Written in the Sky {excerpt}

by Travis Jeppesen on November 29, 2013

The sky. Someone’s little sister is trying to eat a cloud. Reach into that perpetuality, feel the sky’s innards. We’re not the kind of boundary-seekers experience once probed to proffer. What’s sad is the roar that proceeds the silence. Can there be any comfort in that roar, ever, it is unthinkable. Slowed down, the sound of the sky vehicle breaking apart can be its own exotic percussion, soundtrack to the wind dance of a long lost desert tribe, sound of bleeding and breaking. The plane is like a body, it can shatter against a cloud just like a skeleton. You got on thinking if anything goes wrong, this will be my chance to really try it out: to go beyond the inevitable into the near-impossible. How many have chanced this feat. The crew had to be trained to get us this far, but how does one train to be a passenger. There is nothing offered in the way of sacrifice training, one can only learn to be a ghoul through experience. The marshals,

Their guns soon to be buried in the sand. Bodies disintegrated, children of a flash-in-the-pan experience, their wives will send floral wreaths to the rescue plot, not worth visiting, nothing to be recovered there. First to go is your sense of smell, best to not sniff the burning, all the membranes in your nostrils having been burnt out to protect you from that coldest slab of knowledge, the defeatist quartet playing their medley in the skyscrape,

Black crackling of disintegration, a meter, a bit of the command post flies right past your head, you could have reached out and grabbed it but you were preoccupied with your own leveling, chores of the desertwind. Bright snatches of light from the burning darkness, it is a Sunday, that much to be remembered, a final thought for one or two perhaps: Oh yeah, Sunday,

Burning, the sky and the swallows swimming past, I love myself the sky, I was a third-rate businessman in this life but I can be something greater in the next, perhaps a parasite,

Filth falling from the sky, tile manufacturing firm’s vice president tumbling through plastic towers and vials of pills, he will never have a chance to evolve past his own fears, terribilities, at this phase. At this phase, forever falling, pills in his eyes, eyelids scrunching over three-inch slit of metal, eyeball juices, the sentient space of no movement, losing control as your liver melts into your spleen, the attitude of silence some of us take when becoming hoarse unbridled,

Love me and forever in the sky falling,

Reverse falling now back up into the heavens,

Skull dried out still encasing brain, frontal lobe frozen in fluids rear lobe aflame, thoughts continue unabated by pain and suffering,

Forever murder the sky,

The aboveness is one angle. You always hated that mirror that fucked you every morning. Upcoming sabbath to be a reunion of sorts among distant relatives, now shall be an occasion to mourn. For them to ask themselves what has really been lost. You, a person they barely know, a person unknown to most, let all your secrets die with you, only this way can you be said to be free. A window has opened on to the scene of your drowning. Straight away you see another body, his fate quite similar to yours. The screams dissipated after the first fifteen seconds when most of them began to die. You didn’t fuck the fire, the fire fucked you. Oh just straining to fucking understand. The suffering of children,

Dim haze renaissance of failure that comes buzzing through the mires. Worried to see that seasonal every day spleen that hits the engulfed brain explodes so lightly. Oh the wires. No babies can swim in the ocean. To talk about sand as you’re falling is really enough sky mutilation. One of them already dead, a soldier, his carcass in the cargo, made his fortune in the war. A land whose capital he couldn’t name, a land he couldn’t situate on a blank map presented to him only a month before, found in the circuitry of death a treasure trove of ancient bronze sculptures, buried in sand long forgotten, buddhas and strange deities long lost to our even stranger customs, sold to rogue collectors of the sacred and unsavory, he met his death before this flight, sentience undilated, it was his massive stupid fucking indifference to the plight of all those buried civilizations that eventually killed him, he became a rebel cockroach fighter in a nebulous guerilla war, the war didn’t belong to any country he had once belonged to, he was only in it for the riches he thought he’d acquire, ambition vomits a certain type and forces it to make out with its own mortality device, the situation of ostriches bred for some deviant psychopath’s neuraesthetic dementia,

The earth is not quaking. That was the sound of the plane breaking apart, a loud crack, like at a shotgun wedding hick flight attendant might have once attended back in her home state of fight more clarity,

The dismality of being a body falling through a cloud is quite purplish and voluble. Head wants to vomit satan, but suddenly it’s so sped up, it’s like the speed of yr agony is rushing through yr head in circles. Transguired. Sneeze and a martian might come out, a serpent alien being that could survive this,

Dying only lasts as long as a sneeze,

[…]

 

From Written in the Sky. Forthcoming in All Fall, a book of two novellas, to be published by Publication Studio in their Fellow Traveler’s Series in 2014.

