Saturday, December 29, 2012

William Kentridge: I am not me, the horse is not mine

The Tanks, Tate Modern
Until 20 January 2013

The exhibition of William Kentridge at Tate Modern is one of the bright examples of the complete diffusion of techniques and meanings in contemporary visual arts practice. The globalization goes further and further, and so art does: it grasps, it assimilates, it incorporates different styles and traditions. The media project of William Kentridge is a fresh and involving point of view on Russian cultural heritage, or rather, the absurd component of this culture. It is done from some unified international perspective, as it could be expected from the South African artist who exhibits his videos based on the story of Russian-Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol in the British Tate Modern gallery. This is a celebrated victory of postmodern hypertextuality.

In any case, Nikolai Gogol with his irony and certain inattention to limits of the genre is a perfect choice for this loud, chaotic and cheerful project. The great mystic Nikolai Gogol was born in a village Sorochyntsi on the territory of contemporary Ukraine. All his works are permeated with village folklore and fairy-tales, superstitions and some strange animistic mythology. "The Nose" is a tragic story of a man who lost his nose and the nose became an independent person, moreover, a person of a highest rank, a fact that was breaking all the hopes to return it on the place. Kentridge uses not the literary plot, but rather this idea of  a conceptual 'flip' in all his eight videos shown on large screens on the walls of The Tanks premises of Tate Modern. He uses everything: geometric shapes taken from the works of Russian avant-garde, real or invented confessional texts from the session of Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, dancing shadow of the Nose or the image of him climbing the ladder again and again, mix of Latin American music, military marches, parts of unrecognizable official speeches. All of these gives a clear sense of  being inside of some well conducted, yet unclear symphony.   

"I am not me, the horse is not mine" is a Russian proverb which is used to deny any guilt or the very fact of participation in some unpleasant event. However, it is just a part of the proverb. The second part adds: "...and I am not a coachman myself". This unnecessary addition is a kind of a ridiculous illogical construction that makes an extra assumption over what is already assumpted: if I am not me and the horse is not mine there is no need to explain that I am not a coachman, because it's just obvious. Kentridge, in his turn, uses this mechanism of extra assumptions, he involves a variety of visual (and literal) texts to make an image of some universal chaos surrounding the viewer.

In the video part containing the image of a horse as well as in other parts William Kentridge uses simple constructivist shapes. However, mostly he focuses on the shapes in black, which gives also a hint to Malevich rather than any other artist of that period. The scene with a horse is accompanied with a quotation from the poem "Kindness to horses" by Russian cubo-futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovski: “Horse, there’s no need for this!/ Horse, listen, -/ look at them all, - who has it worse?/ Child,/ we are all, to some extent, horses, -/ everyone here is a bit of a horse” (Trans. Andrey Kneller). These lines appear in Russian so that they might be recognized just by those people who understand the language, but neither understanding nor recognition is the main aim of the artist. His purpose is to use a "shell" of certain related meanings, images, texts and sounds for producing some strange synaesthetic effect. It is impossible to put the eight parts of the videos into a single narrative, instead, it is possible to develop several narratives from a single video, like a spider knits its web. 

The position of a viewer inside of the exhibition reminds another story of Gogol - "Viy". At some point of the story the young  philosopher is locked for three nights in the church with a corpse of a young witch, who upon getting desperate to get him alone calls for help other demons and monsters. The philosopher drew around himself a protective circle in order to stay invisible for monsters surrounding him, but he becomes visible to the main demon called Viy at the moment of their sight contact. For a viewer of Kentbridges' exhibition there is an unclear feeling of being surrounded by some kind of creatures who simultaneously live on the screens, perform some repetitive actions, and have no clue of presence of a viewer, even though he is involved into this contemplative process by the very construction of the exhibition space. 

The desctription of the project mentions also that William Kentridge chose the topic of "The Nose" because previously he stage designed the opera by Shostakovitch at the Met. His relation to a classical genre of the opera is surprising, this project seems to be some kind of individual reflection to this large production that involves many people and responds to restrictions set by the stage. A reflection that is more private and free. Without seeing the opera it is difficult to judge to which extent this project is the 'reuse' of the material and ideas that were produced during the preparation of the opera, and to which extent it is an independent work of art. One thing is clear: except the fact that Kentridge is a good animator, he is also very good in the creation of an overwhelming multimedia effect which cannot be explained by solely the 'exoticism' of the topic from the world-wide perspective. The impression given by the exhibition cannot be explained also by the fashion on Russian art that seems to be flourishing in the UK in the latest years. The success of the project lies completely in its ability to integration and the symphonic effect produced on the viewer. 

