Stacy Scibelli employs a seamstress’s grammar in her wall sculptures at Proof Gallery. In some pieces, she deconstructs real clothing. Cut gloves open, as Scibelli does with blue dishwashing gloves in “Pair 3,” and fingers multiply and stretch, palms sprawl, in monstrous ways. For “Ma,” the artist sliced a velvety purple top. Split open, arms splayed, with the neck hole low and shaped like a space ship, “Ma” looks more like a painting than a piece of clothing, yet it retains a memory of the body…
one dog i knew would talk to another one i knew
to be a third one i knew whose paws had gotten sorely
at the factory some winters back before the strikes and
layoffs took the whole town for an unpleasant ride into the
tunnel of “what might be considered misfortune”
Despite the largely favorable reviews of Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics from the British press and journalists around the world, it was in fact kind of…an artistic disaster. Whatever the political implications of Zhang Yimou’s ceremony in Beijing four years ago, it presented a unified, poetic vision that was an effective–and attractive–mix of Chinese history and universal human themes.
Unfortunately, Zhang’s success tricked the British Olympic Committee into believing they should also entrust their opening ceremony to a successful commercial film director. What they did not realize was that Zhang is in reality an artist and a poet who also happens to be a director. Whatever his merits as a director, Boyle is no artist and certainly no poet. The result was a disconnected, overdetermined mishmash that, while presenting some very worthy ideas, was in the large conceptually flawed and painful to look at.
Not that producing an Olympic ceremony is easy. The history of Olympic ceremonies is littered with examples of good ideas with poor execution and terrible ideas gorgeously rendered. And then there are those ceremonies that defy easy categorization, ceremonies that we almost cannot believe really happened….
Spectacle for the Sake of…What Now?
Well into the post-industrial era, it’s easy to forget that there was a simpler, more innocent time in world history, when technology and media science were not quite as advanced and people weren’t as jaded. I’m talking about the 1980s. When we choose to look back at that decade, it seems almost impossibly earnest and naive, as if irony was only first invented in 1991. This point was driven home to me as I watched recently, mouth agape in wonder and disbelief, the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics:
Before the ceremony started, the crowd was warmed up by the finest form of entertainment that America could offer, which in 1984 meant Lionel Richie. Richie pumped up the the crowd with an extended seven-minute version of “All Night Long,” accompanied by some pyrotechnics and hundreds of break dancers. In an obvious display of “soft power” designed to intimidate the Soviets, a break dancer is shown spinning on his head. Then the lights are turned off and the crowd gets settled.
The ceremony starts in the solemn, epic vein of modern Olympic tradition, equal parts Apollonian gravity and Riefenstahl-inspired symbolism. The ABC television commentator tell us that “Solitary trumpeters must be 100 feet above the floor of the Coliseum.” And there they are on top of the neoclassical arches of the L.A. Coliseum, standing on either side of the monolithic column bearing the Olympic torch. The trumpeters wear shining white beetle helmets and capes in what must be a direct homage to the Great Gazoo.
The music is propulsive and Wagnerian, and familiar in some way until we realize just before the commentator tells us that it’s Philip Glass. It turns out he was commissioned to write an anthem for the Games, perhaps the first and last time a minimalist composer would be asked to do that.
Suddenly we hear the voice of God, or is it Reagan?: “Creatures of a Day! Man is merely a shadow of a dream. / But when god-given glory comes upon him in victory, / a bright light shines upon us, / and our life is sweet. When the end comes, the loss of flame brings darkness. But his glory is bright forever.” This being America, it’s hard not to hear the words “his glory” without thinking about Jerry Falwell and assuming we’re talking about God’s glory. But we find out instead that the glory is that of the Olympic athlete, and that the words are from Pindar, who wrote them for the Olympic Games in Pythia.
The commentator lets us know that the voice we heard is that of Richard Basehart, from television’s “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.” What the commentator doesn’t tell us is that Basehart also played Hitler in a film called “Hitler.” I imagine Leni Riefenstahl, still a spry 82 at the time, watching the ceremony in Bavaria. She turns to her cameraman boy-toy and says, “You know, Basehart played the Fuhrer, but he got it all wrong. Too much eye make-up.” Riefenstahl went on to live another 19 years and watch another ten Olympics, while Basehart died a few months after the ceremony.
The music diminishes and the flame is extinguished. The announcer tells us, “Ladies and gentlemen, the formal ceremonies are now over. But the celebration and fun are about to begin!”
Here’s where everything goes completely and utterly insane.
Audience members are asked to remove flashlights from the “plastic bags” at their seats. They flip them on and we see a field of blue stars sparkling across the stadium. Then we hear the faint sound of a trumpet signalling the opening fanfare of Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra.” The piece was last used by Elvis to open his shows, a sign that something monumental is about to happen.