Art in the Dark

by Travis Jeppesen on November 28, 2013

Living in Berlin, you become obsessed with light. Throughout most of the year, there is so little of it to go around that one grows heavy with lethargy and despair—it’s all you can do to get out of bed before noon. Imagine how the city’s artists must feel, doomed to create in all that darkness. One year it became so overwhelming that I invested in a full-spectrum sunlamp, the kind that is supposed to brighten your spirits and magically imbue you with summer energy if you just sit before it for half an hour each day. The question I always got was, “Does it really work?” I never knew what to reply. “Well, I haven’t killed myself yet, it must be doing something.”

Sadly, in a later period of financial duress, I had to sell the lamp to my friend Stevie Hanley, an artist I wrote about in my first Atlas column [A.i.A., Dec. ’11]. Stevie will soon leave Berlin to attend the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But back then, he was very excited by his new purchase. Finally he’d be able to look at the drawings he’d been making all winter in his sun-deprived studio! I haven’t yet asked him what will happen to the sunlamp when he returns home across the Atlantic. I suspect it will pass to another artist comrade, still militant enough to brave the cold and gloom in hopes of spotting a small glimmer through the perpetual gray overhead.

“Friendship,” says writer and freelance curator John Holten in his new novel, The Readymades, “is seeing people you recognize disfigured and mutated again and again, becoming disgusting or loveable in turn.”

As I’ve tried to show in my previous Atlas columns, Berlin is an intense microcosm in which all the components that once made up the art world have been relegated to the fringes, where they fall under the deadening force of a professionalization that now contaminates the entire field. Reflecting this malaise, Holten’s novel is one of the greatest works of art to come out of Berlin in recent years.

Set in a Europe of not too long ago, covering the period that arguably constitutes the formation of our 21st-century milieu (from the 1990s Balkan Wars up to the mid-aughts), The Readymades documents a fictional network of Serbian artists known as the LGB Group (after the surnames of its three core members). Though vaguely reminiscent of real-life collectives from the region such as Irwin/NSK, the OHO Group—and much like an update of fellow Balkanite Tristan Tzara and his Dada cronies—Holten’s artists find themselves caught in the changing tide of history and war.

In defiance of the 21st century’s obsession with the virtual, LGB strives to produce an art of the everyday—having experienced the everyday in its murderous aspect. Their output can take the form of sculptures, performative interventions, drawings or paintings (Holten’s collaborator is the Serbian-born, Berlin-based artist Darko Dragicevic, who created all of the LGB pieces illlustrated in the book), though an argument could be made that the artists’ turbulent relationships with each other are equally important as the work. The bulk of the text is a “reproduction” of an unfinished book by the group’s suicided figurehead, Djordje Bojic (the “B” in LGB). It is less a history of the collective’s activities than an analysis of its members’ varied conditions of estrangement.

Detailing alcoholic and chemical excesses, delirious group orgies, wildly intense interpersonal dynamics, not to mention the alienating effects of a still legible East-West divide on the continent, The Readymades offers an all-too-authentic portrait of the near past, instantly familiar to anyone who has spent time among the decadent elements of the post-Wall Berlin art scene—although the novel is actually set in Paris. (Holten has explained, “Berlin, where I wrote almost all of the book, also fed the details: I’d go out at the weekend to all these bars and clubs and meet people from all over the place. All of that went into the book too; I just changed the setting. Paris is not as exciting as The Readymades probably makes out, whereas Berlin does a passable job.”)

As leader of the group, Bojic becomes the unstable mediator between the opposing impulses of the other two members: the poet Milos Lubarda, whose product is by its nature uncommodifiable, and Aleksandar Gojkovic, whose encounter with the Western art market during the Bush years has corrupted him with dreams of wealth and glamour—which he eventually pursues by becoming an art dealer. (Holten and Dragicevic have gone so far as to create a Gojkovic Gallery website.) The tragedy that haunts all three, of course, is their earlier participation as soldiers in the wars back home. Scars in the collective consciousness of LGB cause the group to shatter before it can fulfill its promise of greatness, despite the international success the artists attain early on.

Berlin, of course, saw its own share of wars in the past century. The Allied bombing and subsequent Cold War paranoia are things of the past, but history, weighing heavily, continues to strike a precarious balance between the Stalinist structures of the former East and the corporate brutalism of the West. For all its many virtues, one always stops short of claiming Berlin is a beautiful city.

