Hosting 102 leading and emerging galleries from 24 countries, Contemporary Istanbul (CI) is one of Istanbul’s top international art fairs. More than its younger counterpart ArtInternational, CI presents the best that the local scene has to offer, and although it mainly brings together high-end commercial galleries, CI also hosts non-profits, artist initiatives, and even hybrid galleries that question the notion of “fine arts.” With its “Emerging” sector and wide range of Istanbul exhibitors, the fair highlights new artists and promotes the diversity of the region’s art scene to the world. Here are some of the top local participants you should know about.
ALAN Istanbul is located in Asmalimescit in Beyoglu district, one of the Istanbul art scene’s most dynamic neighborhoods. With its central location and ample gallery space, ALAN provides a visible platform for emerging and established artists. Operating on a global scale, the gallery hosts local and international artists alike, creating opportunities for artists in Turkey to engage in the international art scene—including promoting programming abroad. ALAN hosts artist talks, performances, and workshops, and within the scope of “Project Rooms” it also operates as an independent space for social engagement and interaction. With solo exhibitions of local and international artists like Kezban Arca Batıbeki and Ayline Olukman, plus thematic shows such as You Are Here and Social Animals, at ALAN a new generation of artists meets their established peers, coming together in a program that exemplifies the vivacity of the Istanbul art scene, at home and abroad.
Daire Gallery is located in Tophane neighborhood of Beyoglu district, which has been a prominent location for contemporary art in the last decade. The gallery strives to make complex works accessible to the public and foster an interdisciplinary understanding of the visual arts, particularly in the context of neighborhood/gallery conflicts. Amidst conversations about the gentrification of the neighborhood and infamous events such as the 2010 attacks on Tophane galleries, Daire functions as a contested space to support contemporary art, while trying to establish and nurture its relationship with the area’s residents. With solo exhibitions of local artists like Sena Başöz as well as thematic programming questioning the cultural and social paradigms of the time—for example, Past Is Over, Now Pay the Bill—Daire endeavors to function as a platform for emerging artists. Prioritizing “artistic values and not commercial concerns,” and by accepting exhibition proposals from local and international artists and curators, Daire aims to create an equal, democratic, and independent exhibition space for contemporary art.
Carmen Bouyer, Geoffroy Pithon, Many Voices Landscape, halka art project, February 2015
Located in the emerging art scene of Kadikoy, the Asian side of Istanbul, Halka is a non-profit, independent art initiative, formed in 2011. With exhibitions and dynamic workshop programming, Halka function as an art residency, a gallery, a studio, as well as a gathering place and platform for dialogue. The workshops and seminars vary from teaching permaculture and gastronomy (you can learn to make pickles, molasses, or cheese!) to the core fundamentals and craft of art such as paper- and paint-making. In Halka, meetings on themes like “Environment and Art,” come together with artist talks and performances that foster a strong belief in community and public engagement. Indeed, Halka offers residencies to both local and international artists and creates a platform for exchange of ideas in the multi-disciplinary realm. Halka contributes to disperse the art scene of Istanbul, moving it outside the confined borders of the Beyoglu and Karakoy districts. It breaks down the hegemony of the European side’s relationship to art programming and provides an alternative to the residents of the Eastern side of Istanbul.
Ayşe Küçük, Then Untitled, 2015, Acrylic on Canvas, 108 x 170 cm
As Istanbul’s first gallery that solely focuses on presenting cutting-edge artists working in the genres they call “New Contemporary Art, Urban Art, Lowbrow and Pop Surrealism,” Milk dissolves the boundaries between art and design and endeavors to break down the hegemony of high-art. Professionalization, branding, and commercial aren’t dirty words for Milk, which offers services to pair artistic “talents” with business clients. As a physical space, Milk functions as a design store and gallery, with toys, notebooks, comic books, accessories, and other quirky design objects, while promoting local and international artists with its exhibitions.
Sevil Tunaboylu, Sarp Yatak, 2015, Oil on canvas, 90 x 100 cm. Courtesy of the artist & SANATORIUM
Located in the heart of Beyoglu district of Istanbul, SANATORIUM was founded in 2009 as an artist initiative and exhibition venue to showcase the works of its eight founding artists. Broadening its scope to become a gallery in 2011, SANATORIUM invited local and international contemporary art producers and now functions as a platform for exhibitions and events. The gallery promotes and exhibits a new generation of artists like Yagiz Özgen and Zeyno Pekünlü, whose work was shown in the recent Istanbul Biennial, and also hosts established photographers like Orhan Cem Çetin and Hans-Jürgen Raabe. By actively showcasing its artists in art fairs throughout Europe and the Middle East, the initiative serves as a key portal for creating visibility for artists internationally and within the local art scene.
Ali Taptık, Untitled from the series N., 2013, Archival pigment print, 90 x 90 cm
Another critical exhibition venue located in Tophane district, The Empire Project focuses on the long-neglected geographies of the non-West (including most of the Mediterranean world and Arabian Peninsula, and much of Eastern Europe and Central Asia). This strategic approach of turning its face to the former peripheries, rather than concentrating on the long-fashioned West—see here for a more detailed history of the country’s systematic positioning in the arts—provides Istanbul’s art scene with a critical influx of artists from the “other” geographies, creating a fruitful interaction between the artists from these neglected places. In the last two decades, several Istanbul Biennials, exhibitions, curators, and artists explicitly challenging the Euro-American-centric idea, while opening up their horizons towards the previously neglected geographies and the Empire Project stands as one of them.
 Beyoglu district is located in Istanbul, Taksim which has been a prominent central location for art, as well as touristic activities, festivals, meetings, and social uprisings such as the Gezi Protests.
(Image at top: Sergen Şehitoğlu, Untitled (from series Cubby Hole), 2015, Archival pigment print (Diasec), 3+ 1 AP, 120 x 80 cm. Courtesy of the artist & SANATORIUM)
Art or Not? Ok, let's be honest. Sometimes we get fed up with the art world. We're well aware that we're underpaid and under-read, and probably always will be, even if we stick to our guns (thanks for pointing that out, Jerry Saltz). The best thing to do is to laugh at our own absurdity and that's what we like to do on Fridays as we reflect on the flux of funny art that's landed in our inboxes over the week (often accompanied by equally absurd press releases).
This week, we're going back to nature. Rocks and fire. Which do you think has passed off as real art?
The boulder from the region Neuenkirchen, Niedersachsen, contains a thermoelectric generator which converts heat directly into electricity. Visitors are invited to make a fire next to the boulder to power up the wifi router in the stone which then reveals a large collection of PDF survival guides. The piratebox.cc inspired router which is NOT connected to the Internet offers the users the option to download the guides and upload any content they like to the stone database. As long as the fire produces enough heat the router will stay switched on. The title Keepalive refers to a technical network condition where two network endpoints send each other "empty" keepalive messages to maintain the connection.
The installation on the Isle of Skye, running to January 2016, responds to the elemental and historical conditions that have shaped the Inner Hebrides and its specific culture. Its ancient clan system dates back to a period Mesolithic rule, and it is the mystery of this time that inspires the artist to trace fictions and stories in Gaelic and Celtic, recounted around a beach rock fire, as part of a series of performances in dialogue with the Islands' community today.
Following high-powered political negotiations, Iran recently expanded its 30-day visa upon arrival program to include citizens of a number of European, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations—including France, Germany, and Singapore, all with a concentration of high-end galleries and collectors. The new policy has already resulted in an increase in “cultural tourists,” and a boom in the art tourism industry seems an inevitability.
“I can say 70 percent of my collectors are local or international Iranians, and number is growing rapidly for international collectors,” explained Shirin Partovi Tavakolian, founder of Shirin Gallery, who went on to say, “Iran has a very active art scene locally…The prices have been established locally and there is always a demand for art. Therefore, with the power of the dollar to rials, Iranian art is still very affordable compared to other international markets. This will obviously bring a lot of attention and will be an investment for the international market.”
Masoumeh Abirinia, Untitled, 2015, Mirror and painted tired placed in a wooden box, 65 x 65 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Shirin Gallery, Tehran/New York
Until now, in order to avoid diplomatic red tape, serious Western or Iranian diaspora collectors typically had to task friends, relatives, or art consultants with purchasing work in Iran, where prices are noticeably lower than outside the country. Meanwhile, younger collectors have most often viewed and acquire Iranian art at auctions, regional fairs like Art Dubai and Contemporary Istanbul, or by visiting an established Western gallery such as Leila Heller or Shirin Gallery in New York (which also has a space in Tehran).
As it rings in a decade of introducing international collectors and the public to edgy Turkish and regional art, Contemporary Istanbul has added a Contemporary Tehran Focus section to its curatorial program for this year’s fair, which runs November 12–15 at the Istanbul Congress Centre and the Istanbul Convention and Exhibition Centre. The section is made up of four Tehran galleries: Aaran Gallery, Assar Art Gallery, Dastan’s Basement, and Shirin Gallery, who are showing alongside The Lajevardi Foundation, an independent not-for-profit foundation and art space with a focus around creating arts-related publications. Twelve works by modern Iranian masters from the 1950s–60s from The Mobarqa Collection (the private collection of prominent Iranian collector Nadeer Mobarqa and his wife) will also be on view.
Ali Akbar Sadeghi, Picasso from the Lost in Fame series, 2015, Acrylic and Ink on canvas, 150 x 120 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Shirin Gallery, Tehran/New York
The Shirin Gallery booth will exhibit works by both established and emerging artists, including several canvases from Ali Akbar Sadeghi’sLost in Fame series, in which sculptures from art history masterpieces (Michelangelo, Degas, Picasso, and others) attempt to impose Western culture onto Iranian intellectuals in the form of pervasive wooden cafe chairs. Sadeghi’s traditional figures creatively resist their efforts.
Artist Nasser Bakhshi, who will be attending Contemporary Istanbul, where his work is set to be shown in the Aaran Gallery booth, spoke to the timeliness of the Tehran Focus and the unique ability of art to stimulate positive dialogue: “I believe with the present climate and the tensions and violence that we are witnessing in the region, presence of Iranian art with all its strength can prove positive and fruitful.”
Nasser Bakhshi, Devoid Of All Desires, 2015, Found objects: suitcase, painting and drawing, 80 x 47 x 24 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Aaran Gallery
Nazila Noebashari, the gallery’s director explained, “We made our selection of four artists for the purpose of showing a slice of avant-garde art of Iran. These artists who have different practices and approaches, at their core are connected to the society, and they portray the atmosphere of suspense and imbalance, which is constantly effected by the events in the region as well as our own system of governance.” Among them is 32-year-old Babad Golshiri, who has already had work acquired for the permanent collections of The British Museum, LACMA, and the Musee d'Art Moderne Paris.
This theme of the artist as outsider resisting rapid societal advancement can be found throughout the section, particularly in the Assar Gallery booth, where self-taught painter and writer Babak Roshaninejad’s portrait of a disdainful looking woman in blood red, goes along with the artist’s philosophy of “defending” himself against the mainstream.
Babak Roshaninejad,No.6 from the Personae series, 2014, Oil on Canvas, 200 x 140 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Assar Gallery
Maryam Majd of Assar Gallery said that the Focus section creates an opportunity to dispel the “exoticism” associated with Iran and to instead open visitors’ eyes to the breadth of the established scene: “The participating galleries have selected the works we will be exhibiting in a way to give the international audience a broad view on the real Iranian art scene. By choosing our artists and the kind of work we will be showing next to one other, we've tried to cover various trends and artistic means and methods that are being realized in Tehran.”
While hopeful dealers have predicted a craze for contemporary Iranian art, the results still remain to be seen. Abu Dhabi Art does not feature a single Iranian art gallery this year, while the popular October Christie’s Auction in Dubai of contemporary and modern Middle Eastern art did not reflect particularly high results when it came to lots by Iranian artists. It is possible that falling oil prices and a cautious buyer’s market may have something to do with this. If the Tehran Focus section at Contemporary Istanbul sees soaring visitor numbers or sales results, will that reflect a shifting balance in terms of global interest in Iranian art?
As the White House diversified in occupancy, so did the objects on its walls. Under President Barack Obama’s tenure in the White House the distinct image of realistic portraiture and ethereal landscapes of Midwestern plains that have long hung on its walls have been replaced by more contemporary artists like Glenn Ligon, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns.
The Ligon contribution, a piece entitled Black Like Me, No. 2 (1992) (top), is composed of black words fit ever more snugly as they descend down the vertical white canvas. It is a canvas composed of a repeated sentence, “All traces of the Griffin I had been were wiped from existence,” in an uppercase typewriter font. The title and wording were inspired by a John Howard Griffin memoir in which he remembers traveling in the South with artificially darkened skin. The precision of the letters, formed with a paint stick, is still painterly and evocative, with satisfying dashes of negative space.