I imagine Riefenstahl starting to chuckle to herself again, as she remembers her friend Richard conducting his own Olympic anthem for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Earlier that same year, the International Olympic Committee declared Strauss’s composition to be the Olympic anthem “for all time.” A few months later, Hitler told Speer prophetically: “In 1940 the Olympic Games will take place in Tokyo. But thereafter they will take place in Germany for all time to come.” Luckily, neither pronouncement came to pass and instead, in 1984, Gina Hemphill, the grand-daughter of Jessie Owens, ran the Olympic torch into the Coliseum during the opening ceremonies.
Back at the closing ceremonies, Strauss’s fanfare reaches a crescendo. The crowd starts cheering and we see…a UFO fly into view.
At this moment, we realize that the 1980s were a very, very different time, one that we have to struggle to even understand now. We’re talking about a time during which, at the end of years of planning and careful deliberation, the U.S. Olympic Committee came to the conclusion that the perfect closing to the Games of the XXIII Olympiad would be an extraterrestrial visit by a giant flying saucer.
Even the commentators seem to be thrown for a loop. “Only in Southern California,” one of them mutters, half in awe, half in disbelief. As the full moon enters the shot, the other commentator reassures us that “that’s the real moon.” It’s clear that no one, not even ABC, knows what’s happening anymore.
We hear some synthesizer music reminiscent of the music John Williams composed for “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Then we realize that it is Close Encounters of the Third Kind that’s happening right now, except the stadium is communicating back to the spaceship with John William’s Olympic Fanfare. We half expect to see Francois Truffaut walk out onto the landing pad to greet the aliens. Then we realize that at this point in 1984 Truffaut was dying from brain cancer. But I like to think he was watching from France and thinking to himself, “I should be out there greeting that spaceship.”
The UFO leaves and the crowd goes wild again. Then a laser show begins, accompanied by laser gun sound effects and more John Williams music that may have been taken directly from the soundtrack to Star Wars. We hear a loud noise and realize that the UFO has landed outside the stadium. Smoke and flashing lights appear through the arches. Then, in a shaft of light at the base of the torch tower, an alien appears. An actual alien.
He’s tall. The commentator tells us helpfully, “That is no one on stilts. That is a man 7 feet 8 inches tall.” That rules out the possibility that it’s Lionel Richie, back for an encore. The alien addresses the crowd: “For over 100 years you have celebrated the best that humanity has to offer. You call it ‘The Olympic Games,’ and for that and for the cities which have kept the Olympic ideal alive…I salute you!” He throws his arms into the air and just now we realize he has 12 fingers. The crowd goes wild because an alien just saluted them and said the Olympics are awesome. Then he shoots into the sky in a streak of light and the stadium explodes in fireworks.
That all of this happened as part of an official Olympic ceremony televised to the world is mind-boggling. What can we think about it? Well, for one, seeing this now, you can tell that this was a people that was not going to vote for Mondale. The second point is that the L.A. ceremony, like the London one, shows the genuine need for genuine artists. Technologically sophisticated stagecraft has little meaning if it’s not driven by a clear artistic vision.
And here is where we come back to politics. If nothing else, Fascists know how to put on a good show. They have the more powerful logos, the more focused messaging, and stronger imagery all around. Regardless of their ideological bent, ever since Riefenstahl, Olympic Committees have felt the need to aim in their ceremonies for something solemn, epic, transcendent and, well, Olympian.
Zhang’s ceremony was straight out of the Riefenstahl play book, the direct descendant of all of those Nazi laborers with their shovels on their shoulders at Nuremberg, lined up in perfect rows and and ready to march. Ironically, regarding Olympic ceremonies, Hitler may have been right after all, “They will take place in Germany for all time to come.” The National Socialist Germany of the mind, the Germany of invented mythology, perfectly choreographed kitsch, and paper-mache heroics.
It could be then, that Danny Boyle and David L. Wolper, the producer of the ceremonies in L.A., were deliberately trying to subvert the Riefenstahl paradigm. Totalitarian regimes, whatever else they are, are famous for not being fun. It’s unimaginable that the Chinese Communist Party of 2008 would have parachuted Hu Jintao into the Bird’s Nest or the Soviet Politburo of 1980 would have had an alien straight from the Universal casting lot there to close out the festivities in Moscow.
The Boyle and Wolper ceremonies might have been a total mess artistically, but democracy is like that. The ideology and the imagery is all over the place, but we are having fun, aren’t we? This is Simon Schama’s analysis of Boyle’s presentation, at any rate, and he does his best to build a case that the ceremony was meant to be loose and messy, a circus-like celebration of Britain’s very real social achievements–in short, the “last of the great socialist pageants.”
But is it good art? Against almost any standard of taste or theory of aesthetics, classic, socialist, post-modern, or otherwise, the answer has to be “No.” Though presenting some noble and worthy ideas, Boyle’s ceremony was too scattered in its conception and ham-fisted in its execution to be great art. Wolper’s aesthetic principles seemed to be derived straight from B-movies and a second-rate discotheque in the Valley.