Gallerist turned project space director Oliver Koerner von Gustorf suggested in my last column [A.i.A., Mar. ’12] that the only way the art world might change would be if art itself were to change. The Readymades represents one possible scenario: a novelist and artist collaborating to create other artists and their artworks—an entire network, sprung from the mad fantasies of two individuals, infiltrating the world via a novel (which is available from Holten’s own Broken Dimanche Press) and a slew of recent LGB Group exhibitions mounted throughout Europe and at the Armory Show in New York this past March. So you could say that LGB are the Next Big Thing to come out of Berlin: the timely projection of an embattled nexus—East versus West, the Real World versus the Art World, Purity versus Commodification, Literature versus the Visual Arts, Fiction versus Truth.

Thus Belin perpetuates its allure to the young and art-crazed through the gloom of its long winters. By the time you read this, it will be summertime, the city flooded in light. It reaches its zenith at some point in July, when a trace of sun can still be discerned at 11:00 pm, finally disappearing only to reemerge about four hours later. While not as dramatic as the white nights of St. Petersburg or the Nordic lands, Berlin’s lingering summer twilight is strong enough to suggest why so many of us flock to this most nocturnal of cities, and why the streets brim with the energy of reawakening at all hours. As slow-moving as it seems at times, Berlin is a manic beast seething with contradictions. Charting them becomes the task of all artists drawn in by its grace and gravity.

Originally published in the June 2012 issue of Art in America as the third and final installment of my “Atlas Berlin” column. The first can be read here, the second here.

The Basel Syndrome

by Travis Jeppesen on November 28, 2013

 

Volatility. If there’s one word to sum up the times we’re living in, that would have to be it. In conversation, people will often aver that the financial crises of the last few years have had little effect on the Berlin art scene. After all, the logic goes, when you have nothing or very little to begin with, it’s pretty hard for any force to come along and take it away.

Yet there is a slicker, cleaner and increasingly more professionalized side to Berlin’s cultural milieu, in contrast to the wild, anarchic orgy of creative expression I depicted in my December column. In the international art market, the German capital is a force to be reckoned with—still an up-and-comer, perhaps, compared to New York and London, but nearly on a par. Not only are some of the city’s major galleries adapting to standards of international blue-chip prominence, they are assuming positions of power and influence that have sent waves of angst throughout the city’s precocious gallery scene.

Those small waves coalesced into a veritable tsunami last year when it was announced that three of Berlin’s most prominent fixtures—Galerie Giti Nourbakhsch, Galerie Eigen + Art and Galerie Mehdi Chouakri—had been excluded from Art Basel. Three of the six jurors were Berlin dealers: Jochen Meyer of Meyer Riegger, Tim Neuger of neugerriemschneider and Claes Nordenhake of Galerie Nordenhake. Nourbakhsch and Gerd Harry Lybke of Eigen + Art voiced their outrage publicly, igniting a media backlash against the offending parties and giving rise to talk of a Berlin “art mafia.”

“I’m not sure you can really call it a ‘mafia,'” objects Philipp Haverkampf of Contemporary Fine Arts, undoubtedly one of Berlin’s most notable galleries, with a roster of artists that includes Daniel Richter and Jonathan Meese. “There are always people who know each other and do projects together, sharing common interests. But there is not necessarily a plan. There are many emerging galleries in Berlin. The competition is huge. The problem is that some of these people have been very active from early on.” Many others I talked to agree with Haverkampf’s suggestion that it’s somewhat natural—at least in a quasi-Darwinistic way—that those at the top of the food chain take charge, given that Berlin contains 400, 600, or even up to 800 galleries, depending on who you ask.

Few would deny that Berlin has too much influence on the Basel selection committee at the moment. Yet others feel that the ambitious stance of a few prominent Berlin dealers is what put the city on the contemporary art map—especially given its continuing dearth of collectors, which makes the local art market an “export only” business. While Jochen Meyer declined to comment on last year’s Basel controversy, citing the confidentiality of the jury’s decision-making process, he stated unequivocally that one of his goals when serving on such committees is to represent his colleagues back home.

Berlin is somewhat unusual among art capitals. Its larger, more established galleries nearly all have their roots in humble project spaces, labors of love endorsing the work of then unknown 1990s artists, who would subsequently go on to become international stars. Many key dealers effectively grew up with their artists, from the salad days through to the caviar nights. Included in that list would certainly be Esther Schipper, now one of the organizers of Gallery Weekend and the Art Berlin Contemporary fair, who was also recently elected to the jury of the new Frieze New York art fair. Says Schipper, “When I started working in the gallery scene in the 1980s, Germany was the main collecting country in Europe, if not the world. At one point, there was even talk that Cologne might replace New York as the center of the art world.” Then the economic downturn of the 1990s happened, and the winds began to change. “Cologne wasn’t offering us any situation. Things were getting very conservative. The old guard really blocked younger galleries. But then you had a situation here in Berlin that was quite the opposite.”