Alma Thomas, Skylight, 1973
Alma Thomas made it into the Obamas’ personal living space along with Sam Francis and Mark Rothko. Thomas’ Sky Light (1973) is full of cobalt blue shards of paint, almost linear, flanking slightly softer stokes. It is a canvas to fall into: alluring and steadfast. It invites your gaze to come in and stay for a while.
Edward Hopper has two pieces in the Oval Office: Cobb’s Barns, South Truro and Burly Cobb’s House, South Truro (both dated 1930-1933). On the gold striped wall, in gold frames, the Hopper classics sing the quiet whoosh of long grass and the loud whinny of horses. One evokes high noon, the other an evening’s approach.
Artworks top to bottom, Edward Hopper, Cobb's Barns, South Truro, and Burly Cobb's House, South Truro, 1930-33. Offical White House Photo by Chuck Kemmedy
The curatorial office adjusts the art in both the official and personal spaces with each new president. In 2017, the White House could easily revert back to its traditional roots. Obama’s contemporary space hangs in the balance.
Art or Not? This week we're in more need of a laugh than ever. Sometimes humor seems the only way to cope with the world. Can you tell the difference between a truly great idea and someone who's gaming the system? Does a good text elevate an image to the status of an artwork? We're not sure, but we have fun playing.
This week: which knife assemblage is a happy camper's accessory, and which is the thesis of a major Belgian artist?
In the series Shield, Protect, Endure the artist presents a devised photographic sequence consisting of more than 100 images. To create each image, the artist seached a word on Google, pulling a result at random, and then re-inserting that image into a Google-image search for "visually similar." From these results, another picture was selected at random and recreated exactly in the artist's studio. The words entered into the original Google search were the first word the artist read and recorded over 100 consecutive days. The resulting narrative is a startlingly linear, a visual manifestation that implicates the lack of agency and creativity available to the individual in our current environment.
The artist interrogates the significance of the museum as a place that has developed from a mausoleum of the arts to a noisy marketplace. In the 1970s, the artist responded to the bombastic nature of certain art museums and to the sensationalist dimension of many exhibitions in his Blind Seer performances, feeling his way through museums in dark glasses and with a white stick. For Museum to Scale 1/7, he burned out the interior of the museum completely. The recurrent themes of violence and aggression are depicted in an ironic, poetic and aesthetic manner.
Iraqi-Finnish artist Adel Abidin returns to his painterly roots for the first time in six years with Immortals, a solo exhibition running at Lawrie Shabibi in Dubai. The show, which challenges society’s perceptions of Arabic-speaking media, gives visitors the feeling of watching live news on television, with some irony added in.
The outstretched hand of a cleric appears from behind a microphone-strewn podium, while his body is obscured in black. The artist seems to suggest that figures of authority are interchangeable—only as powerful as the media and its followers’ consent. Other canvases depict a candy-colored garden of microphones with broadcasting channel logos—a nod to the lucrative industry consisting of around 500 news bureaus competing for air time in the region—each trying to outdo the next by breaking plot twists and turns with the greatest shock value.
Adel Abidin, Immortals, Installation view, From left to right: A Platform and Breaking News. Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi
A banner presenting urgent headlines circles the gallery walls in Arabic. While these racing stripes typically present conspiracy theories, official pronouncements, or death tolls to viewers, Abidin’s banner is in fact an ironic translation of the Beatles’ 1965 ballad: “Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks as though they're here to stay."
Abidin has tackled the way that society creates prophets out of media personalities and channels. His 2015 video work, Michael plays tribute to the late pop legend through a spoof entertainment talk show, in which Jackson seemingly reappears from beyond the grave, returning as a Western spiritual leader who speaks in combinations of lyrics cryptic enough to have appeared in the New Testament. In contrast, Life is Short, Let’s Have an Affair (2014) is set in Amman, Jordan, where Abidin was accused of having a romantic fling with a married woman—a claim that eventually went to trial. The courtroom-like installation consists of a series of speakers projecting robotic voices representing the accused, the accused’s husband, and lawyers. Abidin is no newcomer to questioning the power given to institutions through his art.
We spoke at Lawrie Shabibi on the occasion of Immortals. Here are some highlights from our conversation:
Adel Abidin, Life is Short, Let's Have an Affair, 2014, Seven channel sound installation. Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist
Danna Lorch: Why have you decided to return to your painterly roots with this show?
Adel Abidin: It’s not returning. I believe that all mediums are meant to be used. The choice depends upon the concept you are arguing for or working on. Some topics are best presented in video, but this particular project made the most sense in oil on canvas.
DL:Why not present Immortals through video instead?
AA: I had wanted to paint for the last six years and realized that this was the right topic. I would have the opportunity to zoom in mentally and create relationships between the microphones.
You always view the microphones from below as though you are under them. I wanted to give them a monumental quality—as though they are immortal. The formula of manipulation includes a speaker, a mic, and a receiver. The speaker and receiver of information are changeable over time, but the media has and will always be there.
Adel Abidin, Immortal Monuments, 2015, Oil on canvas, 220 x 165 cm. Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist. Photo: Pekka Niittyvirta
DL:Do you fundamentally see yourself as a painter because that is where you began?
AA: To be honest, I see myself as a visual artist. It took me a while to get my hand out of stiffness when I went back to painting. I would tell it to move in a certain way and it wouldn’t obey. At first I destroyed a canvas. I thought, I’m screwed. But then I decided to have fun. I started working—waiting, going out at night, coming back the next day—the whole package. Then it came. I spread all four canvases around my studio so if I messed up on one I could move to the next without getting stuck.
DL:What was happening in the media while you were working?
AA: I live in Finland and I don’t have a TV. When I visit my parents in Amman [Jordan], I watch the TV, because in the Arab world the TV is bought even before the sofa. It’s the source of knowledge for them. Some Muslim cleric came onscreen and was giving a talk. At the beginning I was listening to him, but then I was looking at the composition of the whole thing. You literally don’t see his face. Mics, mics, mics like lollipops standing with chewing gum colors like blue, aquamarine, and yellow. On top of that you have headlines in primary colors running across the screen. Is this an amusement park I’m looking at? That was when I decided the idea needed to be taken further.
Adel Abidin, A Platform, 2015, Oil on canvas, 220 x 165 cm. Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist. Photo: Pekka Niittyvirta
DL: These are immortals because people have agreed that all information they receive from the media is legitimate. There are people I know who don’t check anything except Al Jazeera. It’s their one news source.
AA: It’s like the Bible. They only listen to that one channel and whatever it is saying is what they use to argue. But you cannot argue if you don’t have another point of view. How many people in the States follow Fox News?
DL:Michael was also looking at the media, but from a different angle. The imagined reality in that piece took place in Manhattan but was referencing how people create icons and messiahs out of figures in pop culture.
AA: We always need an idol to lead us. If you don’t have a leader with charisma to guide you, people start fighting. These days, Hollywood stars are more influential than real prophets. When I imagined the piece, I was looking to bring back a dead icon and decided Michael [Jackson] was the best example because of his lyrics. When I wrote the script, all his answers come from actual lyrics. It became very deep philosophical/bullshit.
Adel Abidin, Michael, 2015, Video still of Michael leaving the studio of The 1 Show. Courtesy Lawrie Shabibi and the artist
The National Museum's new building—a 12 acre site which looks like a wafer bar—was finished in 2013 with a budget of 33.7 million euro, co-financed by Greece and the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund. The space boasts 5,800 square meters of exhibition space in a blocky concrete and glass structure in the heart of Athens. It is home to 450 artworks by 100 artists from 1960 to the present, including many well-known Greek artists (such as Stefanos Tsivopoulos, Bia Davou and Theodoros Stamos) and renowned international contemporary artists (among them Nan Goldin, Sophie Calle, and Marina Abramovic). But today, these artworks remain in storage. The building is empty. No art. No visitors.
Though Koskina and her team announced at a press conference on May 18 this year (International Museum Day) that the museum would open its doors "by the end of the year" that opening date is looking very unlikely.
What's halting the museum building is hardly a big surprise: bureaucracy and funding. Pushing back the inauguration, dubbed the “18 years of procrastination,” the museum is starting to get a bad reputation among locals. It has been noted in the press that the museum has taken 11 years of work, 12 different boards, as well as the assistance of five ministers and two directors. Yet the May 18 press conference was the institution's first public statement since the construction work on the building was completed in 2014. Some refer to the museum as “an empty treasury.” Despite this, Koskina remains reticent in her ambition to bring contemporary art to the mosaic of Greek culture.
“We have been working very hard to overcome all the administrative issues in order to be ready from our side to open the museum to the public the soonest,” Koskina said in an interview with ArtSlant. She continued:
There are some issues that do not depend on us, which are related to the crisis. We will cooperate with the Ministry of Culture in order to examine and overcome the obstacles so that the museum opens within the next coming months. I am optimistic that in 2016, the public will get the joy to visit a very beautiful Museum of Contemporary Art.
What about the finances? The Stavros Niarchos Foundation is donating 3 million, but the museum’s president George Papanastasiou said they will need an ongoing annual budget of 2 million euro to run the museum, and though they have received an annual grant of 500,000 euro to pay the salaries of 14 employees, they still need funds for a total of 70 employees required to run the museum efficiently. With a remaining budget of only 20,000 euro, they will hardly have enough to pay security, invigilators, and curators. There is a program contract of 4 million euro in place for 2015–2017, but no money has yet been handed out. On top of all this, the museum is still in debt from previous years, in part due to the way it was run by a former director.
“The cuts have affected the arts and culture deeply, but we try to find alternative ways of funding: donations, sponsorships, collaborations, synergies,” said Koskina. “Hard work and cooperation are the only answers to every difficulty.”
A collaboration with the forthcoming Documenta 14, which kicks off in Athens and in Kassel in 2017, is still planned. Koskina says they have an “unknown art scene” in Greece, and that Documenta will help bring new attention to the arts there. She adds:
We try to be rational and optimistic, although the sociopolitical and financial reality in our region is not brilliant... I am sure Greece will be adapted to the demands of its the new reality and that the state and the citizens will be on our side, because culture allows us to breathe and give us hope and vision, necessary elements for humanity, especially when the problems are big and the surroundings quite dark.
What goes on behind the closed doors of the artists' studio has always fascinated the layperson. What do they do in there? Creative spaces appeal to our aesthetic imagination—they're often laden with eclectic objects, designed to benefit the artist's productivity. Psychologically, the interior architecture of the studio is perhaps assumed to be a reflection of the artist's thinking.
But in the post-industrial economy, the spaces artists work in have had to change and adapt to a more migratory type of labor and a more mobile kind of life. The desk is really the only universal marker left in the artist's studio: it's where the real live action is happening, whether it's in a temporary hotel room in Japan, a residency space in Switzerland, or an office space in downtown LA.
This Collectors' Catalogue edition of Artists' Desks is a special one: we travel to Kentucky where we invited the Tharsing family—Father, Mother, and daughter, all artists—to share pictures of their desks and reflect on their contents.
Ann Tower Painter, Lexington, Kentucky
My work space is cluttered with things I find while I'm out walking throughout the seasons. At this time of year, I'm fascinated by all sorts of spent plant parts, such as magnolia pods with their marvelous red seeds, milkweed hairy balls, spiny outer shells that have burst open and lotus seed pods dried in place in our little fish pond outside the studio. And then there are vases, fabrics, pictures and books about plants and gardening and my photographs, some folk art carvings, rocks, dried flowers, fossils, bones, paintings, and my laptop.
I'm inspired by all these things: Nature, the contrast between the wild and the cultivated, the way the macrocosm is reiterated in the microcosm, and the natural and inevitable cycle of life and death. In my practice as a painter, I set up found objects in my studio on a table in front of a window that looks out at the garden in one direction or the laid limestone pond in the other. Sometimes I make things up loosely based on my photographs on the laptop. I'm trying to capture a bit of beauty and order within the chaos and seeking truth in the quotidian.
Robert Tharsing Painter, Lexington, Kentucky
My desk, in recent years, has become my iPad. I work in a studio a few steps outside my back door, across a small courtyard with a garden and fish pond. I use the back wall to work on large canvases and I have a long table on wheels to the right of it that holds my palette which is an old glass shower door, pints and tubes of oil paint, acrylic paint, bottles of mediums, brushes, and other tools. I use the iPad to source images for my paintings from the internet, take photographs of the pond I’ve cultivated, and to take pictures of my paintings in progress. I have always created layers in my paintings, adding complexity to the image, which varies when completed from abstract to representational. Before I had an iPad, I spent a lot of time painting and re-painting. Now, using various apps like Brushes, I've been able to reduce the amount of time spent working out ideas on the canvas; instead I create layers within the apps to see what will work best. My iPad allows me to take my studio with me wherever I go.