And what about those ultimate purveyors of questionable taste, the Soviet Politburo? What must they have thought about the UFO and the lasers and all of that? Whatever they thought, they gathered it from a satellite feed. In that year, the USSR and 13 other Eastern Bloc countries boycotted the L.A. Games as “pay back” for the U.S. and other countries who boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow.
Given the general paranoia permeating the Cold War, Soviet officials must have wondered if the U.S. wasn’t trying to mess with them somehow. Like, “We thought the U.S. was normal, but oh no, look they just launched a fake UFO and staged an elaborate alien encounter as part of an international sporting event. They’re like a crazy person. We better be careful with these guys, who knows what other crazy stuff they’re capable of?” Just a few short months later, the pilot episode of “Perfect Strangers” went into production.
At any rate, despite their musings, the Soviets had bigger problems to think about. As the Americans invited the world to a party with fake spaceships and laser shows, the Soviets were struggling to recover from an economy on the brink of collapse while also trying to extricate themselves from an expensive and unwinnable war in Afghanistan. A few short years later, the whole country disintegrated.
When am I gonna make a living? It’s gonna take a while before I give in
Two sizes too large and tightly cinched around her skinny waist, Sade’s trench coat matches London’s overcast sky almost perfectly in the video she made for “When Am I Going to Make A Living?” One recognizes a certain look of jobless ennui, a subtle fashion of resistance, a telling sign of her enduring frustration with capitalism. The song was released in 1984 during record unemployment in Thatcherite Great Britain, a time not dissimilar to the present global impoverishment and the widening economic gap. During my career as an exhibiting artist (or whatever), which began about a week before the stock market crashed in 2008, I’ve often sat at my desk to ponder this video on YouTube, encouraged by Sade’s smart outerwear decision because style matters.
Despite the lyrics of hunger and striving, one is inspired by her utter lack of desperation. Sade poses a contradiction: effortlessness or lack of effort versus joblessness or lack of employment. Each lack is contingent upon the other. You could say that if she asserted more effort, she would likely find some profitable engagement. Then again, try to imagine the manager of your local Starbucks instructing Sade in the better way of “legendary service.” There is actually no thought more gross.
The sage advice of Quentin Crisp here applies, as it usually does. Here I would also care to insert an opinion: it is ridiculous that affordable reprints of Quentin Crisp’s entire oeuvre are not presently available in paperback or omnibus.
“Never do for a living any job in which you cannot add what you are to what you do. It is a mistake to think of style as something that a man puts on like evening dress only after office hours. He should discover or invent an everyday occupation on to which he can weave the tapestry of his life-style. This is less of a problem to young people than to the rest of us…Older people are often ashamed to do this. They and such students as desire a higher standard of loafing than the government [assistance] can offer must look for some ways of combining style with profit.”
-Quentin Crisp, excerpted from How To Have a Life-Style, 1975.
Of course, we know but have chosen momentarily not to admit that Sade is employed. Performing this song for a video is work, and at that she does a marvelous job suspending our disbelief. It doesn’t look much like work at all. Which brings us to the art of it, a field wherein we are concerned occassionally with illusions such as this.
To bring these thoughts a little closer to home, it might be generously informative to share an anecdote from my own underemployed life. At breakfast today I had a single slice of toast and coffee. At lunch I had a bit of pasta without compliment of sauce. This afternoon, midway between starting and finishing this blog entry, I went out and paid $80 for a truly sensational haircut. I do not know how I will supper, but feel confident that the stunning visual affect of this haircut will make up for what doubtlessly will be a rather underwhelming meal. I haven’t made my living today so much as I’ve fashioned it, having spent no effort whatsoever making ends meet.
A discussion with New Mexico artist Jenna Kuiper about numerology, magic, tarot and her painting show titled 17 Stones currently on view at Richard Levy Gallery in Albuquerque. The show includes seventeen small framed paintings, each of a single floating crystal.
17 Stones by Jenna Kuiper courtesy Richard Levy Gallery
You’re a native of the Midwest raised in South Dakota, and after spending some time in Montana landed in New Mexico. Artists in the past have migrated to New Mexico claiming the landscape and the colors of the sunset as the draw. There is a separate migration of spiritual seekers moving here to study yoga, reiki, shamanism, and many other practices linked to New Age philosophy.
The crystals in your paintings reflect a careful consideration of the colors of the sunset as it hits the earth. Every edge and change of light constructed through the use of glazes of purples and underpaintings of oranges. Delicate and precious, these are real painter’s paintings. Can you talk a little about your relationship with the landscape here and how, if at all, it’s connected to this work?
There is this real connection here between spirituality and art. I think the aridness of the desert lends itself to spiritual thinking, and thinking in general. It’s a really heady place, all of the energy lifting up and out– and air being the element of the mind. Even though it’s kind of a cliche–the whole desert solitude, Georgia O’Keefe, lonely artist thing, I do find some truth behind it. Everything is out in the open here, laid bare, sun-faded, with very few soft or sheltered places for hiding. The plants are prickly and hard, the ground rocky and abrasive. It’s a landscape of existential questions, really, and great religious undertones. I think that is why the show Breaking Bad fits so well here.
