Exhibitions

Is it ever JUST a kiss?

It was just a regular day of museum visiting at the Beyeler Fondation in Basel, Switzerland. That is, until it wasn’t.

Danielle and I had just finished discussing some works in an exhibition featuring Wolfgang Tillmans’s photography, emerging from the show feeling very serious, very intellectual.

We trotted into the next room on our artsy fartsy high horses. In the following moments, we were knocked clean off our noble steeds. THUD THUD. Dumbfounded.

birdyThe space is large, white, mostly empty. There is a big square mirror propped against the right wall. It doesn’t hang but simply rests on the floor. On the left side of the room I recognize the polished gold surface that belongs to my favorite sculpture, Bird in Space by Brancusi. Right smack dab in the center of the room on the floor, sandwiched between the mirror and sculpture, lay a man and a woman kissing.

We don’t really know what to think.

The kiss is long and slow. I don’t embarrassedly look away like I normally do when I see these sorts of kisses between couples in public.

The man and woman appear to be in their late twenties or thirties. Both have tied back their brown hair in loose buns, some flyaway wisps of hair escape the elastic constraints. They both wear plain pants and shirts.

They move in a perfectly controlled slow motion, methodically shifting between positions of spooning, cradling, hugging, different forms of embrace. All the while they maintain an unbroken eye contact.

I, not usually a great admirer of excessive PDA (public display of affection), was completely mesmerized.

What made this so special? After all, we see people kiss and embrace all the time. Heck, and you sure see a lot more if you’ve been watching Game of Thrones. But these two fully clothed, regular people seared an image in my head, probably forever.

It was done tenderly and with such sincerity. Didn’t feel phony, didn’t present as a set-up. Those two could have been visitors just like everyone else and suddenly plopped down in the center of the gallery and there they were.

tinoWhat we were seeing was a presentation, Kiss (2002), created by Anglo-German artist Tino Sehgal on display at the Fondation Beyeler during a limited time. Sehgal does not call his works “performance” or the participants “performers” because that might suggest viewers don’t play a role in his works, which they defintively do. Instead he calls them “constructed situations” and “interpreters.” His oral instructions and rules are interpreted by male and female artists who can usually sing, dance, and choreograph. The situations he creates are “immaterial and fleeting, the thing that truly matters being the viewer’s experiencing of the situation.” Sehgal gives an insightful talk on his inspiration, thoughts and motivations for creating Kiss which I link here.

Once Danielle and I were finished dusting ourselves off from our metaphorical fall and processed the situation as an art piece, we calmed down. We wearily re-mounted our high horses and started to analyze and discuss.

This act breached the boundary between performance and “real life.” Where does one make an exact distinction between the two anyway? The blurred line freaked me out a bit.

What a funky paradox. It feels private and intimate, yet other visitors and I were watching them do their thing safely from within the sanctions of a museum. Besides, this was not real…. right? It was a feeling of internal conflict I had never experienced before.

Danielle and I began to observe the other visitors filing cautiously into the room.

kiss3A teenage brother and sister blundered in. His gaze fell upon the interpreters, the color rushed to the tips of his ears and he twitched a sheepish smile. The siblings retreated to a corner of the room and with body language oozing of insecurity continued to watch in spurts of furtive side-glances. 

A young woman and her hunky beau strode in holding hands. As they registered the situation, they broke apart and perhaps unknowingly distanced themselves. She was very intent on watching the piece while he stood behind her and stole a glance at his watch. Heaved a sigh. 

Another couple -much older this time- hobbled in. They watched the embrace side by side for some time before pulling each other in close. A secret smile spread across her face and her eyes flickered in a way that gave away her nostalgia.

A father and his pre-teen daughter shuffled through the doorway, talking. She was facing him and saying something when he first discreetly spied the interpreters and made the decision to keep a fluid walking pace. She didn’t look around the room as they crossed, her eyes fixated on him the whole time. They disappeared in the other doorway.

Funny how a performance can unveil so much about its audience. Some were embarrassed, some drew together while others spread apart. Everyone kept an invisible radius of distance from the couple, and no one stayed long. I didn’t meet the interpreters, but I did meet the visitors in a sense.

It can be refreshing to not know what to make of an artwork at times, to be humbled by it, to have to work to comprehend.

Thank you, Sehgal, for the challenge. I hope I stumble on another equally as curious “situation” again one day.

