dimanche 11 février 2018

Jean Luc Johannet’s Tower of Babel (1980s)


Carved on cliff faces in Lebanon at Wadi Brisa are two reliefs dating to about 500 BCE depicting the Tower of Babel. In late medieval Germany, Meister der Weltenchronik paints a charming little, five-storey tower standing beside a thatched workspace and half a dozen artisans busily constructing the modest tower. Two hundred years later, Dutch artist and map-maker Cornelius Anthonisz produces a dramatic etching of a colosseum-inspired building spiraling into the sky, the top smashed by a violent wind, chunks tumbling to the ground hitting people, and a small army of sword-wielding, trumpeting angels flying towards the catastrophe. In 2011, Iranian artist Goran Hassanpour assembles TV screens into a tee-pee shaped conical tower whose screens display different views of the same dramatic waterfall.

The story of the Tower of Babel has provided and continues to provide material upon which artists, historians, linguists, theologians and archaeologists build explanations for any number of positions and viewpoints.

Jean Luc Johannet’s Tower of Babel does not often travel as it’s fragile but currently it’s showing in Paris at the Halles St Pierre to the end of February 2018. It’s worth a look. It’s a gigantic pencil and china ink drawing made in the 1980s by a gifted polymath who is able to incorporate his training in architecture, sculpture, poetry and painting to produce a version of the Tower that is altogether unique. His work references the “naive art” movement exemplified by Ferdinand Cheval and the Catalan modernism of Antoni Gaudi. He also takes inspiration from Swiss set designer and sculptor H R Giger whose aesthetic sets the mood for the Alien films. Johannet’s Tower is a pyramidal structure built on a river, straining to reach a baroque sky and populated by mechanical birds, winged ships and shifting nightmarish flying creatures. The Tower itself looks alive, its projections resemble horned masks, giant cilia, rows of sardine-like statues and at least one monkey and snake embedded in other figures.

Johannet’s tower is the Lovecraft version of Dr Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who.

mercredi 24 janvier 2018

T.S. Eliot - Peter Ackroyd - 1984

Any student of modernism as expressed in world literature and especially in Anglo-American literature would nominate T.S. Eliot to the list of writers who wrote groundbreaking poetry, beginning with Prufrock in 1915, The Wasteland in 1922 and ending with Four Quartets in 1945. Peter Ackroyd’s 1984 biography of T.S. Elliot takes the reader on a well-observed, fair-minded journey through the life and career of a towering cultural figure whose public image was not altogether attractive. Eliot, we all know, was considered aloof, arrogant, self-absorbed, highly intelligent and highly sensitive. He held anti-semitic views and joined his friend and fellow poet Ezra Pound in espousing fascism. What we did not know, but may have guessed at, particularly after having read Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats or watched the musical Cats was that T.S. Eliot had a sense of humour. Ackroyd reminds his readers that Eliot, while essentially a serious man — a product of his puritanical upbringing — nevertheless enjoyed light entertainment like detective fiction, music hall shows and American comic films (especially the work of the Marx Brothers). In his youth and throughout his life, Eliot read comic strips like the surrealistic, linguistically playful Krazy Kat and the classic, slapstick single strip Mutt and Jeff. At the offices of literary publishers Faber and Faber, where Eliot worked for some forty years, he liked to play practical jokes, including setting off firecrackers in the coal scuttle and a sending letter to the editor of the Times, proposing a "Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses.” Ackroyd tells us that Eliot, a dedicated writer of letters, wrote to friends “rambling in a high spirited or nonsensical manner about nothing in particular”. Such humour even stretched to the envelopes, and those addressed to friends such as Clive Bell often had on them verse instructions to the postman. It is a pity that Ackroyd could not give us more examples of the lighter side of Eliot’s personality but a bit of light investigation has revealed that the Eliot estate refused Ackroyd permission to quote from the poet’s unpublished work or correspondences. However, the hefty, two-volumed “Letters of T.S. Eliot” were published years after Ackroyd’s biography and are available to all — enabling us to fill in the many details and also to look anew and with more intimate evidence at the life and times of the “Old Possum”.