Anyway, I’ve always felt that the more my eyes can stretch out, the more my mind can turn inward, toward a more meditative place. The desert really lends itself to contemplative practices. Vast, open sky / tiny quiet internal space. I hadn’t thought about the sunset and colors but i like that idea a lot, especially connecting something as small and personal as the stones to the more universal sunset.
I agree with you that this is a landscape of existential questions, and as you say religious undertones. There is some sort of deep draw bringing people here from every corner of the world. Why crystals?
I think they are the perfect thing to paint. In a way, it is where paint comes from, so the narrative is partially driven by the material. I really tried to match the way a crystal captures and distills light by working with the layering over the gold underpainting. Some areas are translucent, others opaque.
Crystals also have this promise attached to them, this immeasurable thing. The crystal in the paintings is one I’ve had for a long time–and I don’t hold onto things very well. I sort of let things float, or pass them along after a while. It’s a little out there, but people who are really into crystals think that if you aren’t consciously “ready” for a certain stone it won’t stay with you.
Untitled, 2012, oil on panel 12" x 10"
People claim that Santa Fe is built on one enormous crystal, making the city a healing vortex. These paintings feel like a chipping away at this spiritual landscape, the desire for a small personal piece, or ownership of this healing power.
Created with such careful thought to technique, are you interested in these paintings having the potential to heal?
I hadn’t heard that about Santa Fe. crazy. There are a lot of stories up there, and i’m super amused by it all- the invisible world, the myth of place. In terms of tapping into or utilizing the healing power of place with the crystal paintings, I don’t think I could begin to claim anything like that. It’s something that is better left implied rather than being explicit, like being asked to explain a joke. Healing is such a personal, internal thing. I mean, a person could find an old gravy bowl or the smell of a certain plant more resonant than objects that are specific and revered for healing. It’s so arbitrary.
At the same time, I have this real connection to the healing arts. I practice and teach yoga, and have studied ayurveda and somatic psychology quite a bit. I’m really drawn to objects that have an esoteric meaning attached to them, or that are deemed sacred in some way and reference what is happening beneath the surface of everyday life. But I think the belief we attach to things and the ritual surrounding objects really influences what they may or may not innately possess.
So much of it is human energy, cultural fever. By painting the same crystal, over and over, I am essentially asking this question about the nature of belief, but also creating a practice of repetition and ritual for myself. There is a saying of the alchemists- “through repetition the magic will be forced to rise”. I’m looking for that with my art practice.
Tell me more about this particular journey into the process of repetition. Did you find the magic?
ha! I have found some magic. While I was painting these I would close my eyes and see shining facets. There really is a benefit to repetition though; it shows you your patterns and creates awareness. It’s the same in art and yoga. I’m impatient about mixing color, my left hip is tighter than my right, i always kick up into handstand with the same leg. It’s all self-realization and questioning.
Ritual is something that is not really valued or supported in our society, aside from consumerism and some aspects of christianity–yet it seems to be a cultural craving. It grounds our experience, and creates a stability that allows for smart, spontaneous action. A lot of my work comes from indexical everyday ritual that i either find traces of or create for myself. A couple years ago i did a project where i combed through the old journals of my great grandparents (they recorded small things about every day) and scanned every entry recorded that mentioned the wind–which was often as they lived on the eastern plains of South Dakota. In the end I put together a wind document that distilled all of these entries– over 10 years of wind observance.
The seventeen paintings in your show hang like a constellation, radiating from the corner of a white wall. Why the number 17?
Well, you know about this. It relates to numerology and in most tarot decks the number 17 is the number of the star and shows a woman looking into dark water, scrying. Scrying is an old divination technique where a person looks into something clear and deep, like a crystal or water, in an attempt to invoke a vision- a really auspicious card. It’s also a card about believing, what can happen when you really believe in something. I have a hard time with this.
How do you read it?
Well, I’m no expert on numerology, as far as the star card goes in Tarot, I know it’s about gaining an awareness of the light that guides us through the dark.
I remember seeing some of your older paintings of banal subjects such as swimming pool tubes and books. An artist myself who has moved around a lot I’m interested in how places influence art practice and subject matter. Do you feel moving from South Dakota/Montana to New Mexico has changed the focus of your work, a shift of subject matter? Has it pushed your work into the arena of occult and divination?
Well, I think with the objects I was looking for something that could be very still. To render the invisible, or find tactile traces of the invisible. Certain objects and places lend themselves to that.
And that is basically what divination does–just offers little mirrors and arrows that reflect and point to what we don’t necessarily see. It’s more prevalent here in New Mexico, so i’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot more, but it’s something that has been on my radar wherever i’ve lived. Even as a kid in South Dakota we played with ouija boards, made ourselves faint, and attempted to hypnotize one another. It seems like kids are naturally drawn to these things. How many adults get together and play “light as a feather, stiff as a board?” Sounds fun.
