... on the arts, literature & photography


This Year in Culture: Ten Best Moments or Ideas in No Particular Order

“William Eggleston: Democratic Camera, Photographs, and Video, 1961-2008:” Perhaps this is cheating a bit since the exhibition opened at the Whitney in 2009, but when I saw it again at the Art Institute of Chicago in 2010, I was even more enamored with Eggleston’s startling use of color photography.  “Democratic Camera” was the first retrospective of Eggleston’s long career, which centers largely on the local color of his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.  Eggleston’s photographs are always simple and straightforward yet maintain the complexity that's the essence of figurative photography. 

“Mexican Suitcase” at the International Center of Photography:  Mexican Suitcase” was a marvel of an exhibition that filled gaps of our knowledge about photojournalists Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and Chim (David Seymour). The mere existence of the Mexican Suitcase is a virtual miracle.  The Suitcase, which contained some 126 rolls of film, went missing in 1939 when Capa was fleeing from the invasion of Europe, and remained missing until 2007 when the ICP (founded by Capa’s brother Cornell) finally found them.  The exhibition is a textured look at the Spanish Civil War and Capa, Taro and Chim’s innovative approaches to photojournalism.   

Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why?” in New York Review of Books:  Ostensibly a review of Aaron Sorkin’s film The Social Network and Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Smith delves into the effects that social digitalization have on us and on the performance of culture.  If you haven’t already read it, you can do so here.

“Playing with Pictures: The Art of the Victorian Photocollage” at the Art Institute of Chicago: An “art historians” exhibition, “Playing with Pictures” was a charming yet vigorously researched exhibition which proposed that collage—a form usually associated with the early twentieth-century avant-gardism of Picasso and Georges Braque—was an important part of Victorian visual culture.  Born of the drawing-rooms of upper-class British women who delighted in cutting up family photographs and repurposing them into artistic albums, the practice resulted in bizarre juxtapositions and collages that would make Andre Breton envious (definitely not your mother’s idea of scrapbooking). “Playing with Pictures,” and its accompanying catalogue, was the smartest look at Victorian Britain I’ve seen in a long time.   

John Brandon’s Citrus County:  Brandon’s second novel was silently subversive: part a coming of age novel and part crime novel, he plays tribute while undermining expectations of both genres.  His stripped-down prose and his unflinching look at the devastated inner life of his characters are so unerring that it’s hard to put Brandon’s book down.  

Participatory art’s big comeback: Recessions are always boomtime for performance art.  It was true in the 1970s and 80s when participatory artists pushed their way into the mainstream: Chris Burden, Carolee Schneemann, and Gordon Matta-Clark all pioneered works which compelled the viewer to perform with the artist.  The “Great Recession” of the aughts was no different. Marina Abramović re-performed The Artist is Present.  The Starns Brothers extended their assembly technique to engineer an enormous, scaffolding-like bamboo playground, Big Bamú, which seemed to grow from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s roof garden. Christian Marclay at the Whitney had visitors write musical notes (and scribbles and whatnots) for pianist to improvise from. 

Emma Donoghue’s Room:  Undoubtedly the creepiest novel of the year, Donoghue’s Room is told from the perspective of Jack, a young boy whose life is lived, with his mother, in a locked room.  Donoghue completely immerses herself into her protagonist (five-year-old Jack) who witnesses a series of disturbing events.  As with her earlier novel Slammerkin, the realism of her characters’ voices—if not their situations—makes for a startling effect. 

Caravaggio: It was a big year for Caravaggio.  The seventeenth century Italian painter celebrated his 400th anniversary and he was gifted with a hoard of new books—most notably one by Michael Fried—delving into everything from his aesthetics to his sexuality.   The Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome organized a major exhibition of the artist and even his followers, the Caravaggesti, got in on the action. Most importantly, some Italian “researchers” possibly found Caravaggio’s missing bones, perhaps answering the long-standing mystery of how he died: sunstroke.  You’re welcome. 

“William Kentridge: Five Themes” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art:  Kentridge’s work has had an indelible mark on the contemporary art scene and his expansive show at the SFMoMA reminded me how smart his work is.  Kentridge’s dreamlike charcoal drawings and stop-animation film are often self-deprecating, funny and always ambivalent. His works, however, are politically engaged, silently referencing apartheid and colonialism of his native South Africa. 