My desk is a wall behind my easel filled with haphazardly selected odds and ends. Objects are added spontaneously to an empty space and layered as it fills up. My paintings tend to be methodical, they start with an idea, a photograph is found to illustrate that idea, the image is then translated and transformed into a painting. The studio wall is free from that restraint, it’s a growing and changing canvas that reveals itself organically. Most of the images are of my own creation, a screen print, drawings of bones, a watercolor of a nebula, painted over photographs. Some of the images have been torn from old science books. There is a postcard from a show I had in Atlanta, an old faded topographical map, and a wonderful painting by an unknown person of a dog with its mouth open showing its reddish tongue. Many of these things were just quick studies, or little experiments, the things I never exhibit and are just for me. Lately I’ve been looking at this wall and finding a narrative that runs through all the disparate parts. What would a psychologist say? On the easel is a weird painting, not typical of my style at all, it probably belongs on the wall with the other odd ones out. The painting is based on a photograph of the first functioning kidney grown in a petri dish.
Embody, disembody, co-embody, somebody, nobody: today, we are continually confronted with the complexities that result from attempts to prescribe and describe "the body." Race, age, politics, economy, sexuality, and gender all affect our physical form so individually that “there is no generic body, no such thing as 'the body'; bodies are raced, gendered, and assisted differently in the world”—as artist and writer Hannah Blacksays.
How do we find a balance between expressing difference and individuality and finding something to relate to in others? This issue has been a key problematic to resolve in the way we make images of ourselves in the past five years: the public visual world is much richer and more diverse than ever before; yet we often search for things to share with others. Sameness more than difference is the comfort we seek online.
As a woman born in Lebanon and raised in America, photographer Rania Matar was exposed to the contradictory notion of a single body or a single identity early on. Her work focuses on girls on the cusp of adolescence, and she shoots their portraits in their home environments (she trained as an architect, which lends a sensitivity to the feeling of inhabited space in her photographs). Matar is best known for her 2012 work, A Girl and Her Room, also featuring pre-teen and teenage girls in the US and in the Middle East, whom Matar photographed in their bedrooms. Her latest project L'Enfant-Femme returns to this preoccupying theme, portraying young girls and their personal worlds in search of something that connects them. Matar described the work in an email:
This work is also about identity both of the girls I photograph, but also my own identity as a Lebanese-born-and-raised American woman with Palestinian origins. While the news from the Middle East tends to focus on our differences and on 'them vs. us,' it was important to me to focus on our sameness, by focusing on girls in both cultures.
L'Enfant Femme launches officially at Paris Photo this week, in a book published by Damiani Editore. The photographs will also be exhibited at Dubai's East Wing Gallery from December 3. Matar's reference point was her personal experience as a mother whose daughter was 11 at the time she shot the project:
I found that age fascinating as the girls are coming to terms with their developing identity, their changing bodies, their femininity, their beauty, and their womanhood, but also of the world around them and the standards of beauty and attitudes they think they need to emulate. However, these are also still young girls who fluctuate between being the children they still are and the young women they are beginning to turn into. Are they (and we) meant to see themselves as little girls, as teenagers, or as young women? Maybe there is something of all the above in each of those girls.
HM Queen Noor writes in her introduction to Matar’s photobook, that Matar’s girls “are not simply American; they are not simply Arab; neither are they simply Muslim, Christian, nor Jewish. These girls are simply girls—but much more besides. These are images of girls at the point where they are beginning to become women—a powerful combination of youth, womanhood and beauty.”
I asked Matar how she draws out all of this in her portraits—the feeling that they are so much more than part of a documentation. There is also a sense in Matar's portraits of seeing through an adult's eyes: a wistfulness, or nostalgia. Does she direct the girls?
By asking the girls not to smile, I was observing their attitude and their body language, and in those images I tried to capture simultaneously the angst, the self-confidence or lack thereof, the body language, the sense of selfhood and the developing sense of identity—the little girl they still are and glimpses of the young women they are becoming.
The conditions surrounding Matar's subjects are very different on almost every social and political plane, but especially in the way women are seen in Arab and American cultures. Were there differences in behavior between girls who live in places where there might be more social restrictions and fewer freedoms for women in society?
I actually found that the girls at that age—in the context of this project—were not quite affected by economy, freedom and restrictions, again I am only referring to the context in which I was photographing them. I photographed girls in high-end homes in Boston and Beirut and also girls in Palestinian refugee camps, and Syrian refugee girls on the streets of Beirut. They were all going through the similar transformations at that same age—there is a universality to being a girl that age. Whereas their lives and experiences might be very different, at the core they are just girls growing up, and this is what this work is about. I like to pair two girls: one is from a nice home in a Boston suburb and the other, Samira spent her whole life in a Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. They are both 11 and there is something touching about the similarity in their attitudes.
Despite the restricted time Matar was able to spend with each of her subjects, I wondered too whether over time the artist had noticed if being exposed to today's image economy affects them, as they are, on the cusp of their womanhood. While portrayals of women are very diverse now, with role models inhabiting many different "bodies," studies—including a recent investiagtion by the University of Missouri—show how accelerated visual consumption, coupled with heightened self-awareness, competition, and jealousy online contributes, unsurprisingly, to various mental and physical issues—depression among them. One illustrative case being discussed in the press at present, is 19-year-old model and Instagram "star" Essena O'Neill's emotional video post. Whether her posts are genuine or a publicity stunt, the issues they raise, for many people, suggest it is impossible to know how new online habits among children and teenagers now will affect them as individuals, and as a society, in the long run. Matar spoke on the subject:
I am not qualified to judge what impact this has on young girls—but I can share a very interesting fact that refers to those images and to "selfies." I had to fight the "selfie" face and attitude at first and then I also asked the girls not to even smile. And then to add to the "mystery," the girls realized that they couldn't see their images at the back of the camera, as I am still using negative medium format film. There was no immediate gratification. They didn't understand at first and I realized they did not know what film even was. This took them slightly out of their comfort zone, but also made them more focused and take the photo session a little more seriously.
Did they enjoy having their picture taken?
They are still dealing with growing up, finding who they are, who they are becoming, how they look, how they fit in, learning to find their way with their friends. It is all very hard at that age. As I am photographing them, we are both very focused on the moment, me on observing them for glimpses of all the above, and them on being aware of all the above at once but also of being looked at and photographed.
Matar's ongoing work presents, but does not resolve, the dichotomy of difference and sameness that speaks not only of her own personal mixed background, but alludes to an intrinsic element in photographic potraiture now: as adults we look for threads that tie us together, but in the process of finding our identity, we must acknowledge and accept the things that make us different. The way we experience the world starts and ends with the bodies we have, and that experience is unique—perhaps the only experience we can still call our own.
Art or Not?As we mentioned last week, there's often a fine line between art and garbage. Art can play with us and our fear of missing out ("FOMO" as IIana Glazer of Broad City refers to it. It's a terrible thing.)
What does elevate a simple scene to the status of a masterful creation? With most things being flattened to a single dimension nowadays, can we create an idea out of rubbish? Do we even need more ideas? Perhaps we just have too much time.
One of the pictures described below documents an installation presented at the Saatchi Gallery London. Which would you throw away?
In a transnational, interracial, and increasingly immaterial world, the artist recapitulates symbols of universal production and capitalism, inverting them so that they become pluralist, hybrid entities, capabale of bearing identity as we face it in the 21st century. This artist's 2013 installation is a product of its environment; his installation of blue plastic bags upend an imperial narrative that repeats itself in a mordant commentary on decrepid environmental politics, subsuming history and memory and posing the question: when there are no longer plastic bags, when there is no longer any product, what will there be?
The artist's metaphorical installations propose a wasteland in which the ruins of civilization are shored against its discontents. The artist’s alchemical process involves bringing everyday objects into a network of relations, highlighting dialectics such as capitalism and consumerism, privilege and injustice, and so forth. His playful appropriations and gestures are rooted in the question of postcolonial consciousness and collective history. Bananas inscribed with political text, animated chocolate drawings, blown up carrier bags, and flattened cardboard boxes, become devises for the communication of historical narratives. Inevitably, they become infected by a multiplicity of meanings and associations with the introduction of the final component: an audience.
For hundreds of refugees, seeking escape from war-torn Syria and access to a better life in Europe, witnessing the destruction of their homeland and suffering through dangerous travel over land and sea is apparently not enough—not if they land in the Czech Republic. One human rights official recently found deplorable conditions at one of the four Czech refugee camps, which are housed in former prisons and military facilities “that in many respects offers worse conditions than Czech prisons.” The migrants are brought to the facilities in handcuffs, locked behind barbed wire fences, their personal property confiscated—including mobile phones and cash—and children left traumatized. Adding insult to injury, refugees are charged about $10 a day for the privilege of their accommodations.
This inhumane treatment may be the implementation of a Czech policy to “detain and deter,” in order to keep the influx of refugees into the Eastern European state to a minimum. Widespread public opinion against refugees in the country runs along right wing xenophobic and Islamophobic rhetorical lines, perhaps best embodied by Czech president Milos Zeman, who stated, in August, “No one invited you here…If you don't like it, then leave.”
But one Czech guerrilla art group wants the world to know that not every Czech citizen feels an unfavorable and unsympathetic view towards migrants fleeing war-torn Syria. Artist and activist group, DE-FENCE, calls the detention centers “concentration camps,” and, in an effort to bring international attention to the issue of the Czech Republic’s systematic mistreatment of refugees, recently cut a heart-shaped hole in the exterior fence of the Detention Centre for the Securing of Foreigners in Drahonice, a village about 100 kilometers south of Prague.
In their press release they state: “The heart in the fence is our contribution to the celebrations of Czech national identity, which is supposedly threatened by the invasions of the bloodthirsty hordes of unbelievers. We believe that our gesture will not be left alone, and in time, we will see more and more holes in the local politics of inhuman treatment of refugees.”
Following the intervention, DE-FENCE transformed the fragment of chain-link fence into an art object that they hope to sell to raise funds for “grassroots refugee aid activities.” They also made this video documenting the process:
From the video, it appears that they cut only the outside perimeter fence, despite an additional fence, topped with razor wire, beyond it. The passage to the outside, then, seems to have been made into a section that may be only accessible to the guards and employees, while the “prisoners” may be kept beyond that second fence, rendering the gesture essentially useless to them. Of course, if the refugees’ personal effects, mobile phones, and money are kept under lock and key, an illicit passage to escape the prison might not be directly helpful to their situation.
We reached out to the group to get some more information on the project and what they hope to achieve with it. When asked whether the hole in the fence actually succeeded in allowing any prisoners to escape, DE-FENCE made no assertions that the intervention had any practical intention, rather stating that it functions “more on a metaphorical level.” “The main goal,” they write, “is to sell the object, so the artistic gesture (which can be seen as a useless aesthetic act) will become a real means of help—those people need money for lawyers, transport tickets, medicaments etc.”
Object “De–fence,” Plexiglas, steel frame, mesh, plastic sign, 200 x 200 x 5.5 cm, weight 100 kg
They are attempting to sell the artwork, which suspends the chain-link fence fragment between two sheets of Plexiglas and a steel frame, weighing in at 100 kilograms, for 10,000 euros. “Normally we are against commodification of guerrilla art,” they write, adding, “the reason why we do it is purely pragmatic—we want to raise money for a good reason.” All of the members of the collective are staying completely anonymous, as they do not wish to detract from their message.
Whether DE-FENCE will be successful in selling the art object or finding another way to help raise funds to aid the stranded and exploited refugees caught in the Czech detention centers is still up in the air. But the cause is certainly a worthy one, not least for bringing more international attention to the mistreatment of refugees in the Czech Republic and the prevalence of xenophobic attitudes and policies there.
DE-FENCE is also carrying out or planning “other actions,” but have not yet released any details.
To ‘shine’ means to shine upon something, to make that upon which the light falls appear. —Hans Georg Gadamer
Almost every artwork needs a spectator, and artists need a platform to connect their work with those viewers. While today these platforms vary, artists still need spaces—be it the conventional gallery or the digital realm—that are able to reach and mobilize a broad audience. Galleries still matter: they not only provide artists with a means for professional and personal development, but they also help make a city attractive to both artists and arts patrons, while globalizing the production and dissemination of art.
For the contemporary art scene in Turkey, art market globalization has always been on the agenda. Now with a thriving biennial scene (Istanbul, Canakkale, Sinop, and Mardin), mutual agreements between institutions for travelling exhibitions, large scale thematic shows, and internationalart fairs, Turkey’s art market is more than ever courting international artists, curators, exhibitors, and buyers. Contemporary Istanbul is one of the most high-impact and widely discussed of these events, and the ten-year-old fair is critical to the growing commercialization and recognition of the region’s art market. In its 2015 edition, CI highlights and caters to this emerging market with its special focus on emerging art, featuring ten Istanbul galleries and one from Tbilisi, Georgia.