Giti Nourbakhsch, whose gallery opened in the former Eastern Bloc neighborhood of Prenzlauer Berg in 1999, says that she originally wanted to create a bridge between Cologne and Berlin. “They were treating us in Berlin as the dirty kids, the Schmuddelkinder. They thought, ‘In Berlin, they are too fast, they just want to make money, they don’t have any style. But we in Cologne have our style because we’re old school.’ It was very German: ‘You have to go much slower!’ I didn’t want to accept these borders.” Nourbakhsch launched an ambitious program that featured Berlin and Cologne luminaries such as Hans-Jörg Mayer and Vincent Tavenne, and was subsequently enriched with international artists like Tomma Abts and Ida Ekblad.

Nourbakhsch was instrumental in helping to organize the first few editions of Gallery Weekend, leaving the project once she felt that there was no further work to be done. Many suspect that her exclusion from Basel was an act of revenge on the part of the committee.

Nevertheless, until her gallery closing scheduled for this month, Nourbakhsch oversaw one of the city’s most eclectic and daring gallery programs, retaining a youthful air of intellectual curiosity and a strong sense of purpose. “My idea was always to put something subversive or playful into society. Of course there is a power struggle going on now, but this is something that I was never interested in.”

Nourbakhsch is clear about what really matters to her. “For me, it’s more relevant at the moment to talk about motivation, ideas, heroes. Whether we still remember our old heroes. You change a lot over time. . . . We used to talk more about art in the past than we do now. Our fights in the art world were about things like, ‘Is it strong enough to show? Is it really punk enough?’ Now it’s all about positioning oneself in relation to others, it’s about power. If you’re not interested in this, then it quickly becomes very boring.”

It could be suggested that the Berlin scene is a victim of its own spirit of independence, its boundless capacity for creativity, and its passion for radical, anti-capitalist politics. To an extent, I’m convinced by Jochen Meyer, when he points out that this year’s Gallery Weekend has reached out to younger galleries by lowering their participation fees. But, again, Gallery Weekend is regarded by many as an affair of the elite, including only 50 galleries on the official program, though locals are all aware that every gallery in Berlin tries to put on something big for Gallery Weekend. It seems that, once the “bottom line” mentality of the international art market takes hold, no attempt at innovation can be much more than an empty gesture.

Take Art Berlin Contemporary, the art-fair-as-group-exhibition (or group-exhibition-as-art-fair) set up to be an alternative to the now deceased Artforum Berlin. At last year’s ABC, the most prominent galleries, many of which played a role in organizing the event, clearly received the best placement in the exhibition halls, while up-and-coming galleries were left in a no-man’s-land on the far side of a mazelike architectural structure. For this “exhibition,” two curators – Rita Kersting (former director of the Kunstverein für die Rheinlande und Westfalen) and Marc Gloede (film theorist) – chose a single artist to represent each of the participating galleries. Many visitors, however, were left with the strong impression that the curators were little more than puppets hired to create an illusion of critical independence. ABC is perhaps the best example of how radical chic plays out in Berlin: a meek challenge to an established concept, serving only to enhance the existing power structure.

Maybe the situation makes sense only from the outside. No one here still believes in a canon of greatness, a Grand Narrative. Indeed, one need only briefly survey the current art landscape to find that “making it” as an artist is almost completely arbitrary. And yet dealers are forced to pretend otherwise. The art market is ruled by certain now classic dealer types, not a few of them opportunistic schemers. Everyone knows that many Berlin spaces will close in the coming years; there is simply no infrastructure to support so many galleries. Much of the questionable behavior can be attributed to the fear of an increasingly uncertain future. Some dealers are hunkering down and doing whatever they perceive is necessary to preserve their slice of the cake, while others are taking bold and risky steps—including downsizing.

Oliver Koerner von Gustorf founded September with Frank Mueller in 2007. It quickly blossomed into one of the flashiest galleries in town and established an international reputation for showing work typically found in Berlin’s “off” spaces in a sleek commercial context. Despite their relative success, September recently shocked its represented artists and the public alike by announcing that it would cease operating as a gallery and reopen in April as a project space. This move was accompanied by the symbolic decision to leave the Mitte gallery district and relocate to Kreuzberg, a neighborhood where many of the city’s edgier commercial galleries and project spaces are congregated.

