Category Archives: contemporary

New Smithsonian Black History Museum

On Wednesday (2/23) the Smithsonian Institution officially began construction on a new museum dedicated to African-American culture and heritage (the National Museum of African American History and Culture), a project that is slated to open in 2015.

About damn time!

This new museum could finally shed light on the marginalized and difficult history of African Americans in the United States. I say ‘could’ because the Smithsonian is notorious for not wanting to ‘rock the boat’ of their federal funding. Unfortunately, they are not afraid of compromising their mission when the purse strings are shaken. The 2010 Hide/Seek exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, for example, came under fire by Republican members of Congress due to David Wojnarowicz’s work, A Fire In My Belly (1987), that featured a crucifix with ants crawling over the body of Christ. The work was made in response to the agony and suffering of Wojnarwicz’s partner who was dying of AIDS.  The ensuing controversy snowballed into a fight over the ‘proper’ uses of federal funding (whether or not tax payer money should be used to ‘assault’ religion, according to the complainers) which led to Wojnarowicz’s video being pulled from the exhibit.

In addition, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art offers a shockingly exclusive view of American art as the province of white men.

I do sincerely hope that the new African-American Museum will not shy away from the difficult histories that need to be told, and that they won’t be bullied into self-censorship.

Unfortunately, the building looks too much like a parking deck for my taste.

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History in the Making?

Major museums like the New York Historical Society and the Smithsonian Museum of American History are already clamoring over the Occupy Wallstreet protests trying to get posters and ephemera for their collections. While collecting ephemera from events while they occur is not new, somehow it makes me incredibly uneasy. According to Historical Society staff, Jean Aston, they have thousands of pamphlets and such piled up from countless moments since the 18th Century, according to Aston these are worth preserving because, “these items document a particular moment in time which may become significant in the future. If the events fizzle, the objects are still important documents of urban variety and culture.”

Historians are rushing to the site and collecting first, asking questions later. It’s the pack-rat mentality- SOMEDAY it might be valuable. This seems to be great, right? Let’s preserve everything now and sift through it once the chips have landed. Fine. But I can’t help but think that this is doing damage to the protest, sucking the life out of it. Rushing to sweep up the scraps of an ongoing movement can’t help but historicize it, categorize it and make it safe. It’s an institutional vice come down to control and box up the protest in a nice little vitrine. To some extent, this is understandable and is not new. However, with the speed and fluidity of information now, everyone is aware of the protest (who knows if what they think they know is correct). If the protest fizzled out in the near future, I wouldn’t be surprised to see an exhibition pop up in less than five years if only to be an inexpensive crowd pleaser. Besides, countless humanities grad students/ professors are probably already gunning for the primary documents- first dibs and all.

It just seems too much like poaching to me.

Original story posted in Art Info here.


Sound Sculpture: Bill Fontana

Earlier this week I went to a lecture by the sound artist Bill Fontana at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was skeptical, sound art? Please. Wouldn’t you call sound art music? I braced myself for noise/ screeching and howls, but oh how awesomely wrong I was!

Who’s Bill Fontana?

Fontana (American, b. 1947) studied at the New School for Social Research in New York, focusing on philosophy and music. He was influenced by the work of John Cage and specifically Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass, zoning in on the idea that sound could be a sculptural medium and the act of listening could be a form of music. On his travels to Australia, Fontana was fascinated with the myriad of unique sounds in the region. Using the human and natural environments, the artist records often ‘overlooked’ sounds of everyday life as well as sounds inaudible to the human ear. These recordings create networks of listening sites that act as a kind of sculpture. Fontana’s sound sculptures attempt to capture the “true” representation of a sound, his works question how sound is able to create a sculptural image/ environment in the mind more immediate than visual art.

Recurring themes in Fontana’s work are recordings of water, birds, bells, and traffic, giving it a distinctly natural, elemental feel; tempered with the cacophony of human life.

One of his early works, Distant Trains/ Entfernte Zuege (1984) recorded the bustling train station in Cologne and projected it at the remaining bombed-out facade of the famous Anhalter Bahnhof in Berlin. The Anhalter Bahnhof was sealed off in 1952 by the Soviets (the station was in East Berlin and ran through West Berlin, a big problem for the Soviets). The bombed out Anhalter Bahnhof stood as a ghost platform, eerily reanimated by Fontana’s recording, projected from eight giant speakers buried in the ground. Fontana’s work reflects on the destruction of WWII, the destructive divide between East and West- however, it also connects the two with a recording of the Western Cologne train station piped to the Eastern.

Fontana’s more recent work aims at connecting sound sites in real time. Currently ‘up’ in London is White Sound: An Urban Seascape (Sept. 22- Oct. 16, 2011) which connects the sound of the ocean shore of Dorset with the gridlocked Euston Road. Speakers on the face of the Wellcome Collection building projects a live feed of crashing waves, creating a dynamic listening experience that is at moments dominated by the natural ocean that recedes to reveal the pulsing traffic. This ebb and flow of different sounds revamps how we actually listen, becoming attuned to sounds we tend to block out.