Mixer, one of the Istanbul galleries exhibiting in CI’s “Emerging” sector this year, diverges from many of its fellow commercial galleries by providing new ways for individuals to engage the arts. Since its opening, the Tophane district gallery has held over fifty parallel events, exhibition panels, film screenings, and workshops. With projects like ArtLAb, which functions like a residency and was created to strengthen the relationship between local and international artists, and ArtWriting Turkey, an initiative bringing together emerging art writers with the professionals in the field via workshops, exhibition tours, and talks, Mixer functions as a crucial platform for collaborative production in Turkey. The Mixer website also has an online gallery with digital exhibitions and salesroom to connect artists and collectors.
By creating a space for emerging artists and bringing them together with the public and the collectors, Mixer fills a gap in between a commercial gallery and an artist initiative. Leading up to the fair I spoke with Mixer Director Bengü Gün about the gallery and its participation in the CI.
Mixer Karaköy, Installation view of Son Cikis (Last Exit), September 1–October 18, 2015. All images courtesy of Mixer, Istanbul
Pınar Üner Yılmaz: How and when was Mixer founded? What were your initial goals and how did they change throughout the three years?
Bengü Gün: Mixer was founded in November 2012 with the aim of creating a platform for emerging artists and making unique artworks accessible to all. Mixer especially aims to target independent artists, those passionate about art, and any bourgeoning collectors looking to start up a collection of their own. We are working towards our goals with exhibitions; training programs for collectors, artists, and art writers; and collaborations with other institutions.
PÜY: How would you describe yourself? As a non-profit? Artist initiative? How does this description reflect upon your exhibitions and activities?
BG: Mixer acts like an art space, which sells art and has programs for artists and collectors. By cultivating an accessible art culture, Mixer is able to support artists in their production period by offering them a physical space to exhibit, and ultimately sell their work. We are also able to achieve our goal of educating and reaching out to a much wider audience.
PÜY: In the sense of reaching out to a wider audience, how is your interaction with the neighborhood? Who is your projected public and how does this reflect upon your programs?
BG: We inhabit a conservative neighborhood, and unfortunately they are not really interested in our programs, except for the children. We are reaching to a younger group of people who are artists, emerging collectors, art appreciators, and art writers. Our program actually lets us reach this audience and we are trying to meet their demand about learning and getting involved in the arts.
Mixer, Installation view of re(present) exhibist: 2 years, September 1–October 11, 2015
PÜY: You’ve said that you inhabit a conservative neighborhood. Can you please elaborate this? Has anything changed since the gallery attacks [of 2010]?
BG: There is no major change actually. We had a great communication with the neighbors after the attacks and we are all good. We keep doing our activities and from time to time, our neighbors meet us.
PÜY: Have you ever tried making a program which could engage with the neighborhood? Anything that could be an interest to the neighborhood? Not only children, but perhaps to their moms, dads? Or the teenagers?
BG: We always invite them to our activities, but we have not done a special event for the neighbors. We are always inviting the children to the workshops we do and whenever they want to see the exhibitions we give them a tour.
PÜY: Mixer isn’t only a gallery space, but it also functions as a platform for emerging artists to exchange ideas and interact with each other. How do you reach out to the artists?
BG: We regularly make studio visits and we also visit universities to meet new artists. We accept portfolios via e-mail. We have a database of over 100 artists and it also helps us to realize our mission to exchange ideas with artists.
PÜY: ArtWriting Turkey is also a crucial part of your programs. Bringing together emerging art writers with the professionals in the field, you fill a strategic gap in the contemporary art in Turkey. How did you come up with this program?
BG: As I mentioned before we have two main missions: supporting emerging and young artists and making art more accessible to everyone. In that sense, art writing is extremely important to provide feedback for the artists and make it more comprehensible to our audience. When we realized the demand from the young art writers and the art scene we decided to start the ArtWriting Turkey program and conduct workshops and talks on this topic. We also aim to bring together professional art writers with emerging ones to share experience and exchange ideas on art criticism and bring a professional view to art writing.
PÜY: How do you situate yourself in the general presence of Contemporary Istanbul, with Contemporary Istanbul being a vanguard for commercial art fairs and Mixer being an alternative to the commercial gallery space?
BG: We are trying to pursue a different model in which artists are working with a gallery and can also act independently. It is a place where the people discover promising emerging artists and train themselves about contemporary art, reach sources, and meet people with similar interests. We are trying to be accessible in many ways, through our websites, through projects collaborations we make outside the gallery, through our activity program and trainings.
PÜY: What kind of sources do the artists reach? What kind of sources do they need and you provide?
BG: Bi-monthly we share residency or scholarship opportunities with artists via e-mail. Some international organizations are looking for emerging artist suggestions for residency programs, international exhibitions, and so on. This creates an international network for the artists. The workshops about printing techniques or artist talks are also a good way to create this network.
PÜY: How do you think artist initiatives, non-profits, or alternative spaces like Mixer can benefit from art fair participation? Do you think Contemporary Istanbul is doing anything unique?
BG: Fairs like Contemporary İstanbul help galleries and artist initiatives to reach a wider audience. In a limited time period like 3-4 days, most of the art appreciators visit the fairs to meet the art spaces at the same time. Time is really a limited resource in a city like Istanbul and it gives people a chance to discover their own tastes within an activity. It is also a great occasion for us to meet other institutions, and create collaboration opportunities.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he'll be selecting a Web Artist of the Week. For his inaugral spot, Petersen picks Seattle-based Sofia Lee.
Things are changing fast in Seattle. The recent massive influx of tech workers to the city has proved extremely controversial to many Seattleites. The epicenter of this turmoil has been Capitol Hill which has traditionally been the home of the city’s alternative, young creative crowd. This is where the photographer and digital artist Sofia Lee lives and works.
While many of the city’s artists feel antagonism towards the new residents Lee sees opportunities for collaboration and a deep well of inspiration. Her ongoing project KIN*WÄV is a perfect illustration of this rapidly changing city. KIN*WÄV is a flawlessly executed mashup of Kinfolk magazine and its “nostalgic, all-analogue, back-to-the-farm lifestyle” and the hyper-modern digital art movement Vaporwave with its “trash artifacts of a retro-digital aesthetic.” Lee feels these things are “two different generation's responses to the same cultural shifts.”
When a colleague first mentioned Kinfolk, Lee had never heard of it. “I looked it up and thought, Oh, there's a name for this kind of look. I became obsessed. I started asking myself what the motivations were of this magazine and the culture surrounding it.” She decided to merge it with Vaporwave to “create a future-retro that embraces early digital devices, which we currently regard as garbage, with the austerity of Kinfolk.” Lee’s execution of KIN*WÄV is so meticulous that she says she’s “been asked a number of times if Kinfolk has hired me.”
We are very happy to present Lee’s personal selection of her favorite works from this uniquely contemporary project.
What is freedom? This is what the current exhibition, Gradi di libertà, at Bologna’s Museum of Modern Art, (MAMbo) attempts to answer through the lenses of art and science. The idea is to present science that has “freed” us from the trials of a pre-modern society, while showing that art continues to comment on and complicate the human relationship to freedom. Works from Ryan Trecartin, Vanessa Beecroft, and Bob and Roberta Smith all stand alongside vitrines with examples of technology that appear to have liberated us, together with films explaining how technology has apparently facilitated our free lives.
Susan Hiller, Die Gedanken sind frei (Thoughts Are Free) ,2011-2012, Mixed media, dimensions variables, Veduta dell’installazione presso The National Museum of Art, Architecture and, Design, Olso 2014 | Installation view at the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design 2014, Photo: Annar Bjørgl, Courtesy the National Museum for Art, Architecture ,and Design, Oslo
Entering the exhibition, the visitor walks through Susan Hiller’s installation Die Gedanken sind frei, which references the political emancipation that can be achieved through sound. The work presents neatly printed lyrics from a variety of international songs of freedom, alongside headphones playing these tunes and a shiny '50s jukebox. It catalogues the anthropological phenomenon of freedom through music—a medium that has been important in spreading political messages during the 20th century, particularly as musical recording technologies have made it more accessible. In this sense, perhaps, this entrance fits best with the exhibition’s aims of explaining how technology can enable “freedom”: the hypothesis that music represents an artistic freedom, spread by the technological means of reproduction—like the printing press—seems like a fair connection to make.
Ryan Trecartin, (Tommy-Chat Just E-mailed Me.) 2006, Video, 7’15’’ [Videostill], Courtesy Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), New York
However, in general, this is not an exhibition for people who have given any great thought to the relationship between freedom and technology. The most glaring example is, perhaps, Ryan Trecartin’s (Tommy-Chat Just E-mailed Me) (2006), a hyperactive, trippy video where, in the artist’s typical form, characters blur and overlap, repeat and spiral wildy through text and narrative. Whereas Trecartin’s work offers a complicated, difficult-to-decipher representation of contemporary internet-riddled experience, an educational video (commissioned, presumably, from the science side of the curatorial team), sits right next to it. This film, explaining the “dangers” of multi-tab thinking, and how it can affect our behavior, could be straight out of a sensationalist Daily Mail headline.
Cao Fei, Whose Utopia? 2006, Video, 20’, Videostills, Courtesy the artist and Vitamin Creative Space, Guangzhou
As is so often the case with the intersection between art and science, it seems unavoidable that the contributions from the scientists create odd political resonances within the works. In particular, the vitrines, scattered throughout the center of the space, contain technological elements that appear to prove the correlation between technological progress and the march of freedom: artificial colors have replaced paints, therefore art has become accessible to more people; petrol has allowed us to get around more easily; cell phones mean we don’t have to stay in one place to communicate. In 2015, it seems absurd to claim that people across the world can now make art, simply due to availability of materials, when there is such a vibrant dialogue about the multiple political and structural reasons that prevent people from creating work. It’s also odd, if not downright dangerous, to unequivocally link a technology like petrol with positive effects on society when it’s the source of catastrophic, global conflicts, as well as a major cause of devastation to the planet.
In some cases, these are the exact assumptions that the art seems to question—for example, Cao Fei’s Whose Utopia Is This? (2006), which, as its name suggests, decouples the economic advances of China as a whole from those of the laborers working in factories to make this a reality, for whom the benefits of a post-industrial society are complicated by their hand in making it happen. Filmed in an OSRAM factory in the Pearl River Delta, the work creates a dialogue between myth and fairytale and the automatic mundanity of the factory, whose workers Fei noted in 2007 have “no rights, no benefits, and no power.” Is this progress? Is this freedom?
Halil Altındere, Wonderland, 2013, Video, 8’25’’, Videostills. Courtesy the artist and Pilot Gallery, Istanbul
An even more confusing dichotomy is created by Halil Altındere’s Wonderland (2013), which comprises a music video, for the group “Tahribad-ı İsyan” (Destruction Following Revolt). The clip is set in Istanbul’s rapidly gentrifying Sulukule neighbourhood, showing the group’s members attacking a police officer, and generally challenging authority. Meanwhile, just next to the video, a vitrine tells visitors: “The state guarantees the freedom and rights of all every day, enforcing the rules and preventing community life from being governed by the law of survival of the fittest.” If those words in themselves weren’t absurd enough, their combination with the work of Halil Altındere creates a bizarre cognitive dissonance.
It’s a shame the (pseudo-)scientific additions in this exhibition enable the dangerous assumption that technological progress has created some kind of utopia in which we’re all permitted by science to be equal. Science is about always questioning, and reevaluating theory to reflect evidence. And yet the artwork here seems at times to question to the exact propositions that are presented as unassailable scientific fact. In other words, this “science” could do with being a bit more scientific. This utopia does not exist. In the end, this exhibition makes you wonder if the curators from the art camp and science camp live on the same planet, let alone if they were ever even in a room together.
(Image at the top: Ryan McGinley, Untitled (Hot Springs), 2005, C-print, 27.9 x 35.6 cm, Collection agnès b., Paris, Courtesy l’artista e Team Gallery, New York, Courtesy the artist and Team Gallery,New York)
Charlotte Cotton’s book Photography Is Magic is one of the first collections of photography by a major publisher (Aperture) to acknowledge and explore the new generation of idea-driven image-makers. The publication, which that takes into account work that has emerged within the past decade, questions the role of photography in the post-internet environment, featuring artists that investigate and subvert its tools and techniques, and expand it into interdisciplinary realms and practices. These are artists less engaged with photography’s perennial obsessions—Barthes, index, veracity, documentary—than with the medium’s rapidly evolving and shifting context, its im/materiality, and the new languages developing in technology, software, and automation.