“The more I got to know the whole system, the less I liked the job of being a gallerist,” admits Koerner von Gustorf. “It means, for me, that you’re some kind of a pimp. You bring your whores into the art market, and you create something like a fashion line or product. The normal thing you do as a young art gallery is participate in four or five art fairs a year. We had a good reputation, but this means stress, because you have to invest in all the art fairs. I wasn’t completely broke when I decided to close down the gallery, but I didn’t want this lifestyle. I didn’t want to be living out of hotels, always talking to these prototypes of collectors you see everywhere—the women with the helmet hair and yoga arms, the men with the high blood pressure in tailored suits. I know it sounds arrogant, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Koerner von Gustorf fully intends to continue working with his roster of artists, though he will no longer be representing them as a dealer. He is also happy that his new uncompromised position enables him to return to the activity he left behind to start the gallery: criticism. Indeed, Koerner von Gustorf has always been less a salesman than a public intellectual, and his daring extends to questioning the role of art and the intentions of artists. “Perhaps now is not the time when art has the most important thing to say. Maybe something like Occupy Wall Street is more relevant right now. You can’t be critical and then go have dinner with the bankers you criticize, who are buying the stuff. Then again, it’s not easy to escape this system. I’m not so naive as to think that I’m now outside of it just because I’m doing a project space.”

He pauses to reflect. “But that’s the thing—if art were to change, then the way you represent it would also have to change. If everything is falling apart, why should the art market stay the same? The few blue-chip galleries that are still selling loads of art are the one percent that don’t care about the crisis. But the others will have to rethink the structures they’re working in. They should at least have an interest in doing that. Because those structures are going to crumble.”

 

Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Art in America, as the second of my three-part “Atlas Berlin” column. The first installment can be read here.)

James Turrell, Light Reign, 2003

by Travis Jeppesen on November 26, 2013

http://jamesturrell.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/FA_2004sm.jpg

With the gray light cast on my stillness, I am permitted to wait. Clouds eat my angular agency, wooden is barren – oh, beware. Eyeball eats sky also – which I is ceiling to be and what for. There are no angles, world is something contained. Specks keep still the self. A forecast block. The me inside the inanimate’s longing. Bird scissors through cutting line across eggeye. Blue gap’s squeals through cloud machinery’s blip of conscience. Day’s weight the gift of sound. Not fog nor foregoance but rather vehicle’s achy groans before the halt.

Please, evil airplane stuck in the cloud, allow this stillness to echo throughout the frame.

Absent Presence

by Travis Jeppesen on November 21, 2013

My review of the 2013 edition of DocLisboa, at Artforum.

Seattle

by Travis Jeppesen on November 14, 2013

Tomorrow (Friday, November 15th), I’ll be reading from The Suiciders at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. After, there will be a live performance by Wirekid.

You can book tickets here.

On Saturday at the Henry, I’ll be teaching a workshop on object-oriented writing, which you can register for here.

 

Sung Hwan Kim

by Travis Jeppesen on November 8, 2013

 

For Sung Hwan Kim, ideas are less the thing than stories. “I know that it doesn’t matter if things are true or not,” Kim begins in From the Commanding Heights…, 2007. “But this is a true story.” He launches into a narrative that starts out believably enough but grows increasingly fantastical, about a woman with a preternaturally long neck and a third ear on top of her head. As we hear his recorded voice, we see the artist’s face above a transparent sheet, which he draws on to illustrate the bizarre fable. From the Commanding Heights… jumps from one narrative mode and style to the next, often with confrontationally abrupt transitions. Suddenly, we are presented with an image of the Seoul apartment building Kim lived in as a child, and the story that comes with it, which presents yet another type of truth: rumor. (It was said that when the lights in the complex went out, the Korean president was arriving incognito to visit his mistress.) Further narrative shifts give us “a day in the life,” following musician David Michael DiGregorio, here a proxy for Kim, in his quotidian peregrinations; and footage of a Lynchian surveillance tape, flickering on a monitor, of a masked figure, shot from above, reversing the perspective we began with.

If we were to try to untangle the chaos of codes at play in From the Commanding Heights…, we might posit that there is a crisis in being and becoming that is probed here – but also elsewhere. Kim’s oeuvre is a strange network of gestures whose totality is not easily homed in on. Narrative seems  to come apart and reconstitute itself perpetually, governed by the ambivalent logic of rumor – that most contemporary mode of storytelling, in which epistemological certainty is eclipsed by constant speculative flux. Kim never makes it easy: His projects, which may incorporate performance, sculpture, and the moving image, are often unfurled in complicated rituals alongside his frequent collaborators, DiGregorio and artist Nina Yuen; one performance, Pushing Against the Air, 2007 – in which Kim interview DiGregorio and a fellow musician, Byungjun Kwon, about love songs they have composed – had an air of spontaneity about it when it was first performed at Amsterdam’s De Appel, but was repeated in several cities and venues with only slight variations. Some of the material was later used in a video; in Kim’s art, works are not clearly separated from one another. The restlessness of the artist becomes its own world, and the emphasis is less on establishing a firm, static position than on the impetus to keep moving – and forming a terrain in the process, much like a spider spins its web, oblivious to the constraints of linear time. Kim’s persistent return to a lo-fi aesthetic – his sometimes fuzzy footage, his creation of “special effects” from transparent plastic sheets – is a part of this becoming, as if to be too polished is to arrest momentum, to partake of an ossified visual economy. His videos also have a tendency to centrifugally disperse themselves into space: Kim imbricates the moving image in complex environments, a tendency that may bespeak the influence of his mentor, Joan Jonas. In his 2012 exhibition at the Tanks at Tate Modern in London, for example, a welter of video screens, black panels, mirrors, tinsel, curvilinear seating, and lights created an insubstantial matrix of shifting visual planes and fragments.