Santa Fe has one of the largest art markets in the U.S (I think third in ranking). I know you’ve worked at a gallery in Santa Fe. You’ve also attended the Masters in Fine Arts program at UNM in Albuquerque, and now are teaching at The State University of New Mexico in Las Cruces, near the Mexican border. That’s quite a well rounded experience of the states’ various art cultures. Some say that everyone north of Albuquerque is an artist. Where/how do you feel as a contemporary artist you fit in here?
I’m not really sure I trust the statistics behind art markets. I mean, there are so many things to consider. What all are they calling art?
The statistics are based on sales, often driving the type of art that is made, and the type of artists that stick around.
I’m pretty private, and I guess I don’t really look at things in terms of how or where I fit in with a certain scene. To me, the best work is made because a person feels they have to make it, regardless of the art culture or who is doing what. I think that the more personal, the more relative to the collective and the more approachable. I’m really inspired by artists who incorporate phenomenology into their work, as well as those who work with light and space. And there is a long tradition of artists working this way in New Mexico that I really connect to.
The first thought that pops into my head is the work Spencer Finch did about Roswell. For the Roswell piece, he created a shape that matched his field of vision of the sky above the supposed UFO crash and replicated the same exact blue of the sky with rhinestones and paint. He works a lot with the unknown and metaphysical. http://www.spencerfinch.com/view/mixed-media/79
There are a lot of young, lesser known artists making great things too. Some of the painters in the grad program at UNM are incredible.
I’m trying to find someone to watch my cats so I can travel around a bit this summer. It’s rough–I’m insanely attached. Talk about sacred objects…..
Wiener Family Archive (Massachusetts – circa 2012) – Recent Acquisition
It begins with a waiting room in a doctor’s office. Clearly I could not help but be fascinated by this thing – I mean who wouldn’t want the calm of a glowing picturesque view to gaze at during a time when one’s patience is being tested. (That combined with imagining the inevitable body-prodding, which is sure to be the doctor’s next move…) So, where do I go from here – the entire time I spent staring and taking pictures with my phone was accompanied by fascination with this monument to stillness. I remain seduced not only by the chopped, glowing photograph from the calendar month of May, but also by how much it belonged there. Slowly I became conscious of my wait-time and delighted in how I became convinced that I possessed it. I’m still not sure why I feigned surprise or joked about it to those around me. This idea of possessing time reminded me of my parent’s travel pictures that have remained in boxes and bags in basements and attics until I recently orphaned them from their slumber.
Wiener Family Archive (California – circa 1984 or 85)
Thanks to this newfound archive, all I can think about is landscape and personal narrative. The most fascinating markers on my family’s pictures are mistakes (light leaks, film processing scratches, overexposure, x-ray damage, etc). They obscure the depicted view (which effectively prevented them from becoming the 4×6 shoebox monuments they were meant to be) and while I remember most of the locations, these tragedies seem to be most potent as disruptions. The brushed-aside errors of technology wear the rags of age but, if allowed, might become detritus that expands and elaborates the personal stories on display. As marks, they also remove a necessary form of concentration that would lead to an affirmation of one’s imaginary presence within (possibly as a wanderer) and physical presence outside of the frame. Upon looking, I become the migrant spy who finds representative ghosts of my own past damaged on plains, in water, through forests. My only way of accessing it is not through what is shown, but by what is obscured – essentially, what I cannot see.
Kurt von Stetten – No Land, Sky, Water (2012)
The photographic obstruction is characterized by both the mark’s inability to cohere into the natural scape and the image’s decisive presence as a flat object of reference that disallows its ability to ever actually be the thing in question. Since access to the past through images is obscured, another possibility for participation is to psychologically enter the technically manufactured disruptions that prevent immediate access to the represented (or more appropriately, naturalized) environment. A mode of self-drawing into the image seems appropriate here. It becomes an assertion of an external, subjective presence who willfully engages a flat surface, shaping it according to momentary desires. This action is delightfully opposed to the movie-going sensation commonly known as the suspension of disbelief. When I was a young chap I played with model airplanes and it always felt real due to the empty seat in the cockpit – I was piloting those machines. If I became conscious of myself (through something like a plastic surrogate) my fantasy would have been disrupted, my imaginary body cast out the invented play-space. Nevertheless, the desire to reinsert myself returned over and over again, as I continuously tried to recapture the fullness of the original illusory condition. Still pictures, both old and new, work on me the same way. That wish to be there in those vastly constructed mazes of nature and the past is paired with the knowledge of that project’s impossibility, all the while remaining complacent in my “desire to see without being seen.” (p. 16, Landscape and Power)
Nicole White – Late Afternoon, Sun (2011-12)
This experience (or process) essentially becomes its own interior topography. One built upon its source image, which rests upon a prefigured aesthetic system that dictates the arrangement of elements within an aesthetic frame. I guess before that it was the eye and humankind’s desire to conceive of the natural world as an enclosed condition of marvel and order. The landscape pictures I am experiencing as close and personal are arranged and conceived prior to the moment of their making with special thanks to the standards established by all manner of painting, guidebook, photo manual, etc. Beholden to an image, the memory is mine, but pretty views of nature without specific human figures can belong to anyone. Generic land “is a material ‘means’ like language or paint, embedded in a tradition of cultural signification and communication, a body of symbolic forms capable of being invoked and reshaped to express meaning and values.” (p. 14, Landscape and Power)
Wiener Family Archive (Italy – circa 1988)
This all may seem terribly disheartening, but it is not. While I am acutely aware of the overarching demands of tradition that weigh heavily on my regression, it does not bother me. One must allow specific standards imposed on production to disrupt what one holds most dear. My constant awareness of this mediation, which demands full attention, is the crucial and necessary cloud resting upon a near-perfectly centered horizon line.