His Majesty, the Nose  
(stills), from the installation 
"I am not me, the horse is not mine"

A Lifetime of Enthusiasm 
(stills), from the installation 
"I am not me, the horse is not mine"

The Horse
from the installation  
"I am not me, the horse is not mine"

Friday, December 28, 2012

Sanja Ivekovic: Unknown Heroine

14 December – 24 February 2013
Calvert 22 and South London Gallery

Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic presented her exhibition "Unknown Heroine" at two London galleries: Calvert 22 and South London Gallery. This retrospective exhibition is an in-depth view into the political and social situation of Yugoslavia and independent Croatia. Sanja Ivekovic works with the topic of limits and restriction, whether applied to female gender identity or to the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito. Her works are highly intellectualized and require specific knowledge about the circumstances of a particular reflection. In other words, works of Ivakovic are born from a specific context and exist somewhere between the visual work in a form of photography, video or performance, and a particular historical comment in a view of a small literary text. This is the case when an image has the same importance as an explanation to it. 

Except the aesthetic visual experience, recalling some works of American pop-art or Mondrian's "Broadway Boogie-Woogie", the coloured photograph "New Zagreb (People Behind the Windows)" creates a place for discussion on freedom and deviation. It becomes a meeting point between the ideology of mass-media photo of Tito's car being met by happy crowd of people on the edge of the road, and those people who were contemplating this procession from their balconies. While the first action was encouraged, standing on the balcony was forbidden as soon as it could put into risk the life of the invaluable leader. However, the artist highlighted those balconies where she managed to catch the figures of the people hiding behind the curtains and balcony doors. 

This case of the winning curiosity means a lot to the whole concept of existing limits. In any time, even the darkest ones, the human's interest to things happening around in life is much stronger than than any artificial restrictions put by a dictator's hand. This work is optimistic, it gives an idea that sometimes unnoticed and anonymous actions may become the stand points of composition, either of an art work, or the whole social environment. The main is to have a particularly attentive artist who can mark them as a priority.

Sanja Ivekovic. New Zagreb (People Behind the Windows), 1979.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Golden Emptiness: Spazio di Luce

Giuseppe Penone at Whitechapel Gallery, London

The exhibition of Giuseppe Penone at Whitechapel Gallery focuses on one installation Spazio di Luce. It presents a bronze cast of a tree, segmented and laid out horizontally in the exhibition space. The trunk rests on its own branches. 

First of all, the work impresses with the dynamism of its shapes and textures. Golden light lures the gaze inside. Then the viewer's attention switches to the complexity of meanings transmitted. The artist himself explains that the use of gold sheets inside the empty bronze cast refers to the idea of gold as the representation of sunlight since ancient times. The telescopic cast of the tree trunk allows a view through the whole installation, revealing the interplay of light and shadow. Penone has intentionally cut out some casts of the branches to let the light in through resulting holes. 

This way, the tree consists of two surfaces: an inner golden layer, the aim of which is to provide aesthetic pleasure and provoke curiosity, and the external bronze 'bark' that carries the traces of natural growth and artistic recast. 

Giuseppe Penone creates a luxurious object that has an obvious aesthetic as well as material value. But this work is also a result of a collaborative activity of the people involved in making of a wax cast from the real tree trunk. As a consequence, the bark of the bronze tree is covered with their fingerprints. The work combines a strong visual statement with an elaborated philosophic expression of interaction between nature and society. 

Only after becoming a cultural object is the tree eligible for appropriation of the gallery space. It needed to overcome its 'raw' stage to become involved into collaboration between the natural and the cultural and to embody the artist's idea of unity.

The installation Spazio di Luce extends through the ascetic exhibition space. Its inner shine attracts the viewer, while the projecting branches do not allow a close approach; in a way they attack him. This work contains a profound contradiction of the relation between humanity and nature, an eternal struggle between a wish to integrate and a lack of contact.

Photo: Whitechapel Gallery

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Paper Architecture between Glass Walls

An old dream of freedom

'Calvert 22' is an exhibition space for the display of Eastern European art in London. On the 2nd of October it presented the project of a representative of Russian Paper Architecture conceptualists' group, Alexander Brodsky 'White Room/ Black Room'.

The idea of paper architecture is about dreamland, it is an utopian expression of how the world should be constructed out of the borders of our habitual existence (so proper to the routine realities of Soviet Union where the artist started his activity), even if it strongly refers to this habit and gets the source of inspiration from it. The exhibition is a constructive re-interpretation of paper projects. It consists of two rooms: in one you find a line of small plywood beds, empty and ascetic, reminding a sleeping room in the Soviet kindergarten (for more similarity it could be at least two times more beds, though), filled with warm white daylight, produced by the lamps hidden behind the curtains. The second room is black and square, with surprisingly warm darkness in which a viewer finds an amphitheatric circle of clay human figures looking at imitated fire. Everything looks like a big and minimalistic doll house consisting of the two rooms. The artist however, even allowing viewers to his creation, plays with his toys himself, and doesn't desire to interpret his work to the wide public, neither in personal conversation, nor in the catalogue, which is conceptual enough to say much.