samedi 4 mars 2017

24 Hrs in Photos - Erik Kessels


Recently I became aware of a travelling exhibition whose subject matter, 21st century ”vernacular photography” intrigued me: Erik Kessels is a Dutch “vernacular photography” collector, curator and photography magazine editor who has been watching photographic trends with some trepidation so, in 2010, he decided to curate an unusual show which would invite the general public and cultural critics to think about emerging trends in electronic art practices.
Kessels printed close to one million random photos, all of which were published in one 24 hour period on Flickr. He then dumped those photos, weighing about two metric tonnes, into venues as varied as art galleries and churches, from the Netherlands to North America between 2011 and 2015. Inviting the public to walk on them, lie on them, pick them up and look at them, he asked people to essentially confront and make sense of the explosion of amateur photography that has resulted from the availability of good, cheap digital cameras and the concomitant unlimited number of photos that are now taken and shared electronically, daily, around the world.
Kessels’ installations, while dramatic, are hardly a celebration of the easy taking and casual sharing of photos on social media networks. In fact, he explains that this installation was meant to “present (the photos) as a sea of images that you can drown in”. He’s reminding us of “how public your private photos have become” and he says he wants to leave visitors feeling unsettled as we’re “walking over personal memories”. Kessels’ installations and various comments seem to be suggesting that contemporary vernacular photography, by its dubious quality and sheer quantity, trivializes experience. Too many photos are taken; they are not curated, organized, made into manageable, related tranches (he himself is a collector of family photo albums purchased from flea markets and displayed lovingly in art galleries), and they are released without context into the ether, their anonymity ultimately depriving them of meaning. The venues into which he dumps the photos also make statements. When the hills of photos cover museum floors, he asks us to decide if these giant mounds are works of art or installation art. Are they anti-art, post-art statements? What are we to make of photos he shoots of a priest standing on the museum floor reading a bible, or two monks standing against a wall facing the camera? He dumps two tonnes of photos in a church in France, covering the pews and he photographs a family sitting looking at the hills of photos. Is Kessels suggesting that the spiritual is being co-opted by the material?
I understand the impulse that compelled Kessels to execute this exhibition: he is concerned about quality of representation and communication being overtaken by sheer quantity of visual material available but his vision is only one side of a complex and not altogether negative trend.

samedi 11 février 2017

Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1984

It is bold to assert that the central theme of any novel is merely “silence, no change”*, but Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ tragicomic novel “Chronicle of a Death Foretold” may be just  such a work.
The novel begins “On the day that they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.” and it ends early the next morning with “They’ve killed me…”. In the last seconds of his life he even took care to brush off the dirt that was stuck to his guts... went into his house...and fell on his face in the kitchen.”
Little is recounted of the events  between these two statements that doesn’t have a direct bearing on an incident that so overwhelms a town and yet changes nothing of its mindset.
The death of Santiago is the main event; it is inevitable; it is predictable, and while the circumstances and the blame remain contested, the townspeople remain in perpetual limbo. The reader is left wondering how such an extraordinary series of circumstances fails to change the thinking of the community or cause it to reassess the disproportionately violent response to what many might consider just a social infraction.
We are told time and again that Santiago Nasar is “fated” to die at the hands of twin brothers Pablo and Pedro, who are compelled by the dictates of tradition to restore the lost honour of their sister, without recourse to the law (which is an ancillary force to be dealt with after the fact) or even to honest inquires made before serious action is taken..
Did Santiago actually take Angela’s virginity? All evidence points to his innocence. Angela’s brothers seek no verification, they merely react to the ancient command to save face, to restore the family reputation with obligatory brute force.
Does the town ever own up to its responsibility? Everyone is sorry it happened, but it was “fated” to happen and it may well happen again: consensus is universal, hence the conclusion, ”silence, no change”.
The narrator presents testimonies (fresh from the moment and from 27 years later, when he revisits the town) and legal documents (compromised and fragmentary, many lost in the flooding of the courthouse) depicting characters who choose to remain blind to their collective guilt and, hence, unwilling to change. In “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”, Garcia Marquez is asking the reader to recognise the consequences of a culture locked in an antiquated and dangerous worldview.


