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Malala's Nobel Peace Prize: Images Speak Longer Than Words
by Stephanie Cristello


"This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalized."

– Assed Baig, quoted in Middle East Revisited

 

Reception to Malala Yousafzai’s selection as a Nobel Peace Prize winner (shared with Kailash Satyarthi) earlier this month was met with mixed sentiments: from contemptuousness to confidence, affirmation to cynicism. Beyond the obvious ways that the prize influences and is informed by the economic, sociopolitical, and humanitarian requirements that grant individuals the award, there is also something intensely aesthetic in how we look at the prize: the image of the winners themselves. Yousafzai’s image is of particular note—she is a girl, the youngest winner of the prize at 17 years old, Muslim, and from Pakistan. But the prize itself presents an equally strong aesthetic; winners in each category represent and become the face of their contributions. How can we deal with this combined image, a heightened aesthetic that highlights stark opposition in popular reception, in a way that resists a historically antagonistic reading? These aesthetics may be secondary symptoms, but point toward an increasingly unavoidable form of branding in an image-fueled society: Malala’s image is now an immediate symbol that represents that resistance against the Taliban exists.

Eugène Delacroix, The Women of Algiers, 1834; Collection: The Louvre, Paris

 

The quote above comes from a piece written for Middle East Revisited, which begins with a simple question: why is it that we (the popular we, the West) are so quick to recognize and award survivors of torment (victims of the East), but do so in a way that purposefully and systemically fails to acknowledge the West’s contributions to those torments? This parsing of images, what the author outlines as “the western narrative of oriental oppression,” is a narrative that belongs to exoticism, which begins with art and images—a primitive fantasy of Western society projected on the other. We can award the aggressors whose agendas we despise, but will never award a recognition of peace to an individual standing in the face of, say, US drone strikes in those same territories. Reactions to the potential hypocrisy of the award and Yousafzai’s selection are an aesthetics problem. They are a problem of representation.

The institutionalization of the other has been ingrained in a history of painting since the 16th and 17th centuries, most popular in the 19th, and in stories of damsels in distress, in the myth of helplessness—of adopting the image before the content. White European woman adorned in opulent woven silks bask in the haze of incense-filled harems; Islamic ornamentation is carved into arabesques on Greek and Roman columns; their hair is pulled back into headdresses that serve no higher purpose than accessory. The harem girl is our property, made sellable by her portrait. We own her image, and own her too in the process—she is an imaginary reflection, ours to keep. These constructs literally “paint the picture” of the East that has stayed cemented in popular discourse for centuries. Images speak longer than words.

Jean-Léon Gérôme, Pool in a Harem, c. 1876

 

This image the author of this piece speaks of, like the harem girl, is not only that of institutionalization, in terms of how we deal with oppositional representations of the enemy—what Yousafzai represents is as much her award as a damnation of her oppressors, the East—but also that of reification. The image becomes the subject. The argument in the quote is not whether or not Yousafzai should be celebrated—she should absolutely be celebrated. The critical point of Baig’s argument is that in addition to this celebration, the West, the Nobel Peace Prize, should be criticized for its inabilities to search for more complicated figures that challenge western interests, while similarly contributing to peace.

The formula for exoticism hinges on two essential elements: one, complete ignorance (or the imaginary) and two, the caricature of that myth. Such rapid jumps to a colonial reading of the prize are valid as a symptom in and of themselves. However, the danger of this reading is that it takes authority away from the individual. It implies that the figure, Yousafzai, has been saved by a force beyond her own agency. What is missing from this reading is just one possibility among others: that Yousafzai was not absorbed by the West, but is using a different locale as her political platform. As her choice.

Giulio Rosati, Inspection of New Arrivals, 1858-1917

 

The image of exoticism is the will of one explored through the agenda of others. While a cautionary interpretation of a historical image certainly applies, such as the one used in the opening quote, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize should not be so dismissible by an Orientalist read. The suspicion and contempt for the Western agenda is one often brought up for Satyarthi, with whom Yousafzai shared her prize. “I call it ‘atrocity porn,’” said Sankrant Sanu, of the right-leaning news site Niti Central. “It makes people in the West feel good about the burden that is borne because of colonialism. The misery industry helps them assuage that feeling." But the phenomenon of the award has also been received and criticized as a commodity. In the Daily Beast, the BBC quoted Tariq Khattack, a former editor of the Pakistan Observer, condemning the prize and Malala: “She is a normal, useless type of a girl. Nothing in her is special at all. She’s selling what the West will buy.”

