily voyeuristic.

lorna_01

Image credit: “Prehistories of Media Art: 1965- Present.” http://systemsapproach.net/edu/SAIC/AHTC/PHONM/FLL06/03.html, accessed July 14, 2016

As the work’s sequences are not fixed in a specific order, Lorna unfolds in a nonlinear way that differs from playthrough to playthrough. Ultimately, by navigating through menus in different orders, the player can conclude the story with three wildly different endings: Lorna can kill herself, leave her apartment for Los Angeles, or destroy her television set. This last choice is particularly poignant, as Lorna’s connection to her telephone and television enable and reinforce her agoraphobia. Hershman Leeson’s prescience about the way technology has become more and more all-consuming in our daily lives underscores Lorna’s continued relevance. Or at least it should.

This relevance is often lost in the opaqueness of Lorna’s user interface. I didn’t fully understand Lorna’s complexity until I saw a diagram that explained how its sequences fit together and branched off from one another.

LornaSchematic-1

Image credit: Lynn Hershman Leeson, ” Schematic of Lorna Videodisk Branching System,” 1984, ink on paper.

This schematic gave me a much clearer picture of the interactivity and complexity Hershman Leeson was trying to cultivate in Lorna. Unfortunately, this interactivity was more forcefully conveyed to me in the schematic than in any interaction with the piece itself. This is because, like so many media creations, Lorna was ahead of the technology it needed. To create Lorna, Hershman Leeson coopted an available media form (LaserDisc) that was, ultimately, not optimal for her purpose. Lorna easily becomes stuck on particular passages, has trouble returning to its previous menus, and can be fast-forwarded in such a way that it circumvents its complex choices. The Walker Archive houses the original disc along with the transferred DVD, and primary researchers are only allowed to play the DVD. The problems with the DVD magnify the inherited problems with the original disc—problems that are an artifact of using the laserdisc in a way it was not meant to be used. Hershman Leeson has noted that she likes “to preserve the glitches of time, the underbelly of an era … I keep the scars intact.” Ontological honesty is refreshing in an era with an insatiable appetite for reskinning and iterating characters and storylines (see the recent success of Pokémon GO, the record-setting box-office attendance numbers for the latest Star Wars, etc.). These scars, inherited from the original LaserdDisc, distract from the experience so much that Lorna is almost unplayable on DVD.

Either way, both the disc and the DVD’s capacity for interactivity are woefully antiquated when compared to any modern computer. Choosing to program for this format is gloriously inefficient in terms of pure interactivity, but very helpful if, like Hershman Leeson, the images and video are just as important as the interactive elements.[3] Interacting with Lorna in its current DVD state, one cannot help but wish it had been preserved on a computer. However, a transcription of that sort would have completely obfuscated the transgressive way Hershman Leeson expanded the uses of the laserdisc.

Like Shelley’s fictitious description of the ruined monolithic status of the great king and ruler Ozymandias (inspired by the pharaohs of old), Lorna is no longer intact (and perhaps never was as powerful or as realized as it pretends to be). Just as Ozymandias’s  head is no longer attached to his body, and his sneering visage looks out onto a wasteland, Lorna is a ruin. Lorna is now the outline of what it once was, and if not a warning to media artists, she can be seen as patron saint of the Ruined Digital. The ambition of Lorna coupled, with its migrations from one hardware to another, has ensured the work would quickly become unstable and unplayable. Given that the television is an antagonist throughout Lorna, there is something appealing about this ruinous state, as if the character herself might be able to escape due to the imperfections of the technology; by transferring the choices to a new system, perhaps she will be able to move away from life on the screen.

Notes

[1] Shelley, Percy Bysshe, “Ozymandias,” in Shelley’s Poetry and Prose, eds. Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2002, 109.

[2] Hershman Leeson, Lynn, and Peter Weibel. Lynn Hershman Leeson Civic Radar. Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2016, 160.

[3] From personal experience programming in ActionScript 3.0, even current computers and programs do not offer a very good platform for combining video/photography along with interactive elements.

