PORN AGAIN: 3. Porn Film Festival Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 24, 2008

This week I’ll be “reporting” from the third installment of Berlin’s Porn Film Festival. By reporting, I mean that I’ll be catching films here and there, discussing what I’ve seen, exploring general issues that arise in the conflation of art and porn, and delivering final verdicts – not on the Festival itself; I think the mere fact of its existence is a wonderful thing – but on the films I happen to see.

This is my second year attending the Festival. For me, the highlight of last year’s festival was the discovery that, despite the blatancy of its name, the organizers’ interpretation of what constitutes “porn” was actually quite open. That meant getting to see such treats as LLIK YR IDOLS, the recent documentary on the New York No Wave scene of filmmakers, many of whom arguably employed elements of porn in their work; a beautiful documentary exploring the nature of bestiality, the title of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten; the first Israeli gay erotic feature film; plus a whole host of shorts, including Bruce LaBruce’s recent Give Piece of Ass a Chance.

This year’s Festival will include a special focus on Asian porn cinema; directors Charles Lum, Petra Joy, William E. Jones, and Ola Ege; an exploration of the career of porn legend Jack Wrangler; plus the usual program of features, documentaries, shorts, and an ambitious program of lectures, workshops, and nightclub events.

What has impressed me so far about the Festival is its curatorial integrity. The fact that so many filmmakers have refused to allow their films to be screened at the Porn Film Festival because of its name just shows you how stupidly moralistic and righteous our culture remains in the 21st century. Ironically, a lot of films focusing on some aspect of the porn industry – even films including the word “porn” in the title – have refused to show at the Porn Film Festival Berlin. (See this interesting statement from the Festival organizers for more on this.)

While there are films from hardcore porn studios being shown, these films comprise a small segment of the Festival program. What you find when attending the Berlin festival is a rigorous filmic examination of the very notion of pornography – from both contemporary and historical vantage points. It seems to me that the Festival’s primary focus is on constructing a bridge between two superficially separate realms – “art” and “porn” – effectively uniting them. That there is no one correct way to go about doing this is testament to the Festival’s diversity and legitimacy.

Even if the filmmakers who refused to show in the Berlin Porn Film Festival don’t get this, at least the audience does. Judging solely on looks alone, this is no porno convention. You won’t find cliché plastic blonde vixens, shaky old men in raincoats, or overweight pony-tailed sleaze merchants haunting the halls of the Porn Film Festival venues. Instead, artists, intellectuals, and bohemians of all ages and sexual orientations are filling the halls and auditoriums. While it may not draw the largest crowds, the fact that it attracts the elite of the cutting edge endows the Berlin Porn Film Festival with a buzz sadly lacking in more mainstream film festivals.

London Book Launch: November 2nd

by Travis Jeppesen on October 22, 2008

See you there!

VILE: A Note on Jeff Koons Versailles

by Travis Jeppesen on October 19, 2008

The mainstream media’s recent attempts at writing off the critics of Jeff Koons’s Versailles exhibition as “conservative” miss a simple point:

Jeff Koons is probably the worst living artist, if not one of the worst artists who ever lived. This is not a political argument, but an aesthetic truth.

In fact, the ponderous garbage that Koons produces sullies the very word art, and you don’t have to be an art critic or an intellectual to figure this out – you just have to have eyes.

Provocation on its own is fine and can even be great. But unless you’re some soft-headed puritan from the Midwest, there is nothing remotely offensive or provocative about Koons’s so-called work in terms of content. Rather it is meant to offend through sheer tackiness. It is no compliment to Koons that his execrable non-efforts are successful in this dubious realm. It is a sign of mass stupidity, blindness, and vulnerability to manufactured reputations that he has become so successful materially.

We must always question the legitimacy of any institution or gallery that, by showing Jeff Koons, attempts to legitimize him as an artist.

3 Reasons Why Art Writing Still Earns a Bad Name

by Travis Jeppesen on October 18, 2008

You can read my short essay on said topic in the latest issue of Dazed & Confused. It’s pretty much a condensation of my thesis in Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary”.

