Sublime Seas

John Akomfrah comes to SF MOMA with his Vertigo Sea, coupled with JMW Turner’s The Deluge, to create Sublime Seas, the title of the exhibit.
Akomfrah, who had a knack for the evocative and poetic even in his pointedly Black Audio Collective Days, has given us a very big 3 screen triptych on which play images of the sea, slavery, whale hunting and strangeness. It possesses the mesmerizing quality of IMAX in its size and beauty but also the disturbing quality of a dark nightmare in its images of victims of the middle passage being cast into the sea or of whales being sliced into gigantic slabs of meat and waste. As art, it makes no polemical calls, offers no agenda, sees no solutions, but it disturbs and reminds us of the tangled knots between beauty and destruction quite powerfully.
Each screen is about 20 feet across in a narrow shoe box room so that viewers are looking at the long side of the room from the other side, too close to see all three screens at once easily. Our eyes scan L to R and back to pick up what is happening. What happens is amazingly stunning images of the sea, its waves and swirls and currents; the creatures of the sea moving with easy grace through this apparently pristine medium; strange images of scores of clocks standing on a tidal flat and other surreal images with no obvious meaning; reenactments of aspects of the slave trade, especially of the middle passage with Africans bound in shackles and stowed like firewood in cramped cubbyholes below deck or cast into the sea for no obvious reason, and both rapturous images of whales gliding and breaching through the sea and of harpoon guns firing, repeatedly, and snaring these creatures who are then hauled aboard floating slaughterhouses to be hacked to pieces.
Akomfrah tells us nothing about the history of the slave trade or whale hunting, or hardly enough, in any case, to call this work educational in any real sense, or polemical either. The sea possesses great beauty, and man (white, card carrying capitalist white man, and his minions, it seems), willfully violates the beauty to conduct appalling forms of trafficking and trade. It is hard, though, to leave knowing whether I’ve been more amazed by the stunning imagery or appalled by the implicit narrative. It’s hard to know what to do with this work. Praise the cinematography or condemn the practices? Believe the sea remains pristine and sublime, or question what remains of its once great beauty (global warming does not seem to find a way into the story Akomfrah sketches).
I’m glad I saw it; the images will remain with me but it may also be an example of one, somewhat uncertain direction political thought and activist art and artists have taken in the last few decades.
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Across the Atlantic

Long ago in a far away place, my mom took my sister and me to see Aunt Marie off to lead a guided tour in Europe. She sailed on the Queen Mary. She gave me a sip of champagne. I became light-headed. Ever since I have wanted to make a transatlantic crossing on the Queen Mary (now 2).

I just did it. On a New York Times package that included several talks per day.

So we wandered New York one night, visited a drab and weakly guarded Trump Tower, saw Jeff Koons up to his usual materialist shenanigans (pimping at Saks):

Jeff Koons art

Koons does a van Gogh imitation and festoons Vuitton handbags with his “artistry”

Toured the NYT building and then beheld the ship.

QM2 at dock

Bigger than a Skyscraper it is

Somehow an upgrade befell us.

QM2 room

So the cabin and the sea were large and calming.

VC on QM2 bed2

Thank the Queen for Upgrades

Bill sees the sea

Alert for pirates and buccaneers

Dinners and after-dinner entertainment were formal several nights, after all it is the Queen’s ship.

Bill and Victoria on QM2

And then life went on. On to Salisbury and Stonehenge

Stonehenge4

What compelled their maker to heave this massive stones together over decades if not centuries?

Salisbury Cathedral had some stunning art by Ana Marie Pecheco

7 Lust

Lust: about 12″ x 15″ each sin had its own illustration

Wandering 2

Full size wood carvings: The Wanderers. Pacheco’s work was very impressive

Then Oxford, a town aswarm with tourists, mostly youthful, perhaps future graduates of this ancient site.

Of course, I thought, we have to hear a lecture by a Professor on an arcane, esoteric topic that could only happen at Oxford, or maybe Berkeley.  Luckily the Ashmolean was celebrated something and there was a lecture of Riddles in Early Anglo Saxon literature.