Photography in this state is stretchy, permeable, elusive—and fucked-up. Some of the more recognizable names like Lucas Blalock, Elad Lassry, and Walead Beshty are here, but Photography Is Magic also brings in a wide field of artists that have hitherto been neither market-approved nor institutionally acknowledged. As Cotton writes in her introductory essay, “most of the artists here operate in a circle of fellow practitioners with whose work they are in direct and active discourse; they are navigating within the same image environment as their near sphere of viewers.” It’s a group of young artists largely talking and sharing amongst themselves.
Some photo-traditionalists and purists have ignored this new community, or derided its artists as “trendy,” or “zombie formalism”; Cotton prefers a more expansive view. The book addresses the present moment: an incredibly rich image environment, freely circulating, disembodied, destabilized, precarious, and in flux. This is a period when “a critical mass of artists is widening rather than attempting to isolate the idea of photography,” she writes.
Charlotte Cotton has held positions at the V&A in London and LACMA in Los Angeles, and was just named Curator in Residence for ICP’s new Bowery space in New York. In the following interview, I bring up a few examples from Photography Is Magic with Cotton to discuss some of the ideas she puts forth in her essay.
Michele Abeles, Red, Rock, Cigarettes, Newspaper, Body, Wood, Lycra, Bottle, from the series Re:Re:Re:Re:Re:, 2011
Natalie Hegert: Michele Abeles’s work seems to illustrate well the “lexicon of automation, repetition, and versioning” that is enabled by digital tools, while also engaging with and in some ways subverting the tradition of nude portraiture. There’s repeated patterns, images appearing in different forms and fragments, etc. Are these works emblematic in some way of how the image functions now in our visual culture?
Charlotte Cotton: Michele’s Abeles’ practice does indeed take into consideration the behavior of images and our interactions with them. The engagements that Michele constructs for the viewer pronounce the physicality of a photographic print (an object) in an era where those values and meanings are shaped by screen-based interaction with images. But equally, of course, her photographic prints speak to photography being a raw material that imaging software and networked culture shapes and amalgamates, which she points to by using a nude male body with no privilege, amongst the flattened hierarchy of visual signs that she deploys. For me, Michele’s work visualizes the actual and symbolic implication of software such as Photoshop where any visual element of an image can be changed without any material affect on any other element and that can be used with great subjectivity by an artist. Re:Re:Re:Re:Re as a series manifests the act of versioning for sure and brings the process of setting parameters, and breaking them into the meaning of a photograph—one that is directly contingent on what the artist produces before and after.
Lucas Blalock, Night Decisions I, 2012
NH: In the book you draw a parallel between photography and magic, making the distinction between the grand illusionary magic of a stage show and the kind of magic tricks that someone might perform for a small audience using sleight of hand, or “close-up magic”—a kind of intimate experience of focused attention, where the magic happens in viewers’ imaginations. So I’m looking at this work by Lucas Blalock, which requires this kind of focused attention; it’s asking the viewer to find the “trick,” which, in this case, was performed by the clone stamp function on Photoshop, used to digitally conceal what looks like some objects that were set up on this backdrop of pink plastic. Now with the tools provided by Photoshop, an artist could make some pretty grand illusions, big-magic-show magic, if they wanted, and yet many of the examples in the book seem to favor a more restrained, focused use of new tools and technologies. Why is this “close-up magic” of more interest?
CC: The use of the close-up magic analogy allowed me to frame the kind of viewership that I saw the artists included in Photography Is Magic as creating. At the heart of this is my aligning of the way in which the practice of close-up magic is undertaken by focusing on the perspective of the viewer. A magician uses a three-faceted mirror for their practice—seeing from the audience’s vantage point—and that has some parity to the way in which these artists take into consideration our perspective and participation in our image environment and build that into the experience of their artworks. I certainly see that the images and objects in Photography Is Magic play with the prospect of the artists’ practices having some relation to those that we use in our day to day, as if the hook of familiarity that gets us to pay attention. I think Lucas’ practice is second to none in his capacity to get and hold our attention and direct us to thinking about gesture, subjectivity, and picture-making in our visual era.
The reason that I make a distinction between close-up magic (the aspect of the practice of magic that I align with contemporary photography) and stage magic is because of the clear distinction between performer and the vantage point of the audience that the more theatrical magic routines rely on. I appreciate the lack of separation between a close-up magician and their audiences—physically, and in terms of recognizable tools.
The idea of “close-up” also refers to the close circle of observers looking at these recent photographic practices—a circle of mainly artists, looking very closely and appreciating the nuance of what is unfolding in each other’s work. If I was to extend the analogy further, perhaps you could say that the 2010’s was the contemporary art photography’s “grand illusion” phase with high production values that only operate in the realms of art photography, and a distinction between the cameras and technologies used by artists from those used in both amateur and professional photography. The artists represented in Photography Is Magic most definitely appear to be working with a different and sometimes more restrained lexicon than their recent forebears.
John Houck, Peg and John, from the series A History of Graph Paper, 2013
NH: John Houck’s work is interesting because it’s not digitally altered but it appears so. Rather he’s taking photos of photos, and montaging it that way. So in this case he is playing with or subverting the audience’s expectations and perceptions, based on how we’ve become accustomed to read photographs in the digital age. Is this the sort of tactic that you’ve described as “misdirections” or “camouflages” as applied in magic tricks? Why is the idea of misdirection important?
CC: There are a lot of instances in Photography Is Magic of photographic processes—both drawn from photography’s analog traditions as well as the default imaging technologies of the past ten years—delivering unexpected results. Throughout the image sequence of the book you can see digital thinking applied to analog photographic processes, and digital processes being activated to create the affect of analog experimentation and subjectivity. In close-up magic, the mechanics of sleight-of-hand are camouflaged by the magician with orchestrated fumbles and “mistakes,” and awkward or leading language. These “misdirections” are staged to distract the audience for long enough so that the sleight of hand—the trick—can take place.
This idea of an act or gesture inviting and leading our trains of thought and our perception in one way, while actually something else is physically happening, seemed to me to have a great deal of resonance with the optical tricks and play with materials that we can see in contemporary photographic practices. I agree that John’s practice does purposely complicate our expectations and perceptions of photography and he is, for me, at the forefront of the dialogue around the active and subversive choices for rendering photographic ideas that artists are proposing right now.
NH: Artie Vierkant’s essay “Image Object Post-Internet” proposes that images function as objects (and vice versa), and describes the movement away from privileging the “source” or “original.” Can you talk a bit about how that proposal works in Vierkant’s work here?
CC: I can still remember the first time that I read Artie’s “Image Object Post-Internet” essay and thinking that I had not read anything that articulated an artist’s perspective in light of Web 2.0 so well. His description of this as an era where not only is there no “original” but there is no “original copy” is especially provocative and meaningful for our idea of photography-as-art. I don’t think that this essay could have had such resonance for so many of us if Artie’s own practice had not so convincingly embodied his ideas. Artie creates a “version” (rather than a “copy”) of his projects especially for the printed page and that’s what you see in Photography Is Magic. As with the jpegs he circulates online, Artie uses documentation of his gallery installations to create new forms—inserting his authorship into each version that he disseminates. Often, he does so with very direct means (the gestural swipes of Photoshop cloning, for instance) that make explicit the different readings of his work that each mediating platform supplies. In the sequence that Artie created for his Photography Is Magic image pages, he leaves a lot in the balance. His sequence acts as an extremely dynamic pinpointing of objecthood and imagehood in his work for gallery, screen, and page contexts.
Annie MacDonell, Untitled, from the series Flatness, Light, Black & White, 2013
NH: In the book you talk about how contemporary photographers will use analog tactics and traditional photographic techniques and referents in an “agnostic and strategic” way. The use of black-and-white, for instance, you liken to the magician’s use of the top hat and coattails—formerly the fashion of the times, now used as an anachronistic signifier. Annie MacDonell uses some of these formal tactics of traditional photography, but expresses ambivalence about it. She writes: “But despite their documentary allusions, their modest size and traditional black-and-white tonality, the photographs are not photographs at all. What you see are temporary configurations at best, rendered in paper and ink for the sake of publication…Their permanence here is no more than an aesthetic affectation, as suspect as algorithmically generated dust and scratches on a jpeg.” Can you talk a bit about the use of traditional or historic photographic signifiers in the context of the present image environment?
CC: The creative potential within contemporary photographic practice for anachronism to be an eloquent conceit really interests me. Almost ten years ago (so hardly prophetic on my part!) I started to think about how Web 2.0 was beginning to impact on the reading of photography’s analog history. It was the point at which some of us began to think of this impact as much more liberating than perhaps we had assumed around the millennium (when our Armageddon fantasies about the “end” of photography were most pronounced and the prospect of networked culture’s influence on picture-making was in its infancy).
What it meant in 2006 for a young artist to be using materials such as roll film and black and white gelatin silver papers felt radically different from the meaning such processes held even five years before. What it means for an artist now to be converting essentially chromatic digital capture into monochromatic form is also shifting our present-day encounters with the photographic and the meaning we can ascribe to photography’s history. I try to build a heightened sense in the reader of Photography Is Magic of all the active choices that contemporary practitioners deploy, including by giving a short summary in my essay of the rapid shifts in the attitudes towards digital techniques and photography’s increasingly historical processes and materials that have got us to this moment where we need to be alert to the exciting and experimental—and acutely active—reanimation of photography’s broad lexicon.
Letha Wilson, Moon Wave, 2013
NH: Letha Wilson incorporates image into sculptural forms, or vice versa, and in so doing emphasizes the tension between the way sculpture situates the body in the present moment/space, and how the image tends to transport the viewer’s imagination to the landscape or place depicted in the photograph. In the book you describe the sculptor as “a renderer of objects”; can you talk a bit about the different approaches that the contemporary photographers in Photography Is Magic use toward sculpture, and what that means for photography?
CC: Letha uses sculptural rendering as a way to amplify the physicality of encounters with the landscapes that she works within. She is a very physically oriented artist—in her wet (i.e. analog) darkroom process, her use of materials such as concrete, and the way that she uses gallery space. The representation of the sculptural within Photography Is Magic has a spectrum that runs from artists such as Letha with practices that are underpinned by very hands-on, discovery-through-materials working processes through to Brandon Lattu who uses commercially available 3-D rendering services to essentially push his photographic ideas further, using parameters set by recently adopted commercial processes.
In my Photography Is Magic essay, I write about what I see as a useful terminology to think about contemporary practice in a post-disciplinary era: namely, “photographic,” “painterly,” and “sculptural.” Clearly, these are alternative working terms for “photography,” “painting,” and “sculpture.” They also throw the idea of defining an artist as a “photographer,” “painter,” and “sculptor” into relief, and I suggest that artists are pretty playful with these historical identities right now. This creates something of a challenge to what can often be experienced as a “photo-cabal” that prefers to think of new photographic practices as there for it to judge from a single-issue perspective. As we know, the narrative of fine art photography has been one that separates out a few practitioners to represent an era and it has come at the cost of thinking of each twist and turn of the story of photography-as-contemporary-art as the sum of its many innovative practitioners and the dialogs between them. Anecdotally, artists who have contributed to the book have told me that the “photo-photo” constituency has been rather late to acknowledge the existence of their work, while others declined to be part of my project on the grounds that even the word “photography” in the title felt like placing an artificial nomenclature and biased reading onto their work. I know that Photography Is Magic is my personal take on how the photographic, painterly, and sculptural modalities are coalesced by some of the most interesting contemporary artists but I hope that it is taken in the spirit that it is meant, which is as a lifeline for meaningful and contemporary dialogue about the very idea of photography.
Does art require an audience? Does art require an audience?
I posed this question to a dozen artists over nine episodes of Working (it) Out, the ArtSlant podcast I began hosting this summer. It was a question that came up at the end of a master’s seminar class I was in last year, and it took me by surprise. My answer, which I assumed was really the only one, was “yes.” Yes, I thought, because without an audience, does it count as art?
I went home and put the question to my partner, also an artist, and instead of validating my point, he felt entirely differently about it.
I argued, “If it’s not part of discourse, then it doesn’t really count,” (arrogantly) positioning discourse as the gate-keeper for what counts as “art.”
“What about a painter who doesn’t show their work?” he asked.
“Well,” I countered, “in theory, if someone makes a lot of artwork, and every one of them they destroy before anyone ever sees them—then the work doesn’t really count as art, because the work is only for them.”
We went back and forth about this for a while, and I realized that a simple “yes” didn’t really address the question sufficiently. It only gave rise to more questions, just as a simple “no” does as well. Working (it) Out provided a platform to work this question out through asking more questions, and hopefully really listening.
