Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Time with nature


Paricutin Volcano, Mexico

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Upcoming Submissions

http://www.stockholmfringe.com/ 30/05/10

for proposals from emerging artists whose work challenges and questions conventional theatrical forms to perform at Stockholm’s first Fringe Fest in October 2010.

Stoff 2010 is a three day event that aims to support and promote cutting edge theatre making. The fest is foremost focused on promoting artists who have not yet found their feet in the industry however we also welcome submissions from established groups/individuals who promote innovation in their dramatic work.

SURVIVAL KIT 2 is characterized by the following keywords: migration, community, utopia, alternative economy, power, ecology. In the previous SURVIVAL KIT project, at the time when the society was just getting acquainted with the situation created by the economic crisis and was possibly under the illusion that it was a temporary occurrence soon to pass, artists focused on DIY strategies, using low-cost materials, short-term, spontaneous solutions, ironic attributes of spirituality, commentary and documentation of the situation.

SURVIVAL KIT 2 calls for a critical analysis of the current situation as well as viewing things in a long-term perspective, changing the usual direction of thinking, focusing on sustainable strategies and taking a look into the future.

2HB CCA 30/04/10

Friday, 2 April 2010

Use and Value - Frieze March 2009

Use & Value
Innovative and influential Swiss designer and artist Janette Laverrière turns 100 this year. She talked to Vivian Rehberg in Paris about politics, being a woman, utility, mirrors and her collaborations with artist Nairy Baghramian

Nairy Baghramian and Janette Laverrière, 'La Lampe dans l'horloge' (The Lamp and the Grandfather Clock) (2008). Exhibition view at the Schinkel Pavilion, 5th Berlin Biennial
Born in 1909 in Switzerland, Janette Laverrière studied in Basel at the Allgemeine Gewerbeschule, where she learned the fundamentals of drawing and decoration. After training in her father’s architecture practice, she designed her first pieces of furniture in the late 1920s and until 1945 collaborated on designs with her first husband, Maurice Pré. Involved in politics all of her life, Laverrière joined the Communist Party in 1945. Since then she has designed rooms, affordable furniture and ‘useless’ objects. She began making mirrors in 1936 – an interest that has continued throughout her career.
VIVIAN REHBERG Could you talk a little about your career trajectory and whether or not you see a link between the first objects and items of furniture you designed in the 1930s and your most recent production?
JANETTE LAVERRIERE Up until recently I made objects that were useful to everyone. Then, suddenly, I stopped and said: I want to make something that pleases myself. But I do think there is still a link to my earlier work, perhaps the fact that, even then, the forms were not always driven by utility.
VR How did you get started as a designer?
JL I was a student in Switzerland, then I came to Paris for internships, and then – such is life – I started working. I wanted to make affordable, useful things for all, but nobody wanted them.
VR Throughout your entire career or only at specific moments? Was there no interest even after the Second World War?
JL Before the war, when my children were small, we were thinking about making affordable furniture, really affordable, but in France tastes leaned toward the luxurious. Well, the war arrived, and afterward I set off on my path and stuck to it and I found a clientele. I worked for people who asked me to make furniture, to design a bedroom, then an apartment, and so on. But at a certain moment, during the 1980s, I said to myself: I cannot continue doing these building projects like an architect. And then the idea came to me: I am going to make objects that serve no purpose whatsoever. And the difference lies there.
VR Is there a link between utility and uselessness?
JL Of course. It’s useful to have useless things.
VR Precisely – I agree.
JL So, I started anew by thinking about the oldest thing I could remember being inspired by. When I was 17, I really loved Jean Cocteau; I read a lot of his works. In 1989, I wanted to pay homage to him on the centenary of his birthday. So there I was in bed, thinking: I am not going to do anything useful anymore, I do not want to, I cannot, so I will do useless things. All of sudden, a new world opened up for me.
VR And this new world resides in useless objects? Is this where your elaborately designed and partly obscured ‘mirrors’ come in?
JL Yes, everyone calls them ‘mirrors’, which makes sense to some extent as I used to make actual, functional mirrors! But now I don’t want to make something useful – what I want is to tell a story.
VR You mean like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), or its sequel Through the Looking Glass (1871), which have both inspired art works?
JL I don’t want to tell a story literally; I want to remind people of one when they see the work. J’accuse (I Accuse, 2008) was inspired by the title of Émile Zola’s open letter to L’Aurore newspaper in 1898, when charges of anti-Semitism within the French army led to a miscarriage of justice and the Dreyfus Affair. Justice is frequently unjust. I wanted to make something that shows how justice hangs in the balance between fair and unfair, that’s all. The form? Useless.
VR J’accuse comprises single, crescent-shaped mirror – a scale – suspended by a delicate chain from a small round mirror. There is another aspect to this work, which is that its subject is very political. This is also the case with La Commune, hommage à Louise Michel (The Commune, Homage to Louise Michel, 2001) about anarchist revolutionary Louise Michel and the Paris Commune. Here, an exquisite varnished rosewood box holds a mirror shaped like a cherry in reference to the immensely popular song Le Temps des cerises (Cherry Blossom Time, 1866), which was adopted by the Commune. The mirror reflects an attached iron shutter riddled with ‘bullet holes’ – a tribute to combatants executed at the Communards’ Wall in Père Lachaise cemetery.
JL It is a political subject because I am a very political person.
VR Could you elaborate your political commitments?
JL My commitments are linked to the war, when I experienced firsthand the consequences of Marshal Philippe Pétain, who headed the Vichy Regime, betraying France in order to save the rich, out of fear of the Soviet Union. He chose the Germans and Hitler over the Soviets. I found out about it perhaps five days after France signed the armistice treaty with Nazi Germany. Can you picture me on Pétain’s side? No! So, I was working in a weapons factory, and we were told that half of France – the southern half – would be saved, since it was in the ‘free zone’. Then, four days later, the Nazis took control of the weapons factory. So, what I had been thinking was true. They had sold France out of fear of the Soviets. Little by little, I got to thinking, and I read Karl Marx’s The Communist Manifesto (1848). But, since I am a critical person, I saw that the Soviets had betrayed Marx, and I know that Marx is outmoded. I live in my times.
VR An interest in social and political issues is consistent throughout your career.
JL Yes. My father was an architect and when I was a little girl, six or seven years old, while he was involved with a workers’ housing exhibition, I saw a cabinet for a sewing machine. I thought, ‘Well, right! Maybe what I want to do is to make things for everyone.’ Does that sound complicated?
VR Not at all. Since we are on the subject of social and political issues, would you mind speaking about your position as a woman in a very masculine profession and your role in establishing statutes for regulating the design professions in France?
JL Before the war, so-called ‘decorators’ worked for the rich, and that finished when the war ended. After the war, I knew so many wonderful intellectuals and artists, but one had to be more of a business person than an architect or a designer to succeed. I had become a communist, so I said, ‘Enough is enough!’ I invited four or five comrades and we founded the Front National des décorateurs (National Front for Decorators) in 1944, followed by the Union des artistes décorateurs et créateurs d’ensembles (Decorators Trade Union), that same year. After the trade union was formed and I had seen the lawyers about the statutes, I went to Switzerland for a few months. When I came back, I saw they had named me Fourth Secretary. Then they told me they did not want to show me the statutes. So, obviously I was very angry, and they finally agreed to show me. There were a lot of salons and exhibitions in France at the time. My work was always placed in some corner. I cannot remember exactly when, but I was asked to start designing interiors and architectural models. And why was I asked? Because my comrades and I were active in Leftist politics. Then, when I began teaching, men would laugh when female students would show their work.
VR Were there many girls studying interior design?
JL  There were very few; I don’t remember exactly how many. At any rate, the boys would laugh. Then, ten years later, the boys had changed. Life had simply changed, that’s all. I once had the opportunity to exhibit an entire house in a salon, but then I was told there was no place for me because I was not commercial enough.
VR What does that mean? That your work wouldn’t sell?
JL It means that the others owned stores. I relied on honoraria, like architects did. In the end, they gave me a tiny spot, and I did what I could with it. It is always difficult to exhibit in salons if you are not doing very commercial work. So, I did what I could with very little money.
VR What kind of commissions did the salons lead to? Did they play a role in your private and public commissions or were you obliged to find work another way?
JL Well, firstly I would say that nobody is obliged to do anything they do not want to do. However, as an example of the way women were treated at the salons, I remember how once, at a national furniture salon, a friend told me that it had been decided to give me a very small commission, whereas all the men had substantial commissions. In fact, when I showed my project to the director, he said, ‘Well, aren’t we in for a laugh?’ When the salon opened, I took the friend to see that they had just put me in some corner again. He said he was shocked. That was good.
VR Men seem to have been quite paternalistic toward you. Did you ever feel that you were treated equally?
JL Yes, but I am not sure when it started: perhaps around 1968.
VR Would you like to speak a little about your project with the artist Nairy Baghramian in the Schinkel Pavilion at the 5th Berlin Biennial, La Lampe dans l’horloge (The Lamp in the Clock, 2008)? Was this the first time you had collaborated on a project with a woman?
JL Yes, and I don’t see how it could have been otherwise before; there just weren’t any opportunities. I met Nairy for the first time in January 2008, just a few weeks after she discovered my catalogue. I was fascinated by our new relationship. We recognized that, without knowing each other, we, and our work, have a lot in common – we are sisters in spirit. I was very pleased that she was interested in my mirrors and their enclosed political stories. I appreciate her way of working and thinking. She knew exactly how the Schinkel Pavilion installation should look, and her creation of the space added new meaning to my work. I was sure from the start that I could trust her, and I loved watching how our discussions culminated in that body of work. I am working with Nairy again for a forthcoming exhibition entitled ‘Entre deux actes: Loge de comédienne’ (Between Two Acts: An Actress’ Dressing Room), which is due to open at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Baden-Baden in October. One night, very late, she came up with a fabulous idea for the show. She discovered an element of my work that she felt was special, without any knowledge that her discovery had been criticized in the past, just as the mirrors had been. In the 1950s, I participated in a salon with a dressing room I designed for an actress. Nairy is going to reinterpret that piece with me. Her interests in visible and invisible gender politics, in set design and interior design, are evident in works such as Fourth Wall/Two Female Protagonists (2005). I’m sure we will have an intense time together. I’m looking forward to working with her again.
VR You didn’t spend time with other female furniture designers earlier in your career?
JL Yes, two or three, but they also had their difficulties.
VR Were those relationships competitive?
JL No, there wasn’t any competition because we were all doing different things.
VR You have maintained this incredible desire to work, to create, throughout your whole life.
JL At the moment, I am full of ideas. There aren’t any projects I would have liked to do that I haven’t done. I would have liked more commissions, or to have fought harder for more opportunities. But I am not unhappy.
VR Do you think it is easier for furniture and interior designers today?
JL Things had to change. I have seen the difference. I have seen students change, although not necessarily for the better, but rather because they would like to earn more money.
VR Do you think you are too idealistic?
JL Perhaps. I don’t know. One has to change…
VR Always?
JL  I cannot think of the right word … Surrender, that’s it! I will never surrender. I will never give up!
VR You prefer to speak of the future rather than the past.
JL What can I tell you about the past? I really struggled. I am appalling, because I don’t know how to earn a living.
VR But were you really interested in making money?
JL  I wanted people to live well together.
VR Where does all your energy come from? Does it date from your childhood?
JL  Yes, I think so. Even at school I thought I should revolt, fight, that teachers were unfair.
VR But others might turn this desire into something destructive. Your idea to revolt translated into creation.
JL  For me, it meant changing the world.
VR Any regrets?
JL  I regret that life hasn’t been easier. Maybe I did not have enough big projects. During the period of African decolonization, my designer comrades were granted a big palace commission, but I got nothing. The French offered me nothing, but the President of Niger, Hamani Diori, asked me to work on his palace at Niamey, which I did from 1961 to 1963.
VR What’s next for you?
JL In addition to the exhibition in Baden-Baden, in May, there will be a group show of female designers entitled ‘Elles’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The Pompidou has also purchased some of my things. I thought about using Formica 50 years ago, and now it interests them. They want to put several of my kitchens in the show because other women designers weren’t interested in kitchens, and they plan to take photographs of my extant kitchens for the exhibition.
VR And what about your objects? What will you work on next?
JL  The promise of D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) for me is not exhausted yet. Lady Chatterley rejected tradition. Perhaps that’s where the man comes in – as a useful object!
Translated from the French by Vivian Rehberg.
Vivian Rehberg