A number of Kim’s works engage with the history of the Korean peninsula throughout the past century, which is in many ways a saga of a land attempting to articulate its own identity, to become itself while struggling for sovereignty. Near the beginning of the twenty-four-minute video Temper Clay, 2012 – whose very title evokes a process of becoming, of wrestling form from inchoate matter – a series of intertitles proclaims, IT IS GOOD TO HAVE A PATCH OF LAND / BUILD A HOUSE / LIVE IN IT / GET SOMEONE/ TO TAKE CARE OF YOU. The black-and-white montage that follows illustrates this simple idea and the complications that arise from it: A man makes an ax handle out of a stick of wood; a young girl speaks affectionately, in Korean, to said ax, lying next to it like a lover in what looks like an isolated stretch of forest; a second girl appears, and the two fight over the ax; a wood fire replaces the ax as the object of the girls’ competing affection. It continues unrelentingly, from one association to the next: bare feet walking back and forth across a floor as a woman frantically attempts to clean it with a rag, the installation of US military units in cities and towns throughout South Korea in the 1960s. We return to the forest, where a voice intones: “Where is your wife? Where is your husband?” (With rare exceptions, North and South Koreans have been forbidden to visit family members on the other side since the peninsula’s partition.) Finally, we see a man, standing before a river, on the other side of which is a house. Now he has the fire with him: It is in a can, attached to a wire, which he swings around him with increasing fury.

The film is an elegy for the dream of certainty. Where Deleuze and Guattari famously suggested that the primal impulse to make art can be found in the animal when it builds its own home, Kim’s stories suggest that for humans – for whom notions of identity and territory have become intertwined – this impulse is always fraught, always compromising. The desire to build a house and stay as long as you can has been perverted by our own failed attempts at establishing order throughout the mess of history. Kim’s work implies that art’s task is to unravel those knots – even if doing so requires weaving yet more tangled paths.

 

This essay originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Artforum.

The Blur of Clarity: John Monteith’s Distant Spaces

by Travis Jeppesen on November 8, 2013


 

A long corridor stands before us, empty save for the myriad reflections emitted from the glaze of the floor. Light and shapes foment a static yet buzzing composition through the blurred effect that seeing-through-memory often produces. When we stare at the image long enough, effectively allowing ourselves to sink into it, we find that the pictorial realism initially offered by the image no longer holds; instead, we are immersed in a realm of geometric abstractions, seemingly liberated from their three-dimensional sources. [1]

Welcome to the world of John Monteith – a world, I would argue, that actually contains a very peculiar hyper-realism that is distinct from what we normally conjure in our mind’s eye when we hear the term. For, rather than trying to persuade us of his subjects’ veracity through an amplification of their most obvious surface qualities, Monteith takes the opposite route, employing what he deems a “psychologicaly distancing” effect as a means of translating his experiences of spaces into a concise language of images – one that shows us that “reality” does not necessarily rhyme with “clarity.” 

Monteith’s two inter-related series are manifested in the form of a group of paintings titled (de)construction (re)construction and a second of photo works titled with the date, time, and address of their geographic location. The object at the center of Monteith’s ongoing practice is that very thing that cannot be represented in physical form: that is, the in-betweenness of an event itself. Bouncing back and forth from historical sites imbued with reverence and banal locales of seeming irrelevance – and juxtaposing the two in both form and content – Monteith confuses us as a means of clarifying our own expectations of what a frozen moment in space and time is meant to symbolize. What’s more, the work allows Monteith to join a legion of great traveler-recorders, such as Sir Richard Burton and Xuanzang, updating the tradition to a distinctly 21st century sensibility that is ever cognizant of the stains of history cloaking every surface to be traversed.

Framed in relation to this complimentary series are sixteen hand drawn graphite text works taken from a series of fifty that were created simultaneously with his photographs and paintings. These nouns, adjectives and titles were drawn from Monteith’s lexicon of research material representing his last five years of study of film, television and text.