Duke and Battersby, Dear Lorde, 2015 (27:03). Courtesy of the artists
Speaking with fellow artists produced a huge variety of answers. Emily Vey Duke (of Duke and Battersby) and I share an alma mater, NSCAD, a progressive and politically engaged art university in Halifax, Nova Scotia. After educating students in a radical art history (Manet was not just some dandy in a yellow suit, but rather a radical and subversive shit-disturber who unsettled the bourgeoisie and disrupted the gaze rendering the nude naked), NSCAD dispatches its graduates with a mission to change the world. This mission foregrounds the need for audience: art can only change the world if people are paying attention to it, right? For Duke and Battersby, the answer is “Yes... art is a relationship between a maker and a viewer,” and they see art as just one kind of labor that makes up culture, not to be privileged over other such forms (civil engineering, presidency, etc.). Talking to these two was an affirmation of my thinking about the artist-audience dynamic. They expressed a sense of accountability to this process of culture-making, but also cautioned strongly against allowing considerations of audience to enter into practice too much.
Daniel Keller, conversely, wasn’t shy about changing his art to be “something that could hang on a wall” (in other words, marketable, made for an art-buying audience). A later guest, Kelly Jazvac, felt similarly to Duke and Battersby, and she also expressed a sensitivity to the different kinds of audiences her work encounters depending on context (e.g. Nuit Blanche vs. a geography conference vs. an art gallery). Keller and Jazvac’s work share a deep engagement in environmental concerns embodied through materials; Keller portrays an unsettling, half-imaginary future while Jazvac shows us the very creepy present full of façades, plastics, and evidence for the anthropocene.
Maryse Larivière, LSD: Love Sex Dreams, your delusion, my reality,Installation view at 8-11 Gallery. Courtesy of Yuula Benivolski
These outlooks were all within my comfort zone of what art could be and could do. Maryse Larivière challenged my thinking a bit with her preference for an audience of one, and having this hypothetical (and sometimes real) person embedded in her process. Larivière includes her poetry, creative non-fiction, and fictional dialogues within a vibrant visual art practice. Her audience of “one” is her ideal audience, and so the work manifests with some inside jokes, a sense of play, or love, and for an outside audience it creates a sense of a game they must be willing to enter. This is where my clear definition the role of audience started to slip, or at least to feel slippery; Larivière‘s writing disseminates her ideas far outside of the exhibition context, and although her work seems so internal, so personal, maybe her gesture of making a new world to inhabit was a move toward changing this one. A tighter loop perhaps.
Roya Akbari, Film still from Only Image Remains, 2014, 30 minutes, Color, Farsi / English subtitles
And then there was Roya Akbari. Akbari turned me on my head. Everything changed moving forward after our conversation. Akbari pointed out that if work only counts once it enters discourse, then every artist whose work is censored is not making art, and isn’t art under struggle, art challenging the status quo, the most urgent? To even make it is an important and potentially emancipatory gesture.
A lot of the time, when artists find themselves at a family dinner trying to explain that what they do is different than say, hobby painters, they’ll break it down as follows: “What I do is part of an international discourse, I am a professional artist. What you are thinking of is therapy (or self-gratification).” Again, Akbari undercut this assumption: “...isn’t it therapy?” Ka-pow, mind blown, of course it’s all therapy, it’s not like we’re manufacturing bathtub plugs. This question demands another: “If it’s not therapy, then what is it? What is it for?” Of course it’s something we’re doing to express something urgently from our psyches, of course it’s therapeutic. For many of us, we’re hopeful that the effect of this expression will be compelling, and yes, world changing, and maybe we’re a little critical of artists not trying to use the amazing potential of art to do just that—but it’s no less art. All the “low-brow,” Sunday-paintings, apple-face-dolls, sock monkeys, tattoos, video-game landscapes, beautiful protest signs, Vines, Instagrams, and especially the art made in the darkness of censorship, all of it must be art if any of it is going to count for anything. Maybe Beuys was right about this thing (problematic figure though he may be): maybe part of making the world better is the idea of everyone being an artist.
Nicole Miller, Ndinda, detail from The Borrowers, 2015, Koenig & Clinton, New York
Nicole Miller followed Akbari. Miller employs a bit of catharsis and conjuring, one subject (usually a person) at a time, and pursues her own investigations of subjectivity—all of it totally okay with manifesting something therapeutic. I then spoke at length with Postcommodity about their radically inclusive and disruptive project Repellent Fence. Countering the colonizing gestures of monumental earthworks preceding them, they built their work (floating 26 helium scare-eye balloons over the US-Mexico border) after a lengthy consultation process with the communities where the work was presented, and made it ephemeral (vs. purchasing land, building a thing, and leaving forever...cough, cough, earthworks, cough). Their work engaged the political history of the land on which it took place, and invited the scrutiny of the people who occupy that land through face-to-face meetings. As a gesture, it defied a violent line on the landscape, the border, and stitched together the communities separated by this line.
Postcommodity, Repellent Fence, 2015, Artists’ study of balloon installed near the border fence
In another grad seminar, we read some of the Mongrel Coalition Against Grinpo’s work. MCAG is a group of radical poets kicking ass and naming names against the hegemonic conceptual poetry movement (see the Gold Star Awards), formed in the wake of the Kenneth Goldsmith/Michael Brown fiasco, when Goldsmith read a mashed up version of Brown’s autopsy as poetry. MCAG, among other demands, calls on those benefitting from the processes of colonial violence (chiefly, white people, or WP) to disavow their privilege. Sounds good, I thought, “but how?” I asked my colleagues, “how do we do this effectively, to disavow our privilege?” The answer, befitting the trajectory Working (it) Out has taken, was “we shut up and listen.”
What I heard: Art is therapy (and that’s okay), you don’t really need an audience, but perhaps just an idea of audience (even if it’s yourself), and if you have an audience, be accountable to them. Try to say something, and try to listen.
You can find the latest episode, plus the complete archive of Working (it) Outepisodes on SoundCloud, iTunes, or on ArtSlant.
Does art require an audience? The question is different from one frequently posed: 'Does art need to improve society', or 'Is art of value to humanity'? The latter questions have - in some format - led to action by the Nazi regime, that was able to discern good art from degenerate art. I'm often a bit allergic to forces in society dictating what art needs be, or how artists must function. But the question related to an audience is somewhat dissimilar. "What is a creation if there is no one to see, hear, feel, the creation except the creator? Is the opinion of the creator of influence? That, often will depend upon the position of us, the audience. In relation to appreciation of art, I will not speak about Marcel Duchamp. The author already mentioned Joseph Beuys (problematic?, a word perhaps better restricted to CEOs in Pharma) but I wish to look at Asger Jorn. His le Canard Inquiétant, 1959: I'm almost certain that Jorn's painting worked as a magnet upon an audience that otherwise in silence would have walked by the canvas (rural painting) in its original state. My approach will lead nowhere. Start anew: with the audience. Only if this is of standing, quality, certified, will its presence have impact upon the creation by an artist. With just the artist meeking "I made art", and nobody there to testify, nothing happened. Well, perhaps it did in the cave of Lascaux, but I wasn't there at the time. Minor issue, is presence enough, or is opinion by the audience of relevance? Well, now we agree: opinion is volatile, sometimes explosive, but of no help. Professional (educated) or Hobby painter? For this we question Vincent van Gogh... Funny enough, if I need see a physician, I always start by asking for a diploma, if I need see an artist, who bothers. Apologize: I'm not much help in solving the question. But I remain intrigued in hearing or reading answers. The more the better. And best conflicting. Further reading: Axon Journal Issue 9, on Assemblage.
Photography—as James Loks pointed out not so long ago—is going through a phase of confidence, with surreal, hyperreal Toiletpaper aesthetics trending strongly in the work of emerging artists. John Berger, in his 1968 essay "Understanding a Photograph," refers to "those absurd studio works in which the photographer arranges every detail of his subject before he takes the picture."
Berger foresaw the great potential of photography as an artistic and humanist practice, but at the time he didn't predict how prolific it would become in ordinary use, and how that would consequently shape how it is made and read. It is exactly this staged, fictional method that seems the perfect antidote to the documentary use of photography that is the staple of our daily image consumption—a way for photographers to defend their place against an overwhelming onslaught of amateur images documenting everything around us—embracing instead the potential of the camera to manipulate and fake it.
Cedric Delsaux, Zone De Repli, Pancarte Hotel Neige
There are plenty of demonstrations of the vitality of the new imaginative, fictional style at Dubai's East Wing gallery. Their current presentation at Paris Photo, The Perfect Crime, connects their roster of artists through Jean Baudrillard’s novel, Paroxysm: Le Crime Parfait. Intrigued by the way visual artists now are playing with the line between fact and fiction in photography, and with the way the viewer becomes complicit in the "crime" of illusion, East Wing artistic director Peggy Sue Amison drew on the gallery's artists who “are engaging with this act of leaving clues and the traces that make up the content of their work.”On show at their booth until Sunday are series by Sarker Protick, Christto and Andrew, Philip Toledano, Cortis and Sonderegger, Robert Zhao Renhui,Cédric Delsaux, and Philippe Chancel.
Christto and Andrew, Birds of Paradise, From the series Glory of Artifice
East Wing was founded without a space in Qatar in 2012, and a year later opened up shop in Dubai. Speaking of their inspiration Amison writes “the evolution in our industry over the past few years has been phenomenal, resulting in dynamic changes in the ways artists and audiences engage with photography. We now ‘share’ our images and ‘collect’ in a multitude of different ways.”
The artists at East Wing share solid aesthetic connections and concerns—despite the fact they’re working all over the world. But how does the work go down with local audiences back in Dubai? Says Amison:
Dubai is rapidly developing as an exciting and innovative hub for presentation and creation of art in all genres. East Wing is keenly aware of this and we realize that part of our role in Dubai is not only to present the work of artists from our region who are making innovative projects—but to also exhibit works that audiences in the UAE would not be aware of from around the world. We realize also that part of our contribution in this rapidly changing time is to support ongoing development of photography in our region, which is why we aim to create opportunities for engagement, not only with artists and audiences, but also by creating partnerships with businesses, entrepreneurs and collectors as well as our colleagues working abroad. In this way we extend our reach and provide both vital supports for artists, while creating possibilities for others who are curious about the arts but need to find a way to enter and integrate it into their life.
Sarker Protick, Love Me or Kill Me
In Paris, surrounded by some of the world’s most successful photography work now, I asked Amison how she sees photography being defined today—and what excites her about it:
Photography has become extremely fluid in its definition. The art form has been broken wide open because of technical changes and from there, a wide range of possibilities have also opened up and, as I said above, new tools have been invented. And again, the way we consume and create imagery is equally fluid. The accessibility of the art form, for better or worse, creates a kind of level playing field where we can all explore and engage in a variety of ways. As a discipline photography is quite free form—which results in a mix of work: some very ephemeral and temporary and others with an incredibly strong foundation that will stand the test of time. This is what excites us. The multiple levels that one can consider and engage in photographically has the potential to yield a lot of extremely captivating moments.
The first time I encountered the loop was whilst using a Chinon Super 8 projector manufactured in the late 70s. Within seconds of my roll of Kodachrome entering the “auto-loading” machine the projected image began to jitter and convulse. After several further attempts the film buckled, broke, and bunched up in the gate where it was toasted by the searing hot halogen lamp.
The instruction booklet explained that although the film lacing process was totally automated, the operator would need to press and hold down a button for a duration of about five seconds. The button, located on the top of the die-cast plastic unit was illustrated in the manual with an anonymous finger pressing down on it. Underneath the illustration it said: Loop.
Having seen and heard the extent of the machine’s automation—the flickering lights, whirring cogs, belts and fans—this manual imperative seemed an unusual request for physical interaction. It felt like a moment of consent.
In art school I came across it again, this time during a tutorial on the use of the Bolex H16 camera—and with a better description of its importance. As part of the standard Camera Operators 101 the message was very clear: check your focus, set aperture, hold the camera steady, but never, never forget the loop.
The loop is the Latham Loop, an 1895 invention widely attributed to Eugene Lauste and W.K.L. Dickson but patented by Woodville Latham. They had been working for Latham's sons, the brothers Otway and Grey, hedonistic film pioneers during the age of the Cinema of Attraction. It was their Kinetoscope Exhibition Company that needed to be able to run longer loads of film without it ripping for the purpose of filming boxing matches, a new enterprise they were pursuing with rigor and one that proved almost as lucrative as it is now. The loop provided the solution.
Writing in American Cinematographer, the late David Samuelson described the Latham Loop as “as big a breakthrough in film technology as anything that has happened since.” The loop is really nothing but a short piece of film footage, positioned on both the top and bottom of the gate, that remains slack and works as a buffer between the rolling motion of the film as delivered by the reel and the yanking motion of the claw that pulls each frame into the gate.