Interview with Marina Abramovic - Frieze 2005

Do It Again
First published in issue 94 of frieze, in October 2005: Monica Bonvicini and Jörg Heiser in conversation with Marina Abramovic. 'The Artist is Present' runs at MoMA, New York until 31 May.

Marina Abramovic: Monica, I really like your piece Hausfrau Swinging [1997] – a video that combines sculpture and performance. Have you ever performed this piece yourself?
Monica Bonvicini: No, although my mother said, ‘you have to do it, Monica – you have to stand there naked wearing this house’. I replied, ‘I don’t think so’. In the piece a woman has a model of a house on her head and bangs it against a dry-wall corner; it’s related to a Louise Bourgeois drawing from the ‘Femme Maison’ series [Woman House, 1946–7], which I had a copy of in my studio for a long time. I actually first shot a video of myself doing the banging, but I didn’t like the result at all: I was too afraid of getting hurt. So I thought of a friend of mine who is an actor: she has a great, strong body – a little like the woman in the Louise Bourgeois drawing that inspired it – and I knew she would be able to do it the right way.
Jörg Heiser: Monica, after you first showed Wall Fuckin’ in 1995 – a video installation that includes a static shot of a naked woman embracing a wall, with her head outside the picture frame – you told me one critic didn’t talk to you for two years because he was upset it wasn’t you. It’s an odd assumption that female artists should only use their own bodies. I’m thinking of Yves Klein ‘directing’ naked women …
MA: Or Manzoni signing female bodies. I think it’s fine to use an actor. It’s like conducting, or choreographing.
MB: I never ask actors to ‘get into the role’ – I’m not interested in their interpretation of what they are doing. I just ask them to do something very simple, like fucking the wall or banging their head against it. It is nothing psychological.
MA: If you don’t feel that you’re a performer yourself, then it’s so much better to have the idea executed by someone else. And that relates to a question that interests me more and more: what do you do as a performance artist when you get old and you can’t do it any more? How can you transmit some kind of experience and knowledge to a younger generation? It’s important that my pieces can happen without me, because I have been a performer all my life, and I know that at some point in the future I won’t be able to perform, or won’t want to.
JH: But in your upcoming re-enactments of seminal performances by other artists from the 1960s and ’70s at the Guggenheim New York in November, isn’t it the point that you perform them yourself?
MA: I am doing them because I feel that I am the only one left of my generation who is still performing. And I feel that I want to set history straight, because there are so many commercial rip-offs, like Steven Meisel, for example – his recent fashion spread in Vogue is like Orlan with her plastic surgery. Fashion takes art out of context and uses only the surface. Theatre also rips off performance like you can’t imagine; and of course it happens in art too. A lot of kids are doing copies. So my attitude is, if you want to do a performance originally done by someone else, it’s fine if you treat it like, say, a musical score. But you have to have a few rules. For my re-enactments I have asked the artists or their foundations for permission. I asked Chris Burden for permission to perform Trans-Fixed [1974], the piece that involved him being nailed to the hood of a Volkswagen, and his assistant sent me a letter saying, ‘not this piece, not any piece’. And I replied, ‘great, I respect this, but tell me why’. The assistant wrote back saying, ‘Mr Burden doesn’t talk publicly’. And this pissed me off. Fine, but I think he should have explained his reasons. I am very disappointed about this, because I really wanted to do this piece. The woman crucified, finally. I wanted to do it on a Volga, which was designed in the Tito era, though, instead of a Volkswagen.
JH: Who are the other artists you contacted?
MA: I will be performing Bruce Nauman’s Body Pressure [1974], which is like a script – a piece of paper that you can take home and which gives you instructions how to press your body against the wall, the floor, and the corners of the room. It’s kind of an in-between piece – he didn’t actually perform it; I doubt anyone actually did at the time.
JH: So it’s a score, an instruction piece in the sense of a work by George Brecht or Yoko Ono?
MA: Yes. I’m also doing Seed Bed [1972] by Vito Acconci – the one where he masturbates under a floor in the gallery. That will be followed by Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic [1969], where she’s wearing a pair of trousers with the crotch removed. Then Gina Pane’s Self Portrait(s) [1973], where she’s lying on a metal bed above lit candles, and using a razor blade to make incisions around her fingernails and lips and How To Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare [1965], by Joseph Beuys. Bad videos or a few lousy photographs are the only documents remaining of so much of this stuff; the only image we have of the Beuys performance is of him with his face covered in gold and honey. You can’t imagine how differently this piece looks once you see more material. I went to see Eva Beuys, his widow, after I had sent her a letter asking for permission, but she had never replied. I showed up with my luggage; it was raining, I rang the bell, and she opened the door and said, ‘Frau Abramovic, my answer is no – but you can have coffee’. I went in, and we talked for five hours, about her 45 law cases against everything and everybody, about my reasons for redoing the piece, and we both cried and held hands and now everything is fine. She gave me an unauthorized video of the performance. It became apparent that Beuys never gave the photographers any instructions; the famous one doesn’t represent the piece well at all.
JH: Which of your own works will you be performing?
MA: Originally I wanted to do Rhythm 0 [1974] as the sixth piece, which involves me standing while the audience is invited to use all kinds of objects on me, but I went to every lawyer in New York and they won’t let me include a pistol with a bullet on display. So I will do Thomas Lips [1975] instead, which is a very ritualistic, complicated piece. The seventh and final piece will be the première of a new performance.
JH: Will you be doing these seven performances on seven consecutive days?
MA: Yes, and whether their original length was 15 minutes or an hour, I will perform them for seven hours each, because that’s how long most museums are open. The point for me is to show how you can pay homage to historical works. I have never seen the original of any of these pieces; I have no idea how it will feel to perform them, and that’s why I want to do it. With each of the artists or their estate, I have a contract where I specify that all the photographs of the performances will only be published in the book I’m making, that I will not make any art work out of it, or editions – except for my own performances, of course. So I don’t have any kind of gain – and I don’t want any fee.
JH: What if another artist wants to perform any of your pieces?
MA: That’s fine. I’m fed up with the Modernist attitude that nobody can ever repeat a piece because it’s an original touched by the divine artist. I’m not ready to see my performances die. In a work of mine for a theatre, The Biography [1992– ongoing], I act my own life; the idea is that every five or six years I will make a new version of it – it includes some of my performances, and now I have my students playing me in The Biography Remix [2004– ongoing, directed by Michel Laub]. Rest Energy [1980], which I made with my then partner, Ulay, is one of our most difficult pieces to perform – together we hold a bow drawn with an arrow pointing at my heart. I recently did it with Ulay’s son, who is the same age Ulay was at that time; after a while I stop and transfer the performance to one of my students.
JH: This touches on complicated issues of intellectual property –
the question of defining the differences between a legitimate
re-enactment, a quote, a distortion and a rip-off.
MA: Everyone has their own opinion on this. Like the bow and arrow piece – if somebody wanted to redo it, it’s very difficult to do it in any other way than the way I did it. In the case of Monica’s Bourgeois reference – that’s inspiration, in the way I was inspired by Yves Klein, or Fluxus, and performance, or noise music. But it’s different if you do it in exactly the same way. There was a couple in New Zealand in the 1970s who redid every performance Ulay and I were doing at the time, but they always did it a couple of months later, because that’s how long it took for information about our performances to get to them.
JH: There is a difference, though, between two New Zealand artists recreating your performances and a fashion photographer using your work for a commercial international ad campaign.
MA: Yes, the fashion aspect is worse for me, because the art is taken out of context. Meisel even recreated one image from Relation in the Space [1976], for Italian Vogue [November 1998], where I bump into Ulay and fall to the ground. He just added this empty fashion touch, which I can’t stand. When I sent a letter to him through my lawyer, the reply I got was, ‘he is very inspired by your work’.
MB: Today performances are becoming more and more specialized, staged, theatrical. What do you make of this development?
MA: In the 1980s there was a huge change, because the market became so much more demanding. For an artist to make performances for all of her or his life would be hell. Many performance artists from the 1970s went into architecture, like Acconci. Only a few artists, such as Beuys, did performances all their life. I will probably do performance for the rest of my life too. Also I don’t like seats – they give you expectations, as if you were in a theatre or cinema.
JH: Why are you doing the theatre piece then?
MA: That’s the only exception – it’s a work in progress, a staging of my life. And it’s going to keep going even if I have Alzheimer’s disease or I’m in a wheelchair.
JH: So the only place you can talk about your life is on stage?
MA: Yes, theatre is the only way for me to reveal things I am ashamed of – for example, my nose being too big and my ass being too large, and the war in Yugoslavia, which I left in 1975. People often see me as a tough, no make-up, spiritual girl, but I am not like that at all. I totally love fashion and bad movies and bad jokes and eat chocolate like there’s no tomorrow. My performances are always so heavy, though, which is why I put an image of me on the beach holding a beach ball on the cover of my catalogue Artist Body [1998]. Rebecca Horn said to me, ‘you’re crazy, people will think it’s an advert for a travel agent – no one will respect it’. But I need that lightness. Monica, why did you leave Italy for Berlin?
MB: I left in 1986 for many reasons, but mostly because Italy’s macho society was bothering me. I used to go to high school on my bicycle, and every day guys in their cars would yell things at me. Eventually I started to scream back, and once they stopped and slapped me. They were really offended.
JH: Monica, much of your work deals with architecture, which is a field very much dominated by men: the only really famous woman architect is Zaha Hadid.
MB: Like art, architecture is studied by more women than men, but it’s the men who tend to become the professionals. There are no comparable support structures for women.
JH: Marina, what is the relationship between your performances and architecture?
MA: Many of my 1970s’ performances concerned the body – often naked – in relation to architectural space. Many of my pieces have titles such as Expansion in the Space [1977], Interruption in the Space [1977], Relation in the Space [1976] or Relation in Time [1977]. I’ve never had an architectural space built, though – I either worked with given or pre-chosen spaces.
JH: You recently redid one of your pieces – Cleaning the Mirror II [1995; originally performed for video] – in the Art Unlimited section of Art Basel: a skeleton lies on top of you. This was not the first time you’ve done a performance at an art fair: in 1978 you performed Light/Dark, where you and Ulay slap each other’s faces, at Cologne Art Fair.
MA: It’s fantastic, because art fairs are the place where performances don’t belong at all. In the 1995 video I was just breathing with the skeleton lying on top of me. This time I cried for four hours.
MB: At one point you looked at me and maybe you didn’t recognize me, but I really felt touched, because nobody wants to see someone crying.
MA: When I do performances, I really go into another state of mind. I was worried about how I could start crying and not fake it – it had to be believable. Nothing happened for the first 15 minutes, but then this couple arrived – Eva and Adele – and after that I started, and I couldn’t stop. These people break my heart.
MB: What part of this work is for sale?