Responding intuitively to the meaning Monteith ascribes to these words, he meticulously selects his font, weight and spatial arrangement in response to the formal dimensions of the paper. In some cases, the page contains its text, while in others, it does not, narrativizing an otherwise de-contextualized subject.

As we gaze upon this grid of 50 co-dependent, yet seemingly disconnected words, an internalized knowledge begins to manifest itself as we, each of us, begin to bring our own linguistic associations forward.  Viewed as individual and autonomous works beside each painting and photograph, new layers of associative meaning become affixed to each image.

A Being and The Event.

~

Monteith employs a similar layering technique in rendering both his photographs and paintings. In his paintings, two identical painted layers are placed on top of one another then, shifted into the correct composition. From there, he brings out the shapes that emerge in hybrid form as a result of the layering, shapes native to neither of the originals, creating a third reality no less real than its sources. [2]

In constructing his photographs Monteith first captures up to one hundred unique yet virtually identical images taken over a span of time. From these he then layers one upon the other, reducing the opacity of each photograph, rendering each image virtually invisible. As one hundred images are layered together, the photograph reconstitutes itself in the form of an atmospheric composite.

The two series resulting from these experiments look radically distinct from one another, as though the work of two different artists. “Concrete” versus “abstract” imagery: This is but one of the conflicting tendencies one discovers in Monteith’s work. In some ways, the series’ distinct styles reflect one of the central canonical crises that gave rise to Modernism in the visual arts: the invention of the camera, which allowed for a realism “more authentic” than any that a painting could possibly offer up, and thus gave rise to abstraction in the painterly realm. For Monteith, this is spelled out not only in the clear formal restraints exercised in the works’ execution, but in his identificatory choices. This conflict resolves itself by forcing us to reflect back upon our own habits of perception, arriving at the discomfiting awareness that vision is oftentimes dissociative. [3]

Monteith claims that the identity of the spaces captured in the (de)construction (re)construction paintings remain of secondary concern – they are banal spaces; stairways, hallways, interstial spaces operating as architectural voids – whereas the identity of the spaces in the photographs are defined – not by name, but by their specific street addresses. The artist gives away a little bit, but not too much; he doesn’t want to tell us what we’re seeing, he respects the autonomy of his images too much, giving us enough information to go out and find these precise locales on our own, if we are so adventurous.

Far from being “innocent” banal empty interiors, all of the spaces captured are tied to troubling aspects of history which have been repurposed in an effort, if not to erase their origins, then to revise their histories, keeping in line with neo-liberal Western ideals of “progress.” A massive airport constructed by the Nazis to dazzle the masses with Teutonic invention and accomplishment, now an empty space available for rent as a convention hall; South Vietnam’s former presidential palace, now a symbol of the Communist North’s triumph, and a museum open to the public; a tearoom in a highway rest stop just south of Pyongyang, North Korea, as bereft of visitors as the surrounding highway is of traffic.

What use is this knowledge, other than it feeding our tendency to narrativize each photographic image our eyes consume? An attempt to map the work on spatio-temporal coordinates proves a fascinating exercise. Interestingly, the artist insists at one point that the paintings “reflect a collapse of space, whereas the photographs relate more to time.” [4] The original architects could have no idea what history would do to their spaces; hence, architecture’s vulnerability to time. Such mappings become troubled, of course, in that the photographs are very much about particular spaces, which Monteith himself is willing to admit. But the particularities of the spaces break down in the (de)construction (re)construction series, which is really about the impossibility of fomenting a stable identity for any place – just as there is no such thing as a stable identity for any human being. We are like objects – mobile objects, vehicles, in that we are forever transforming inwardly and outwardly, while simultaneously being propelled through time and space.

In discussing his conception of deterritorialization, conceived with Felix Guattari, Gilles Deleuze once stated bluntly that it is not how one occupies a space that is interesting, but the way in which one enters and exits it. [5] The photographs and paintings Monteith has “left behind,” as it were, are the signs of that coming and going. The memory of a lived event lingers onwards, or perhaps doesn’t, in the mind of the artist; it belongs to him alone, and can never be fully reproduced through any means: this is why, as Beckett famously stated, [6] every artist must come to accept the burden of failure weighing down on such endeavors: the work can thus be considered as instances of reconciliation. Much like the Impressionist painter memorializes his experience of landscape with a redaction of color through the filter of emotion, Monteith projects his preservations of repurposed historic buildings into an architectural ideality. Free from the constraints of definition, the blurred contours of the objects seen in the photographs drift into weightless ahistoric modalities: the associational, the “purely visual.”