Up until then only short takes had been possible and the loop quickly influenced the medium by allowing longer shots and larger reels of film, fuelling the drift towards the longer, more immersive feature film format.
The integral accident; a tropism for conflict
The loop struck a balance between the fragility of the medium with the violence of the mechanized processes used to expose and display it.
Methods of producing light-sensitive material in long strips, capable of capturing images was quite possible by the 1890s. The fine-timed opto-mechanics required to facilitate it at a rate fast enough to trick the eye, to mimic movement, was also well achievable within fin de siècle state of the art—as evidenced by the simultaneous development of cameras and projectors in a half dozen places around the globe. But it was the marriage of these two elements that provided the challenge. The low tensile strength of the gossamer-thin film stock—at that time brittle, not to mention highly flammable—was constantly under threat from the overheated, pulling, yanking environment of cogs and claws inside cameras and projectors. It is as if the machines were trying to destroy the film material or at least leave their mark upon it.
“When you invent the plane you invent the plane crash... every technology carries its own negativity,” wrote Paul Virilio on his theory of the integral accident—the idea that every new technology contains the capability of its own derailment or failure. An early iteration of this idea may be alluded to in War and Cinema (1989) when he writes, “A camera motor works by holding back its potential energies.” He is referring here to the loop and its easing of the conflict between the material and the machine’s demand of speed/quality. The loop exists within the machine as a no man’s land: its images are not on the reel, nor in the gate, or on the take up reel. Like the referee at the Lathams’ prizefight, it favors a nice clean fight/image: no scratching, biting, butting, etc.
Screencap of Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, 1894, Directed by William K.L. Dickson, Via Wikipedia
It is anti-materialist. The film stock is supported only as a means to an end. Any evidence of its physical existence is considered vulgar, ungainly, inferior. The loop’s presence only becomes apparent when it fails. The first symptom is a violent jerking upwards of the image—like the effect of too much alcohol in on the ampullary cupula, a case of the head spins. Then film gate becomes unpredictable; the film will scratch, tear, scorch.
To think of film via McLuhan, one might say the medium has a tropism for conflict, violence. Every cinematic gun is Chekov's gun, every sequence an integral accident waiting to happen.
When you slide a video cassette into a VCR and it goes whhRRR–ZZrrr–whpp.
That's the sound of the loop forming.
As Vito Acconci writes in “Furniture, Television and Sculpture,” domestic visual technology has, at times, tried to hide itself away. Whereas the early film projector wore its mechanisms on the outside, as it were, let it all hang out, home TV and video tech first sought concealment in the cozy familiarity of furniture, the TV and video cabinet, and then sleek, anonymity of the black box.
Inside the VCR the cassette is opened and in a process called M-Lacing the tape is drawn around revolving heads, and held at just the right tension, critical to within a fraction of a gram allowing the head to read the tape without damaging it.
The heads on early Ampex video machines would rip so much ferrous oxide coating from the tape that they became unwatchable after a number of playbacks. They were built with special collectors for the resulting debris: little mounds of magnetically charged particles, each containing minute elements of recorded data, isolated and impossible to reconstitute into an image.
As a VCR plays a tape and lazily whirrs, what is hidden from view is the tape is being scanned by a video head rotating at 1500 revolutions per minute. Although the tape appears to amble along, the spinning 3-millimeter-long heads are actually zipping across its surface at 17 kilometers per hour. If the head were scaled to the size of a water ski, its relative speed would be approaching the speed of sound.
This electromechanical feat can be achieved without shedding the tape to bits partly because of reiteration of the loop. It pursues glossy, interference-free images, the kind the video age was built dreaming of, by negotiating just the right amount of pressure to achieve image pick-up without overexposing the 20-micrometer-thick tape to the ferocity of the head drum.
While home video may have concealed these processes within its workings, for the professional sector there was no space for such sensitivity and the processes remained visible.
It was here that I spotted the loop again: it had landed a high-profile position in broadcast television.
Someone to watch over you
Around the middle of the last century, perhaps as a result of 50 years of silently watching moving images, the loop began to develop an interest in the content of the medium. As the proliferation of imagery and potential immediate viewership exponentially increases with the postwar explosion of TV, the loop intervenes and becomes censorious as the broadcast delay, aka the seven-second delay loop.
In this process live television is recorded onto magnetic tape, which is waylaid from its natural path into a loop to provide a monitorable delay before a playback head reads and feeds the signal to broadcast.
Becoming watchful, mindful, prudish, the delay loop manages borrowed time as directors of live TV hover over the “dump” button that will divert offensive content away from transmission cables and masts, into dead air. The loop may have become resentful of its charge.
With the rise of an energized new conservatism in the 80s it was there to monitor and defuse studio invaders protesting against legislation such as Section 28 in the UK. In the US the provocative mix of race, sex, and outspoken political satire employed by comics such as Richard Pryor had already become subject to its surveillance, the edgy punch line always seven seconds away and the most raucous show on the box, Saturday Night (almost) Live.
According to researchers at MIT it takes only 13 milliseconds for human eyes/brains to register and recognize a single image, almost four times faster than previously thought. Down the hall, some other MIT engineers have built a camera capable of shooting at a trillion frames per second, fast enough to film the passage of a ray of light.
Things are speeding up.
Predictability of the new
So where is the loop today, now that film’s digital descendants have taken over? Like everyone and everything else: online.
A popular video sharing website presents me with a “video you might like.”
The sample thumbnail shows an intensely focused man standing on a mountain cliff. He is wearing a video camera attached to a crash helmet and an outfit that makes him look like a dayglow flying squirrel, a degree of gaudiness only extreme sports types seem to find necessary. He is about to throw himself off the edge. I have no idea why the website has predicted I would want to watch this—but strangely, I do.
When I click play a familiar circular symbol appears against a black screen. This ourobouros lazily chasing its tail is called a throbber. Having just learned the loop has developed into a censorious prude, I suspect its hidden presence immediately. Why was my video taking so long to arrive? Was the loop/throbber assessing it for suitability? Is my selection being run through some vast metadata filter?
Paranoia aside, in this moment the video file may still be sitting in some server farm having just received command to run, to play, to gather its things and go. Or it may be physically in transit. Either way, it is no longer purely resting in storage and it is not being viewed; it is in the loop.
The internet is becoming about prediction. It seems to know just what we want even before we do. What we are wearing, who we are. (It’s a bit like a Hannibal Lector to our collective Clarice Starlings—it can really creep you out if you let it, but we keep coming back for more because it always has something we want. The question is, as a trade-off, how far inside our heads should we let it?)
The video arrives and the man heads off like a guided missile. His POV-cam is ultra wide-angle; other cameras capture his descent from the ground, the air, past craggy rocks, trees. As his body hurtles from one side of the frame to the next, chased by whip-pans, something happens to the texture of the video image. At points of movement, of fast radical variation of content there is sort of bubbling, blurring. The flat surfaces of the sky, the rock face are embellished with a crystalline patina.
This is, of course, the result of video compression: this is a process managed by the loop.
At each stage of the image being filmed, edited, uploaded, the frames are run through video codecs in attempts to reduce the amount of data generated and stored by comparing separated frames and then assuming what the frames in between might look like. Any frame represents a minute fraction of time and possibly something from a few moments before and after. This system of compression though comparison and prediction manages the demand for speed and quality against the limitations of the hardware.
The predictive frame exists in a hyper-reality of images composed of copies and imagined in-betweens. This process drastically reduces file size but generates glitches, compression artifacts. At some level the process imagines and creates its own imagery.
The wingsuit man isn't flying over craggy rocks and alpine flora so much as a torrent of compression artifacts, alien forms that suddenly appear then vanish into the spewing magma, the lossy data soup.
These artifacts and glitches are ancestors of flicker, jitter, the miniature sandstorms of dust particles, the scratched and scorched frames that the Latham loop and other processes like it have sought to eliminate.
These are the imperfections that interrupt immersion, that remind the viewer of the materiality of the medium.
Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, Rohfilm, 1968, Black and white, sound, 16mm, 20’00
The cozy catastrophe and the digital scratch
When that medium starts to break down, to suffer and reveal imperfections. The technology becomes visible through its failures. Glitches and errors constitute evidence of its origins; we see the material through disruption. —Ed Halter, The Matter of Electronics
Glitch Artists, on the other hand, like Materialist Filmmakers before them, embrace these imperfections as auratic and keys to revealing the processes of each image’s conception, levels of existence, vulnerability to damage, decay, and decomposition. Like the oil painter’s thumbprint left on a canvas, these elements are considered to demonstrate each frame’s uniqueness while contextualizing its existence beyond the limits and confines of mise-en-scene, narrative, etc. Bending, moshing, getting down and dirty with the impoverished image, Glitch Art isn't afraid of the results of overloaded, compromised, or mismatched media. It is about entering closed systems to explore the possibility for art between human error and the cold infallible logic of machines.
Reams of readymade code become the substrate for sculpture, for subtle coercive interaction. It often seeks to attain, suspend, and display the effects of the moment before failure, sustain the frisson felt at the instant of crash. It aims to release a flow of randomized images and sounds, encourages failure and decay, the jarring revelation of the integral accident. In doing so it negates the predictable (and yet somehow, it often is).
Like a wheel within a wheel, contemporary video codecs such as H.264 contain an inner process, an In-Loop Deblocking Filter that finds and seeks to eliminate or obscure the materiality of the compression artifact. Unlike the glitch artists, the In-Loop Deblocking Filter has no truck with byproducts, spoilers, elements that are non-immersive, anti-illusionary.
Instead, it smoothes out their edges, paints them into the background.
I see this as the next expression of the loop and somewhat like a suburbanite Sunday painter with whom it appears to share technique and aesthetic sensibility. Its work is amateurish but there is nothing refreshingly Brut about its inelegance, only a desire to conform, to make things look “right.”
Like a sloppy watercolorist, the Deblocking Filter treats the misunderstood, the error, the out-of-place detail, with excessive washes until they are homogenized, blurred out. This obsessive flushing aims to cleanse the image. The loop has become prudish, precious, biased, as it finds itself endlessly repeating a mistake that's vexed art tutors for generations: it attempts to paint what it knows, or thinks it knows, rather than what it sees.
The Lathams never witnessed very much of the loop’s progress, their short lived company's most enduring legacy. They lost their money as fast as they made it and by 1902 both brothers were dead, Grey crushed by the steel wheels of streetcar, Otway as a result of undisclosed playboy lifestyle choices. Their loop, the referee between material and machine, demand and capability, became the very antithesis of who they were.
And today, the YouTube video wingsuit man is what every Go-Pro owner dreams of: part Viriloian image/speed machine, part idiotic, pseudo-suicide in a bad outfit.
At every movement, every protuberance dodged, I anticipate his impact and death. The predictive loop of the video codec predicts otherwise and the dude just kept going.
As Nam June Paik once said: Video isn't I see, it's I fly.
(Just preferably not into the side of a mountain.)
Should something go wrong, his body will be swallowed by the codec, merged into the surrounding environment far faster than his corpse would be under the stresses of natural decomposition. The sudden appearance of his smashed body, his exploding camera will be mistaken for a glitches, compression artifacts. They'll be washed from the image surface, blended in and in an instant, overwritten a thousand times.
For Maize Mantis at The Kitchen this past October, Sergei Tcherepnin created an amalgam of dance performance, musical composition, and theatre. In this project drawing partly from Sergei Diaghilev’s production of Feu d’Artifice and incorporating paintings by Lucy Dodd and Kerstin Brätsch, the audience witnessed a host of characters—including wolves, jellyfish, and basketball players—whimsically navigate a landscape of light and sound. At the sonic height of the work, small metal sheets attached to transducers lowered into the audience, creating a force field of sound that reverberated throughout.
This multi-media performance illustrates a greater sensory and transformative experience that results from the involvement of human bodies within a closed technological system. Here the transformation occurred at a metaphorical level—with the artist “turning paintings into characters”—and at a physiological level—with audience members acting as secondary repositories for the sound already transferred from transducer to speaker (i.e., the metal sheets). As felt in this performance, the body acts as an agent that receives and thus allows these processes to occur and serves as a necessary component in an artistic circuit embodying technology, audience, and sensory experience.
Sergei Tcherepnin, Ear Tone Box (Pied Piper Recedes), 2013, Microsuede, wood, copper, silk, transducers, amplifier, iPod, 16 x 16 x 18 in / 41 x 41 x 46 cm. Image courtesy of Murray Guy, New York
Tcherepnin largely employs transducers, displayed in simplistic sculptural forms, and various everyday objects, such as a subway bench, to orchestrate acoustic and physical experiences. Ear Tone Box (Pied Piper Recedes) (2013) invited visitors to sit on a chair and place their heads inside of a box immersing them in various pitches. When heard in synch, the physiological phenomenon of perceiving differential tones occurred. Also known as Andreas Sorge’s or Tartini’s tones, this “third” tone can be heard when two pitches sound simultaneously and at the requisite intensity. The number of vibrations of this physiologically produced tone is equal to the difference between the two primary tones. Here the sitter experienced an element of the work that exists solely with and within the body and its sensory systems. Tcherepnin’s oeuvre considers how sound is not only experienced and received, but made different by its own internal systems.