MA: All you can buy is the video of 1995. The proper documentation of performances on video has been an issue for a long time – in the 1970s, when Gina Pane did Self-Portrait(s), the only thing you see in the documentation is the bag of the photographer. If you have an audience, the camera’s viewpoint is often obscured. I remember the first time I used video was in 1975, to document Art Must be Beautiful, Artist Must be Beautiful [1975] in Copenhagen. I combed my hair violently for an hour in front of the audience and went back to see what the cameraman had shot, and he had been doing every kind of trick you can possibly do. So I destroyed this footage and made the same performance for him straight in front of the camera.
MB: Recently artists like Trisha Donnelly and Tino Sehgal have worked with performance and not allowed any documentation. How people tell each other about the performance possibly becomes more interesting than the visual documentation could ever be.
MA: With performance the narrative element is stronger than anything else. For example, I heard in Yugoslavia that the Volkswagen that Chris Burden was nailed to was driven around Los Angeles until the police stopped him. But actually it was just three people in a garage – they opened the door, pushed the car out, took a photograph and pushed it back.
JH: Perhaps this is why Burden felt that a re-enactment of his piece would destroy that piece’s legendary status?
MA: Maybe. I don’t get it.
MB: This reminds me of one of my favourite works – Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1976 piece Window Blowout, where he walked into the Institute for Architecture and Urban Studies and blew out the windows with an airgun. It is pieces like this that give people of my generation the idea that in the 1960s and ’70s you could do anything you wanted, but I guess this is a distortion. It makes me think of Bruce Nauman’s first solo show at Leo Castelli gallery in 1968: the hang was surprisingly classical, conventional.
MA: There were so many bad performances in those days I was ashamed to describe myself as a performance artist. It was like, if you piss against a tree, it’s a performance. At the end of the 1970s, though, all the bad performance artists became bad painters, which was great.
MB: You didn’t have a gallery for a long time, did you?
MA: I’ve been with Sean Kelly in New York now for ten years, but I didn’t have a gallery at all before that, even though I was approached many times. I lived for almost five years in a car, and went to deserts, stayed with Aborigines in Australia, and with Tibetan monks.
JH: How did you finance your life as an artist?
MA: I lived with my family in Yugoslavia until I was 29. I had to finish my performances before ten in the evening, because my mother forbade me to leave the house after that – I had a military regime at home. When I was a child, if my bed was messy when I was asleep, my mother would wake me up and tell me to sleep more neatly. So finally I escaped to Amsterdam. My mother went to the police and announced my disappearance, but when they asked how old I was and she said 29, they replied, ‘well, it’s about time’. Then I met Ulay – we were born on the same day and met on our birthday – it was a very crazy, romantic thing. All I had arrived in Amsterdam with was negatives of my performances – I didn’t even have any clothes. We bought an old Citroën from the French police and lived in it from 1975 to ’79. We lived in Sardinia and would wake up at dawn to milk the cows and the sheep and make pecorino cheese with the shepherds.
MB: You were a hippie.
MA: No, just two artists without money. And they fed us, and then we sat in the fields until we were asked to perform somewhere. In 1977 we were invited to a performance festival in Bologna. They promised to pay us what is today about 125 Euro, but we felt that if they hadn’t paid us before the performance they would never pay. We arrived penniless with our last drop of petrol. On the day of our performance the audience was waiting outside the museum and Ulay went to the office, completely naked, and asked for our money. The secretary was so shocked she gave it to him, but he didn’t have anywhere to put it. So he found a plastic bag, put the money inside, went to the toilet and put it in the cistern. We did the performance [Imponderabilia, 1977] facing each other naked for 90 minutes in the museum entrance, hoping that nobody would flush the toilet – at the end, thankfully, it was still there. It was only after our performance walk along the Great Wall of China [The Lovers, 1988] – which marked our separation – that I decided I needed a gallery. My friends said the only person who would understand the work was Sean Kelly, but he was working at the LA Louver gallery. It took me three years to organize a ‘spontaneous’ lunch with him. A friend of mine, Juliao Sarmento, was meeting him at Dean & Deluca, and we planned that I would pass by when they were eating. I was invited to sit down, and Sean finally said to me, ‘I would really love to work with you, but it’s the wrong time – today I lost my job and I have no gallery’. But we started working out of his loft, and then he opened a small gallery in New York on Mercer Street, and now he has a gallery in Chelsea.
JH: Everyone says the art world has become much more commercialized, but in one respect it really hasn’t changed at all: if you are in the film or book industry, it’s perfectly normal to approach a company to pitch an idea, and if it’s successful a contract is signed. In the art world it’s as if the artist is a Sleeping Beauty waiting to be discovered by the dealer or curator.
MB: What has changed is that the time span between studying and entering a gallery is getting shorter, but careers seem briefer too – some artists are lucky if theirs lasts for five years, and even luckier if they get a professorship.
MA: I always thought that nobody needs artists, which is precisely why you have to make yourself indispensable, so they can’t live without you. It’s not only important to make good work – it’s important that you put it in the right place at the right time. So many good artists don’t have the energy to do all this other shit because they are not communicative. I spend 20% of my time on creativity and 80% looking for ways of financing it.
JH: Your recent film Balkan Erotic Epic [2005] must have been quite something to organize: it involves numerous amateur actors performing sexual acts in folklore costumes. It’s hilarious – like a parody of the Shirin Neshat representations of cultures and gender.
MA: Neville Wakefield approached me and several other artists about two years ago to make a 12-minute film for a DVD compilation he’s putting together of contributions by artists who are working with erotic or pornographic elements in their work. I thought, the most interesting thing would be to think about my roots and how sexual organs are used traditionally in my culture, in the Balkan region.
MB: Thinking about your origins when it comes to porn – that’s psychologically interesting.
MA: In socialist Yugoslavia everything was about sex, drinking and politics, and I wanted to explore where this came from. I did a lot of research and came across ancient pagan rituals where sexual organs are used for various purposes. For example, in the old days a mother would protect her child from the Evil Eye by rubbing the child’s face with vaginal fluid. Or if a woman was having a difficult birth, her husband would take his penis out and make a cross on her breast; in the field, if a horse became weak, the man would touch it with his penis too; if there was a battle, the Balkan men would take the sexiest woman from the village, undress her and force her to perform obscene gestures to distract the enemy; alternatively, the soldiers would masturbate in the earth. There are hundreds of examples, all described in a very ancient Serbian language. One I thought was fantastic was that, if there was too much rain, the women from the village would run into the fields and lift their skirts and flash their pussies to the gods to scare them. So I went to Yugoslavia and talked to perfectly ordinary women from the village, between the ages of 18 and 75, into doing it. At first they were very shy and wouldn’t do it, and I thought I wouldn’t get anywhere. But after a while they ran into the mud and started showing their pussies like there was no tomorrow.
For another scene I asked men to be dressed in national costumes, and to unzip their trousers and reveal their erections; I asked them to stand very proud and look at the camera and not move. We shot 15 hours of that material. I don’t think its pornographic – anyone who sees this material bursts out laughing, but then looks at it for a long time, in silence. But at the same time there is something I can’t explain: the power of our genitals, and how we can use them for healing or against the forces of nature. But obviously even for this kind of film I can’t rub my vaginal liquid on the face of a three-year-old kid – I’d be put in prison. So I had a good solution – I made a cartoon out of this.
MB: Did you make the drawings for it yourself?
MA: No, I asked a Serbian cartoonist to do it. In the film these drawings will be shown by me, dressed as a stern teacher.
MB: So you’re skipping the whole notion of sexuality as a sociological site of power and politics.
MA: But it’s amazing when you see a 75-year-old woman showing her pussy in the rain. I don’t even know what this material means; I’m really touched by it.
MB: But isn’t it a bit like a fairy-tale? You don’t really believe that flashing will stop the rain, do you?
MA: Can the gods be scared? Of a 75-year-old pussy, maybe they can. But we should return to what we discussed in regard to using actors. It would be very different if I did this performance. This 75-year-old woman was a pensioner who worked in the post office, and this was one of the most exciting things she had ever done – she got so enthusiastic. And that comes across.
MB: Do you see this film as a reappropriation of pre-modern, ‘primitive’ sexuality, a power that doesn’t exist any more? Because now we are living in a strip-tease culture, where you are expected to be sexy as a woman, but it doesn’t even mean having free sex. You just have to be available, on display.
MA: Do I think an Italian weather girl on TV who looks like a porn star is healing somebody? No. But in regard to my film material, I don’t know yet what it means. Monica, do you ever get obsessed with an idea and know you have to do it, but you don’t know why? And then all of a sudden it seems so logical. That has happened to me so many times.
MB: Sam Durant once said to me that making art is a bit like keeping a diary, because at a certain point you develop your own language, so the next work inevitably relates to the one before. Even if you don’t know why, there is continuity.
MA: I’ve had problems with continuity. There have been periods in my life where I had absolutely no ideas and I would panic, but didn’t want to force it intellectually.
MB: I really love Waiting for an Idea [1991]; ‘what am I going to do next?’ is such a recurrent feeling for an artist.
MA: Nowadays I don’t care, because after working for 30 years I know I can’t force it. But when the idea comes, I get really afraid, although there’s an incredible feeling of relief after it’s realized. One thing I hate is when people come up to me after a performance and want to engage in a deep conversation when all I want to do is have an ice-cream and do nothing.
MB: But some of your performances are very heavy, even moral. For example, your performance in Basel – you were crying for hours.
MA: For me the public is a holy thing.
MB: How do you see performance developing in the future?
MA: I think that performance is very strange – it comes and goes. It was all over the place in the 1970s, but there was too much crap; then in the 1980s it was all about the self and the market, with the exception of the night-club scene and artists like Leigh Bowery – it was all connected to music and AIDS and the awareness of the body. In the 1990s many performances became an element in video installations, and there were lots of performance elements in contemporary dance – people like Jan Fabre, Pina Bausch, Jérôme Bel. Now I find it very interesting that a performance piece doesn’t have to be performed by the artist who created it. Any artist who has the courage to do a performance without documenting it is the most radical. But I can’t help it – I document all my performances, because my mother is such an orderly woman – I believe in KGB files. But in an ideal world, it should be just word of mouth.
Marina Abramovi´c’s series of performances ‘Seven Easy Pieces’ will take place 9 – 15 November at the Guggenheim Museum, New York and followed by a solo show at Sean Kelly Gallery from 9 December. Her exhibition ‘Balkan Epic’ will be held at Art for the World Project for Pirelli, Milan, from 19 January – 30 March 2006.
Monica Bonvicini is shortlisted for the Nationalgalerie Prize for Young Art 2005, on show at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, until 16 October. Her work is included in the Venice and Gothenburg Biennales (both until 6 November), and in ‘Centre of Gravity’, the inaugural exhibition of the Istanbul Modern museum.