Reexamining Sculpture:  I’ve always thought of sculpture as the unwanted, red-headed step-child of art history.  But this year, two exhibitions changed my mind:  the Turner Prize exhibition and the MoMA exhibit “The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today.”  While neither of these exhibitions were solely about sculpture, they both explored its intersections with other artistic media.  Turner Prize winner Susan Philllipsz expanded the field of sculpture with her sound art and the MoMA’s exhibition fleshed out the close relationship between photography and sculpture, particularly their reproducibility.  


Susan Phillipsz Wins the Turner Prize

The Turner Prize is awarded annually to a British artist under the age of fifty. It is usually won by someone who pushes the definition of art in thoughtful or provocative ways.  Britain’s tabloids and crotchety art critics love to hate the prize (worth £25,000), and usually take great delight in comparing every year’s honorees with their own childhood doodles.  This year’s winner is no different.  Susan Phillipsz, who was awarded the 2010 prize last week, is the first artist whose work consists entirely of sounds. 

Phillipsz was honored for her installation Lowlands. It was created last spring for the Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, where the recordings of Phillipsz singing an old Scottish tune, “Lowlands Away” -- a lament about a drowned sweetheart who haunts a lover’s dreams -- were played beneath three bridges in Glasgow.  Lowlands has been generally well-received by Britain’s art critics.  Adrian Searle, critic for The Guardian, wrote that, “[Phillipsz’s] sense of place, and space memory and presence reminds me, weirdly of the sculptor Richard Serra at his best.  Her art makes you think of your place in the world and opens you up to your feelings.”

Searle is right: Phillipsz’s work engages with the long history of landscape painting in Britain (the Turner Prize is named after landscape painter J.M.W Turner). It does this by teasing out the poetics of emotion which, for viewers, are often bound to landscape itself.  But, like Serra, Phillipsz also amplifies (visually and aurally) the definition of sculpture a concept which, as Rosalind Krauss observed in “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” is entwined with the visual project of post-modernism.  

 Take a listen for yourself.



On the Controversy at the National Portrait Gallery

Last Tuesday, under pressure from GOP leadership, officials at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC removed the David Wojnarowicz’s video installation A Fire in My Belly (1987).  The four-minute excerpt from the original thirty-minute video was included as part of the NPG’s well-received exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.” The exhibition examines the role gender and sexuality – particularly homosexuality – plays in the production and reception of American portraiture. Co-curated by NPG curator David Ward and the highly respected scholar Jonathan Katz, “Hide/Seek” shook the Gallery from its conservative stupor and delved into themes relatively common in academia.  An open-letter circulated by NPG researcher Jenn Sichel describes the exhibitions as “a look at how artists navigate around a complex set of codes that govern sexual expression, how they circumvent and/or use these code to express their own silenced desires and how they’ve dealt with love and loss when AIDS ravaged the community.”

Wojnarowicz’s video is a response to the AIDS epidemic that swept through America in the 1980s, and was made in honor of Wojnarowicz’s partner, artist Peter Hujar, who died of AIDS complications in 1987 (Wojnarowicz himself died of AIDS in 1992).  Fire in My Belly is a meandering, stream-of-consciousness work which uses the iconography of the crucifixion, circuitously commenting on the suffering of marginalization. According to the Catholic League, the video is “hate speech... designed to insult and inflict injury and assault the sensibilities of Christians.” 

What’s so offensive? The eleven seconds during which ants crawl across a crucifix.  There is, of course, some irony in the Catholic League criticizing a work deeply indebted to the very long iconographic tradition of the Man of Sorrows – an irony, which in most cases, would be laughable. But this time, ignorance had some very real consequences. 

House Speaker-Elect John Boehner (R-Ohio) called the exhibition a misuse of taxpayer money. Boehner’s spokesman, Kevin Smith, said in a statement that “American families have a right to expect better for recipients of taxpayer funds in a tough economy.” Smith then clarified with a threat: “Smithsonian officials should either acknowledge the mistake and correct it, or be prepared to face tough scrutiny beginning in January."  Both Boehner and Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) demanded that the entire exhibition be pulled because Wojnarowicz’s installation is “an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.

