The Angel of History

Here, four Dürer etchings from the catalogue of a show I saw this summer at the Palais des Beaux-Arts, Paris…

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from "The Apocalypse," of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Angel of the Apocalypse and the Dragon with Seven Heads, ca. 1497, engraving from “The Apocalypse,” of 1498, wood engraving, 37.4 x 28.5 cm

These engravings were part of a portfolio that belonged to collector Jacques-Édouard Gatteaux (1788-1881). They were badly damaged along with other precious artworks and art objects in a fire occasioned by the Parisian communards in May 1871.

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from "The Apocalypse," 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

Albrect Dürer, Saint John devouring the Book of Life, ca. 1498, from “The Apocalypse,” 1498, wood engraving, 37.3 x 29.2 cm

The exhibition these damaged engravings were a part of was called “The Angel of History.”   Its curator-in-chief was Nicolas Bourriaud, of “relational art” fame. Bourriaud is currently director of the École des Beaux Arts.

Bourriaud’s newest art conceptual gambit is “the ruin.” The contemporary artists he assembled (among them, Haris Epaminonda, Rashid Johnson, Walead Beshty, Jospehine Meckseper) were, in his view, like Benjaminian angels of history, picking their way through fragmented piles of the past and forming new artistic narratives out of rubble.

Dürer’s singed Biblical images were on the exhibition’s second floor, amongst other artworks and objects from the Beaux-Arts archives and collections. There were models of Greek and Roman ruins, Romantic-era watercolors and sketches of ruins and photographs of destroyed buildings dating from the Franco-Prussian War and World War One.

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

Albrecht Dürer, Three Putti, ca. 1505, burin engraving, 8 x 7.2 cm

It was moving and naughtily satisfying to look at damaged art, I admit. However, the interest of these engravings went beyond iconoclasm or pathos.

Blackened by revolutionary fire, each of these engravings was the kind of doubly-determined “dialectical image” that Walter Benjamin wrote about in “On the Concept of History.” Like all artworks, they tell a visual story, but they are also material culture. These engravings testify to the era in which they were created as well as the era in which they were damaged.

A pity, then, that Bourriaud and his team didn’t create a space for viewers to ask how their own reception in 2013 might constitute a further testimony of these engravings–can we see the present or the future in these images as well as the near and distant past?

The exhibition missed its opportunity to work dialectically because it enclosed its early modern and contemporary artworks within the limited parameters of universality, atemporality and the picturesque instead of delving into socio-aesthetic and institutional context.

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from "The Passion," 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

Albrecht Dürer, The Annonciation, ca. 1510, from “The Passion,” 1511, wood engraving, 12 x 10 cm

“The only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”  – Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI, “On the Concept of History,” 1935

Writing, writing, writing

Der arme Poet / The Poor Poet, Carl Spitzweg, 1839, oil on canvas, 36.2 × 44.6 cm.

For a long while I had a link on my “projects” page to this painting, which I love with all the force of a million starving artist cliches. I thought I’d post it here as a fond and gently satirical testament to work of the mind.

A couple of interesting facts I learned while browsing the German Wikipedia entry for this painting:

-After the Mona Lisa, this is the painting that Germans most love in the world (according to an unidentified poll).

-Many have wondered what sort of a gesture this poor poet is making with his right hand. Some think he is scanning verse. Others believe he has plucked and is squishing a flea from his bedding. All poor poets know that one does not discount the other.

Mathias Etenhueber had the dubious privilege of serving as the model for this poor poet picture.

-And finally, my favorite: There are two almost identical versions of this painting. One is in the Neue Pinakotek in Munich, and the other was in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. Until it was stolen by Ulay in 1976 as part of a performance piece (!), then stolen again in 1989 by true art thieves and never located. In art, there is a criminal touch.

Poetry from the trenches

Going to MoMA’s current exhibition, “Inventing Abstraction: 1910-1925” was like a French New Year’s feast with a boggled mind afterward instead of a groaning belly: there was fois gras. There were oysters. Champagne, white wine, red wine, digestif. Lobster, roast, and quail. And of course, the moelleux.