Jörg Heiser

Bjorn Braun

Björn Braun
by Kirsty Bell
Are nature and civilisation doomed to be antagonistic forces or can they be coaxed into benevolent cooperation? Björn Braun takes the situation into his own hands in his collages and sculptures: their transformative interventions draw up a new alignment between the two in which art making itself becomes the agent of change. Winner of this year’s blauorange Kunstpreis, a solo show of his work will open at the Kunstverein Braunschweig in December.

In 1688, a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer, coined the term “Schweizer Krankheit” to describe a strange malady that was afflicting Swiss foreign legionaries: an overbearing longing for the Alpine landscape of their homeland that manifest itself in various physical symptoms and resulted, in some extreme cases, in death. It was made illegal to sing or even whistle traditional mountain folk songs, punishable by death, for fear that it would be unbearable for the Alpine legionaries and would lead to mass desertion. Such an extreme relationship to the landscape, as if it were a character, like a faraway lover or overanxious mother, inflects the work of German artist Björn Braun, and “Schweizer Krankheit” was the title he gave to his 2007 exhibition in his adopted hometown of Karlsruhe. His works suggest an indeterminate longing, for simple village life and bearded rustic folk, for wooden huts and looming mountains and the assurance of a benign, protective Nature. For a time, perhaps, when nature was respected and a landscape, like a picture, could simply be admired.

Björn Braun’s collages take photographs of landscapes from picture books from the ‘50s or ‘60s, usually black and white, and reassemble their parts to suggest a new alignment of nature and civilisation. In one collage, a group of three women traditionally dressed in embroidered tunics and woollen stockings chuckle amongst themselves, oblivious to the fact that the ground beneath their feet is full of irregular shaped holes, having been snipped free of stones. The cut-out stones, meanwhile, have been piled up in the background, building a giant manmade mountain on the horizon. In another work, the branches of two neighbouring trees have been cut out and used to form the rungs of a ladder between the trees’ parallel trunks. Here the natural landscape seems literally to provide an escape route, up into the tree tops.

Although we can assume Björn Braun to be a nature lover, this is not Land Art. We never get a sense of the artist himself in nature; his relationship to it is always articulated at a distance. Like a desk-bound Richard Long, he works rather with an already mediated landscape, rearranging stones into unexpected sculptures with scissors and scalpel rather than his bare hands. And rather than the immediacy of, say, Fischli and Weiss’s landscape photographs, the images he chooses for his collages have a remote otherworldliness, like those pictures of rustic Alpine utopias on the back of Artforum advertising Bruno Bischofberger’s Zurich gallery. There is something almost theatrical about these perfect visions of nature and rural life, as if staged for the camera’s shutter. In one collage from 2009, however, showing two tall slim tower blocks surrounded by plantings of trees and a water feature, two of the trees have been ripped out of the picture, and in the foreground, a small wooden hut has been constructed from their branches, such an alien idea of habitation in this modern “landscaped” setting that it appears like a rustic folly.

Björn Braun, Untitled, 2009
courtesy: Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe/Berlin.