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Félix Vallotton vaut le coup

Enter Kunstmuseum, Bern. Ascend ancient spiral staircase. Arrive exhibition entrance. Traverse three doorways. Enter Room 4. Pause. Gasp. Gawk.

The current exhibition on display is “Van Gogh to Cezanne, Bonnard to Matisse: The Hahnloser Collection.” As we wind through the rooms at the beginning of the exhibition, we are greeted by the oeuvres of all these big-name artists.

But nothing compared to the experience of emerging into Room 4. Nothing. I’m not even being dramatic.

Sometimes when I walk into a gallery space, I scan the room first and make a beeline for the piece that compels me most. Why not? There’s no shame in seeing what you damn well please, and isn’t that the whole point? Yet this tactic failed tragically in Room 4.

Every single piece was equally as compelling, and like some form of medieval torture I could feel my conflicted body torn in all directions. Where should I go first?

Shimmering landscapes and radiant portraits galore. All by Franco-Swiss artist Felix Vallotton. Although all are dazzling, I will contain my discussion to my favorite piece which I chose according to purely personal preference.

Detail 1The star of the show, the cover of the exhibition catalogue. The 1913 painting La Blanche et la Noire is as beautiful as it is mysterious. A harmonious symphony of color graces the canvas and instilled in me a sense of awe. The space is divided horizontally into two color blocks: a bright teal blue and a stark white. The brilliant hues complement the women’s yellowish-peach and walnut brown skin tones. The black woman’s fire orange head wrap against the teal background enhance their vibrancies, while the white woman’s flushed red cheeks and auburn hair mimic the black woman’s beaded jewelry.  

Even on a purely visual basis, the painting pulsates with an almost inexplicable radiance.

Now, it may seem odd to call such a well-lit, realistically rendered piece mysterious, but I mean this in the sense of the content. What in the heck is going on in this image exactly? The black woman sits casually with her arms folded over her knees, torso leaning forward, head turned and shown in profile to look in the white woman’s direction. The burnt end of the cigarette that is nestled between her lips suggests she has been sitting and smoking for a few minutes. Is she going to ash that soon? What’s the next move?

The white woman casually reclines, head propped on a pillow. Her torso is a creamy yellow while her extremities flush pink. But it’s her intense sanguine facial complexion that made me question: is this a healthy glow or is she actually sick? Her stance can now be read as casual rest or exhaustion. She gazes out in the direction of the black woman from underneath her droopy eyelids. Her face, like the black woman’s, appears pensive or altogether void of any expression.

Notice that for both women, I do not claim that they are looking directly into each other’s eyes or faces. I feel that it is too ambiguous to decidedly tell, since Vallotton does not provide a fully frontal view of either woman. The white woman’s eyes even appear totally closed at first, and only upon further inspection does one realize a small sliver of eyeball. I think that Vallotton instilled this ambiguity on purpose.

Despite this obscurity, we can still identify that this painting is all about contradiction, oppositions. How very modernist.

One woman is white, the other is black. One woman reclines, the other is seated upright. One woman is clothed, the other is nude. One woman exudes strength and vitality, the other is languid, suggesting possible illness. The only point of intersection between the two occurs at 1) (possible) exchange of gazes and 2) physical overlap of the white woman’s feet with the black woman’s backside.

Yet despite the clashing of the content, this painting is still harmonious. Perhaps there is a certain balance in chaos, no?

Bear with me for the final thought on this piece. According to my interpretation, I can identify some form of racial power play in this painting.

Screenshot 2017-09-18 11.51.17After I was done oogling over the pretty colors, I found that I was somewhat surprised at the set-up of the figures. The black woman, physically elevated and gazing downwards at the white woman. The black woman’s skin pulsing with vitality while the sickly white woman meekly returns her gaze. This strikes odd for an early 20th century painting.

Let’s get situated here: It’s 1913 in France. France still has control of a majority of its African colonies. North, West, Equatorial, East African regions- you name it! To depict a woman of African descent not just equal but suggest a superior stance and aura to a white woman was out of the ordinary for a 48-year-old European white male, to say the least.

Let’s also keep in mind that only 50 years prior to this, Manet painted Olympia. Here, the power play is far more reflective of what the actual racial relationships between white and black women resembled at the time. Like in Vallotton’s work, the white woman is nude while the black woman is fully clothed. The black woman also stands up and is ultimately taller than the reclining white woman on the canvas.

olympia

Olympia, Manet, 1863

It’s the same, but drastically different.