So, added up, that's homosexuals, Christmas, and lefty artists - the GOP’s favorite trifecta.  Though Boehner and Cantor are hiding behind the thinly veiled excuses of the Catholic League, this is not about images which are offensive to Christians — museums all over the world are filled with grotesque images of Christ’s suffering (seventeenth-century Spanish artists were enthralled with the gory details of the crucifixion). Nor is it about Christmas. It’s about the representation of homosexuality in American culture.  “Hide/Seek” is an exhibition that’s long overdue, and The Smithsonian was wrong to cower to the demands of the so-called culture warriors. 

Twenty-one years ago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, under similar pressure, took a huge hit to its credibility when it canceled an exhibition of new works by the gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Ten-plus years later, I worked for the very talented curator who was fired over the cancellation, a decision she deeply regretted making and from which her reputation still suffered.  She didn’t regret the decision solely because of the impact it had on her career, but rather because she had violated what curators are fundamentally charged to do: decide on, and contextualize, the expressions they think matter most.  Curators should be committed to the ideas that art reflects, however controversial or unpopular they may be. It’s the audiences’ job to decide on the merits of a curator’s arguments and judge those choices for itself.  In that regard, the Transformer Gallery in D.C. should be celebrated for immediately installing Wojnarowicz’s video (it began screening on Thursday).

Cantor has said that taxpayer-funded museums should reflect “common standards of decency.”  But, as I’ve expressed here many times, I doubt such “common standards” exist now.  Homosexuality is a not only part of American culture. It has and continues to play a sizeable role in the production and reception of art.  To leave out subjective experiences of identity would be to deny the realities of the lives of artists, and would elide majors contributions to the history of art (Leonardo, Caravaggio, Andy Warhol, etc.).  And to those who express offense over the expression of lived experiences, I suggest following Blake Gopnick’s advice: “vote with [your] feet, and avoid the art [you] don’t like.” 


The Perils of Photojournalism

On October 23, New York Times photographer Joao Silva stepped on a landmine while embedded with U.S. soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  Earlier this week, photographer Greg Marinovich set up a fund to support Silva, who lost both of his legs in the explosion. Both of them are members of the Bang-Bang Club; perhaps not incidentally, news came on Wednesday that Tribeca Film has acquired the rights to the movie, Bang Bang Club, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Silva’s injuries are a reminder that the photographs which illustrate the Grey Lady and countless other newspapers and magazines come at a great price to both photographer and subject.  As photographer Moises Saman told the Columbia Journalism Review, “It’s part of war.”  If the members of the Bang-Bang Club are at all representative of photographers in conflict zones, then it’s a relatively common part of war, too.

Two members of the club are already dead: Ken Oosterbroek died in South Africa and Kevin Carter committed suicide, in part, because of the criticisms of a Pulitzer Prize winning photograph he took in the Sudan. Surviving members Silva and Marinovich have now both sustained serious injuries while snapping what would become our fractured, mental, slideshow—what the mind sees when it summon a visual accompaniment for “war.”  

It’s a photojournalistic narrative that's perhaps all too familiar: young, intrepid believers searching for truth through a lens—hoping not just to capture, but to change as well.  In 2009, Silva told the New York Times’s Lens Blog that “If you’ve changed one single person’s mind, I think you’ve accomplished something.”  If there seems something romantically earnest about the Bang-Bang Club, it’s because the names Silva, Carter, Oosterbroek and Marinovich are often mentioned in the same breath as Robert Capa, Gerda Taro, and David Seymour.  The latter three were pioneers of the kind of wartime journalism which embedded photographers in the center of the chaos, using then new rapid-fire camera technology to capture the minutiae of conflict - pioneers of the very type of photojournalism the Bang-Bang Club utilized to often disturbing ends. 

Capa, Taro and Seymour are the subject of “Mexican Suitcase,” an exhibition at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan.  The three met in Paris during the 1930s, each of them from somewhere else: Capa started life in Hungary as Endre Friedmann; Taro as Gerta Pohorylle in Germany; Seymour as Dawid Szymin in Poland.  Political leftists, they traveled to Spain and documented the civil war. No one had ever seen the kind of war photography they were producing, active rather than the passive photographs of, say, Matthew Brady some seventy years prior. Their images were eagerly consumed by readers of European magazines, many of which are included in the ICP’s exhibition.  Capa became a star and, with Henri Cartier-Bresson, eventually founded Magnum Photos, the cooperative which still represents many photojournalists (including Saman).  

