Monday, May 22, 2017

Kiefer Rodin @ Musée Rodin

Anselm Kiefer, Auguste Rodin, les cathédrales de France, 2016
The last time I went to the Musée Rodin was in 1984, and my suspicion is, it probably hasn’t changed that much. And yet, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Rodin was so much more interesting than the The Kiss, The Thinker and Balzac. It took Anselm Kiefer to be exhibited in the museum for me to get back there, but it was the Rodin sculptures that were the real discovery.

Anselm Kiefer, Berthe au Grand Pied, 2016 (detail)

I did not know many of the works on display even existed, and I would never have associated them with Rodin. All the famous, very classical, conservative sculptures are shown on the ground floor of the museum that was once his studio in rue Varenne. The most fascinating work, however, is on the first floor. The extensive collection which he donated to the state to establish his legacy includes unfinished bodies charging out of marble blocks, miniature limbs lined up in rows in glass vitrines, plaster dipped cloth covering fragmented bodies in pain, torsos clutching urns, and scenes on oversized columns. Work after sculptural work by Rodin reveals his occupation at the forefront of modernity in a way that I never imagined he would have. His fascination for the body became materialized in sculpture an obsession with its movement, its capacity to express emotion, its convergence with the materiality of sculpture. Yes, he was interested in form, perfect human replication, but at the Rodin was so much more.
Auguste Rodin, Hands of a Pianist, 1909
The exhibition of Kiefer’s works in the downstairs temporary gallery is filled with familiar oversized Kiefer canvases, sculptures speaking the decay and destruction of hope, knowledge, humanity, paintings that glimpse possibility, stairways leading nowhere, nature without promise of regeneration. Of course, the work, particularly Kiefer’s familiar use of lead, is compelling – from the peeling lead on August Rodin: les cathédrales de France (2016) to the ashen sunflower covered in lead – and moving. And in the enclosed arcade gallery, the works in vitrines are exquisite. Nevertheless, I am always ambivalent towards Kiefer’s monumental self-obsession, and this exhibition seemed to reinforce my disillusionment. It all looked very familiarly Kiefer.
Anselm Kiefer, La Conscience des Pierres, 2014
Included in the exhibition is – of course – a series of handmade books that cannot be opened, books that cannot be read. On them are images of naked women emerging from watercoloured marble. The paintings are exquisite and delicate and tactile on the page, but I wasn’t in the mood for naked women with bleeding genitals painted by one of the West’s most successful male artists. However, I was, at least, beginning to see the connection between Kiefer and Rodin. Women’s bodies seemingly floating through air, sensuous and erotic, emerging from marble were convinced by Kiefer may have been inspired by Rodin.
Auguste Rodin, Dernière Vision, 1902
But it was upstairs. On the first floor that everything fell into place. Rodin was in fact interested in all the same preoccupations as Kiefer – not just naked women with exposed genitals. The abundance of casts and fragments of bodies, from delicate fingers to broken torsos in impossible positions, reveal how, like Kiefer, Rodin was always thinking about issues of death and rebirth, of decay and the inevitable dilapidation of life. He was interested in materials, in fabrics, and their fixing in plaster. Rodin, like Kiefer was a collector, and an organizer of objects, placing knowledge in vitrines to preserve, display, categorize, and fix in history. Similarly, they both used the same materials: plaster, metal, fabric, marble. Although Rodin did not reach for lead as often as Kiefer, the same themes of transformation and alchemy are there in the narratives of his sculptural figures.   
A vitrine of body parts
Of course, there were also many differences, aspects of Rodin’s work that did not weigh so heavily on Kiefer. The most obvious being that Rodin was always in search of the inexpressibility of emotion. His sculptures are always looking to capture emotion in the sculpted body, no matter how big or small. Even when the figures are in a narrative or have some kind of historical reference, their purpose is to give form to emotion. For Kiefer, however, making art is always an intellectual process. And his works are formed by the search for the inexpressible knowledge of what it means to be always in the process of dying, and waiting to be reborn. Whether it is his own identity, or that of Germany, World War II or a more distant history, Kiefer always looks to define a lifespan across time.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