Does the West really benefit from this? The aesthetic problem of the award is that it welcomes these irrelevant questions for the winners, and not the relevant ones for their cause. Few would dispute Yousafzai’s position for peace. Interpreting the image of the prize is to render it counterfeit—to see Malala as anything but an active agent of Western beneficence would render the imaginary narrative mute. The image of peace cannot be imagined, cannot belong to myth, and cannot continue this narrative of the exotic—the only solution to this problem is that the image be wholly, and necessarily, authentic.

 

Stephanie Cristello

 The author would like to thank Tara Plath for her contributions.

(Image at top: Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Grande Odalisque, 1814)

 



Posted by Stephanie Cristello on 10/20 | tags: painting orientalism Exoticism Nobel Peace Prize Malala Yousafzai

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Kathryn Garcia, Joel Holmberg
Harmony Murphy Gallery
679 S. Santa Fe Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90021
September 19, 2014 - November 8, 2014


Copper Pyramid and Promethean Fire
by Andrew Berardini


A copper pyramid skeleton on a white square contains a mirrored firepit with a purple flame. The subtle elements of Kathryn Garcia's sculpture in the courtyard of the newly opened Harmony Murphy Gallery downtown uses subtle, elementary materials to craft a metaphysical gathering place, borrowing aesthetically from the basic materials of minimalism with a presence drawn from the ethereal end of conceptualism. Dave Hickey wrote in his beautiful essay "Detroit Dharma Diva" in a Michael Werner catalogue, that James Lee Byars embodies the spirit of a Chinese food restaurant in Michigan where that legendary artist grew up, some taste of exotic arcana without real origin. Here, the spirit is a distinctly LA variety of witchery, what you wished Stevie Nicks would organize naked black masses around with a coterie of naked spellcasters. During the opening, people gathered on pillows around its spectral glow and one handsome rogue passed out, his dreams soaking up unknown energies of a unspecific New Age from this magical simulacra begging for a ritual.

 

Andrew Berardini

 

(All images: Kathryn Garcia, I am Violet, 2014; Courtesy of the artist and Harmony Murphy Gallery)



Posted by Andrew Berardini on 10/9 | tags: sculpture

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Miranda July's Curious Handbag Is Just For You
by Andrew Berardini


This is just for you.

If every outfit you owned were cut to your body, every shoe shaped just for your foot, all the doorways in the house adjusted perfectly for your height.

If in the fridge, your favorites things to eat filled the shelves, rare culinary delights and hearty comfort foods, prepared especial, ready to be placed directly into your mouth to let their deliciousness spread through your being and satisfy all possible hungers. You could never decide which was your favorite ice cream, so there are hundreds of small containers neatly arranged and clearly marked to choose from in the freezer.

Perfectly filled, the medicine chests features all the necessary drugs and ointments, first-aids and pick-me-ups that you may require in the course of a long day, a long night, a long life.

And there in bed (Goldilocks perfection, just the right amount of pillows) is your childhood blanket: battered, stained, fraying at the edge, of indeterminate color and mysterious origin. One precious jewel of a tear plumps out of your eye and rolls to the ground to the lush Persian rug that underlies the California king and you know you’ll be able to sleep the deepest, most perfectly dreamless sleep of your life. Placed near the bed, but facing just slightly away, is a picture of your favorite people all beaming with joy whenever you need to see them and be comforted.

Are you creeped out yet?

Perfection is a particularly bloodless form of death. Bespoke items are generally the province for the rich, but there is that odd DIY spirit that still percolates in old school post-punks. Whenever confronted with shitty music, a bad community, an unfair society, you make your own. All-ages club and grassroots activism never thought it would birth a haute-couture purse/conceptual art project, but fashion was always an aspect of creating community so why not this bag, editioned to 100?

Performance art became performance albums. A bestselling book was followed by a popular movie. Another movie followed to less acclaim, but no less struggle. The endless crossover for Miranda July continues. I bought a Miranda July record some time in the vague end of the ‘90s. Every voice was hers. I’m still haunted by Megan from Kelso, Washington, calling again and again, with her plaintive voice penetrating the loneliness of a long, dark drive to the end of night.  

And now July has designed a bag, her bag: the Miranda. Seemingly fashioned after a doctor’s valise, this little satchel contains what July might carry in her purse, but brought to a hyperspecificity that passes bespoke and lands on the other side of spooky. Made in collaboration with Welcome Companions and recently launched at Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles, it includes a scrap of a security blanket, a faux-photo of July's son (totally legit that she respects the privacy of her real son, but it adds to the creep to have a decoy son), a hidden $20 bill for emergency cab fare, a bottle of homeopathic sleep aid, and one leather-stitched pocket designed to carry a single almond, "in case of low blood sugar." The immediate impulse is to dismiss this as simply the empty fashions that a generation of hard-headed, black-clad artists have mostly rejected, or worse, an artist going corporate, jumping the shark, but there is something more subtle at work.