Discoveries for me were:

Josef Albers’ Gitterbild (1921), a droll and clever teaching tool that transformed wire and industrial glass samples into a modernist study of color resonance and texture,

a whole wall of Kasimir Malevich’s Suprematist compositions–abstract portraits, landscapes and still lifes,

a 1979 reconstructed model of Vladimir Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International (1920), which sat ambitiously and quite uneasily in the gallery, surrounded by other Constructivist masterworks

and

Suzanne Duchamp’s Solitude entonnoir (1921), which entered into melancholy conversation with all of the grinders and rotaries and mills in the work of brother Marcel (dutifully represented in painting, sculpture and cinema).

The most extraordinary, however, was an extremely rare copy of Guillame Apollinaire’s Case d’Armons (1915). Apollinaire published the (I believe) hand-bound booklet of 21 poems on graph paper with the help of two sergeant friends from the trenches during the First World War. The booklet sat in a vitrine, covered by a velvet powder blue cloth. Visitors approached and lifted the cloth, perhaps expecting to see something illicit, and were met with the incredible fragility and power of aesthetics amidst war.

Elizabeth Price wins the Turner

Still from “The Woolworths Choir of 1979,” Elizabeth Price, 2012. Image accessed at http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/944×531/p012dcm7.jpg

Great to see that a video artist has been awarded the Turner Prize: Elizabeth Price. This small snippet of her piece, The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012) intrigues me. I’d love to see it in its entirety as an installation.

It’s difficult to know anything about the composition from what little can be seen online, but it speaks well of the piece that I’m immediately inspired to start piecing together and thinking over a couple recurring thematic motifs: the legibility/illegibility of emotive gesture and the commodification of femininity (in terms of news reportage of the tragedy, but also the erotics of girl groups). I imagine the snaps and clicks that seem to regulate the images as the sounds of these concepts locking and interlocking.

I’m also happy to see an artist who has been given this kind of platform valorize public art funding and stress the importance of keeping complex visual experience open to as wide an audience as possible.

R.I.P. WORM

Programmer extraordinaire and dear friend Peter Taylor writes with terrible news: WORM, the beloved “Institute for Avant-Garde Recreation” that made the year that I lived in Rotterdam so wonderful, has been shuttered, at least in its original form (scroll down for English).

Says Peter,

Just before the move to our new building in Rotterdam’s city centre last September, the national fund on which WORM depended for around 50% of her subsidy was scrapped. A fund with a wider remit was established as a replacement, but WORM’s application here was unsuccessful.

In June, WORM’s board and directors decided that the best response to this intensely difficult situation was to implement a plan to restructure, ending the work contracts of its programmers, and ceasing as a programme-creating organisation, beginning again in the New Year as a network and facilitating venue.

My work contract will end over the next few weeks and unfortunately, even with increased support from Rotterdam’s city council; WORM did not have the plan to reinstate this or any other programming positions.

What happens when cities casualize art workers and undercut the venues that showcase this work? Lives are dulled worldwide. Good art and those who advocate for it create a kind of butterfly effect in the art, hearts and minds of others:

Thanks to Peter’s risk-taking as a film programmer, I saw VALIE EXPORT’s Invisible Adversaries (1976) on a bitterly cold February (March?) night at their old Achterhaven space.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/terekhova/471393177/sizes/o/in/photostream/

The WORM as I knew it, in its Achterhaven space. Photo with kind permission from the Flickr stream of Terekhova

I loved the film, and began to study it. I traveled to Vienna to interview VALIE EXPORT, gave a talk on her film at 2012’s College Art Association Conference, and taught her to my students in the course, Art Since 1960. One ARTS major who wasn’t actually in my course heard me talk about EXPORT, and decided to write his final research paper on her. I’m now finishing an article on the film. The gift of a 6-euro screening had a ripple effect from Rotterdam to upstate New York to Vienna to Los Angeles.

What happens when cities casualize art workers and undercut the venues that showcase this work? I hope what happens is that Rotterdammers and their friends demand that art back. I don’t know the complexities involved in the city council’s decision to slash arts funding, but I do know that if they would honor the promise they originally made WORM when it moved venues, I would donate generously to its survival.

Peter puts it best:

Please keep on telling me, telling my colleagues, telling each other and telling strangers that you find this quest to confront audiences – week in, week out – with the boring, the thought-provoking, the absurd, the subversive, and the sublime, absolutely essential. Hopefully then, we can still get somewhere together!