Archive for September, 2008


Tuesday, September 30th, 2008

When I asked him to talk about André Breton’s 1946 lecture in Haiti, the 83-year old Gérald Bloncourt said that he couldn’t exactly recall the details. “I was busy,” he added, “and preoccupied, carrying a gun in my pocket and guarding my friend Jacques Stephan Alexis, whose task that day was assassinating Lescot.”

Considered more a dictator than simply president, Elie Lescot was among those listening to Breton speak about surrealism. Pierre Mabille had organized that conference. And that Lescot was in the audience was not by chance. It was somewhat of a political affair. A surrealist himself and also a practicing doctor, Mabille was the French cultural attaché in Haiti. This was one of a series of conferences by Breton before his return to France, where he had fled from during World War II. Anyway, the plans to assassinate Lescot that day failed, and the young Haitian poets in charge of it escaped. Mabille, who was friendly with Stephan Alexis and Bloncourt arranged their protection, and immediately after brokered Bloncourt’s political exile in France.

This summer, when I arrived to the doorsteps of Gérald Bloncourt’s home in Paris, he knew I wanted to speak with him about something related. In articles describing that lecture, Breton’s presentation was figured as a catalyst to the revolution that ensued immediately after. His speech had been published immediately after in La Ruche, a Haitian newspaper edited by the poet Rene Depestre among others. At the government confiscation of that La Ruche issue and the imprisonment of its editors, what began as student protests ended in a larger demonstrations that led to the exile of many intellectuals.

It was actually while initially investigating the historic artist’s studio La Ruche in Montparnasse that I learned about the newspaper La Ruche. Things fell into place right after that. Gérald Bloncourt had just co-authored with Michael Löwy, Messagers de la Tempête. André Breton et la Révolution de janvier 1946 en Haïti (2007) a book published by Les Temps des Cerises in Paris—a copy of which I kindly obtained through the artist collective Société Réaliste. Having dealt with other types of doubles in the Archaeology of Longing, I invited Bloncourt to narrate the events surrounding that Breton lecture. Afterwards, he also read some of his poetry. This video is a recording of his talk, which was celebrated on the evening of September 18, 2008 in Paris.


Sunday, September 28th, 2008

In one of the drawings by Emma Hedditch that is part of the exhibition Archaeology of Longing, there are two characters depicted in profile. One is lying down on the ground, or, well, at the edge of the paper; the other one is just above, leaning towards the first. Both figured with short hair, and barely rendered with soft pencil and minimal lines, their sexuality is left ambiguous. They appear, however, in a moment of intimacy, the hand of one slightly peeking in underneath the other’s shirt. Their thoughts and speech encircled in bubbles lightly drawn over their heads. “We have been thinking about longing as a part of capitalist thinking which reflects in all our relations. Longing is connected to ideas and feelings of scarcity.” This is some of what a character says to the other.

As part of this exhibition, Emma also performed a work along the lines of this drawing; video documentation is here included. The performance took place on the evening of September 18, 2008, at the Musée de Montmartre in Paris, which is the vicinity of the exhibition host and organizer Kadist Art Foundation. Aside from Emma’s performance, the evening program also included a reading by Luca Frei of his The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg—An interpretation, and a narration by Gérald Bloncourt of the events surrounding a lecture by Andre Bréton in 1946 Haiti. I will soon write about these presentations, too.

One of the galleries at the Musée de Montmartre inspired the decision to make the program there. It is the room (that is at most 18 square meters) dedicated to The Paris Commune of 1871, which started in Montmartre, and to the construction of the Sacre Coeur, which sits atop its hill. Condensed in this small gallery are items about the rise and fall of a historic political event led by working class struggle, along with documentation of the construction of its anti-monument, this was a basilica built, accordinging to David Harvey, to “expiate the crimes of the communards.” Disenchantment is at the heart of this display. The break of the spell that is the political awakening of the commune is the first sign of this, and the appreciation of a monument about but yet against their struggle follows next.