* L.A. Times review, 1984

dimanche 27 novembre 2016

A Brief History of the Great Books Idea by Tim Lacy 2005

North American culture has embraced, rejected and, in recent times, re-embraced the idea of reading the “great books”. Allan Bloom’s “first volley in the culture wars” with the now infamous “Closing of the American Mind” published in 1987 was far from the beginning of the debate.
We can thank English Victorian poet and culture critic Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) for laying down the notions that eventually lead to the establishment of  liberal arts colleges and reading groups that read “canonical” texts that disseminate “universal principles” to the “common reader” in order to promote the “common good”. If this language sounds familiar and if a little background to the debates is welcome, then I recommend a thoughtful little essay by Tim Lacy called “A Brief History of the Great Books Idea”.
Lacy’s essay takes us on a chronological journey starting with the England of Matthew Arnold and ending with the New York educator and social critic Earl Shorris (1936-2012) and his ongoing Clemente Course which has national (and now international) chapters that brings great books to the disadvantaged, exposing them to the edifying impulses “inherent” in great poetry, logic, history and moral philosophy.
As part of his overview, Lacy quickly and efficiently lays out the academic hesitations and shifts in public opinion that have led to serious but sometimes absurd and naive debates over appropriate content. Unsurprisingly, ideas of political economy authored by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are mentioned more than once: Lacy tells us that in the early 1930s, Charles Walgreen, founder of the drugstore chain threatened the University of Chicago with funding cuts if “subversive works”, which were “forced” on his niece were not removed from the curriculum. Walgreen lost out to the idea of open inquiry and Das Kapital is still taught at the university today.
Also on the lighter side is Lacy’s description of Dr Charles Eliot’s colourful career. He tells us, for instance, that Eliot (1868-1909), president of Harvard and editor of a “five-foot shelf of books” which contains the classics of Western thought,  believed that the set could offer a full liberal arts education to any adult willing to read from them for ten minutes a day. 350,000 sets were sold to households from 1909, when they were first issued, to 1930. Today, the set is available to download for free.
Finally, and on a more serious note, Lacy describes how the term “plurality of excellences” has in recent times, been substituted for the older idea of “excellence”, a shift that has necessitated a reassessment of “greatness”. Where “excellence” used to be found in largely Western, European and Victorian thought, the category has in the past 30 or 40 years expanded to include Eastern and contemporary texts. But what happens, Lacy asks, if “no central standard of excellence is imposed to construct the list (of necessary reading)”?
The debate over the very existence of “permanent, universal values and the persistence of the dream of a common culture” is of course ongoing and deep, and while Lacy’s essay only hints at the fractious nature of the dialogue, it is up to the interested reader and both friends and foe of Allan Bloom to thrash it out.