Grey People are the Guanaco and the Button Hole: Erin Sharkey on Pope.L’s “Skin Set”

“When Pope.L shakes his head he makes drawings that keep him from laugh-crying to death,” writes curator Helen Molesworth of William Pope.L‘s “Skin Set Drawings.” An ongoing series begun by the multidisciplinary artist two decades ago, the drawings are made using readily available materials—graph paper, markers, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, etc.—and consist of declarative statements about people of […]

by White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001)

William Pope.L’s White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001), part of his “Skin Set Drawings,” as installed in the exhibition Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

“When Pope.L shakes his head he makes drawings that keep him from laugh-crying to death,” writes curator Helen Molesworth of William Pope.L‘s “Skin Set Drawings.” An ongoing series begun by the multidisciplinary artist two decades ago, the drawings are made using readily available materials—graph paper, markers, ballpoint pen, correction fluid, etc.—and consist of declarative statements about people of various colors (white, black, orange, green, and so on), offering incisive commentary on the absurdity of language about color and race. In commemoration of the Walker’s recent acquisition of a series of “Skin Set” drawings, now on view in the exhibition Less Than One, we invited Minneapolis-based poet, essayist, and educator Erin Sharkey to share her creative response to works in the series. 

I.

A Blizzard of Claims

The message looks bold. A direct statement. No modifiers like: sometimes or maybe. A straightforward statement that sounds so close to something you have always heard you might miss that something is amiss.

But you look really closely, you get up close and break the column of light in front of White People are the Camel and its Needle (2001), and you see marks Pope.L made on its face. Between the bold red letters, in small script is this short musing:

write write write something I can buy. then write it out and write it again. A blizzard of claims like snowfall coating the trees in the park after the lynching

And there are small cartoon bones. The only thing here with strong singular meaning. Bones are bones whether they be food or a reminder. Or a warning.

Always bones.

And snow, clean white snow, on every surface. So quiet and still. What is snow for? To remind us of resistance to the ground? To record footsteps, coming and going? To melt?

Like any night anywhere, in his little drawing, a little house with a fire in its little fireplace, smoke spilling out of its chimney. They are inside. Warm and resting from the activities of the day. Be it farming or factory work or stringing up a black man by his neck.

Selections from William Pope.L's Skin Set, on view in Less Than One.

Selections from William Pope.L’s Skin Set, on view in Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

II.

Grey people are the Guanaco and the Button Hole

When your mother is gauze and your father a raven, you learn very early you are either sackcloth or ash. Evidence of sacrifice. Storm clouds or an old woman’s hair.

Color without color, undied, undyed.

A cloud on the ground. A heavy buoyancy.

The first math equation I learned=
A black body, a perfect closet for light + a white back turned away.
Calculation. Is there a better warning that race is replica than that it combines?

1+1= alone in this world.

Look here at all that we have built—an industry of industries, a conveyer belt for conveyer belts. All we have added is lack, and simplified by making all of this more complicated. Smoke stacks.

Black can be made.
White cannot be made, it is empty.
Black, full. Black is only everything but what it is not.
Black is pigment
White—light
They want no meaning.

Grey is no color—only want. And certainly it is not a clear thing. Transparent, clean, sterile. Oh god no, not that. Nothing pulls the curtain back on a binary like being both inverses or neither.

There is no word for the opposite of a metaphor. Literally.

I have learned uncertainty. Color is a senseless gauge. How can color be trusted anyway? It changes depending on weather. It changes when another leans in close and kisses its ear. When I was a little girl, I couldn’t understand how one could trust that another person saw the same thing as they did. Ask a friend to draw what they see. They will see what they see and say it’s what you saw.

Picked the prettiest yellow flower in the neighbor’s garden. How can you even talk about it? And trust that when you compared the flower to the brightest yellow yolk or the creamiest stick of butter or the golden light of the moon that they really remember? Or that they make the same shapes on their memory?

A camel, no reserve, somehow crossed the salty ocean with no hump. So quick, her baby was born running before its first breath, air as thin as thread. Hang on dear life.

She was a whale. Not a devil, not a school bus. Simply an extremist wearing a cape of neutrality.

lksdfjsdlkff

William Pope.L, Orange People Are the First Word in the Bible (2012), on view in Less Than One. Photo: Gene Pittman

III.