To read and explore more about Bill Fontana (give it a listen!), check out his site here.


Bob Dylan: Wtf?

Oh Bob, breakin’ my heart. I can forgive a lot of things, snagging from folk songs, appropriating other works…for the greater good of music (sometimes). But really? Copying copyright photographs and saying it was based on actual travels? Really. The proof is again, in the pictures.

Left: Dylan’s painting from “Asia Series;” Right: photograph by Dmitri Kessel taken for LIFE magazine

You’re a legend- there was no need to copy photos…you could have done ANYTHING on the canvas and Gagosian would have sold it. But no. We get these ripped off/ craptastic paintings that will still sell for more than I’ll ever be worth. I just have to say, what a disappointment, I mean I shouldn’t be- everyone plunders each other but this is just so damn blatant and bad, it’s ridiculous. It’s not like Dylan is making a masterpiece from the photos, he’s degraded great photos into boring, clumsy painting. Gagosian probably would not have even sneezed in the direction of these paintings if they’d been made by anyone else. While we’re on the subject of Gagosian, wtf to you too?! How could you miss this issue? Do you do any kind of background at all? According to Artinfo, earlier this year French Photographer Patrick Cariou sued and won against Richard Prince and Gagosian. Prince was accused of copying 41 of Carious’ photographs for his 2007 Gagosian show.

This raises an interesting question about appropriation and power in the art world right now. How far is too far when ‘appropriating’? With the plethora of internet sources and media influences how can you know if an idea is really yours anymore? Artists have been appropriating since the beginning, it’s just what happens- the more famous guy will hear something/ see something catchy and it will be attributed to him because he’s famous, no matter if someone came up with it first. But the interesting problem now with the internet is the availability of information, lines of influence and sources can become more visible (providing one knows where to start)- the internet also is a way for the underdog to get credit/ make their voice heard, at least in some way.

Some have said this is could be part of the art…something greater and more thought provoking could be going on. That Dylan could be exploring the concept of originality itself. Or the impact of celebrity on an audience’s interpretation. Doubtful. If it was part of the message then Gagosian would be spilling because they probably don’t want another copyright issue on their hands. In addition, the whole originality and appropriation game is an old hat anyway, from Duchamp’s Readymade Fountain (1917) to Sherrie Levine’s own Fountain (1991).

Will Gagosian go through with selling Dylan’s paintings? Yes. Will they still sell for a stupid amount of money? Yes. But hopefully this will make it harder for people to get away with blatant plagiarism, as well as get Gagosian to actually research the artists they are representing and maybe, just maybe, quit trying to make a quick buck off of marketing celebrity works.

P.S. Bob, stick to music.

An update to this issue can be found here. Artinfo’s Judith Dobrzynski reports that Dylan may have paid for the copyright licensing to some of the photographs he used in the Asia Series. Whether or not it was before or after the fact is not clear, however.


Art & Headlines: Wall Street Protest

The Occupy Wall Street Movement began Saturday September 17th with about 5,000 protesters (read more here). As of now there is an ongoing contingent of protesters that continue to occupy the plaza and parks in the surrounding area and are gunning for the long haul. While I do support the protest as a substantial first step for us to wake up to our situation, my biggest problem is with the media blackout. The U.S media has completely blocked out this protest and is making it quite evident whose side they are on, nobody wants to bite the hand that feeds them- which is exactly the problem. We have the right to protest but the convenient loophole is to just ignore it and it will go away. But this shouldn’t go away, if significant change is to happen, then the people must unite- they have to demand it. The wealth disparity and the people’s lack of power is not new, but that does not mean it should continue.

So today I thought I’d connect the Wall Street protest to various artworks that deal with the persistent wealth gap and with the desire to revolutionize our position.

Niki de Saint Phalle, Tirs 1960s; mixed media

1968 Poster from the Paris Protests

Victor Burgin, Possession, 1976

Erwin Wurm, Fat Convertable, 2005; mixed media


‘Pataphysics: A Philosophy of the Absurd

What is ‘Pataphysics you ask? Surely something high-minded and science-y; like physics but “pata”…? Well, yes and no; but mostly no. ‘Pataphysics is the study of imaginary solutions; a supposition based on a supposition, what lies beyond reality. Assumptions built on assumptions, the fearful imaginings and anxieties of life- for instance seeing someone you know and then assuming they are ignoring you and then wondering why they are ignoring you.