Braun’s careful repicturings articulate a complex reciprocity between the forces of nature and civilisation. Like Long’s, his art has to do with an interrelation of man with his surroundings, rather than construing sharp divisions between nature and culture. But through the images he chooses, which seem locked in the past, it becomes a more cerebral longing, like a city boy’s dreams of a rural childhood, rather than a hands-on engagement with a landscape that is, after all, still out there. To paraphrase Robert Smithson, nature itself is nothing but a fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries. Braun’s images work alongside this to produce a kind of entropic reversal, where the artist has the power to restore a collection of scattered rocks into a mighty mountainside, or switch the seasons by decking the summer-time Matterhorn with a coat of white paper snow.

For Braun, then, it is not about place so much as the idea of landscape as a type of imagery and a symbolic entity that encompasses the whole heavily-laden romantic tradition as well as the idea of escape or utopia, and transformation. In a collage from 2008, the funnels and chimneys of an industrial compound have been cut away and rebuilt into a little chair, placed in the grassy foreground, presumably on which to sit and contemplate the new improved view. The cyclical transformatory action at work here similarly occurs an Untitled sculpture from the same year, in which, however, a physical transformation takes place. A wooden chair faces the wall on which a rough piece of thick brown paper is hanging. The chair is missing a leg and is splattered with paint, being borrowed from the Art Academy; the paper is also textured with little flecks of colour. This is because it is made from the chair’s missing leg: Braun cut off the chair leg, shredded it, boiled it for several weeks, and used the resulting pulp to make the piece of paper on the wall. Almost absurd in its literalness, it is a concentrated reflection on making and looking at pictures: hanging there, the piece of paper becomes a literal landscape of its own origins. The transformations that take place in Braun’s work are inspired by an almost ridiculously literal interpretation of facts, which refuses their logical reality. In his absurd über-logic, a photographed stone is assumed to have the same properties as real stone and used as such, within the picture plane. The wood that made the chair leg could, after all, just as well have been used to make paper.

Björn Braun, Untitled, 2008
courtesy: Courtesy: Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe/Berlin.

Adalbert Stifter, a 19th century writer, a classroom staple of German literature, well known for his books, which describe the Alpine landscape in extreme and vivid detail, was described by Hannah Arendt as “the greatest landscape painter in literature”. A series of works by Braun titled after his books take this literally and reverse Stifter’s power to “transform all visible things into words” by transforming each of his books into a kind of abstract landscape painting. Taking an early edition of each book, he stewed it for hours, then spread the resulting paste onto a canvas. The colour of each work is lightly inflected by the colour of the book’s linen dust-jacket, and a smattering of words is still visible in the picture’s surface. This gives a whole new meaning to the idea of digesting literature. Content and material collapse together in Braun’s consideration of the making of art. His image-making and object-making define their own internal logic, and the resulting works say as much about the thought process of the artist, as the laborious physical process of their making.

More recent sculptures could be seen as attempts to achieve a harmonious interrelation with the natural world and attempt the same reversals that occur in his collages, now in sculptural form. An intricately woven sphere of twigs interspersed with blue plastic, or a hollow ball made of yellow and white shredded plastic and lined with red wool are perplexing objects until you realise they are the results of his collaborations with birds, zebra finches to be exact, to whom he offered various manmade materials to build their nests: plastic bands, colored wool, magnetic tape. In a truly collaborative spirit, the very decisions about form and material have been designated to the birds, which simply chose what they fancied to weave into their small spherical habitats. Meanwhile, another recent work shows the reverse in action: a pullover in distinctive argyle pattern is lined with cuckoo feathers. Just who is feathering who’s nest here?
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Björn Braun, Untitled, 2009
Courtesy: Meyer Riegger, Karlsruhe/Berlin.

Decline and Fall - Frieze 130 April 2010

Decline and Fall
Tracing the history of ruins in art, from 18th-century painting to 21st-century film

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Issue 130 April 2010 Decline and Fall
Tracing the history of ruins in art, from 18th-century painting to 21st-century film