While the story of Capa, Taro and Seymour is, like the Bang-Bang Club, heroic in its own way, it’s also tragic.  In July of 1937, Taro was killed near Madrid.  Capa travelled to China and then back to Spain to witness the Republican defeat.  In 1939, he and Seymour travelled separately to photograph refugees pouring into France.  That’s when Capa and Seymour, both Jews with left-wing histories, saw the writing on the wall. They knew they had to leave Europe.  Seymour left for the U.S. before the outbreak of the war. Capa waited until the last minute.  He packed three boxes of film, rolled and cut, and gave them to a friend, asking him to send them to New York, where Capa was headed. 

They were never sent. The boxes ended up in Mexico with the Mexican ambassador to the Vichy government, and in 2007 the boxes, now appropriately called “The Mexican Suitcase”, eventually ended up at the International Center of Photography, which was founded by Capa’s brother, Cornell.  The Suitcase had over 4,500 negatives, many of them taken by Taro. In many regards they epitomize the work of each of the photographers. Taro and Seymour are somber and Capa is, well, Capa: fearless and epic.  But the Mexican Suitcase is also a reminder of the perils of photojournalism, when Capa forwarded it. Taro was already dead, killed in a jeep accident at the Battle of Brunete.  Capa was killed by a landmine in Indochina in 1954. Seymour would be severely wounded by a sniper in Egypt two years later. 

In 2009, Silva told the Lens Blog, “The camera is not a fortress.” The old cliché comes to mind: war is hell, but apparently so is photojournalism.  Maybe that’s why war and photography share so much linguistically: to shoot, rapid-fire, capture.  Silva’s injuries, the fate of the Bang-Bang club, and the ICP’s exhibition are certain reminders of that. 


Memorial Mania: An Interview with Erika Doss

Erika Doss is Chair of the American Studies Department at The University of Notre Dame.  She is the author of many books, including Benton, Pollock, and the Politics of Modernism: From Regionalism to Abstract Expressionism (1991), Elvis Culture: Fans, Faith, and Image (1999), and Looking at Life Magazine (editor, 2001).  Doss’s latest book Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America, published by the University of Chicago Press, explores “the cultural, social, and political conditions that inform today’s urgent feelings about history and memory. “ Memorial Mania is an insightful, and timely, study charting the frenzied and extreme—hence manic—American obsession with commemoration, particularly as it’s practiced today.  Doss argues that memorials underscore our national obsession with issues of memory and history; suggesting the construction of public memorials is a manifestation of our desires to define memory and write history.  Doss traces the boom in memorial building since 1995, along the way providing thoughtful observations about the way we construct (or deconstruct) history through the building of public memorials. 

Doss spoke with me about her project.   

Camera Obscura: You’ve been working on the book for awhile and looking over your CV, it’s clear that you have an interest in memory and American culture. Did anything in particular drive you to write this book? Were there any particular events that struck a motivating chord? 

Doss: I’ve been working on public art and public culture for sometime – reading about and following increasing number of monuments. Some of this was observation from walking around and looking at the monuments themselves.  I didn’t want to do it not another book about public art controversy since I’ve already written about that.  I was more interested in how memorials are redefining American forms of democracy.  I had the title first and I was essentially working from the title, trying to figure out what I meant by that, taking apart the concept of “mania.”  I don’t use the term to imply a crazy dimension but to argue consideration of public culture in terms of public feeling.  The title may be spectacular but the book considers dynamics of public feeling.

I looked at memorials specifically to get a handle on a project, and then furthered the discussion from memorials themselves by discussing memory versus history. I really see the development of a “memorial industry,” and that’s what I wanted to explore.    

CO: You found some really… interesting memorials (I was struck by the absurdity of the Victims of Communism Memorial).  You make the convincing case that since 1995 we’ve been collectively engaged in a frenzy of building memorials. Could you explain to readers why this need has reemerged within the American discourse?