But, as I said, there are other reasons for choosing this museum as venue. Tucked in a quiet shaded street at the top of the Montmartre hill, the building that houses the museum was once the home of Auguste Renoir. In his Paris Des Avant-Gardes, Alain Rustenholz also tells that it is here where Renoir settled to paint Le Moulin de la Galette (1876). It was also the home of Émile Bernard and Raoul Duffy, and in 1906, of Suzanne Valadon and her son. She was the reason for why Erik Satie lived next door. In choosing this venue, I wanted to reactive the artistic life of this place with a live event and an artistic community, rather than through display and tourism.

Special thanks to Danièle Rousseau-Aicardi and Isabelle Ducatez at the Musée de Montmartre for collaborating with Kadist Art Foundation and hosting the program of September 18th, including Emma Hedditch’s performance.

Silent Light, Noisy Times

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

The year of our visit must have been 1983. Maybe ‘86. At some eight years of age, the sight of the Mennonites was simply incomprehensible. Our arrival to their settlement in Cuauhtémoc, Chihuahua was preceded by a longer trip that had taken us to colonial towns and cities in central Mexico. The northern part of Mexico, however, is pretty vast and desolate, and the drive to Cuauhtémoc had been a calm visual experience of arid deserts, somewhat later fertile flatlands with impending mountain regions as the backdrop. It was a cloudy day when we visited. The sky was gray and the few trees and wide grass sparkled against that and its shaded humid soil. Had we crossed a sea to arrive at a different country or made a trip to a century of yore?

Memories of my first travels within Mexico still linger. These were weeks-long family road trips on winter and summer vacations to discover the landscape and culture of our nation. The journeys were organized according to regions, and involved stopping at historic sites, natural reservoirs, museums of all types and any other weird place that had been for one reason or another important to the history of Mexico. It was the eighties, with a widespread sense of rescue and melancholy in both high and popular culture. I take that we were unknowingly experiencing the new appreciation of regionalisms and micro-histories welcomed by postmodernism. During these travels, it wasn’t hard to notice that from state to state the landscape was so radically distinct and varied; the architecture of buildings and physiognomy of people none the least. Ahh, difference, always triggering moments of culture shock, and only sometimes in subtle ways. One significant at that time was our encounter with the Mennonites in the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico.

The first group of Mennonites had settled in Cuauhtémoc during the 1920s. It was a group of a couple thousands coming primarily from Canada, where most families had spent less than a century after having emigrated from Russia in the late-1800s, and Prussia beforehand. Since their settlement in Mexico and up until the 1970s, Cuauhtémoc and its population was a time capsule. The Mennonites had chosen to base their communities on the teachings of religion, and their economy on the principles of a strong work ethic and a self-sustainable agricultural model. There was a resistance to adapt languages other than its own (now considered a German dialect) or use basic technology like electricity. The closure of the community led to the perpetuation of a single race, as well as the use of traditional if common dress. The look: white skinned, blue-eyed and blonde haired; men wearing overalls and woman long-dresses. Things have been slowly changing since the 1970s, when the interpretation of the original concession of the Mennonites in Mexico was legally questioned and amended. What had seemed to be a state within a state began opening and transforming.

Since our trip to Chihuahua, I had not encountered Mennonites until some weeks ago when I saw Silent Light (2007) a new film written and directed by Mexican Carlos Reygadas. His films are unique in Mexico’s contemporary movie industry for his inclusion of non-actors and the quality of his contemplative and paused images. Even when there is much action, still frame or slow zooms dominate in his scenes, setting a tension between admiration and voyeaurism, invisibility and intrusion. Silent Light takes these characteristics to extremes. The film is written in the language practiced by Mennonites, a German dialect known as Plautdietsch, and shot in Chihuahua, Mexico. It deals with the difficult subject of tolerance and hopes surrounding the story of an extra-marital love affair in a Mennonite family, and addresses the despair there is in the belief and pursuit of purity. With a key citational reference to a resurrection Silent Light elegantly rubs on magic realism, but keeps it away from the genre and concerned with contemporary narrative structures by cinematically reenacting a scene of Ordet (1955) by Carl Theodor Dreyer. Uncannily passionate, awkwardly quiet and yet filled with emotion, Silent Light is beautiful.

Image above from the film Silent Light (2007) by Carlos Reygadas.

“I gazed at the sun for so long that I’ve started to cry.”