Here, the black woman is in a subservient position; she is the white woman’s maid or personal servant. Although fully dressed, the black woman’s body is obscured by frothy cloth and a sprawling floral bouquet. Her body is shrouded and does not attract admiration for its beauty or strength like Vallotton’s. She is merely a background actor, existing only to fulfill the white woman’s desires. Furthermore, the directions of gazes are telling of the relationship between the women. Olympia stares directly out of the canvas to engage with the viewer, while the black woman looks attentively at Olympia, perhaps offering the bouquet or waiting on further orders.

I much prefer Vallotton’s depiction of racial relations to Manet’s, but what bothers me is not knowing why. Why would Vallotton depict a relationship which, historically and sociologically speaking, was extremely uncommon to experience in the early 20th century? What is he trying to say?

Some claim that he was depicting a lesbian relation between the two. Although this may be true, it did not strike me as such when I looked it over. In any case, I would like to believe that the message goes deeper than the lesbian affair, and does indeed aim to comment on racial relations.

What do you think?

De toute manière, Vallotton vaut le coup. 

Header Image: Félix Vallotton, La Blanche et la Noire, 1913

Picasso’s coeur d’artichaut

Holey moley heavens to Betsy, Picasso sure was popular with the ladies. But before I dive into this, perhaps I should channel my inner Sound of Music Julie Andrews and take a step back to, “start at the very beginning, A very good place to start.” 

This summer I’ve had the privilege of visiting the Pierre Gianadda Foundation art museum in Martigny, Switzerland. The foundation is world renowned for its exceptional temporary exhibitions, which center around select artists and a single theme each year. In the past it has featured Degas to Picasso, Diego Rivera & Frida Kahlo, Paul Gaugin, van Gogh, Kandinsky and Russia, Paul Signac, Portraits from the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and more.

Last year I viewed Matisse en son temps/ Matisse in his time, which focused on Henri Matisse (okay duh) and his contemporaries, but more specifically the love-hate relationship between Matisse and Picasso. When you think Matisse and Picasso, think hardcore frenemies.

Pic:Mat pic

Matisee and Picasso paint

Left: Henri Matisse, Odalisque with Tamborine (1926) Right: Pablo Picasso, Large Nude in a red armchair (1929)

Picasso considered Matisse his “master” or guide in painting, yet nonetheless interjected critiques on his work. He once compared Matisse’s designs for a chapel to those fit for a bathroom. So sassy. Françoise Gilot, Picasso’s girlfriend at the time, acknowledges the artists’ oddly loving rivalry: “In their meetings, the active side was Pablo; the passive, Matisse. Pablo always sought to charm Matisse, like a dancer, but in the end it was Matisse who conquered Pablo.

When Matisse died, Picasso sunk into deep depression declaring that he had to paint for the both of them now.  Their works were displayed side by side, allowing us to visualize the strong link between styles and subject matters. Walking along their works was moving, because I’d been let into a very personal, very sentimental relationship between the artists that I never knew existed.

This year I insisted on returning to see Hommage à Jacqueline/ A Tribute to Jacqueline, an exhibition dedicated to displaying Picasso’s works in the final years of his life while he was in the company of his last wife and muse, Jacqueline. She is in many of his later works, manifested in all shapes, colors, and poses. Jacqueline reclining on a sofa, listening to the guitar. Jacqueline sitting on a rocking chair, knees drawn up to her chin. Jacqueline looking out at her balcony view absent-mindedly. Then, Jacqueline sitting squarely, gazing directly out of the frame and at the viewer. (You can click on the images below for more detail and full captions).

Apart from her, the exhibition displayed three main themes that Picasso focused on, producing multiple pieces of the same subject: Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe/Luncheon on the Grass, Les Femmes d’Alger/ Women of Algieres, and Le Peintre et son modèle/ Painter and Model.

Paying tribute to Édouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe/ Luncheon on the Grass, Picasso produced multitudes of paintings that mimicked the original’s subject matter, yet in his own style.

He did this also with his series Les Femmes d’Alger, inspired by Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement/ The Women of Algiers in their Apartment.

Picasso often painted the theme depicting a painter working and his model.

But enough about that. Remember when I said Picasso was popular with the ladies? I meant it! The exhibition shows a film comprised of interviews by his close friends, children, and lovers who provide accounts of the detailed intimacies of his life.