The room was packed and the professor, Andrew Orchard, whipped from Greek to Latin to old English as if it were all simple nursery rhymes, reciting poems and dashing off explanations of what they did to make their riddle work. A perfect Oxford moment.

And then London.

MacBeth was in the courtyard of St. Paul’s at Covent Garden and the production was superb. Visceral and imaginative with fine acting.

Macbeth 3

Banquo returns from the grace to haunt the already guilt ridden MacBeth.

And to keep up to date, a visit to the West End to see “the play of the year,” The Ferryman. a fabulous exploration of guild, betrayal, family, desire, loyality and memory in the Ireland on 1980. It built to a climax of massive proportion just like the classic Greek tragedies.

VC at west end

There was also the Tate Modern but I could not take photos of the Giacometti exhibit of the powerful and comprehensive survey of African-American art in the 1960s and 70s that resonated with the issues of civil rights and black power.  It originated here but I can’t imagine it won’t find its way to the States.

Scenes from Budapest

i’m back in Budapest, teaching in the DocNomad program, a grad program where students spend the year going from Lisbon to Budapest to Brussels making docs along the way. It’s a great program.  And here are some impressions from the city where Orban’s rubber stampers just voted to close the Central European University, a great university too liberal, it seems, for Orban and his far right policies.

outside the Parliament Bldg where the right wing prevails

parliament with the protest.

The Grand Stairway, and Red carpet but it’s not the Reds who rule but the modern day Arrow Crossers

A mural inspired by Chagall outside a cafe named after him. There is still the charm to hide the lessons in darkness

And the oddities: Albanian Liver? I didn’t get to try it.

A provocative show of anti-totalitarian art from the Eastern bloc in the Soviet era.

Marina Abramowic doing her thing: all wrapped up and ready to go

Another part of the show

 

More protest. The large statue references Hungary’s occupation by Germany near the end of WW2 but the foreground items all denounce the soft pedaling of government collusion with the Nazis throughout the war, including, near the end, the Final Solution

Women in Abstract Painting

 

The King Is Dead (Hamilton?)

Grace Hartigan, The King Is Dead [Hartigan said The King is Picasso]

The Denver Art Museum hosts this show of over a dozen women artists, from San Francisco and New York, primarily.  Some are quite well known (Helen Frankenthaler, Lee Krasner), others less so (Perle Fine, Mary Abbott) but all are impressive. Each gets a space of her own. Each has 4-6 paintings judiciously selected.  The placards downplay, if they mention at all, their connections with male abstract expressionists, rightly so, since the work clearly stands on its own, and may, in fact, in cases such as Frankenthaler’s Color Field paintings, have influenced other women, and men, as much as Rothko or Still influenced the women.

Of course there is a publication with all the paintings and there is a quite good 15 minute film that has interviews with the women in the show or those who knew them. The candid photos the women in their studios and at play suggest that were  “out there”: smoking, partying, working hard and having clear, engaging thoughts about their work and the work of others.  Several state that San Francisco was a far less macho, discriminatory work for women than New York City.

Perle Fine 2

Perle Fine’s small abstraction. Most of the work in the show is quite large.

It may not be possible to “pop” over to Denver but if you find yourself here, it is a terrific show. And right next store, in the Clyfford Still Museum, is a room dedicated to work he made in San Francisco while a teach at the San Francisco Institute of Art where he served as a mentor for some of the women in the show, someone to learn from but hardly imitate as these women artists found voices of their own.

Frank Gehry’s Bilbao

This is truly an impressive work. After seeing Sydney Pollack’s doc on Gehry where they mainly interact and Gehry talks about his career, I came away more convinced than ever that it is one of the great architectural achievements of modern times. And Pollack is generous enough to give screen time to Hal Foster who plays the Blue Meanie: it’s just not that good, not that important, and if it were, it’d be too important because museums are about the art. He should have told that to Frank Lloyd Wright before he built the original Guggenheim with its insane spiral gallery that has proven a wonder ever since!