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Czech Republic has a legacy and currency of conceptualism, and, for that matter, a socio-economic history in which working socially has its own political connotations. It is not surprising that the Czech artists with most international presence are conceptualists. Think of Jiří Kovanda’s scheduled actions and happenings; Kateřina Šedá’s social projects; Jiří Skála’s writing performances; Barbora Klímová’s current reenactments of almost invisible performances originally held in public spaces during the 1970s, when the country was communist and ruled as Czechoslovakia. From these artists, it is the new interpretations of Kovanda’s work that is important to touch upon here. This is not because there is a direct lineage between Kovanda and the younger artists that I mention thereafter. Clearly, the intentionality and form of their work couldn’t be more diametrically opposed.

Here are some of Kovanda’s happenings: September 3, 1977. On an escalator … turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me. In another action dated the same and described simply as Contact, the artist wanders on an almost empty sidewalk and, as if accidentally, bumps or rubs his shoulders when he encounters a person walking in opposite direction. Some months earlier, this time in a park in downtown Prague, May 19, 1977, I rake together some rubbish (dust, cigarette stubs, etc.) with my hands and when I’ve got a pile, I scatter it all again. Schölhammer sees a purposeful and meaningful aspect of anti-socialization in Kovanda’s work. He proposes the artist’s “refusal to cooperate” as a political act.

Simple actions characterize Kovanda’s work, while a level of production and art historical or institutional frame is either used or required, to a lesser or higher degree, in the work of these younger artists. The distinction is telling of the times. The new readings of Kovanda’s work describe the contexts of art production and reception of Czech contemporary art, particularly for performance. They suggest the possible subjectivities at play in work done today from that of the recent past. The curator Georg Schölhammer argues that, “Kovanda tries to find gestures in his work to act against the manifest ossification of society in the late 1970s, to transcend it and to find traces of an expression of individuality.” According to the curator, the bourgeois public of Fordism in the West and the bureaucratic Socialism in the East are the societies in question.

* * *

Under the direction of Vit Havernek, the Prague-based nonprofit arts organization Tranzit has taken the task of publishing a series of books about these and other Czech conceptual artists, young and old. This editorial project is done in collaboration with JRP | Ringier in Switzerland. These artist’s books and catalogues are published in Czech and English, and are strategically distributed, allowing new points of contact and reception of these artists work internationally. The reference to Georg Schölhammer is drawn from one of these books: Jiří Kovanda (Prague: Tranzit and JRP Ringier, 2006).

Jiří Kovanda is represented by GB Agency in Paris, who kindly provided the image pictured above. One of the best exhibitions at that the gallery has been an unconventional retrospective of his work curated by Work Method. Work Method is a Paris-based curatorial agency run by François Piron and Guillaume Désanges to initiate and manage independently individual and collaborative projects, including art exhibitions, performances, programs and editorial projects linked with contemporary art.

Image above: Jiří Kovanda. “XXX. August 1977. Prague. I’m crying. I gazed at the sun for so long that I’ve started to cry. (Je suis en train de pleuré. J’ai fixé le soleil depuis si longtemps que j’ai commencé à pleurer.)” Courtesy GB Agency, Paris.

I’ve Got a Secret

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

Today, forty-five years ago, musician John Cale performed Erik Satie’s Vexations once in the television program “I’ve Got a Secret,” a weekly show of CBS Television in America. This happened only a couple of days after the legendary performance of Vexations organized by John Cage. That concert lasted 18 hours and 40 minutes, and was groundbreaking. To date, it is considered to be the first public-complete performance of Satie’s composition. Cale was one of ten painists playing that night (the concert began on September 9, 1963). A couple of days later, The New York Times covered the performance with a diary-like report and documentary images almost taking the entire front page of the paper. The Paris-based Satie specialist, Ornella Volta, who directs the Archives Erik Satie, is currently working on a catalogue raisonné of Vexations performances. Among the several she has pointed out during informal conversations held over the course of this summer is the one in 1979 by Canadian artist Rober Racine. The abacus-like counter that Racine used in his performance to keep track of the 840 repetitions of this composition is included in the exhibition Archaeology of Longing.