‘Pataphysics has its origins with French writer Alfred Jarry (1873-1907), an Absurdist to the core. Jarry shot to fame at the age of 23 with his play, Ubu Roi, a humorous, satirical and biting 5 act piece that was shut down after its opening night. Might have had something to do with the first word in the play being “Merdre!” (or “SHIT-R!”- Jarry had a unique way of speaking that was the inspiration for the title character where he pronounced everything, even silent letters)- which caused pandemonium in the crowd. (Alfred Jarry on a bicycle which he called “that which rolls”)

After his brief bit of fame, Jarry succumbed to the life of the bohemian, drinking heavily and dying in poverty. However, his impact and that of ‘Pataphysics is one of those strange, invisible hands that helped shape contemporary culture. Picasso, also a frequenter of the Parisian scene, became fascinated with Jarry after his death, wearing Jarry’s pistol around his neck.

(drawing of the character “Ubu” from the play Ubu Roi)

In 1948 ‘Pataphysics acquired a second life with the founding of College de ‘pataphysique in Paris. Members included notables like Joan Miro, Marcel Duchamp, and Eugene Ionesco. Even the philosopher Jean Baudrillard identified himself with the absurdist philosophy. So we can definitely see a clear lineage from Jarry’s absurdist ‘Pataphysics to the work of Dadaists and Surrealists. In the 1960s Asger Jorn also subscribed to ‘Pataphysics which influenced his work with the Situationist International. From there Pataphysics hotspots popped up all over the world. Oh yeah, John Cage’s seminal Black Mountain College performance in the 50’s? Chalk it up to ‘Pataphysics!

The ‘pataphysic effect has influenced not only visual art, but also music and literature. The Pataphor (coined by writer and musician Pablo Lopez) is an extended metaphor that describes two degrees of separation (rather than one, which would be a metaphor). It describes a new and separate world where the idea has taken on its own life (for an example click here.)

Beatles fan? In “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” what is mentioned as the course of study for Joan? That’s right, “Pataphysical Science.”

And the best thing!? It’s still around! After going underground in 1975, the College de ‘Pataphysique reemerged in 2000. The London chapter especially is thriving with an actual journal, documents, and all the trappings of sophisticated officialness. So there! Art doesn’t have to be serious to be great or influential. Sometimes the greatest truths are found within the absurd.


Wtf is good art?

What is a great work of art? How do you judge a work of art?

You stand in front of a painting/ sculpture/ whatever and…blank. What I am I supposed to say? It’s a- blob? “I like the texture…and the shapes…?” Who decides what’s great and what’s not anyway?

I just got back from some gallery openings (quite the spectacle of seeing and being seen). I was asked over and over “what is this about” or “what do you think”? I’ve looked at a lot of art, probably not enough though- but I’d like to level the playing field for everyone and maybe make some people more comfortable with what they have to say about art.

So basically, right now there are two schools of thought and two modes of art making/ theory, the postmodern and the formalist/ modernist. These are competing camps that are completely blurred- especially because scholars love to stick artists and works in categories that the artist doesn’t necessarily agree with.

Postmodernism is all about context, its about the critique of socio-political outlooks- all of our realities are different and relative to our individual situation. This philosophy is extremely diverse and envelope many discourses like gender studies, racial studies, stereotypes, etc. It can take many different forms, in many cases, it does not even ‘look’ like art, it can be documents, text, cooking, etc. Obviously it all can’t be covered in a blog post.

Modernism or formalism is considered a more ‘conservative’ outlook… regardless, the formalist believes that a work must explore the boundaries of its medium, it has to search for the fundamental properties of the medium in order to get to the essence of what painting (insert medium) is.

To explain this better, I’ll use a metaphor of games. Games have boundaries or rules, without the rules there is no game. Take freeze tag. Ok so the rules are if you get tagged you have to freeze, and then somebody else has to come along and tag you and then you get to run around again. So what if you take freeze tag and combine it with hide and seek and maybe monopoly too…the rules of the game get blurred. If you keep adding games in, it turns out there are no rules and its just a bunch of kids running around hiding, freezing and throwing monopoly pieces at you, the viewer, asking wtf. The point is, we need boundaries. We need limits to art in what is and is not art. Because if there is no rules to the game, there is no game. If art can be anything, then it is nothing.

A great work of art stops you. When you look at the work it holds you, you may not know why at first but there is something that gets you and you can’t look away. When looking at a work of art for the first time, don’t listen to anyone, don’t talk to anyone. Just look at it. Does it communicate? This could mean anything, maybe the lack of interaction among the figures is the alienation of the individual amongst the masses; or maybe you just like the color (or lack thereof). Anyway, after you figure out that you like the work (or don’t) figure out why. Maybe it’s too simple, naïve or just boring. That’s justified! You don’t have to like it, but don’t be ashamed (also don’t go off on a hate-rant). Just take the extra five minutes  (or more) to really think about the work and why or why not it appeals to you.

The great work of art should stand the test of time. Context should not be divorced from the work, but neither should it be the core. A great work is more than context. A work is great if it supersedes the context for all times, the work is completely evident; you don’t have to read a textbook to “get” it. A great work is subjective, you feel it personally, but it is also objective- it reveals and focuses a personal truth as well as a universal truth.