Even despite being created recently, such a clean, irrational, idealistic work can be produced as a reflection of a certain isolated environment which had influence in the past. Alexander Brodsky is lucky enough to belong to the generation of Russian artists who were eligible, whether they wanted this or not, for this blessing of solitude. The place of inhabitance was a glass castle, just almost the same, as one of the award-winning paper projects (Crystal  Palace, 1982) of Alexander Brodsky is called, and the walls of this castle were separating  the whole community of artistic intellectuals in the country from the rest of the art movement in the world. The walls were however allowing to see something, if not to interact, carrying this unbeatable transparent qualities since probably Peter's the Great window to Europe, which was not successfully closed even by the Soviet restrictive and censorship policy.

Yes, it was possible to see something, even if the overview was somehow blurry. It was possible to do something: at last, the limits and lacks always made an artist stronger, and his self-contemplation and the reaction over this world  had much more chance to be expressed in the work - on the condition that an art market that could recognize this art as such was just a distant unclear figure. Instead, there were plenty of inspirational sources inside of this sacred circle reserved just for Soviet artists, regardless of their wish for such an exclusive right.

All these ideas were visible in the past works of Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin that were presented at the research seminar 'From Paper Arhictecture to Research Architecture' at the Courtauld Institute of Art. Alexander Brodsky made clear his perception of art as personal, he just wanted to do his art and enjoy it. That was not a fight for freedom (even though that could be considered dissidence in the widest interpretation), that was rather a dream of freedom from the collective utopia, by creating the own, personified utopia. Which at the end worked out more effectively than all 'real' political changes in the contemporary Russia.

A thin ephemeral chain connecting Russian artists of paper architecture to their own perceptual experience of the everyday and to the best examples of old masters also ties them to the obligation of working in contrast to the dominant authoritative structures. However, this contrast is as mild and warm as it is the light change between the White and the Black room in Brodsky's project.

Photo: Calvert 22

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Deep into Russia, deep into bog

Oleg Kulik's performance 'Missionary' at Regina Gallery, 09.10.12

On 9th of October Oleg Kulik presented his show 'Deep into Russia' in the Regina Gallery at London. The private view was filled with pseudo-zoophilic photography, scent of expensive perfumes, taste of champagne and Russian language. That was not yet the performance, though it could be considered as such, that was the half-an-hour expectation for an artist to start the in-depth tour to his cultural motherland. The motherland was presented in a poetically-metaphorical, but quite profound view of an aquarium situated in the street in front of the gallery. The aquarium was filled with fishes, who were unlucky enough not to get to the supermarket and be consumed in some usual and worthy way, but to get involved into a hell circle of artistic consumption. However,  they just shared the destiny of the public who came to see the event which was the remake of Kulik's performance of 1995.

The aquarium was full of water. When the artist, enchained, wearing a monk's cassock, dived into it, the emerged waterfall immediately engaged the soaked audience into the performance, creating at the same time the puddle-sized distance between the artist with his fishy collaborators and rest of the people. Kulik was diving into the tank with a Bible-looking book in his hands, and from time to time showing his head over the level of water and prophesying in Russian to the audience and to the fishes. The phrase could be understood as one and the same - approximately 'And every earth's animal is weeping and is awaiting for the revelation from human sons'  (author of this article might be slightly confused in the transmitting of the prophetic word, as it often happens in such cases). Besides, the action of each earth's animal was oscillating between 'weeping', 'calling' and 'yawning' ("stenayet", "vzyvayet", "zevayet"), while the latter was the most responding to the actual mood of the event.  After that, the naked-legged monk was diving back to his shelter in order to look out when the air finishes. Then, in the best Tarkovsky's style, this action was repeated until the viewer gives up and feels involvement into this quasi-meaningful spiritual consequence.

The persistence of the body at the same time in the limit between two environments: water and air, must have called to mind a thought (supposedly, ironic) about the instability of the human position in relation to animal world, an idea that we all went out of the water at least at the moment of birth, an assumption that the communication with god (russian 'bog') requires an existence of boundary, and can be performed just in a moment of actual suffocation and resistance to a nobody's, transitive, territory. Nevertheless, this mask of a trickster, worn by many artists before and after, in case of  inversions of Oleg Kulik rather was used in some kind of a circus action where the most strange and exotic things are in value (such as exported and mythologized 'Russian spirituality' in connection to 'zoophrenia'). This kitsch combination of simulated cultural references and images forms the main interest of this performance, like a room of curiosities in a village fair.

Photo: Regina Gallery