The ego/marketeering that leads to the naming of bags after people (Hermes’ "the Birkin" named after actress Jane Birkin probably the most famous of these luxe purses) gets quietly prodded by July. Her bag reveals the particular mania inherent to such items. Hyperspecificity generally tends to comes with huge inequalities of wealth, the minutiae of which occupy the extremely bored/wealthy while the peasants sharpen their pitchforks (think France in 1791). The Miranda both quietly mocks the fashion-consciousness of the idle rich, but also sells to them (at $1,725, as an artwork it’s almost reasonable, but as a bag its likeliest consumer is the extremely wealthy). Though it includes a video in a flash-drive tucked into the purse that hasn’t been made available as far as I can tell, the subtlest bit of work comes in the form of writing on a stack of cards tucked into its own special sleeve.

As a writer, July’s sentences embody a self-conscious, socially awkward, and heartfelt earnestness that seemed to define narrative culture during the earliest bit of the 2000s (along with McSweeney’s and Wes Anderson). Reacted against by the following generation of writers as too twee and precious, there are moments here where that gentle, self-aware voice really shines and supercedes its context. The cards in the Miranda were intended by July to help the bearer communicate, but come off as strange poems, more Yoko Ono art instructions or David Shrigley one-sheets than anything too functionally self-helpish; they're more about the difficulty of communication than a direct aid to actually communicating.   

“Let’s be honest, the conversation we are having right now isn’t very interesting to either of us. I suggest we shake hands and go find other people to talk to. PS. If your enjoy our conversation, please disregard the above.”

“I just handed you this card. Now you are reading it. Also, I love you. If you love me too, rip this up throw the pieces on the floor, spit on them, stamp on them, and then walk out of the room like you’re furious. I’ll come running after you and we can kiss.”  

“In three seconds, I’m going to burst out into song and I’d like you to join me. We’ll be singing ‘This Little Heart of Mine.’”

“Sadness Punch Card: Each time you feel sad, punch a number below. When the card is full, just keep feeling sad without a card to punch.”

In an overexamined life, the kind where the hyperspecificity of a single almond becomes a desire, these actions will invariably fail to create meaning, that has to be made by us. But the making of art becomes an action—like punching a card for our sadness—that at a minimum gives ritual and action to what would otherwise be sinking depression. 

The cards are sold separately at a more modest $22. A decent price to have an excuse to burst out into song or run after your lover and sink into a kiss with them or give yourself some small gesture to combat the sadness.

 

Andrew Berardini

 

(Images courtesy of Welcome Companions)



Posted by Andrew Berardini on 10/5 | tags: welcome companions handbags celebrity fashion fashion Miranda July

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Zackary Drucker, Rhys Ernst
Luis De Jesus Los Angeles
2685 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90034
September 13, 2014 - November 1, 2014


Transitioning Through a Love Affair
by Andrew Berardini


Have you ever fallen in love?

Her face is open, unselfconscious, laughing. Framed by wash of blonde hair, the light sheen of sweat settles on her skin and both eyes beam, full of trust and free of tension. Here is unalloyed happiness on the face of a full-grown woman, a joy one rarely sees in adults. Of course, she’s looking at her love, the man holding the camera.

As a love-story between this couple unfolds in scattered pictures, videos, and poems read aloud (each word a thud, but so carefully chosen), so does another story. Our woman over the course of the courtship has been changing physically. As has her man. Both are transgender and are transitioning.

With sections previously shown in the Made in LA 2012 and the Whitney Biennial, Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst’s current exhibition at Luis de Jesus captures in scattered pictures and videos the rise and fall of their years-long love affair, a relationship that ravels and unravels whilst both more fully transition into their true genders.

A broken romance of spiritual refugees sent into strange territories by identity and desire. I remember this well from early Gus Van Sant films but have rarely seen captured since so movingly. The political portent of their mutual transitions adds a layer of contemporary meaning given the increasing awareness and slow-moving equal recognition for transgender people, but the works work not because of this but because the story is authentically romantic, a heart-wrenching tale seen through the Vaseline lens of a dream. Even if sometimes maudlin or cliché in its imagery—Ernst looking pensive in a field of daisies—somehow the earnestness of the feeling and the skill with which it is captured supercede this. And, of course, those moments only punctuate rather than define a nuanced history in pictures.