My Heart’s Envy is Violet

On a journey on a wide rough sea, insisted by waves towards the end of the spectrum by westerlies, anti-trades, that drag the path of hurricanes—our boatswain, with his tool belt of metal darners, pauses to look out over the stern’s regrets, shrinking at the furthest point as it makes itself smaller and smaller like a scolded child.

I’ve asked you to join on this voyage on this boat of hands, fingers splayed under the surface, reaching down for a hand reaching up in return. Asked that you compound the pigments, use a swirling brush; count each round until you reach the age of a stone at the deepest reach of the ocean’s floor who has never felt sunlit on its face.

Newton calculated the desire for the color of beautyberries, free for no one insisted that they be red or blue, or rather understood how far 380 nanometers away  is the troposphere. The beads of the callicarpa bush—metallic berries—squished under feet, can be used to make a fermented goblet to sustain you on your journey.

—Okay, stop.

You know that we aren’t really on a ship on a journey on a wavelength towards a perfect color that no one would force to be what it is not. We are just sitting here in chairs, or maybe you are reclined in some other way—me writing, you listening with your eyes and your tender hands.

You cannot deny the lure of red with its ordered rituals, its occasional sweets, or the pull of blue’s honest emotion, and you know that to find it is to perhaps balance on the lonesome point alone. No history shared with your conceivers. And from this acme even if you stretch as far as your arms will reach, you cannot hold blood in one hand, water in the other.

I wont convince you, though I have tried, you will agree, mightily, that the pursuit is feckless for colors don’t exist. They are only light, like so many bouncing balls. And that a man sits at a great wide table, lifts up each thing presented to him, spins it once in his hands, hums a great deal, and calls it energy or clean, mystery or nobility.

My heart wants violet. Don’t tell me it’s not its own glorious thing.

This Week in History: Merce Cunningham’s Les Noces

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s […]

Merce Cunningham and Brandeis University Dancers in Les Noces, June 12, 1952

The Ballets Russes, the risk-taking ballet company founded by Russian visionary Sergei Diaghilev in 1909 which remained immensely popular through international tours until 1929, remains to this day a key influence on the creative possibilities of dance. Merce Cunningham’s relationship to the Ballets Russes is a multidimensional one—Diaghilev’s vision of an artistic synthesis and Cunningham’s strict independence of the art forms, although philosophically antithetical, produced some of the greatest dances of the twentieth century. Composers Igor Stravinsky and John Cage are perhaps best known for the work they produced for the Ballets Russes and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, respectively. Diaghilev commissioned stage décors and costume designs by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, Giorgio de Chirico, and Max Ernst; Cunningham would work closely with Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, and Robert Morris. Due to their international prominence, including the American tours of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo (the post-war company formed after Diaghilev’s death), the Ballets Russes’s impact on American dance, and on the young Cunningham, are undeniable.

Cunningham would have had his first opportunity to see the famous Russian company firsthand through New York performances by Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo in the Fall of 1939. Whether he saw the performances of Les Après-midi d’un faune (The Afternoon of a Faun), Scheherezade, and Petrushka is uncertain, however as Cunningham scholar David Vaughan has stated, the qualities of these works “would have already become part of what is available to any choreographer.”[1] Cunningham’s own exploration of composition, abstraction, and application of Dada and dance’s relationship to the music (or lack thereof) all hold roots in Diaghilev’s ballets. Diaghilev’s influence on Cunningham can be traced as far back as 1952, when Cunningham, still early in his professional career as a choreographer, was commissioned by Leonard Bernstein of the Festival of Creative Arts to create a new choreographic work after one of the Ballets Russes’s most significant ballets—Bronislava Nijinska‘s Les Noces.

This week is the sixty-fourth anniversary of the first Festival of Creative Arts, an annual two-day program of performances of music, dance, and theater at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. Founded by composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, the festival continues to be hosted at Brandeis today. In 1952, Bernstein was already an influential figure on the East Coast, having served as conductor of the New York Philharmonic since 1943. By 1952, Bernstein was heading the orchestral and conducting program at the Tanglewood Music Center, a summer orchestral program founded in 1940 by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

Festival of the Creative Arts, festival program, 1952. Brandeis University Archives