Thiago Rocha Pitta at Andersen’s Contemporary, Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 16, 2008

\"Heritage\" (film still, courtesy Andersen\'s Contemporary)

Notes on an Island Shipwreck is a simple project exploring the polar motifs of land and sea. Thiago Rocha Pitta is restrained in his approach, and the exhibition is well thought-out, though not extraordinary. The centerpiece, Project for a Stormy Weather Painting, is a large piece of canvas upon which water, soil, and pigment have forged the violet gray blackness of a storm at sea. It could also just be a dirty cloth hung in an elegant manner. Behind the piece, on either side two videos play, behind a wall. The first, Heritage, shows a boat with two trees planted in soil sailing across the ocean. The second, Inland Shipwreck, documents the burial of said boat, sans tree, in the earth. In a room upstairs, a single photograph captures a still from the former video; it looks as though trees are growing out of the water. It is somehow the most moving piece in the entire exhibition.

There is more, though. The office contains the boat itself, or a replica thereof, with soil and trees intact.

Then there are three unremarkable watercolor Sketches for sultriness, stills of the Inland Shipwreck, and Fossil Rain, a photo of huge rock formations withered with strange lines, presumably an after-effect of acid rain. All these things feel supplementary, if not excessive, to the work previous mentioned.

Thiago Rocha Pitta is said to have created this work out of homage to Joseph Conrad, the sailor and writer who was in many ways indebted to the Romantic tradition of the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps this is why you get such a quaint sensation looking at the artist’s project. With a slight nod to the environmental catastrophe that has reached global proportions, Pitta seems to be concerned with making sense of his subject matter, rather than heralding it. Perhaps the artist has in mind a more poignant idea – that nature has lost all the mysterious, wild attributes of the sublime that the Romanticists once hailed in this age of rigid pragmatism and scientific certainty. Whatever the case may be, you leave the gallery with the rather ambivalent impression that the artist’s engagement with both his materials and subject matter has been desultory at best.

\"Fossil Rain\" (photo, courtesy Andersen\'s Contemporary)

For Jan Jakub Kotik, at 3am

by Travis Jeppesen on October 16, 2008

I do an occasional poetry column with Matthew Wascovich at In the latest installment, now online, you can read my homage to Jan Jakub Kotik.

Money Talks by Jan Jakub Kotik

Olaf Breuning’s Ultimate Suicide

by Travis Jeppesen on October 7, 2008

PLUS: Read an essay on Olaf Breuning’s Home in Disorientations

Ayse Erkmen at Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 6, 2008

If minimal art has any importance, it’s in making us notice things that we wouldn’t otherwise. Ayse Erkmen has this figured out. She gives us an art that is barely there. What is it that Gertrude Stein once wrote – there is no there there. Or was it someone else? It doesn’t matter who it was: this is how you feel when looking at Ayse Erkmen’s art.

Companions is what she calls this, her latest exhibition. But it’s also the name she gives to her art. The sense of traveling, of a present continuous, and how dizzying that is… You enter through Portiport, a metal detector that probably beeps when you pass through it. The museum guard inspects your ticket. There are signs everywhere, warning you to enter the exhibition at your own risk, and so you are uneasy. The artist wants to threaten the spectators, it seems. But what she really means is that if you don’t look hard enough, you won’t see anything. Or at least, not enough. It is so easy to overlook; thus, let this be a lesson in looking.

The fluorescent lights hanging low from the ceiling in the first room are the most threatening thing. These lights so cold and institutional. Now you can touch them. You are afraid that if you hit one of the wires you will be electrocuted. Perhaps this is what the warning means. Sparks will fly, power will short-circuit, the entire building will be shrouded in darkness. And you will fry. Electric liquid will leak out of your nostrils, your other orifices. No, better not to touch anything.

In the next room there seems to be nothing. This seeming so raw and dignified, you don’t trust it. And so you stand there and wait.

You wait and you stare. Something shifts, a slight change is affected. You’re waiting for something more, it doesn’t come. It is the wall. You go up to it, see that it isn’t really a wall, but a panel. The panel moves – almost imperceptibly, white against white – changing the dynamics of the space ever so slightly. It can give you a headache, this blank ponderousness it induces, so you leave the room, cross the black carpet in the corridor, wind your way up the stairs, past the green and white ribbons upon which Ayse Erkmen has printed her own name.