 

Each photograph or snippet of video, often taken by one of the other, reveals their changing bodies as they become who they are together. Teenagers feel something like it everyday, but rarely do teenagers have the aesthetic range of fully realized artists, able to deftly capture the realizations of owning a new body—the hormones here not from puberty but those taken to reassign gender—and discovering that with another person.

I feel like a witness, but curiously not a voyeur, to some deep human event in their lives, that each of us only have so many times. I see such deep affection rare enough that I feel gratitude in being privy to their experience together if only for a few rooms, a couple of videos, and 62 photographs that sweep through their union and break. Not unlike Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986) the intimacy allowed evaporates that feeling of distance. Despite whatever differences we might find between ourselves and the actual subjects, those pictures become our pictures.

I have so few photographs of my own adolescence and young adulthood, my friends and I in various states of unstable identities, substance abuse, wreckless happiness, love affairs, and struggle, that I adopt Goldin’s pictures as my own. Her friends and lovers were not mine, but she captured their humanity with such rare intimacy, it was not hard for me to find my truth in hers. Perhaps I have such few documents of my own forlorn love affairs, and none of my snapshots so artfully made, these images become the ones I don’t have, overcoming the differences and fingering a universal emotion. 

Perhaps all of it is sentimental, but maybe so am I. 

Though a common trope in music, love feels more rarely a subject for contemporary art. The vulnerability that good art requires perhaps feels too vulnerable for public exhibition of love, but those transitioning wear their changing bodies in public, the deeply intimate nature of one’s femininity, masculinity, or queerness and the changes are science and fashion on parade. The intimacy of Drucker and Ernst’s images are not belied at all by their sometime performative nature, the relationship between intimacy and performance already so blurred.

But as this couple transcends the gender binary, the work itselfs transcends the limitations of being read simply in those terms. The love and its heartbreak are real for them and for us watching it unfold. 

And when in love, how thoughtlessly in the moment we are. And when it ends, how reduced it all feels, how much we grieve the despair our desires have wrought. But desire we must.

As Drucker says in a video, “Our poetry evaporated leaving us just a few pounds of salt.”

 

Andrew Berardini

 

(All images: Zackary Drucker and Rhys Ernst, Post / Relationship / X, 2014; Courtesy of the artists and Luis De Jesus Los Angeles)



Posted by Andrew Berardini on 10/21 | tags: photography video-art relationships transformation love transgender identity

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Marina Abramovic to Help Others Sit Really Still for a Really Long Time and Count Rice
by Max Nesterak


Legendary performance artist Marina Abromovic announced today her next public workshop aimed at helping others push beyond their own physical and psychological limits of sitting really still for a really long time while doing something really boring. 

In partnership with the Italian furniture maker Moroso, the Marina Abromovic Institute (MAI) will present "Counting the Rice" at this year's Art Basel Miami in December. Participants will try to sit these scary-looking modernist torture tables designed by Daniel Libeskind for a minimum of six hours while they count and separate rice from lentils. 

The project also has a new twist: you can buy it. As part of the project, Moroso will release a limited edition of 30 "Counting the Rice" tables along with a collection of other designed objects, the proceeds of which will go to supporting the MAI. (The irony of Abromovic's immaterial art institute releasing a collection of designed objects is not lost on us.) 

The first iteration of this project was presented earlier this year in the Cortile d'Onore cloister at Milan University during Design Week 2014, where they used Italian art students as their rice-counting, concentration-building victims. Subsequently, the project was opened up to the public at Centre d'Art Contemporain in Geneva in May. A four-hour long YouTube video on that here

While both earlier iterations used wooden versions of the design, Moroso will present a new design development at Art Basel Miami: "high-performance cement." 

Of the design, Moroso writes: "The slab of cement folds over itself, enfolding and pushing the body to carry out the performance"—or confess to a crime you didn't commit—"while the vigorous gestural expressiveness of the form is embossed across its surface with complex geometries that give a sense of visual fragmentation."   

In keeping with the newly developed strong artistic ties between Abromovic and the Italian furniture manufacturer, "the seat takes on a dialectical dimension that goes beyond function to become the metaphor for the virtual union between the visionary genius of Marina Abramovic, the creativity of Daniel Libeskind, and the leading producer of Italian-made design that is Moroso." 

The first table in the limited edition was auctioned off at the Fondation Beyeier in Basel last month. Along with the cement "Count the Rice, Bitch" collection, Moroso announced plans to release yet another version at Art Basel Miami designed by Patricia Urquilo. 

 

(Image at top: The "Counting the Rice" Chair Designed by Daniel Libeskind for Moroso in cooperation with the Marina Abromovic Institute)



Posted by Max Nesterak on 10/21 | tags: sculpture marina abromovic performance art art basel count the rice moroso

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