But enough on Meanies. What struck me is the balance and proportionality of it, and the intricacy of the surfaces that curve, bend, fold and refuse to obey the rectilinear dictates of most architecture. In fact, a vast number of columns, including staircases and elevator shafts as well as the more thematically inspired columns that soar upward from the central open space within, are freestanding: they do not begin at the ground level or end at the ceiling but usually do just one or the other, or neither. It gives the whole thing a lightness and giddiness that belies its monumental size.

And the curves seem to mimic the enormous gallery of Richard Serra’s great freestanding steel sculptures that also appear unanchored in any traditional sense. See this photo below of Gehry’s sculpted space and compare it to the permanent installation of Serra. It’s just one of the many ways in this museum is a true gem and will remain so for a long long time.

Bilbao 45

Bilbao Serra

Coit Tower and Its Murals

Workers of the WorldHere is a small detail from the great murals of Coit Tower, San Francisco.  A tribute to the firemen of the city, and designed to resemble a fire hose nozzle, or other things more phallic if one prefers, the tower would be merely a tourist attraction were it not for the murals.  Created during the Great Depression by a group of local artisits who were, for the most part, friends or students of Diego Rivera, the murals capture the harshness and diversity of American life in stunning panoramas of great proportion.

The first two images below contrast the news of the day with the information that makes fortunes, and the well-heeled who absorb it. The news isn’t happy making but the library provides little joy either, it seems.

The third below, of a family panning for gold, washing clothes and of the daughter(?) sawing an enormous log, probably for cooking, contrasts this sample salt of the earth group with the leisure bound family of gawkers above them who stand near their car taking in the “picturesque” scene, as some who stroll by the murals today still do.

Cars are less a means of transportation than a threat to human life for the masses, it seems and the fourth image–all these shots are but segments of quite large murals–captures the horror of an automobile accident and the carnage it causes.

To the right of it is a man on the dock. He sits looking off to the left, waiting, hoping, expecting? We can’t tell but the large ship behind him is clearly of less interest than something yet to be seen, and perhaps done, something that will transform this world of contrasts and contradictions, misery and privilege.  Like him, it seems we’re still waiting.

News, Dreary News in Hard Times
Boys and Their Books, away from the newspapers
Tale of Two FamiliesDeath Comes, as it must to allOn the Dock

Letters to Afar: Peter Forgacs’ New Installation

The Opening

To say that this installation, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, is amazing is to scratch the surface.

Made up of 13 screens, all large–some on scrims that let the image pass through 3 or 4 layers of cloth before finally fading into nothingness, sone on screens, some on the museum walls, some in horizontal diptyches, some in vertical ones, some with vocal accompaniment, some without–the images are both pedestrian and astounding. Shot by visitors to Poland in the 1920s and 30s, and intended as home movies, they are far from the usual cute pictures only of interest to the family they capture. The visitors are returning. They are Jewish-Polish immigrants who became Jewish-American success stories, men who could afford a camara and even, sometimes, a cameraman. They are returning to their places of origin and the extended families that dot the Polish landscape. From Krakow, Lodz and Warsaw to dozens of shtetls, they shot images of the life and people they have left and need to remember.

Their images create an archive of a lost world, though the archive itself persists at YIVO in New York city. Forgacs went through the vast inventory of home movies and selected about 6 hours of footage to organize into the installation. Most screens or clusters of screens feature footage from a single location: a major city or shtetl. People go about their daily lives; people look at the camera and often pose for it; people live their middle European lives in the period between wars as if it will go on forever. There is immense vitality and joie de vivre in what they do and how they represent themselves. Forgacs has skillfully given us a sense of a culture that possesses enormous strength, diversity, confidence and zest.

How could it disappear? How much diabolical work had to go into making that happen? This installation makes clear that no small effort would suffice. It would have to be a genuine catastrophe, a holocaust of unimaginable proportions. Such an event is nowhere to be seen in the installation but it lives in our memories and hearts and when those memories of what will happen next confronts this testament to what went before, the result is dumbfounding. Beauty and joy hover near the wings of a maelstrom that is soon to descend. We can only rejoice at this reclaimed world and mourn its horrific passing.

a Forgacs triptych with 3 viewers