mardi 1 novembre 2016

Strangers from Abroad by Daniel Maier-Katkin 2010

It is generally acknowledged that philosopher Martin Heidegger effected a kind of paradigm shift in thinking about the world and about thought itself when he asked us to put aside western philosophy’s foundational binaries idea/object or mind/matter and formulated anew, the meaning of being and thinking, this time viewing all that exists through the specificities of time and history. His work led to philosophical movements as varied as phenomenology, hermeneutics, existentialism and post-structuralism, and yet since 1940 and rather frequently in recent times, his work has made news not only in academic circles where one would expect his ideas to be critiqued but in the popular press because new evidence regularly surfaces tying him more and more firmly to his pro-Nazi past. The fact that he was, for a brief period, a Nazi party member, wrote about the menace he perceived inherent in Jewish rootlessness and cosmopolitanism, and still had an intense love affair with his star Jewish student, Hannah Arendt, continuing to see her until her death, multiplies the dimensions of the story considerably. Add the fact that Arendt, herself the object of public scorn, forgave him for his refusal to recant his anti-semitism adds yet another extraordinary and certainly perplexing element to the history of this relationship. Understandably, much has been written about these two international figures, including a book by Daniel Maier-Katkin called Stranger from Abroad: Hannah Arendt, Martin Heidegger, Friendship and Forgiveness, published in 2010. I recommend this book, particularly to those who enjoy psychological puzzles. And it can probably be agreed that the Arendt/Heidegger puzzle is amongst the more unusual of the recent past.
Stranger from Abroad lays out the controversies, introduces major and minor actors, theories, and provides quotes from many sources, including letters from the two protagonists but in the end it cannot resolve the Arendt/Heidegger enigma.
How deep was Heidegger’s anti-semitism? Did it go beyond personal opinion? Did it have philosophical ramifications? If the latter is the case (debates are ongoing), then what is one to do? Discard “Being and Time” and all those ideas that have been built upon Heidegger’s work?  And what of Arendt’s forgiveness of Heidegger? Was it willful blindness, naive adoration of a love object, or considered, rational thinking that kept her at Heidegger’s side?
Neither Maier-Katkin nor any other writer of recent times has been able to tell us.




dimanche 4 septembre 2016

Raphaël et la Fornarina XI, from La Série 347 by Pablo Picasso (1968)

In the span of 12 days in 1968, when he was 87 years old, Pablo Picasso made a series of 25 etchings that depict erotic episodes involving Raphael and his mistress Margherita Loti, known as La Fornarina (The Baker’s Daughter). Because it is Picasso and Picasso was a committed, promiscuous and successful borrower of style and subject matter originating from multiple places and historical moments, a small investigation, even a cursory one of these two dozen etchings yields names and references as varied as Michelangelo, the Vatican, Jean Auguste Ingres and psychoanalysis.
This little study is built upon the story of Raphael and his appetites, which is entertaining in and of itself but the story also offers a convenient way to mention some of the foundational ideas about sex, art, and inspiration held by Picasso.

First, we can say that Picasso’s statement “sex and art are the same thing” suggests ideas of sexual energy, sublimation, creativity, paraphilia, all terms familiar to us as post-Freudian subjects. In fact, it can be argued that when Picasso draws Raphael painting a portrait of his mistress while simultaneously making love to her (Raphael has paintbrush and easel in hand while he penetrates Margherita), Picasso is making art in order to sublimate sexual energy. In short, the artist, the exceptional man, can have it both ways: the paintbrush and the phallus can both satisfy and be satisfied.
And what of sex as compulsion? In several of the etchings we see Pope Julius II, sometimes sitting on a throne, sometimes on a chamber pot (his behind in full view), sometimes hiding behind a curtain, watching, and sometimes in full view of the lovers in action. Picasso’s message is clear: while the office of the Pope is meant to confer respect to the man who represents divine power on earth, this pope is a voyeur who permits the forbidden (sexual gratification — his and his employee Raphael’s — against the codes of Catholic orthodoxy), making him and his office mere objects of fun.
The other figure that lurks in these sketches, often hiding underneath the bed, is Michelangelo. The story (from Giorgio Vasari) goes that Raphael, curious, needing inspiration, viewed the work in progress in the Sistine Chapel without permission and proceeded to copy the style. Michelangelo never forgave him for stealing, uttering “Everything he knew he learned from me.”. Three hundred years later, Jean Auguste Ingres borrows from Raphael, painting “Raphael and The Fornarina”, using his own mistress Madeleine Capelle and justifying his borrowing by asking, “Is there anyone among the great ones who has not imitated? Nothing is made with nothing.”. A century and a half later, the Ingres painting provides Picasso inspiration: he too, sketches the lovers, claiming “good artists copy, great artists steal”. Perhaps Picasso is saying that a good artist merely transports theme and image from one canvas to another, one age to another, but a great artist transforms previous art so that it suggests a new and different understanding of life.
In these 25 sketches Picasso plays with ideas of patrimony, ego and method and besides challenging us, he makes us laugh a little.