The first Festival of the Arts (June 13–14, 1952) premiered Bernstein’s one-act social commentary opera Trouble In Tahiti and Marc Blitzstein’s translation of Bertold Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, accompanied by symposia on jazz and poetry (with performances by Miles Davis, Aaron Copeland, and a reading by William Carlos Williams). For the first Festival of the Arts, Bernstein also commissioned Cunningham to create two almost entirely different projects—to choreograph an original work to Pierre Schaffer’s composition Pour un Homme Seul (1949–1950) and a restaging of Les Noces (1923), a ballet originally choreographed for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes by Nijinska to a score by Igor Stravinsky. Bernstein’s invitation was significant, as up to that point Cunningham had only been commissioned by Lincoln Kirsten for the Ballet Society (later the New York City Ballet) in 1947 and received a select few laudatory reviews in the New York Herald Tribune for brief solo works. While Cunningham’s skills as a dancer were recognized as early as his performances with Martha Graham Company in 1939, he was yet to receive significant recognition as a choreographer.

Nijinska’s ballet, a simple narrative of a Russian peasant wedding, was already antithetical to the type of work Cunningham had been producing. As opposed to translating Nijinska’s work, Cunningham rechoreographed the piece, taking the dramatic concept and music as his starting points. Cunningham’s dancers would later remember “leaping movements” and an athleticism not present in the Ballets Russes’s original choreography. Donald McKayle, a dancer in Cunningham’s class, described the movement as “raw, not sophisticated,” which is consistent with the dynamic solos Cunningham had been choreographing since the mid-1940s.[2] Although no recording of the performance survives, the below photographs of rehearsals show the production including full costumes designed by artist Howard Bay, which were more ornate and dramatic than the fairly simple original designs by Natalia Goncharova for the original Ballets Russes production.

Les Noces, Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires, 1923, Music Division, Library of Congress

Howard Bay, copy of sketched costumes study for Les Noces" 1952. Walker Art Center 2011.313

Both projects required Cunningham not only to develop new a choreography but to teach it to Brandeis University students. Since 1950, Cunningham had been teaching daily dance classes at his 8th Avenue studio in New York, and by 1952 he had developed a small, dedicated group of dancers, for whom he had begun developing a new technique. These dancers made up the core cast for Cunningham’s work at Brandeis. After receiving the commission he worked in New York, developing the movement and choreography for the principal roles, and then developing the structure of the cast with the Brandeis Dance Group later in the spring.

Les Noces, and the far more experimental Pour un Homme Seul, are key to considering Cunningham’s career-long connection between pedagogy and his own creative practice. Although on numerous occasions he would profess his frustration with teaching (“I hate teaching. The repetition that is demanded by [class] drives me crazy”[3]), Cunningham was keenly aware of its importance to his development of new work and its role at the heart of his philosophy of dance. Bernstein also valued the importance of continued teaching throughout his career: “[Teach and learn] are interchangeable words. When I teach I learn, when I learn I teach,” he would often profess.[4] Bernstein, then on the faculty at Brandeis, created the festival not only as a platform to support new work by key figures in visual arts, music, dance, and theater but also as a multi-disciplinary access point for the university’s students. For Cunningham, the translation between his own idea for a movement and the dancer’s interpretation through their own unique style, continued to be a key aspect of his philosophy. “I use class like a laboratory,” Cunningham would later reflect, “something occurs to me and if I could do it myself I would figure it out and show it to them.” [5]

Teaching not only provided Cunningham with his main source of income in the 1950s, but also allowed him the means for experimentation. The Brandeis commissions were only one of a number of Cunningham’s engagements in 1952. Earlier that spring, Cunningham and his partner the composer John Cage, briefly taught a series of classes Black Mountain College. Later in June, Cunningham hosted a six-week summer course at the Dancer’s Studio in New York before again returning to Black Mountain College, followed by a brief engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. 

Constructing his own approaches to movement through teaching, and instilling a personal dedication to his craft through the ritual of daily class, were key to Cunningham’s development as a dancer. Bernstein’s choice to commission the young Cunningham to work from Nijinska’s existing influential work allowed Cunningham to infuse a historical score with his own interpretation and sense of the present. Filtering historical influences while pushing his own creative boundaries is the nature of Cunningham’s practice—and partly why his work continues to resonate in the present. Always an original thinker, Cunningham’s reflections on history are uniquely his own and always approached as a means to a new creative challenge.