Doss: I think that we need to think historically: statuemania in both Europe and the United States has historical precedence.  There are, of course, differences.  Statuemania is about nationalism (for example, France’s Third Republic used statues to unify the French public), something similar happened in the United States, after the Civil War, etc.  It’s part of assimilation of the diversity of Americans.  By contrast Memorial Mania willingly engaged in complicated look at American history.  That history is not always a succession of victories . I’m thinking about memorials to people of colour and to loss. The construction of those memorials is essentially a citizenship claim.  The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial will be dedicated this summer, and I think it says a lot about who we need to include as Americans worthy of being memorialized on the National Mall.  Memorials are a way of claiming citizenship status, a part of the historical construction of citizenship which is a continual debate.

I enjoyed the diversity of the project and was astonished by how much is out there and how much continues to be built.  Even now, there’s a controversy in Indianapolis over a proposed [Emancipation] memorial by Fred Wilson because the memorial is a figure of dissent -  it’s not heroic.  There is no public agreement about the nature of history, i.e. dissent vs. heroic.  [Note: Since speaking to Doss, the proposed Wilson memorial has been suspended].

CO: In Memorial Mania you argue that memorial culture in America today is particularly “excessive, frenzied, and extreme,” and you focus on the affective investment in the contemporary debate over public space.  Do you see our contemporary debate as a rupture from past practices?  Do you think Jurgen Habermas’s vision of rational debate ever existed, or do you see it more as an utopian (ideal) destination that's no longer plausible?

Doss: No, I think Habermas’s theory is a theory.  But, I think there are moments in the ebb and flow of American history where we’re more interested in rational discussions about history and memory.  For example, the 1970s when there was so much chaos that people were willing to come to some point of unity and solidarity. There have been democratic moments, but nothing recently.  James Young documents the more rational debate in Berlin on the making of the Holocaust Memorial. 

I’d like to see this idea of rational debate as realistic, but now I don’t think we can get around the table anymore.  This is an excessively angry period.  Ground Zero is an example of that, the continuing public anger and rancor.

CO: The debates over public sites today are, as you argue, particularly fraught (especially the 9/11 Memorial, Park51, etc.).  Do you think this particularly rancorous “debate” is central to our political moment?  I’m thinking that there’s no small coincidence between the anger displayed by Park51 protesters (and certain 9/11 family members) and the debate that we’re having over American citizenship. 

Doss: It’s a different country from what it was nine years ago. People are still angry.  There is a really small group of people who drive the debate and who can manipulate media and mass culture. I don’t want to discount the horror of 9/11, but anger is not a productive emotion in the memorialisation of the 3,000 people who died on 9/11.  Our country needs constructive and creative ideas.  The debate is incredibly affective and the media made more of a spectacle by refusing to understand that this isn’t a shrine but a diverse center.  Public art has always been the fall guy of whatever political or economic argument it can be put into. 

CO: There seems to be a radical political divide among Americans today, and as you argue, that’s one of many reasons the framing of commemoration is so central to debates over identity and the politics of representation.  You discuss that pretty thoroughly in your book, touching on the various kinds of memorials we construct (i.e. gratitude memorials, shame memorials, etc.). Could you comment on the relationship between political identity and the “kinds” of memorials it produces?

Doss: Certainly, the emotional conditions are incredibly important and this could have been a much longer book. I could have written a chapter on pleasure or joy memorials.  Gratitude and shame seem to be the overwhelming emotions.  War memorials are a way to say “thank you”. Gratitude is part of how we feel in public, or how we’re expected to feel.  Shame memorials are not necessarily about guilt and the shaming discourse, but rather about “shameful” moments in our history—monuments dedicated to racial terrorism and the ongoing legacy of race contradictions fit into the shame category. 

I constructed the book as groups of memorials situated within particular aspects and conditions.  I wanted Memorial Mania to be a stepping-stone, to invite readers to have a dialogue with the book and do their own work.  I encourage readers to think about memorial culture and the affective conditions that inform it.  Public feeling is crucial when thinking about this.  How do audiences shape what they make?

CO: On a lighter note, I understand you’re currently working on a new book – can you tell us about it? 

Doss: I’m always working on a book! Right now, I’m working on two projects.  I’m thinking about the divide between religion and modernism in twentieth century America and I’m interested also in cultural vandalism – memorial destruction – which I reference in the book.  I want to think about moments of vandalism in memorial history, to somehow theorize destruction.