Jane and Louise Wilson, Sealander (2006), production still
‘I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame. What’s left us then?’
James Joyce, Ulysses (1922)
In 1953, at a time when much of Europe still lay in ruins and the spectre of atomic war loomed ever larger, the English novelist and travel writer Rose Macaulay published Pleasure of Ruins, her classic study of the aesthetics of destruction.1 In a fastidious and, at times, eccentrically written book, she traces the development of a taste for desuetude from Renaissance dream narratives to the ‘heartless pastime’ pursued by Henry James on his travels in Italy. It is not until the final pages that Macaulay acknowledges she is writing among modern examples, and then only – in a short ‘note on new ruins’ – to claim that the wreckage caused by bombing in World War II lacks the proper obscurity to qualify as pleasing decay: ‘Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings.’2 According to Macaulay, the ruined houses, shops and churches of London, Hamburg, Coventry and Dresden would need to be softened by nature and time before being elected to a canon that includes Pompeii and the Parthenon. Macaulay’s language, however, suggests that the wreckage she sees around her enthralls her. Of a bombed-out house, she writes with some lyricism: ‘The stairway climbs up and up, undaunted, to the roofless summit where it meets the sky.’3
Macaulay’s ambivalence about the status of the modern ruin – her own home and library were destroyed in the Blitz – indicates a fundamental confusion at the heart of the Ruinenlust that gripped European art and literature for centuries. In a highly refined and historically precise form, a version of that admiration for decay seems to have seized artists internationally in recent years: we might think, for example, of works as diverse as Roger Hiorns’ Seizure (2008), installed in a decayed London flat, and Joel Meyerowitz’ frankly picturesque photographs of Ground Zero. In other cases, such as Runa Islam’s film of the Museum of the 20th Century in Vienna, Empty the pond to get the fish. (2008), the ruin in question is explicitly that of a mid-century Modernism. Some broad themes survive in this newly desolate but fantastical landscape: on the one hand, the ruin appears to point to a deep and vanished past whose relics merely haunt the present, reminding us of such airy and perennial themes as the hubris of Man and the weight of History. On the other, ruins seem to traffic with the modern, and with the future, in ironic and devious ways. At its height, for example, the ‘ruin lust’ of the 18th century cast itself imaginatively centuries hence: Hubert Robert painted the Louvre in ruins while Joseph Gandy (at the instruction of its architect Sir John Soane) imagined the newly built Bank of England laid waste as if by some future cataclysm. Ruins seem, in fact, intrinsic to the projects of modernity and, later, Modernism.
For sure, the past century did not lack for straightforwardly kitsch or nostalgic versions of the taste for ruins. The most notorious example is Albert Speer’s concept of ‘ruin value’, according to which the monumental architecture of Welthauptstadt Germania – Hitler’s projected replacement of Berlin as Germany’s capital city – was conceived with an eye to its future picturesque decay. In the realm of ruin theory, the sociologist Georg Simmel, in his 1911 essay ‘The Ruin’, still adhered to the Romantic notion that decaying buildings and monuments embodied a one-way slump of the artificial into the chaos of Nature.4 But as several contributors to Ruins of Modernity (2009) – a collection of essays published by Duke University Press and edited by Julia Hell and Andreas Schönle – point out, a keen interest in the art and utility of ruination was also essential to more than one strand of modern thought and practice. Revisiting the classical fragments drawn by Piranesi, Andreas Huyssen concludes that ‘a past embodied in ruined and memory-laden architecture seems to tower over the present of the Enlightenment’.5
But the more pressing instance appears much later, in the frank catastrophism of Le Corbusier. In his essay ‘Air War and Architecture’, Anthony Vidler avers of the projected ville radieuse: ‘The past was either eradicated or transformed, in an 18th-century manner, into ruin fragments in the park […] The city [had] become no more nor less than a cemetery of its own past.’6 In the immediate postwar period, Vidler argues, these vistas of rubble were realities, and the prospect of a vastly more destructive nuclear future consequently haunts the bunker-like Brutalist architecture of, among others, Peter and Alison Smithson.
Such retrospective diagnoses of Modernism’s reliance on ruins actually say little new, though, when viewed from the perspective of postwar art and – especially – in light of a certain contemporary ruin lust. The artistic, literary and theoretical touchstones of the renascent interest in ruins are perhaps too familiar, but worth rehearsing if one wishes to get some critical purchase on the most recent developments, newly invested as those are in a view of Modernism from the vantage of at least half a century. The pre-history of the current craze for modern ruins could be pinpointed to October 1967, with Robert Smithson’s Artforum essay on ‘The Monuments of Passaic’, a text (and photographs) in which the whole of Smithson’s cod-baroque melding of 1960s urban decay and industrial picturesque is forced into the ironic form of an excursion to the New Jersey hinterland where he was born.7 Smithson’s project in that essay (and others of the late 1960s) is explicitly allied with the fiction of J.G. Ballard, whose fantasias of high-rise anomie and ex-urban isolation have likewise not ceased to inspire enthusiasts of the modern ruin. Urban theorist Paul Virilio could join this visionary pairing; his Bunker Archaeology – published in France in 1975 and in English translation in 1994 – was inspired by his first tours, in the late 1950s, of the abandoned bunkers and gun emplacements that comprised the Nazis’ defensive Atlantic Wall on the French coast.8 Virilio treats these littoral relics as if they are both evidence of a lost civilization and avatars of his own avowedly Corbusian architectural practice. But they seem also to promise an alien architecture to come; they are, in short, ruins as much of the future as of living memory.
To a large degree, it was this trio of artistic and theoretical reference points that ghosted the ruin-fixated art of the last decades of the 20th century, though some of it engaged in a less mediated way the wreckage of the recent past. In a work such as Martha Rosler’s 1993 video How Do We Know What Home Looks Like?, the decayed and contested architecture of Modernism appears both outdated and up-for-grabs: a fading Utopian inheritance that barely hangs on to its (then routinely disparaged) potential for collective aspiration. Rosler’s intimate exploration of Le Cobusier’s Unité d’Habitation at Firminy-Vert, in south-central France, showed a dilapidated building that had been in part redecorated by its tenants (as per conservative clichés about the impersonality of high-rise living) with aspirantly bourgeois wallpapers and private souvenirs, but still retained a sense of embattled technological community, typified by the radio station installed on its roof. It was, however, among artists who referred, directly or obliquely, to the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc that the theme of ruin flourished in the 1990s and beyond. Tacita Dean’s film Sound Mirrors (1999) broods over the remains of British prewar acoustic early-warning technology that seemed to presage the silos and satellite dishes of the Cold War, while later Berlin-based films such as Fernsehturm (Television Tower, 2001) and Palast (Palace, 2004) more readily reflect on the ageing or half-demolished architecture of the East. That strand of explicitly Ballardian ruin lust has continued, too, in certain works by Jane and Louise Wilson – notably, their treatment of Victor Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion in the postwar town of Peterlee, UK, in A Free and Anonymous Monument (2003), and their own return to the Atlantic Wall in Sealander (2006) – and in the ambitious project of the Center for Land Use Interpretation to document (among many other types of landscape) the defunct sites and artefacts left behind by the US nuclear weapons and space programmes in the second half of the 20th century.