Foreign Correspondents

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

Organized by Creative Time, Democracy in America is a national-based project investigating democratic tradition in the United States. This year-long umbrella project, curated by Nato Thompson, has several components, among them, a series of national art commissions, some of which were co-coordinated with host institutions, and a New York City convergence center and exhibition. At the invitation of Nato, I curated an international chapter for “Convergence Center” (September 21-27), the project’s umbrella exhibition, which takes place The Park Avenue Armory in New York.

This so-called chapter, Foreign Correspondents, approaches the notion of democracy in America from abroad. It includes artworks by four artists: Erick Beltran (Mexico City/Barcelona), Chu Yun (Beijing), Luca Frei (Malmo), and Magdalena Jitrik (Buenos Aires). The artists contribute works about positions associated to democratic ideals, struggles or sensibilities that have been ultimately put into question. With an emphasis on succinct text-based works, and how these work as image or create an environment, the selected artworks also bring into consideration the relationship between art and propaganda.

Using the space of a banner and leaflet associated to protest as well as promotion, artists Beltran and Jitrik use these forms to re-inscribe a haunting sense of history and present. Beltran prints a blue leaflet in a run of more than 100,000 copies that read “Fear,” which will be dispersed throughout the entire exhibition, carpeting the floors of the venue. More than a word a feeling that is tactically generated to the current state of exception in the US, which not coincidently begins again taking force after the events of September 11, 2001. Jitrik paints a monumental banner featuring a group portrait of the nineteenth century Native American leader Red Cloud with his peers. I posted an image of the work-in-progress, and briefly wrote about it here some days ago.

In different ways, artists Frei and Chu make use of source text now turned historical reference. Frei cites a line drawn from the published letters of the anarchist Nicola Sacco to his son, “In the play of happiness, don’t you use it all for yourself only” (pictured above). Sacco, an Italian who immigrated to the US as a teenager, was tried and executed in Massachusetts in the 1920s. Chu recites a mandatory speech in school about the life story of a heroic Chinese soldier. The recording is originally from 1984, when the artist was a child, and is appropriated by the artist as if were a readymade. Named after the year of its original recording, Chu calls attention to George Orwell’s novel of the same title about an imaginary totalitarian regime.

I will be posting images of these artworks and installation views of the exhibition. If you are in New York during that week, please visit the exhibition. Your comments, much appreciated.

I’m too sad to tell you

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

I’m too sad to tell you (1971) by Bas Jan Ader. Click his name to visit a wonderful site.

Archaeology of Longing

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

For the last couple of months, I’ve been in residency at Kadist Art Foundation in Paris, France. This is a private foundation initiated in 2001, which has been forming a collection of contemporary art, and organizing exhibitions and residencies. I am curating their upcoming exhibition, Archaeology of Longing (Archéologie de la Chine), which takes place at Kadist’s gallery from September 19-November 9, 2008.

With a title drawn from a short story by Susan Sontag, Archaeology of Longing is an exhibition bringing together a number of artworks, artifacts, and common objects. It begins as an investigation into disenchantment, soon digressing through the historical flatlands of interpretation and substitution. Far from melancholic, and closer to what can be described as politically intimate, the exhibition is an inventory of that journey.

Archaeology of Longing
includes artwork by Alejandro Cesarco, Luca Frei, Emma Hedditch, Bethan Huws, Fabio Kacero, Rober Racine, Kay Rosen, Kateřina Šedá, Joe Scanlan and Lisa Tan; artifacts and objects on loan by several contributors, including Tania Bruguera and Archives Erik Satie; and exhibition furniture designed by Tomás Alonso. A series of events will take place as part of the exhibition. On the evening of September 18th at the garden of the Musée de Montmartre in Paris, Emma Hedditch performs a new work and Luca Frei makes a reading of his artist’s book, The So-called Utopia of the Centre Beaubourg – an Interpretation. On the night of November 1st, Lars Svendsen gives a lecture on his Philosophy of Boredom at Kadist Art Foundation.

A collection of findings uncovered during this archaeology of longing is also available as a publication titled 84 handkerchiefs, an umbrella and some books.

Image: Lisa Tan, Hotel Principal Towels, 2008, C-print, 76.2 x 101.6 cm. Courtesy the artist and D’Amelio Terras, New York.