But not only visual. The blurred effect deployed in the photos, which are often reminiscent of Thomas Struth’s nostalgia-inducing architectural trips, causes the eye to strain – a physical process that impels a psychological after-effect: the photos radiate a kind of melancholy through the distancing produced by the layering process. Far from the nostalgia typically promised by the postcard memento, Monteith’s photographs transport us to lonely spaces where any trace of human inhabitance could only be a disruptive force. The poignancy of these spaces lies in the impossible autonomy with which they have been momentarily imbued – artificial though it may be, its very artifice inflects the image with a reality very much its own.

So the “distancing” achieved by the works make total sense: We can have neither the actual lived experience of the author, nor occupy his space of memory. What we are getting is a third thing, the work, which must bear the traces of the former two. There is a great pact of trust that must be signed if we are to accept the images in these photographs. And for the paintings, even more so.

Here, distancing takes on a wholly aggressive stance, as any identificatory measures are completely erased. We must avoid the natural tendency to mistake the paintings as distorted reflections of the concrete imagery we see in the photographs. Nor are they blown-up and repurposed details taken from the photos. We must deal with them head-on in their ghostly autonomy. If the photos are eerily lacking in human presence, the paintings in (de)construction (re)construction are, in more than one sense, unreadable. Or are they?

Monteith has described the paintings’ composition as a process nearly akin to two-dimensional sculptural collage. As though to emphasize this inherent sculptural quality, Monteith has mounted them to cut white plexi, which allows them to float when hung on the wall; thus, upon seeing them in the exhibition space, the effect is one of floating. This exacerbates the paintings’ content, which, like that of the photos, is architectural. Taken from photographs of shadows and interstitial spaces, the paintings effectively alter whatever space they’re displayed in while simultaneously training our eyes to those seemingly unimportant contours of the unexemplary spaces we occupy in our day-to-day lives.

At the same time, though their subject is shadow, the technique employed seems to cull from the very origin of photography – the notion of “drawing with light” – effectively uniting the artist’s “painting” and “photographic” practices. Interestingly, as Susan Sontag notes, Henry Fox Talbot arrived at one of the earliest inventions of the photographic technique through his wish to engage on a deeper level with the spaces he came across in his travels.

In his book of photographs The Pencil of Nature (1844-46), Fox Talbot relates that the idea of photography came to him in 1833, on the Italian Journey that had become obligatory for Englishmen of inherited wealth like himself, while making some sketches of the landscape at Lake Como. Drawing with the help of a camera obscura, a device which projected the image but did not fix it, he was led to reflect, he says, “on the inimitable beauty of the pictures of nature’s painting which the glass lens of the camera throws upon the paper” and to wonder “if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably.” The camera suggested itself to Fox Talbot as a new form of notation whose allure was precisely that it was impersonal – because it recorded a “natural” image; that is, an image which comes into being “by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil.” [7]

Just as one cannot really separate space from time, it is impossible to distinguish the painterly and photographic impulses at play in John Monteith’s work; similarly, one cannot measure how much has been left to chance in his juxtapositions and to what degree they have been composed. What’s exemplary is the extent to which, through a seemingly simple compositional process, the paintings capture the essence of movement, becoming a metaphysical projection of the roving agency that captured them.

And so it is that there is nothing obscure about the blurred images that John Monteith has culled from his vast and ever evolving archive. Whether we ever get time properly figured out or not, infinite motion and volatility will remain the key features of the reality machine. In this sense, Monteith’s images are anything but static. If anything, they show us that stillness is illusory.

 

 

 


[1] The work in question here is John Monteith’s April 2 2011 2:34 pm 135 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia,

pigment print 58”x 38”, 2011.

[2] This process was described in the course of several conversations with the author in July 2012.

[3] Susan Sontag noticed as much when she digressed on habits of viewing photography: “Photographic seeing, when one examines its claims, turns out to be mainly the practice of a kind of dissociative seeing, a subjective habit which is reinforced by the objective discrepancies between the way that the camera and the human eye focus and judge perspective.” In On Photography, New York: Anchor Books, 1990, 75.

 

[4] Again, taken from conversation with the artist.

[5] See Claire Parnet and Pierre-Andre Boutang’s wonderful series of filmed interviews, Gilles Deleuze From A to Z, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.

 

[6] “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett, “Worstward Ho” in Nohow On, London: Calder, 1989.

[7] Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Anchor Books, 1990, 67-68.

 

Jake & Dinos Chapman

by Travis Jeppesen on October 30, 2013

http://www.randian-online.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/JakeDinosChapman-1.jpg

A review of their exhibition in Hong Kong at Randian.

Tehching Hsieh

by Travis Jeppesen on October 30, 2013

Hair. It grows so fast: something dead that lives on each of us.

 

A review at Whitehot.

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