A word about the ribbons. The ironic striving for a signature is a bit overstated here – that is to say unwarranted. Art that comments on art in general must have something further, beyond the slightness of that commentary, in order to entrap us in the guise of its forepresence. Erkmen doesn’t always get it right. You understand that it’s deliberate in its execution, but it’s still not careful. Another example of this is her usage of photos taken from digital image banks.

I guess I’m resistant to conceptual strategies because it’s so easy in these times we live in to be schooled. What isn’t innate is cheating. Contextual appropriation and all that nudge-nudge wink-wink that comes with it. It lends itself to easy reading – something that every work should defy. Erkmen isn’t exactly a newbie; she should know this and maybe she does.

Still, the failure of certain works included is more than made up for in the upstairs room. You are immediately relieved of whatever high-minded seriousness there has been so far when the White-Tailed Wildebeest, victim of taxidermy, on wheels, greets you at the entrance.

You move further, into the video room. Safety belts have been strapped around the columns supporting the ceiling, forming a network, a blockade. Beeping sounds from the seventeen video monitors form a sort of accidental-intentional sound installation. Induces the feeling of being in a dangerous – yet protected (the safety belts) – space. The monitors are scattered, big black and blocky, so you are constantly having to walk around them in order to see.

The oddness lies in the sheer array of subjects. In one series of films, three-dimensional animated shapes dance by in a straight line making funny noises. Something you might see on a Saturday morning cartoon. Then you read that the cute little shapes are actually replicas of landmines.

A lion snarls. Its sole gesture is stuck on a loop, making it look like it has some kind of tic.

Erkmen’s most poetic – and therefore most unexpected film is Free Time/Idleness. It consists of a barrage of every day images that hold nothing in common except perhaps movement. A house reflected in a canal, the trembling water; a crow walking along the shore; the interior of a car driving down a highway; a palm tree heaving in the wind. The worship of banality becomes a science. Suddenly, all is redeemed, as you see that we live in a world without good or evil, beauty or ugliness. A world marked by the quiet simplicity of being.

Christophe Chemin

by Travis Jeppesen on October 4, 2008

My interview with Christophe Chemin, on the subject of his current exhibition at RISE Berlin, is now online at WhiteHot Magazine.

Olafur Eliasson’s Reading List

by Travis Jeppesen on October 2, 2008

While I agree that Olafur Eliasson’s upcoming professorship at the Universität der Künste in Berlin is a good thing, I don’t know that it’s the revolutionary event that Christy Lange at Frieze makes it out to be.

Looking at the reading list that Eliasson provides in the article linked above, I noticed that there is not a single work of art criticism, poetry, or fiction contained on that list. Instead, Eliasson’s students will be expected to read a bunch of theory and a single biography (of artist Robert Irwin.)

This is hardly a groundbreaking reading list for art school, and in fact, situates Eliasson – and his students – firmly within the institutional nexus that produces so much bad, ideologically-fueled art. Eliasson admits as much in the course of the article:

‘I am constantly navigating institutional architecture,’ he explains, ‘not just as a person but as a studio.’ Eliasson believes that no artistic idea is impervious to these structures and influences.

Okay, Olaf, but that doesn’t mean we all have to dwell in their shadows. If you want your students to think abstractly about sculpture, they’d get a lot more from reading the “difficult” novels of Gertrude Stein than Daniel Birnbaum’s remarks on Husserl’s phenomenology. I’m not saying that theory is completely useless, just that it shouldn’t directly inform artistic practice; I’d rather have it vice versa, to be honest.

I happen to like Eliasson’s work a great deal, but I can’t imagine what anyone would get from studying with him, other than to become an Eliasson clone. At the same time, despite the novelty of Eliasson’s proposed studio, one glance at his reading list asserts that he will do little more than re-assert the institutional status quo. In turn, we can expect a lot more institutional art to come out of his studio – the masturbatory art of today becomes the masturbatory art of tomorrow.

It is a pedagogical necessity to shift away from theory and towards literature, for the simple reason that the former is digestive while the latter is generative. We are bored with art that merely comments on the external world; we are ready for an art that actually forms or disrupts part of that world. Poetry and fiction and theater provide useful departure points for creation in the visual realm, and art criticism provides direct models for different ways of seeing in that realm.

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