An-My Lê @ Galerie Marian Goodman

An-My Lê, Bamboo, Small Wars Series, 1999-2002

An-My Lê’s exhibition of a selection of photographic works from four different series is fascinating. Simultaneous with the presentation of her new series The Silent General currently on show at the Whitney Bienniale, Marian Goodman has selected key works from several series as an introduction to her photographs in France. I was really impressed by the photographs, but also by Goodman’s curation: the exhibition makes a compelling narrative about the inescapability of war all around us.
An-My Lê, November 5, Sugar Cane Field, Houma, Louisiana,
The Silent General Series, 2016
Moving from images of the jungle in Vietnam to the streets of New Orleans in The Silent General (2016), it is terrifying to recognize the continuities between the two places and all that takes place in each, even though the photographs don’t explicitly enforce connections. The Mekong Delta, a world that stands still in the wake of a storm, that could be a war, evokes the same haunting history as Sugar Cane Fields on fire in Louisiana. Because we have full knowledge of the injustice and senseless violence committed in these two locations, they become not so far apart, historically or geographically, both in our minds and in the image. What is so powerful is that war is everywhere and nowhere in these images
An-My Lê, Untitled, Nam Ha, Viêt Nam, 1994
I started the exhibition in Marian Goodman’s new bookstore space at 66 rue du Temple, opposite the main gallery. Behind the book displays, in a back room, the earliest photographs in the exhibition show a Viêt Nam in 1994-98. The artist went back to her native country and found a world that looks as though it has stood still since the Americans left twenty years earlier. A striking photograph, Untitled, But Thap, Viêt Nam (1996) shows a building in the process of falling down —or perhaps it is in the process of being built—it’s walls not yet finished. But the building makes us ask, “what happened here” that this building stands, just, like this. In other photographs the dense jungle holds the memories of the events it has seen and, as we know, scarred its façade. Every sign of the deluge in An-My-Lê’s photographs is so subtle, like the stain on a girl’s shirt in Untitled, Nam Ha, Viêt Nam, 1994. It could be dirt, her lunch, or a dead insect, but we see blood, and abuse. In addition, somewhere in each photograph of her native Vietnam, An-my Lê blurs the landscape, the look, the jungle, or the air. The blur, or out of focus is a memory, a vision, not quite lucid. And the mystery of what happened here is further trapped in the heavy, thick air of the tropical climate, air that is itself often blurred, memory and mystery thus that is made visual in the photographs.
An-My Lê, Lesson, Small Wars Series, 1999-2002
In the last series of photographs, and undoubtedly the most frightening, we see the re-enactment of war by a group of people in Virginia and North Carolina. They re-enact the Vietnam war as a hobby, perhaps as a way to remember it. An-My Lê gives the games they play the same seriousness and mystery as her photographs of the Vietnamese jungle, thereby asking whether this is a game, therefore a travesty of the suffering of war, or is it a memorial to the whole enterprise? That she doesn’t come out and say which it is, makes the photographs all the more chilling.
An-My Lê, Night Operations I, 29 Psalms, Series 2003-2004

The gallery press release underlines the layers of references in An-My Lê’s photographs, ranging from Whitman’s Speciman Days, through Baudrillard, and Hollywood, to Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Crimean War landscape. I am not convinced her images function like Fenton’s because even though he photographs landscapes in long shot, there is never a hint of the destruction and violence that goes hand in hand with war. For An-My Lê’s photographs, maybe because they are made in another century, when we have witnessed too many wars, and have become so attuned to its images that we don’t need to see violence to know it’s there: we can imagine it because we have seen it too many times before. This makes her photographs are more devastating than Fenton’s. Also, the referneces to the movies are something else – because unlike other works who might critique the superficiality and performance of something so serious as war in an image, you never know, when looking at her photographs if you are looking at a re-enactment, a memory or war itself. The status of what we see in these photographs is shrouded in as much mystery as the air in the Vietnam jungle – and this mystery is enables the image to resonate well beyond the visit to the gallery.

All images courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Mitch Epstein — New York Trees, Rocks & Clouds @ Galerie Les Filles du Calvaire

Mitch Epstein, Clouds #86, New York City, 2015
I can’t decide if Mitch Epstein’s latest photographs are profoundly insightful, or if they are just very well made and nice to look at. I am an admirer of his images of the corrosive impact of American industry on everyday life. And I need no convincing that his photographs are beautifully composed and very compelling. So while the recent exhibition of works at the Filles du Calvaire gallery didn’t have the same shocking effect as some of his more political work, I was open to having my first impressions proved wrong.

Mitch Epstein, American Elm, Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, 2012
Some of the works on display here are provocative, particularly, those taken in the streets of New York City. In them we see nature doing battle with a human environment that treats it like another piece of concrete or another steel girder. In one image, an indeterminate mound of dirt, or maybe it’s rock, or a cut tree, is imprisoned behind a fence on East 172nd Street in the Bronx. It looks painfully trapped by the need to fence it in, to tame it for fear of its unruly spread across the city concrete. In another photograph, a tree strapped to a concrete mass, presumably to stop it falling over, is given the appearance of a patient fixed to a life support system. There is not much hope for nature in New York City as it is depicted in Epstein’s photographs. Nature is well and truly subjugated to the built environment.