W.J.T. Mitchell’s anthology Landscape and Power was published in 2002 by The University of Chicago Press.
For more information about the artists above, please visit the websites below:
During a year studying in Paris, I visited the Arab World Institute on a class assignment
for Islamic Civilization. Living abroad for the first time, I was more interested in hearing
chamber music in neighborhood churches and eating raclette than I was in muddling
through academic French writing. One of the highlights of my civ class was when our
professor took us for Tunisian couscous. The other was spending time in the Institut du
There is something very liberating about living in a foreign country, in a completely
different cultural context. On a broader plane, the possibility for reinvention exists, but on
a simpler day-to-day level, it has always seemed easier to be, just as a human being. I
would spend time wandering through the exhibitions, sketching artifacts as illustrations in
letters to friends back home, and sitting in contemplative corners admiring the geometric
patterns of light created by the façade.
Forbidden from depicting figural representations of Allah and the prophets, architecture
and art of the Islamic world famously developed an abstract pattern language. The
architect of the IMA, Jean Nouvel, took these intricate geometries as inspiration for
the façade of the building. It was something of a technological marvel, as each rosette
operated like a camera aperture, opening and closing to vary the amount of light let into
the building. While on the outside, a viewer might register subtle shifts in pattern; on the
inside, there was a dramatic play of lacey light and shadow as the mechanical rosettes
acted as brise-soleils against the changing sun.
The façade also fulfilled a poetic and symbolic function. In the Quran, light holds an
important place in Islam as a stand-in for God himself. Historically, Islamic architecture
has used light as a key decorative element. With modern architecture defining itself as
a rejection of the language of pilasters, cornices and gargoyles, a reinterpretation of the
Islamic decorative screen seemed appropriate as a contemporary means to break down
scale, to embellish, to aesthetically alter perceptions of space.
This was the building that demonstrated to me what architecture could do. As a museum,
not only did it house historically relevant objects, but it was a cultural billboard that
presented itself to the city, all the while framing light to create new sensory phenomena.
The building was at once container, billboard, and frame. It provided a multi-layered
experience: the prose of the exhibition and the poetry of artful manipulation of space
and light. Each reinforced the other in its didactic mission, alternately switching between
foreground and background.
NOTE: All quotes accompanied by their corresponding page number from Bubbles unless otherwise noted. All images copyright Mary Mattingly unless otherwise noted.
“Life is a matter of form—that is the hypothesis we associate with the venerable and geometric term ‘sphere’. It suggests that life, the formation of spheres and thinking are different expressions of the same thing.” – Peter Sloterdijk, Bubbles (p. 10-11)
To be clear, public speaking (virtual or otherwise) has always been an uncertain place for me. Nerves well up along with all manner of unpleasantries, but it is also something I crave as an opportunity to indulge in my own subjectivity formation. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to write for this blog, but until recently had not known to what I would dedicate the following text.
During the academic year of 2008-09 I was taking a German course to prepare for a grant period in Leipzig. My professor was not only fluent in the language but also in Frankfurt School critical theory, which was/is an interest of mine as well. Prior to the start of a class we were musing on some writing by Benjamin or Adorno when she suggested another German writer called Peter Sloterdijk and his trilogy entitled Spheres. She described the writing with such enthusiasm I was compelled to discover that it had not yet been translated to English. My German remains stilted at best to this day, which should not speak to this educator’s ability but to my own fear of mis-speaking an unfamiliar language. Good thing my German colleagues in Leipzig were only too excited to practice their English with me.
Recently, the first of these three texts (Bubbles) became available in an English translation and I set myself to the task of reading and deciphering it. Mind you, I am not formally trained in philosophy (or other such practices) so I make no such claims to expertise in this field. I am, however, struck by the parallels between Sloterdijk’s conceptions of spheres and my dear friend and sometime collaborator Mary Mattingly’s upcoming project “Flock House” which is slated to float around NYC’s five boroughs this summer. As I have only just started reading this monstrous treatment of humankind’s relationship to spherical forms, please consider this offering an initial observation of similarities to be followed up in subsequent posts.