If such works courted a kind of military–industrial sublime, and risked at their most self-aware a type of nostalgia, it is surely this latter element that has come to the fore, in more or less self-conscious or critical forms, in the last few years. The variously thoroughgoing or superficial archaeology of architectural and artistic Modernism that has exercised so many artists in the last decade is patently, on one level, a discourse on ruins in a Romantic mode. At first glance, the assertion that ‘modernity is our antiquity’ (as one of the guiding rubrics of Documenta 12 had it) allows for a potentially endless poring over the rubble, and the discovery time and again of our melancholy distance from the formal ambition or political charge of the modern. There is a definite pleasure in this, and one not to be merely disparaged, even as group shows dedicated to the ‘modern ruin’ – the title itself has become ubiquitous – proliferate with, given their subject, a somewhat ironic energy. There is a lot to be said for wallowing, after all. But an attitude of mourning, or downright depressive longing, for the lost object of Modernism, is not the avowed aim of much of this work. Rather, so the curatorial language has it, what is called for is a re-animation (or maybe occult conjuring) of the corpse of Modernism – or, better, of the latent and so far unfulfilled life embodied in its ruins. This raises some taxing problems, not least the question of what one does with the fact, neatly adumbrated by Huyssen and Vidler, that the claim to revivify the ruins of the past was itself a stereotypically Modernist one. At every turn – even, or perhaps especially, when it asserts its hostility to mere revivalism – the contemporary ruin gaze is seemingly mired in a revivalist nostalgia.
One plausible route out of that predicament seems to lie in uncovering occluded aspects of Modernism, often in the form of structures and artefacts that either arise from alternative traditions in the last century or from complex sets of artistic and political relations at the edges of a Eurocentric or mostly masculine canon. The imbrication of Modernism in late or post-colonial contexts is one productive strand of such researches and practice. The photographs, drawings and scale models in Ângela Ferreira’s installation Maison Tropicale (Tropical House, 2007), for example, trace the design and deployment by Jean Prouvé, in the late 1940s, of prefabricated metal dwellings in Niger and in the Republic of the Congo. The post-colonial export of Prouvé’s Modernist housing is mirrored in its peremptoriness by the removal and sale of the prototype buildings on the art market half a century later. A project such as Ferreira’s acknowledges at once the Utopian impulse behind the design, its abstract imposition on the landscape and the depredations of a newly globalized economy that leaves in its wake only a vacant tract of rubble and rusted reinforcement.
Certain Modernist structures seem primed, in their very dilapidation and the fog of rumour and misinformation that surrounds them, for such recuperative and corrective treatment. E1027, the celebrated but still mysterious house that the Irish furniture designer Eileen Gray completed near Monaco in 1929, is a particularly resonant case in point. The building, badly decayed and only recently renovated, was for decades wrongly attributed to Gray’s lover Jean Bodovici: a mistake their friend Le Corbusier, who knew the truth, did nothing to correct. (Le Corbusier, in fact, bitterly coveted the house and, to Gray’s fury, personalized it with his own murals; he subsequently built a cabin nearby and died while swimming in front of Gray’s masterpiece.) The Irish artist Laura Gannon’s two-screen Super-16 mm film installation A House in Cap-Martin (2007) captured E1027 as a collection of mournful details – rusting window frames and spalling white render, a sunken solarium filled with autumn leaves – while Susanne M. Winterling’s Eileen Gray; The Jewel and Troubled Water (2008), installed at the 5th Berlin Biennial, combined a sculpture of Gray’s solarium, photographs of the designer and related artefacts, with two 16mm films of condensation on the windows of the atmospherically dysfunctional Neue Nationalgalerie where it was on show. Perhaps the most interesting intervention in Gray’s story, however, has been that of another Irish artist, Sarah Browne, whose installation for the Irish pavilion at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009, Carpet for the Irish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, included a searching letter to the deceased Gray, in which Browne explored the designer’s ambiguous place in the history alike of Modernism and Irish cultural heritage.
This kind of tangential address to the extant remains of architectural Modernism is another alternative to nostalgic rapture in the face of austere decay. Gerard Byrne, whose art has long evinced an interest in postwar Modernism, has, at the same time, almost wholly eschewed the sort of reverence that has become the reflex response to monolithic settings in melancholy distress. In fact, the buildings in which several of Byrne’s videos have been shot – notably New Sexual Lifestyles (2003), filmed in the Goulding Summer House, a restored Miesian glass-and-steel pavilion in the foothills of the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland – are not really ruins in the material sense; rather, they appear confusedly out of time, caught in the anachronic web of artistic, intellectual and pop-cultural history that the artist spins around them. His film installation subject (2009), shown at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds last year, was an oblique response to the architecture of the University of Leeds: a campus whose architects, Chamberlin, Powell and Bon, are best known for the soft-Ballardian Barbican complex in London. Byrne’s Brechtian repurposing of texts from the university’s archives as naive acting exercises seemed to place the hushed lecture theatres and sparse plazas of the campus in a curious non-time derived from the postwar history of student activism and civic or institutional paternalism.
What’s clear from work like Byrne’s is that, at one level, the most sophisticated response to the modern or Modernist ruin is to neutralize its nostalgic charge with other modes of time travel. Though that is not to say that there is not still mileage in facing down the ruins of even the most familiar 20th-century iconography. Bernd Behr’s Weimar Villa (2010), for example, juxtaposes the construction of a Bauhaus-themed gated community in China (designed by none other than Albert Speer Jr.) with the exhumation of one of Walter Gropius’ Master Houses in Dessau, once inhabited by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. And Cyprien Gaillard’s film Pruitt Igoe Falls (2009) rhymes the 2008 demolition of the Sighthill tower block in Glasgow with the destruction of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1972: an event that Charles Jencks notoriously claimed marked the terminal point of the entire Modernist adventure. The most provocative recent take on that subject has been that of a critic, not an artist, and one who acknowledges that there may yet be some radical force left in the ruin-nostalgia that so many artists are so keen to disavow even as they mine the last seam of its art-world popularity. Owen Hatherley’s book, Militant Modernism (2009), is, among other things, an argument for the precisely political valence of a backward look at the ruins of Modernism, directed, in his case, at the ghosts of Britain’s postwar social-democratic romance with Brutalist housing.9 As Hatherley puts it in a passage that is both knowingly indebted to the ruin lust of the Romantic past and determinedly oriented to the future: ‘Brutalism is not so much ruined as dormant, derelict – still functioning even in a drastically badly treated fashion, and as such ready to be recharged and reactivated. This rough beast might still slouch towards a concrete New Jerusalem.’10 It remains to be seen whether, in contemporary art, the archaeology of modern ruins has exhausted its moment, or whether it’s exactly in its late phase that it may yet unearth traces of that future.
1 Rose Macaulay, Pleasure of Ruins, Thames & Hudson, London, 1984
2 Ibid., pp. 454–5
3 Ibid., pp. 454–5
4 Georg Simmel, ‘The Ruin’, in Essays on Sociology, Philosophy and Aesthetics, ed. Kurt H. Wolff, Harper & Row, New York, 1965, p. 259
5 Andreas Huyssen, ‘Authentic Ruins: Products of Modernity’, ibid., p. 26
6 Anthony Vidler, ‘Air War and Architecture’, ibid., p. 34
7 Robert Smithson, ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic’, Artforum, October 1967. Reprinted as ‘A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey’, in Robert Smithson, Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996,
pp. 68–74
8 Paul Virilio, Bunker Archaeology, trans. George Collins, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 1994
9 Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism, Zero Books, Winchester, 2009. Hatherley’s more extensive and detailed treatment of the wake of that brief moment of official Utopianism is forthcoming in A Tour of the New Ruins of Great Britain, to be published by Verso later in 2010.
10 Ibid., p. 42
Brian Dillon
Brian Dillon is AHRC Research Fellow in the Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Kent. He is the author of Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives (Penguin, 2009) and In the Dark Room (Penguin, 2005). A novella, Sanctuary, will be published by Sternberg Press later this year.