The alchemy of transforming one thing to another to complete a process plays out in the work of Mexican artist Rafael Lozano-Hemmer as well. In his well-known Pulse Room installations, for example, viewers touch an apparatus that takes their pulse. In response, an adjacent light bulb blinks on and off, matching the rate of the latest visitor-participant’s heartbeat, before advancing down the queue of hundreds of other bulbs. Other installations, like Wavefunction (2007) and Under Scan (2005), use motion sensors to track viewers’ movements, and the artworks behave accordingly: a grid of 50 to 100 chairs mimics the gesture of the passing body, moving up and down in waves; bodies projected on the floor follow visitors as they walk around a room.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Levels of Nothingness, Performers 1, 2009, Guggenheim Museum, New York City, New York, United States. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Kristopher McKay
Indeed, Lozano-Hemmer’s artworks operate in the space where the viewing body becomes the performing body as it encounters his technological interventions. These artworks also leave room for productive error. In his 2009 performance Levels of Nothingness at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, language spoken by the performer or audience member through the funnel of machine translation provided input for the theatrical lighting in an auditorium. This work drew from Wassily Kandinsky’s Yellow Sound, the artist’s Gesamtkunstwerk not realized until 1982, well after his lifetime. From the podium Italian actress Isabella Rossellini read a selection of key philosophy texts on perception and color, all while a computerized mic worked in real time to gather information on her pitch, amplitude, speed, accent, and intonation. The collective data then cued colorful lights aimed into the audience while viewers could read the text interpretation on a screen. Though not intuitively evident in the light show, the misunderstandings that occurred manifested themselves in translated text, underlining the ever-present inability of machines to fully understand human language with its variations and individual character. The misalignment of the voice-to-text translation in time with Rossellini’s live reading produced an imperfect, mechanical synesthesia—that is, assuming synesthesia could ever be perfect in nature.
Tcherepnin and Lozano-Hemmer stand in a long line of artists who have united the body with sound, gesture, and circuitry. In more distant memory, frequent artistic partners Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman utilized technological apparatuses to process input in their Fluxus performances. Comprised of two miniature TVs fashioned as bra cups, their seminal collaboration TV Bra from Living Sculpture (1969) integrated the human body into technological media in what appeared at first to follow the vein of classical music performance. By playing her cello, Moorman could feed sound through a processor that would generate and transform it into live images on the screens. The high-voltage wires added an element of danger not usually associated with the functional undergarment, portraying Paik as a mad scientist at work. “TV Bra is one third of [the piece], I’m one third of it, and my cello is one third of it. When we’re all together, the work is complete,” Moorman expressed in 1976.
Paik’s TV Buddha (1974) considers technology and bodily presence from a more meditative stance. In this installation, a Buddha sculpture sits in front a TV monitor projecting an image of the Buddha back to itself through closed-caption video. Ancient deity likeness and evolving technology meet face to face in an endless loop of looking and being seen. In 1974, Paik himself sat in place of the antique immortal, implicating himself in this circuit and reflection on humans’ not-quite-resolved relationship with technology.
The presence and participation of body as agent, medium, or receptacle in artistic, technological circuits provides for more than just a compelling experience. These works, among many others, go beyond merely requiring a performative act and instead allow a human figure to play a vital part in experiencing, enabling, translating, or transforming completely a gesture or sound. Skeptics might worry about the place of physical bodies in an increasingly plugged-in techno-dependent landscape. But, as artists like Tcherepnin and Lozano-Hemmer demonstrate, technology doesn’t have to alienate, and in many ways it’s subject to wonky limitations, as humans are; instead, it can create wonder, intimacy, and a deeper awareness of our physical bodies. And artists—enlisting their bodies, and ours—can provide a platform for greater and oftentimes unpredictable possibilities. Stay tuned, they might say.
What does a loop look like? It’s not really a shape, is it? More than a steady form, a loop implies gesture, movement, directionality. It’s a vector that returns you to where you started—again and again and again—or a path that curves around, checks back in, then moves on.
A closed loop is an infinity; it embodies strength, certainty, and perfection, but it can also be oppressive, corrupted by physical or psychological trappings. With no beginning and no end, there’s a fine line between an elegant eternity and a vicious, turbulent cycle, a tension between always moving forward but never moving any farther.
The animated GIF on the cover of this issue is extracted from Rafia Santana’s DEAR DiARY, a music video chronicling the artist’s cycles of depression. “One week I may feel energized, and motivated to face the world with arms wide open,” she says. “The next week I may feel sluggish and small. The result is the sensation of being trapped in an emotional loop.”
DEAR DiARY pushes up against the boundaries of a sinister spin cycle waged inside the mind. Is it possible to shatter the loop, to break the pattern by identifying it?
The loop manifests infinite progress and equally infinite regression. It’s complete, yet endless. These logical fallacies and contradictions are precisely what made us choose Loops as the theme for issue 7 of Editions. We go looking for loops in audiences, bodies, and textiles. We find them throughout history and politics and hidden inside technologies we take for granted.
This summer Gillian Dykeman began hosting the ArtSlant podcast Working (it) Out. In season one she asked every guest artist the same question: Does art require an audience? Does the audience close the loop, as it were? Here Gillian revisits what she learned, revealing how the podcast changed her assumptions.
Also considering the connections generated between viewers and artwork, Janet Oh writes about artists working in sound, installation, and performance art who bring together technology and the human body. For some artists, viewers aren’t passive observers, but receptive vessels whose very bodies are essential to close the artwork’s circuitry.
Taking a more philosophical tack, in the wake of terror Joel Kuennen asks, when history seems to repeat itself, how can we genuinely transform the next revolution of the wheel so the outcome might be different? So there is no wheel at all? What forms of logic are needed to move beyond a reality defined by the terroristic act? A new online exhibition from the Guggenheim is an instructive exercise in imagining a society characterized by such novel forms of reasoning.
What about literal loops, ones we can perceive with our eyes? Knit and crocheted objects are, for example, open loops of yarn, looped into other loops to create stretchiness, strength, and warmth: a stronger whole. Jamie Keesling considers Jared Madere’s new installation at the Whitney Museum in the context of Object-Oriented Ontology—the triple-looped OOO—a philosophy that grants all objects equality, human and not. Does Madere’s textile-based artwork have agency? Does it give us more than its component loops?
Guy Parker peeks inside the camera at the Latham loop, a pivotal piece of film technology that revolutionized the industry, making way for feature-length, blemish-free films. Watching glitchy videos on YouTube, Guy asks: has history repeated itself? Has the loop found a new home in the digital world?
Of course it has. Return to the top of this page and stare into the mesmerizing GIF loop. It’s seamless, complete, never-ending. We always returns to where we began, without knowing quite where that beginning is.
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he'll be selecting a Web Artist of the Week. This week Petersen profiles Belgian new media artist Eno Swinnen.
Belgian artist Eno Swinnen is a refreshing anomaly in the world of New Media art. His work uniquely blends the discipline’s tech and brand-obsessed visions with exceptional and meticulous “traditional” illustration skills. Swinnen himself is not sure where he fits in, declaring that he’s “too analogue to really be New Media but too digital or ‘weird’ to really be considered a classic animator.” I feel that his work actually represents a healthy and necessary progression of the form. Although it’s still a relatively young discipline, New Media is already overwhelmed by a number of tired aesthetic tropes and clichés. The best artists in this field create work that remains true to its philosophies but expresses them in new and unexpected ways. Eno Swinnen certainly falls into that category.
Swinnen’s main medium of expression is animated GIFs, which he was drawn to from a young age. “When I was a kid I'd often browse forums to look for cool or funny GIFs, it was just always fascinating how entrancing these short loops could be.” After two or three years at art college he “finally got comfortable enough” with his drawing skills to start experimenting with animation. His GIFs are as time consuming to make as they look, directly contradicting the transient and “disposable” image normally associated with New Media art. “A gif with 120 frames takes me about four long days” to make and that’s only “if everything goes perfectly according to plan.”
The artist’s work is most readily reminiscent of neon-future inspired, graphic art and design from the 1980s. Swinnen says his style was initially inspired by “all these user interfaces in (80s) science fiction movies” but asserts that he doesn’t “have a particular affinity for stuff” from that decade. Instead sci-fi in general informs his work, especially “cool and futuristic looking data visualization” from all eras.
We asked Swinnen to choose a selection of his personal favorites from his exceptional body of work.
The Soho and Tribeca neighborhoods of New York City in the late 70s and early 80s were in many ways the hunting grounds of the original starving American artist. The painter Linda Francis puts it bluntly: “We were thieves.” She was part of an art tribe who illegally rented commercial lofts on the cheap and worked in a community, struggling to eat as much as to answer important questions about what constituted art. Was it Duchamp’s urinal turned fountain, Monet’s water lilies, or Warhol’s soup cans—and who was qualified to be the judge? At the time, Francis and many of her cohort were represented by Hal Bromm, the first contemporary art gallery in Tribeca.
In a pre-computer world, Francis restricted herself to drawing for an entire decade, because she says the forgiving, investigative medium allowed her to “study systems, ask questions, and reach answers” while testing out her “intuitions about form and structure” in a way that painting would not allow. Her theory-saturated practice has always blurred the bounds between art and physics, with Francis wholly engaged with notions of chaotic form—substituting an eraser for force and a stick of chalk for mass. “My work doesn’t answer anything. My questions are conjectures…and I suppose there is no answer, but there is a discovery that happens,” she says.
Linda Francis with her work in the 1980s
It was through Doug Sanderson, that Francis was introduced to the Paris-based collector Jean-Paul Najar in the late 70s. She lent Sanderson a handful of little geometric crayon drawings on vellum, which Jean-Paul bought instantly. Najar called her that night on the phone and they argued philosophy for hours. Until that moment, Francis says she didn’t even know that her work was collectible. He bought her a ticket to fly to Paris the next day, and they began a working relationship that would continue for more than 30 years until the collector’s death last year. For Francis, this patron-artist relationship resulted in numerous shows in Paris, support for projects, and perhaps more than anything—the confidence that came with having a collector truly understand her practice.
Following his death, Najar’s daughter Deborah Najar Jossa set out to continue her father’s legacy by establishing a foundation in his name. The Jean-Paul Najar Foundation, which held a soft opening this November and is set to open in early 2016, is Dubai’s first public, not-for-profit foundation and runs in partnership with Alserkal Avenue, the city’s fast-growing arts hub based in a district of hip warehouses in the industrial side of town.
Installation of documents from Jean-Paul Najar's archive, on display in Jean-Paul Najar: Vision & Legacy, November 2015
When Jean-Paul Najar first began collecting in the 70s in Paris, there were no emails or even faxes available to make communication across continents quick and easy. Consequently, the Foundation has thousands of papers, studies, and letters between the collector and his artists to sift through and archive, along with hundreds of works to catalog as part of its first major stage in development. The collection itself is centered around European and American post-Minimalism work from the 60s through today including work by Francis’ contemporaries Pierre Dunoyer, Christian Bonnefoi, Michael Goldberg, Suzanne Harris, Jene Highstein, Alain Kirili, and Judy Rifka, among others.
With the well respected Jessamyn Fiore at its curatorial helm and a line up of high-profile shows, community activities, and catalogs slated for the near future, the Foundation promises to infuse Dubai’s growing contemporary art scene with links to the past and to the West that have been missing until now and are needed to push the country towards being considered a true global center. In a public talk with Linda Francis (who visited Dubai for the Foundation’s soft opening in November), Fiore quoted Najar as “seeing art as being a reality rather than representing a reality. It is present rather than a replication.”
Linda Francis, Neutron Star, 2009, Oil on wooden panel, 183 x 183
This philosophy can be found most clearly in Neutron Star, Francis’ 2009 work which has just been acquired by the Foundation and was installed prominently at the entrance to the pop-up exhibition that took place at the soft opening. In the painting, a weighty cadmium red with visible spontaneous brushstrokes and layers of other colors concealed underneath stand in contrast to the formulaic rigidity of the astronomical process unfolding on the canvas—one star collapses and something new is reborn, before everything disappears into the ominous vacuum of a black hole. The painting can also perhaps be understood as a view of community through peace, conflict, and consensus. Jean-Paul Najar had wanted the painting for quite some time before his death, but Francis didn’t feel that she had completed the period that the painting belonged to, and wasn’t ready to part with it until now.