“…wherever human life is found, whether nomadic or settled, inhabited orbs appear, wandering or stationary orbs which, in a sense, are rounder than anything that can be drawn by compasses.” (p. 11)
Mattingly’s fragile, somewhat nomadic bubbles are meant to represent “migratory structures as part of the city’s ecology” and is “inspired by patterns of global human migration, immigration, and pilgrimage” (her words). It is a self-sustaining ecosystem, which is built from various reused pieces and will grow food using collected and purified rainwater (of course, this is also the water source). In short, they are places to live (for two artists per two–week period of stasis) that utilize unused space for the purpose of transforming it into a livable, self-sustaining ecosystem. Another integral component is the interactive dimension, which includes and is constituted by the surrounding communities participation. It is a breathing socio-spherical proposal—a form of sustained interactivity modulating between the inner and outer walls of a delicate, volatile globe.
“It is initially no more than a hollow-bodied sculpture awaiting significant further use.” (p. 33)
In Sloterdijk’s text, the preceding quote is meant to address the creator Himself who sculpts his Adam from clay as a shell without a core—a kind of empty circle prior to the pivotal moment where He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” (p. 35) Sloterdijk eventually reaches a circular observation on page 40 about this breath that concerns our introductory journey: that the creator creates himself synchronously with Adam as the “intimate counterpart of one like himself.” The tracing of one’s own form is not the sole concern—the precedent cannot take shape without its constitutive creation returning that breath. So, “breath science can only get underway as a theory of pairs.” (p. 41) What I see emerging as a possibility for Mattingly’s floating orb prior to its departure into the heights of NYC is a breath that reaches out into spaces and attempts to have it returned in the shape of ecology and community. This spherical aesthetic becomes an experiential sociosphericality formed by a modulating interior and exterior (both of which physically and discursively gather one another).
The shape of this inhabitable, sculptural sphere echoes its own desire.
“In the intimate sharing of subjectivity by a pair inhabiting a spiritual space for both, second and first only appear together. Where the second does not enter, the first was not given either.” (p. 42)
It is only fitting that she proposes for two artists to be housed in this shape at one time. As you will soon see, the space is not large and will require some manner of spatial sacrifice for those whose living conditions are decidedly more comfortable. Sloterdijk later states that “the sublime biune bubble is damned to burst” (p. 52) when referring to Adam and Eve’s inevitable expulsion from Eden. Here, the idea of bursting is connected with the generation of another historical moment as reconstitution or regeneration of one’s position relative to alternate spaces. This is the moment where I must diligently state that I am not making a case for artists (or any such couples) being affiliated with some divine provenance. Quite the contrary is true, however, I do sympathize with Sloterdijk’s consideration of the Judeo-Christian model as evidence of how certain human belief systems account for (or more appropriately, reflect or see) themselves through sacred texts.
For Flock House, the forced couplings of interactive agents must work both within and outside of their migrant space as an attempt to set up alternate conditions for the experience of space, home, human relationships, community, all within a breathing context of patterned migration. (Unfortunately, the nomadic impulse that underscores the potential for this structure must remain uncharted until a future moment deems it necessary.)
“In both regimes, the prehistoric and the historical, human existence never simply adjusts itself to fit into what, using a modern and overly smooth term, we call its “environment”; rather, this existence creates its own surrounding space through which and in which it appears.” (p. 57)
It seems to me that the purpose of Flock House is to absorb itself into community situations by imposing a sociospherical model of interaction. The drive toward a circular social space, in both the two- and three-dimensional senses, is built upon an inclusive model. Both the interior and exterior must leave their traces upon each other in order to make visible an alternate, mobile form of regenerative spatial migration. “In foam worlds, the individual bubbles are not absorbed into a single, integrative hyper-orb, as in the metaphysical conception of the world, but rather drawn together to form irregular hills.” (p. 81) So, the model is an inclusive, absorptive one (NOT in the Friedian sense) where the space is perpetually engaged in an attempt to become part of a community prior to its inevitable departure. This is the antithesis of Sloterdijk’s foam—Mattingly’s bubble, while fragile and untested, is meant to realize its assimilative potential as a floating orb that both draws in and pushes out as a small-scale manufacturer of the already available.
“If we speak here of spheres as self-realizing forms, we do so in the conviction that we are not imposing concepts—and if they were imposed in a certain sense, it would be in a manner encouraged by the objects themselves.” (p. 78)
I will end here with a note on intimacy:
“The category of the intimate […] deals exclusively with divided, consubjective and inter-intelligent interiors in which dyadic or multi-poled groups are involved—and which, in fact, can only exist to the extent that human individuals create these particular spatial forms as autogenous vessels through great closeness, through incorporations, invasions, intersections, interfoldings and resonances (and, in psychoanalytic terms, also identifications).” (p. 98)
At this early stage in the book I can think of no better model for this future Flock House to be built upon. The creation of which is dependent upon its geographic integration into a surrounding social sphere and the return of that gesture in an effort to echo its pneumatic, circular construction. It can be an intimate microsphere that moves within and around massive architectural spaces, breathing in and exhaling its surroundings from all spherical points of contact. If fragile bubbles inevitably become orbs that press into each other and gather in mass as foam (disallowing contact between the interior and exterior) then Flock House must be some other kind of sphere—one that is both a core and a shell, both separate and connected to its fluctuating environments.
Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles was published in 2011 by Semiotext(e).
the Arrival of the Queen of the Night, 1815, stage set for The Magic Flute by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. Source.
I converted to Diva Worship only a few years ago, although I’ve had faith the size of a
mustard seed since boyhood. Not keen on behaving or listening to men relay messages
from on high, inevitably I ran afoul with more conventional religious affiliations,
including the Baptist church I attended as a youth.
Not easily, but at some point in my teenage years I realized that all was right with
Heaven and on Earth when the Queen of Pop is on her throne. I guess this makes me a
conservative, but please bear with me.
The author dines at Stevie’s Creole Café, Encino. Photo: Niko Solorio.
A week after Whitney Houston died I happened to be in Los Angeles. While there, my
friend Niko made dinner reservations for the Bobby Brown Room at Stevie’s Creole
Café and Bar in Encino. The Bobby Brown Room is a private dining area appointed for
the café’s famous patron whenever he is at home, not on tour. The room is comfortable
for up to ten, with fresh flowers, a flat-screen TV and heavy curtains installed in the
windows. A wrap-around photomural decorates the room, celebrating moments in the life
of Bobby Brown and his world famous ex-wife. That morning she was buried in Newark,
New Jersey. The cafe hosted a brunch for fans that wanted to eat chicken, waffles and
observe Houston’s funeral on network television.
After dinner, Niko and I drove over to Eagle Rock where we visited a memorial erected
by friends of the artist Mike Kelley, who also died but about two weeks prior. Stuffed
animals, blankets, candles, flowers and artworks were among the condolences arranged
around the vacant lot. It is not unlike Houston’s shrine in Beverly Hills.
Whitney Houston memorial at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Photo: the author.
I was thinking about a scene in Whitney Houston’s third movie “The Preacher’s Wife,”
when she performs a medley of “I Love the Lord/Joy to the World” with the Georgia
Mass Choir. Obviously I’ve thought about it before, because this movie’s soundtrack
is one of my favorites as well as the best-selling gospel disc of all time. Incidentally,
the second best-selling gospel recording is 1972’s “Amazing Grace,” a concert album
performed by Houston’s godmother, Aretha Franklin.
Houston performs this medley in front of her choir, ostensibly in praise of Jesus on
Christmas, but diva worshippers know what’s really going on. A vehicle for the singer/
actress, viewers see “The Preacher’s Wife” to commune with the diva, to witness the
power of her voice. With virtuosic brilliance, she invites the faithful to redirect our gazes
toward her, siphoning admiration away from the Godhead. As a committed idolater, I’m
fine with this. Courtney Vance, playing the preacher/husband, embraces Whitney after
her performance and moans: “I love you baby. I love you, I love you…” Mesmerized as
we are by this woman, he forgets all about being in church; he’s suddenly turned on! He
condones our perversity, signaling his complicity. Happily, we worship the Voice rather
than the Deity it purports to exalt. Joy to the world!
Joyce Pensato’s frenetic paintings of cartoon characters have always been unsettling, but her latest show at Petzel is downright frightening. This is largely thanks to the addition of installations which bring the paintings’ ominous atmosphere and suggestions of physical violence off the wall and into the room with the viewer.
Pensato recently moved out of her longtime studio in Brooklyn, a cavernous warehouse space where, to judge by this exhibition, she had spent years accumulating an extensive collection of Tickle-Me-Elmos, stuffed Mickey Mouses and Donald Ducks, magazine images of Al Jolson in blackface and Aunt Jemima dolls, and other people’s family portraits, as well as such common studio fixtures as chairs, extension cords, milk crates, and paint cans. These objects have been piled in loose, colorful profusion around the gallery, creating a powerful visual and conceptual foil for the paintings.
In the 2-D work, pared-down, distorted-yet-recognizable images of cartoon characters’ faces are drawn in charcoal or painted (nearly) entirely in black, silver and white enamel. The paint handling is fast and furious, featuring forceful gestures and showers of drips. In the drawings, the marks are so violent and repetitive they tear up the paper.
This show’s special achievement is how the experience of the drawings and paintings is affected by the installations. The mask-like quality of Pensato’s cartoon portraits is hard to miss when a real rubber Batman mask is in the room. Defacing an actual, physical body (even a plush one) with paint makes the hailstorms of drips and slashing gestures in the paintings feel more aggressive. The psychological darkness of the portraits seems especially intense when they’re surrounded by serial-killer-lair-like piles of limp little bodies and photos with obliterated faces.
At Pensato’s last exhibit at Petzel in 2008, the paintings were just as good but the sleek Chelsea setting tamped down their intense energy. Here, the installations provide a sense of where the work is coming from: a rougher, rawer place.