Mitch Epstein, Clouds #94, New York City, 2015

Having seen the images in which nature struggles to survive in the urban environment, I moved along to the gorgeous cloud formations in the skies above the city. And, in juxtaposition, everything changes. I started to wonder what created the drama, the splendid fullness and motion of the clouds in this series. Am I looking at a polluted, sky churned up by the activities below? Or do these images reveal the beauty of a nature that is able to transcend the destruction of manufacturing, industry and other human pursuits? In an image such as Clouds, #86, New York City, 2015, the landscape becomes even more confusing. Here, both concrete walls and dense, almost operatic clouds, frame a city skyline that, as a result, becomes like a horizon line; something vague, indeterminate, dwarfed by slabs of concrete and clouds.
Mitch Epstein, Clouds #89, New York City, 2015
Epstein’s concerns are overwhelmingly formal. Like most photographers, the astonishment of the photograph is discovered well before the image is seen through the viewfinder. Though I remain excited by the compositional clarity of Epstein’s images, what I come away with is an amazement that he found what he did in New York City. Nature, clouds, water and trees are not exactly things we associate with the city, but on seeing Epstein’s photographs, we recognize how much of the natural world we ignore when we are rushing through it. In the end then, over time these photographs are revealing and more than formal exercises in the depicture of nature. However, to be sure, I still prefer the political force of the  American Power series.
Mitch Epstein, East 172nd Street, Bronx 2014

All photographs copyright, Mitch Epstein

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Josef Koudelka, The Making of Exiles @ Centre Pompidou

Josef Koudelka, Ireland, 1976
The exhibition of a series of Josef Koudelka’s photographs at the Centre Pompidou focuses very intently on what it means to be in exile. How to define an exile? It’s a question I have thought about for over 30 years. I was raised in a middle class suburban oasis where the closest thing to political upheaval was the queen’s dismissal of the Prime Minster, and where war was practiced on the parade ground by the university regiment. I left an apparent paradise by choice. I have always thought of myself as an exile, geographically removed from any place I could call home. But others would say that’s ridiculous, exiles have no choice. But even if we are not fleeing war or dictatorship, famine or poverty, sometimes what looks like a choice, is a necessity. La fabrique d’exils confirms my self-understanding as exile.

Josef Koudelka, France, 1980

The Czechoslovakian, Koudelka wandered around Europe in the 1970s and found a world in exile, not just people displaced. The photographs themselves exquisitely portray not belonging through light and shadow, mainly throught the overwhelming coldness of shadow, the sparsity of the background, the solitude of the human figures. As he travelled, Koudelka found poverty even where there was none in Europe: in Spain, Portugal, Ireland, France. In images of shadows on the Paris cobblestones that another photograph would make romantic, the cropping of the image at the legs of the human figures empties out the humanity and leaves everyone alone with his shadow as he walks in different directions.

Josef Koudelka, France 1987

There is also a silence and a stillness to a continent better known for its congestion, intensity and noise. In the many shots filled with snow, the stark whiteness made by the weather also expresses a passing of time, in a familiar world seen from a different perspective. The snow photographed, is example of how even the weather makes for a Europe in exile: Koudelka represents the sumptuousness of light and shadow on stark white snow made visible literally in the grain of the image, thus giving texture to exile. Shadow in some images becomes the substance, and not just at the end of day. An image of hard shadows in Italy next to a worn piece of fabric in closeup makes shadows violent, the torn fabric striated by its own tears.

Josef Koudelka, Gypsies, 1975

For someone photographing exile and nomadism, there’s an ironic focus on place. Every photograph is given a title and every title consists of the country where it is taken. This complicates their curiosity because we don’t recognize, Spain, Romania, Yugoslavia, Italy or England in any of the images. The Europe Koudelka discovered is poor, empty, fragile and filled with sadness. And because this is what he is looking for, the images could be taken anywhere, and yet, he insists on naming their location. I know this: home becomes even more important when there is no home, when home is a place we cannot go.

Josef Koudelka, Autoporträt, 1986

And in an addendum to his photographs of the exiles, there are a series of previously unpublished images of Koudelka himself. When he was sleeping rough with the gypsies, on friends’ floors, park benches and under a solitary tree, Koudelka found home wherever he went. Home was where he lay for the night in his sleeping bag. And this I have found to be true as well: as exiles, we make home wherever we are, but also, find it inside of us, away from any physical place that might give us meaning. These photographs and the Europe they represent capture a concept of exile that is defined by the metaphysical place-less-ness experienced by those who leave, irrespective of the reason why.