Merce Cunningham: Common Time opens at the Walker Art Center February 8, 2017.

Footnotes:

[1] David Vaughan, “Diaghilev/Cunningham” Art Journal  34, no. 2 (Winter 1974–1975): 140.

[2] Donald McKayle, quoted in David Vaughan Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years (New York: Aperture, 1997): 64.

[3] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

[4] Leonard Bernstein: Teachers & Teaching (accessed June 11, 2016).

[5] Merce Cunningham Trust, Merce Cunningham: Mondays with Merce, Episode #12 (accessed June 10, 2016).

Self-Portrait as a Building: In the Studio with Mark Manders

Recently I had the immense pleasure of visiting Mark Manders’s studio in Ronse, Belgium, to view his progress on the sculpture the Walker commissioned—his first major public artwork in the United States—for next June’s opening of the newly renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It’s one of 16 new works (including five commissioned by the Walker) that will […]

Photo May 23, 8 17 17 AM

Fountain for Rokin Plein in Amsterdam, to be unveiled in 2017. All photos by Misa Jeffereis

Recently I had the immense pleasure of visiting Mark Manders’s studio in Ronse, Belgium, to view his progress on the sculpture the Walker commissioned—his first major public artwork in the United States—for next June’s opening of the newly renovated Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. It’s one of 16 new works (including five commissioned by the Walker) that will animate the campus. The Walker’s history with Manders dates back to 2011 when we hosted a touring exhibition of his work, the first in North America.

My journey to meet the artist began with my renting a car in Brussels and entrusting GPS to guide me to the remote Flemish town of Ronse, where Manders lives and works. I approached a large red wooden gate, pressed a doorbell, and was greeted by the artist who led me into his home. I met his partner and his five-week-old baby boy, who was sleeping, and began to understand why Manders has chosen to live and work in this peaceful and idyllic environment. The town is situated outside of the fast-paced art world, where the artist has the resources and headspace to create massive sculptures that at once assert their monumentality, timelessness, and fragility.

Photo May 23, 9 51 54 AM

Large-scale bronze piece in the process of being painted to resemble its original clay state

Manders is known for creating surreal and hauntingly evocative sculptural installations that feature stoic figures reminiscent of ancient Rome and Greece. The artist uses deceptive materials for the works—first constructed from molded wet clay and wood, then cast in bronze—which are then painted to look indistinguishable from the original components. During our three-hour visit, I caught a rare glimpse of the artist’s thinking process and the meticulous steps that go into creating these uncanny bronze pieces.

Photo May 23, 7 40 10 AM Photo May 23, 7 45 12 AM

The artist led me through the various spaces of his labyrinthine studio, a former fabric-manufacturing factory, where the artist has lived for 11 years. Room after room, we moved through the various steps taken to create each sculpture, beginning in the artist’s library and drawing room where the brainstorming, research, and sketching takes place. The space was filled with models of his sculptures, maquettes of furniture, and drawings scattered about the floor, everything strewn haphazardly as if created hastily before moving on to the next idea. In fact, Manders’s entire studio was filled with objects that appeared ready to be deployed, containing a dynamism that reflected not only the artist’s boyish energy, but also the nature of the object’s tentative status: appearing cracked, overstuffed, fragile, discarded. Manders revealed that he thinks through his concepts over many years and keeps early drawings and models within his daily encounter in the event that he has time to realize one of his unexecuted project ideas. Each drawing is a visual reminder for Manders, and for me, a peek into the inner workings of his mind and the memories that occupy it.

Photo May 23, 7 46 41 AM

Drawings of ideas for future projects

This object evokes a mechanical device, circuit, or instrument. Manders cryptically explained that his sculptures are considered “good objects” if they can withstand the test of being on a bodega floor.

This object evokes a mechanical device, circuit, or instrument. Manders cryptically explained that his sculptures are considered “good objects” if they can withstand the test of being on a bodega floor.

For more than three decades, Manders has been developing an endless “self-portrait as a building” in the form of sculptures, still lifes, and architectural plans. The notion was inspired by his interest in writing and literature, however, realizing the greater potential of objects to convey meaning and narrative, the artist switched his focus from writing to object-making. He noted to me that books, autobiographies, and more generally, language move linearly—readers absorb one word after another, moving forward in one direction—whereas sculptures have no time or chronology associated with their consumption. There is much greater room for interpretation when proposing that an accumulation of sculptures makes up the artist’s self-portrait.