From what I learned in the video, Picasso was a rather confident man, especially when it came to love life. He had no issue waltzing over to two lady strangers’ table and inviting them to his studio (while he was still in a relationship). One of these strangers would later turn out to be his new girlfriend, Françoise Gilot.

francoisesketchOf all the women he was with, I admire Françoise the most; she was one of the few to leave Picasso, and not be left. When she discovered that he was having an affair with 17 year old Genevieve Laporte, she warned that she would leave him if he continued. Picasso responded with, “You cannot. A woman does not leave a man like me” and continued. So she left him! You go girl.

Picasso had eight -often overlapping- serious lovers throughout his life. He definitely had a coeur d’artichaut. The French idiom translates to artichoke heart, and is used to describe someone who falls in love easily and frequently, possibly with several people at the same time. His lovers were also his muses and models, thanks to whom he was able to be inspired and paint hundreds of portraits. Photographs of Picasso’s lovers next to their portraits show some glimmers of resemblance, if you can overlook the sausage fingers and boob-in-the-armpit look.

Geez, what would the world come to without us women.

My past two visits to the Pierre Gianadda Foundation have taught me a lot about Picasso: juicy details, the lowdown, the inside scoop. I will definitely be coming back next year for a new exhibition with high expectations.

Header image: Pablo Picasso, Reclining Nude (1932)

 

Grande Discussion

Recently I visited the Kunsthaus Zürich Museum to view its newest joint exhibition with the MoMA of New York on Francis Picabia. There, I encountered his amusing quote, “Our heads are round so our thoughts can change direction.” I found these words witty and perfectly relatable to spark the following discussion.

I can gush for hours about art’s powerful transcendence of the reality buried within our innermost souls, pouring over with a refreshing effervescence which prods all subjects to enter into deep contemplation about fate, destiny, and sexuality (whatever that means).

Now that’s all fine and dandy- but what is art anyway?

picabia spanish night

Francis Picabia, Spanish Night (1922)

To be completely honest, I’m not sure. I have tried and failed time again to capture a single definition. The best possible answer I have found so far, is to respond with Picabia’s ingenious words. Like his quote delineates, our thoughts –both personal and universal- on what art truly entails change constantly. Heck, I change my definition daily!

But it’s not totally our faults either, right? Correct. Artists seem to be constantly rebelling against the boundaries and definitions of art. Meanwhile, us plebeians are desperately trying to grapple for some scraps of understanding. It’s like riding a rollercoaster with no seatbelt-what is this madness?

We try to capture art’s essence in a box, because that puts us at ease; unfortunately, we can’t Pokémon Go our way through this one. Humans are comfortable when things we cannot fully understand are able to be contained, where we can control them (Side thought: consider why racial or gender based stereotypes exist. Hmmmm). Constantly evolving and morphing with our world, art is practically impossible to pin down. So how are we supposed to define art, if the definition is in constant revision?

To that, I still have no answer (yet), but I’m on it!

Contemporary art is often met with some degree of rejection, disgust, and confusion. Despite how new and uncontrollable this contemporary art movement seems to be, our reaction as a public is nothing new.

Did you know that impressionism was considered unfinished and messy? That’s right! Our treasured Monet Water Lilies were monstrous contemporary splotches of the 1920s. Critics found impressionists’ coverage of average, everyday scenes distasteful. If we wanted to see a garden, well, we could walk right outside and see it for ourselves, couldn’t we? And, sacre bleu, what is this blatant show of brushstrokes, this absurd color palette? Impressionist artists were rejected from exhibiting their works at the famous Salon de Paris. In retaliation, they exhibited at the Salon des Refuses/the Salon of Rejects and even adopted the derogatory term art critic Louis Leroy used to review Claude Monet’s Impression, Sunrise. He sarcastically wrote in the 1874 April edition of the Le Charivari, “I was certain of it. I was just telling myself that, since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it — and what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.”

Fauvism received a similar “welcome.” The art movement’s name also derives from an insult delivered by influential art critic Louis Vauxcelles. Upon viewing the vivid canvases displayed in the same room as a statue by the Renaissance sculptor Donatello at the 1905 Salon D’Automne, he remarked, “Donatello parmi les fauves/ Donatello among the wild beasts.” Later, the artists would proudly espouse the term to define their art movement which explored such “offensive” clashes of color. For goodness sakes Matisse, a woman’s hair is not blue and her skin is not green. Blasphemy!

Although now greatly admired, realism, post-impressionism, cubism, and minimalism all underwent similar receptions at the time. In the words of the almighty Drake, the artists “Started from the bottom now we here.”