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About this article

First published in
Issue 130, April 2010

by Brian Dillon

Mike Nelson

The Return Of Religion and Other Myths: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art

The Return Of Religion and Other Myths: A Critical Reader in Contemporary Art
Eds. Maria Hlavajova, Sven Lütticken and Jill Winder (BAK, Utrecht, and post editions, Rotterdam, 2009)
‘You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.’ So declares the Second Commandment, forbidding not only images of God, but any images whatsoever – which means that, for the law on which the three major monotheistic religions are ostensibly based, visual culture is an abomination.
The critique of religion was central to modernity – Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche all treated religion as a symptom of a pathological condition that, they hoped, would be overcome. Yet it now looks as though the withering away of religion that the great thinkers of modernity sought to bring about never really happened. Did we ever reach the point at which religion disappeared sufficiently that it could now be described as returning? Yet the title of this enthralling book pointedly refers to the ‘return of religion’ as a ‘myth’. The question is: in what does this myth consist? Is the myth the claim that religion is returning, or that it went away in the first place? And if we have reached what Jürgen Habermas calls a ‘post-secular’ condition, then has modernity – and even the Enlightenment itself – definitively been defeated?
The Return of Religion ..., part of a project organized by BAK (basis voor actuelle kunst), Utrecht, between 2008 and 2009, deals with such questions with a seriousness that never precludes a lightness of touch. The contributors include artists (Paul Chan, Arnoud Holleman and Maria Pask), art historian Jorinde Seijdel and philosopher and art critic Boris Groys. Apart from Pask’s pointless ‘Beautiful City Book List’, all ten of the contributions – whether concerned with the meaning of the veil in Islam or the concept of iconoclasm – are informative, polemical and lucid. Egyptologist and cultural theorist Jan Assmann devotes his essay, ‘What’s Wrong with Images?’, to disinterring the motives for the monotheistic religions’ interdiction on images. Idolatory was sinful not only because it was false theology, Assmann argues, but because in ‘a disenchanted world, images are unable to establish any contact with the divine and turn into mere matter’. In a world dominated by advertising, Assmann suggests, it’s obvious what the problem with images is: they make ‘magical claims’ which can only be countered by the developing of ‘iconic literacy’. Philosopher Marc De Kesel’s essay, ‘The Image as Crime’, also examines the relationship between images and transgression, arguing that the work of the Vienna Actionists showed that ‘there is something beyond the image that remains inaccessible and prohibited to the image, and that images thrive precisely as a result of that ban’.
For writer Kenan Malik, the forms in which religion has ‘returned’ reflect the media values of consumer culture. ‘The new religions are crafted to help people feel good rather than do good,’ he acerbically remarks. ‘These are faiths fit for the age of Oprah.’ But Malik stops short of a full-on defence of the Enlightenment; its Utopian promise has soured, he claims, and what is required is a kind of neo-existentialist affirmation of human choice. Writer and curator Dieter Roelstraete is not half so ambivalent about the Enlightenment legacy. He admits that he has ‘long entertained the fantasy of switching the lights back on – in museums, art institutions and galleries around the world. Literally so, if necessary.’ Roelstraete makes a rousing call that we should ‘radically re-ignite the legacy of Enlightenment thought as that great unfinished project (or simply procedure) of disenchantment. A radical identification, that is, of art’s secular thought with a defiant, ruthless materialism, with scepsis and godlessness – a refusal of all transcendence.’ After the ‘return of religion’, is such a return to the Enlightenment possible?
Mark Fisher