Photo May 23, 8 04 12 AM

In a drawing from the early 2000s, a floor plan articulated a building with various rooms containing objects—all of which have been produced. The artist explained that the “rooms” of his “self-portrait” continuously change, morph, and grow, and that the persona of “Mark Manders” (who is very much like, but not actually, the artist) shifts in relation to these rooms. In this excerpt from The Absence of Mark Manders (1994), he writes about his persona as a building: “Mark Manders has inhabited his self-portrait since 1986. This building can expand or shrink at any moment. In this building all words created by mankind are on hand. The building arises, like words, out of interaction with life and things. The thoughts that surround him in his building are, materialized or not, always important and never gratuitous.” As Manders toured me through his one-story studio complex, his floor plan, I realized that we were sequentially moving through the artist’s self in the form of this very building. Each room and all of the objects within it are Mark Manders.

Photo May 23, 7 58 15 AM

The artist has long produced his own newspapers, using every word from the Oxford dictionary randomly inserted into typical newspaper columns and illustrated by photographs of indistinct objects on his studio floor. The newspapers do not present current events, but rather live outside of time or place, just as the rest of his work resists stable positioning.

Photo May 23, 7 58 33 AM

The newspapers are deployed as papier-mâché stand-ins for other materials, but also appear in his finalized sculptures.

Photo May 23, 8 29 52 AM

What became clear to me is that Manders builds every aspect of his sculptures, including furniture. The artist’s father was a furniture maker and taught him some of the craft, although Manders insists that he is primarily self-taught and has acquired many woodworking skills over time. For the Walker’s commission, Manders is producing three large-scale figurative sculptures, and a comparatively intimate, life-sized cast bronze chair. When he indicated to me the low-seated chair that was cast for the Garden, I was surprised to learn that it was not sourced at a vintage store, but rather had been built by the artist. He explained that when he began making art in 1986, the furniture in his immediate surroundings was built in the 1970s and ’80s, and he has been consistently drawn to this vintage style. The combination of classical style figures and mid-century modern furniture again denies us a clear resting point in time.

Photo May 23, 8 24 02 AM

For this Walker-commissioned sculpture, Manders produced vinyl images of the full size sculpture in order to determine its height. The artist decided on the far right image for the sculpture’s final height.

Photo May 23, 8 14 52 AM

Manders kept the molds from the Walker’s totemic-like sculpture in order to produce multiple editions in the future. We examined the surface of the liquid silicone mold that captures incredible detail from the original model.

After touring what must have been about ten different rooms within his massive studio complex, Manders drove me to the foundry where his sculptures are being produced: Art Casting in Oudenaarde, Belgium. (The internationally renowned foundry—just 20 minutes away by car—works with high-profile artists from around the world, and for this reason it insists on confidentiality with a no-photography policy.) Manders excitedly toured me through the facility, explaining that the lost-wax method employed there has been used since ca. 4500–3500 BCE. Art Casting has perfected the craft, with 50 to 60 employees who specialize in the various aspects of this technique. They also use the most receptive combination of liquid silicone and a catalyst that is able to produce a perfect negative of the original model—so detailed that it can capture fingerprints—and also imports the highest quality bronze from the US. It was a fascinating place.

Photo May 23, 9 57 29 AM Photo May 23, 9 51 51 AM

Finally, I learned the ultimate stage in Manders’s process, and one of the most mystifying: the application of paint. We visited his second studio where three assistants were painting two large bronze sculptures. In order to access all sides of the massive sculptures, the team uses heavy-duty lifts to suspend the 1.5-ton sculptures in air. The painting process takes about two weeks and includes seven layers of paint. During one step the assistant actually removes paint to give the appearance that the sculpture is worn and, in another, uses a dry brush technique to gently graze the uneven surface so that pigment is only applied to the raised parts of the piece. After an exhaustive journey to their final bronze state, the sculptures return to their original models’ clay-like, fragile appearance—however, now, ready to endure the test of time.

Photo May 23, 8 13 56 AM

No posts

Previous
Next