With this in mind, I just can’t help feeling that we are in for another cycle of condemning today’s art to the dark abyss of frustration.

Here is a vague solution to finding a definition for art: rather than fight to confine what cannot be controlled, begin with a base definition that you feel fairly entails art. As you encounter pieces not included in your definition- perhaps like this one- gradually reform your definition to become more expansive.

Simple as pie. Well, not really. But pie certainly does sound good right now.

I’ve ended up right where I started, and in the process I’ve asked more questions than I answered. But after all, it is this constant challenge of  searching for an answer that keeps me lively!

I’m curious to know, and encourage you to comment: What is your definition of art, so far?

Header image: Francis Picabia, La Source (1912)

Contemporary Art: The Real Load

I did it.  I put myself out there and gave contemporary art a chance. But of course, right as I begin to get comfortable viewing the APCd Foundation’s new exhibition, BAM. I am proven gravely, gravely wrong.

Low and behold, before me, wrapped in vacuum tight, clear plastic, sits a piece of shit. Just waiting to be admired, contemplated, squinted at. I wish I was kidding. But at this point, it was just too tempting to not call bull-you know what.

wim-delvoye-cloaca-feces

Win Delvoye, Cloaca Faeces (2003) APCd Foundation’s Mobility exhibition

After staring at the object dumbfounded for some seconds, I took a deep breath and recollected myself. I was pretty frustrated, but since my sister was completely absorbed in watching a film, and my dad had given up and trudged to the café, I huffed fine. I’ll give it a try.

Instantly my thoughts filled with self doubt as I oscillated between “Will I look foolish if I give this object my time? Is it even meant to be given time, or simply skimmed over with a smug smile?” and “Does this object have a higher, symbolic meaning? Is there more than meets the eye?”

The encounter was all too reminiscent of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain,  a “readymade” sculpture consisting of a porcelain urinal that Duchamp flipped upside down duchampand scrawled on the initials “R. Mutt 1917.” Upon its first exhibition (photograph form), hordes of artsy fartsy elites cocked their heads, wrinkled their foreheads, and stroked their beards as if in deep contemplation of the upside-down pee funnel. This was Duchamp’s way of poking fun at the I-can-name-wine-in-my-sleep-and-own-a-ridiculous-number-of-turtlenecks people I’ve mentioned before. Here they all stood, in deep reflection and introspection, before a piece Duchamp had designed specifically to mock their irrational worship of art. His mindset was in alignment with the Dada art movement, which aimed at being purposefully nonsensical. “It was the representation of the exact opposite of everything that art stood for.”- Little Art Talks.

Was I falling into Duchamp’s trap?

It didn’t matter; I was tired of being bullied by contemporary art anyway. 

Maybe this dung nugget isn’t meant to be viewed on its own, but as part of a bigger whole of the exhibition. The exhibition displayed countless contemporary pieces, seemingly all disconnected from one another, within the same context- Mobility. There were pieces mimicking clockworks for mobility of time, flickering candles for the mobility of light, shoes with wood soles for the mobility of walking, a self-beating drum for the mobility of sound, wooden and paper airplane installations for the mobility of flight, photographs of exhausted children washing into shore on raggedy lifeboats for the mobility of refugees. Taken in this context, the feces can stand for the mobility of food through the intestines. The mobility of our bodies.

Further research on Delvoye’s work revealed that this is not human poop: it’s machine poop! The feces we see packed in the translucent box is only one of many produced by his famous art installation, Cloaca in 2000. The machine, “fed” twice a day, is equipped with glass containers which allow viewers to follow the digestion process from beginning to end (see header image).

Even still, reaching this conclusion has brought me no satisfaction, no enlightenment. To content myself, I’ve created a deeper and more whimsical “meaning” for this turd.

Perhaps, in the end, the art of Delvoye’s Cloaca Faeces lies in the subjective reaction of each viewer. It could be establishing that, in a setting out of the ordinary, an object as natural as excrement can elicit confusion, disorder, or humor.

I considered myself an easy going, laid back person…until this encounter. After reflecting on my own reaction from the work, however, I realized that I can actually be rather orderly and rigid, which in turn makes me sensitively fragile to any disturbance in my sense of structure. It’s astounding that this piece, of all things, revealed my limited comfort zone and most profound tendencies.

Confession: I spent an absurd amount of time searching “synonyms for poop” on the Internet. 

Title credits: Sophie Aubry 

Header image: Wim Delvoye, Cloaca Machine (2000)