Friday, May 21, 2010

Blade Runner: Love and Death of the Simulacra

Bereft of a concept of the 'real', Marx's economic base and dependent superstructure simply collapsed into each other. All that remained were empty signifiers of value and meaning which no longer belonged to any larger social or economic system. This created, in a terminology that became extremely fashionable during this period, the reign of the 'simulacra.'

-- Eleanor Heartney, Postmodernism

The simulacra are presences or appearances that have lost their ground in being or reality. They appear to us as real, but are only illusions that cause us to forget about reality, or toforget to ask the question, "what is real?" A simulacrum is like a reflection in a glass window: it has all the appearance of reality, but none of the substance. Heartney is refering to the popularity of this term in 1980s art criticism. Although its entrance into art critical discourse appears to correspond with technological changes, such as genetic research, that suggested the possibility of producing sythetic life, questions surrounding hyperrealistic representation have been a feature of art theory for a very long time (e.g Pygmalion).

Ridley Scott's movie Blade Runner is a captivating exploration of issues surrounding the presence of simulacra in human society. The world of Blade Runner is a post-consumer apocalypse in which human industrial and technological expansion has ravaged the earth. The market for genetically modified and produced objects, food, etc. is huge, and scientists even discovered a way to create 'people', called replicants, who act almost exactly like human beings. But they are different in significant ways. In producing the replicants, these future dwellers of earth committed one of the top ten big Sci-Fi mistakes: never create humanoid creatures that are exactly like you in all respects, except for their superior strength, agility and intelligence. Fortunately, the (real) humans were not completely inept. They did program the replicants to to have a life span of 4 years and to be emotionally impaired.

Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a 'blade runner'. He catches and kills replicants living on earth. All replicants are forced to live off of planet earth (in fear of a hostile take over), and so the blade runners were organized as enforcers. Even at the beginning of the movie it is clear that Deckard does not like his job. He is a reluctant blade runner. As the film progresses, it becomes clear why hunting and killing physically superior beings is not for everyone. But perhaps more disturbing than the fear of fighting a replicant is the injustice implied by the killing of creatures that are so similar to humans, and that only exist because humans made them.

One of the most remarkable scenes in the movie is a chase with Deckard and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). Zhora is a replicant that Deckard finds performing in a bar, and she proves to be a very difficult catch. Realizing that Deckard is a blade runner, Zhora gets a head start and the chase ensues. Eventually, as they approach something like a mall or shopping center, Deckard catches up. Zhora smashes through the closed glass door or window and runs down an aisle flanked by more glass, and mannequins posing and watching from behind the glass. As she runs down the aisle, Deckard shoots and fresh red blood erupts from her chest and spatters on the inside of Zhora's clear plastic jacket. Zhora continues to run, though she begins to slow down, and eventually dives through another window as she is shot again, and she falls to the ground dead.

The scene in the mall is utterly dazzling and disorienting. The large amount of glass and reflected light confuses the eye, and one wonders where reality and reflection begin and end. As she dashes through this hall of mirrors, Zhora is surrounded by mannequins who, like her, are only imitations of the real. They gaze upon her in solemn, undisturbed reflection as she lunges to her death.

Confronted with the simulacrum of death, it seems as though Zhora has transcended her own status as imitation and approached, perhaps become, the real. Certainly Deckard, and myself as the viewer, feels uneasy about all this because it raises questions about how one defines humanity. We feel that out actions in the face of death is some part of what makes us human, and yet to see Zhora die, and to feel the loss of her death, requires us to reconsider what it means to live and die as a human, and not merely as a simulacrum.

Throughout the movie, Deckard develops a friendship, and then more intimate relationship, with Rachael (Sean Young), who is also a replicant. By the end of the movie it is clear that they love each other, and it is only suggested that Deckard helps her to escape those who would hunter her down. But, again, we are left to question what is it that makes us human? If love is not a quintessentially human action then what is? Does Rachael love Deckard, or is she only capable of the imitation of love? When the simulacra love and die, we are shaken to our core. If we cannot distinguish our love or death from theirs, then who is to say that one is real and the other imitation.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Parisian Job

500 Million Euros! Somebody has good taste. My office mate, and personal assistant (he he he), David Sonju directed me to this article earlier today. Apparently, a very clever theif (or group of theives) was (were) able to rob the Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris of five very expensive paintings. The hit list includes Picasso, Matisse (his painting La Pastorale, above, was stolen), Leger, Braque, and Modigliani. It is a literal "who's who" of French modern painting. As far as I know, no one has been arrested in connection with the burglary. If the art theives happen to be reading this, and are feeling generous, a donation of a small piece of the Matisse of Picasso would go a long way towards erasing my school debt after this PhD. If you aren't interested, then please take them back.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

When Protagonism becomes Antagonism [Part I]: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The literary terms 'protagonist' and 'antagonist' are common enough. The 'protagonist' is the main character of a play, film, or story. The 'antagonist is the one who opposes the protagonist: he, she or it is a source of frustration, conflict, and tension. Less common, is the related word 'protagonism.' A concise definition of protagonism could be: 'an active support of an idea or cause; especially the act of pleading or arguing for something.' I do not know the etymological and historical relationship between 'protagonism' and 'protagonist,' but placing them side by side is suggestive. The protagonist is the one in the story toward whom the reader lends support and encouragement. We want Frodo to throw the ring into mount doom, and an adept author like Tolkein is able to direct and develop our sympathies for Frodo and his fellowship. But what happens when our protagonism turn us into antagonists?

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas is one of those movies, like Schindler’s List, that makes evil disturbingly palpable. The protagonist is a young boy, Bruno, whose father administers a Nazi WWII concentration camp. Their family moves to a house not far from the camp. Naturally, the boy is curious about the camp and the people there. And his parents’attempts to keep him confined to their house (or, better, prison) only manages to fuel his fascination with what is going on in the ‘outside world.’

Bruno is a source of freedom, innocence and hope in the midst of a very dark story set in one of the more disturbing episodes of world history. Throughout the film, his vibrant and carefree spirit drew me in as I gradually, seemingly naturally, became his advocate. When his parents, and especially the hired tutor, discourage Bruno’s inquisitiveness, restrict his imaginative play, and refuse to let him play in the forested area around their home, I am forced to choose sides.How can I not cheer for the winsome Bruno who is forced to grow up too quickly, but at the same time is sheltered from the horrific realities of living in a time of war.

When Bruno found a way to escape from the house, I could not help but feel a thrill of excitement and hope. Now, the stifling fear can really be left behind. And when he finds the concentration camp, and meets Schmuel, a young Jewish boy his age (the only boy his age that he can call a friend), how could I not want him to bring food to the famished Schmuel. How could I not want Bruno to play with Schmuel through that terrible barbed-wire fence. What was I thinking?Perhaps I thought that this relationship could bring some kind of redemption to the horror and tragedy of genocide. Perhaps I wanted to the boys to at least have friendship for they both, in their different ways, had very little of life and happiness. Whatever the reason, and it sure felt like a good reason, I wanted their friendship to grow.

On the day that Bruno came with a shovel and a sandwich, and he offered to help Schmuel to find his father (who he had not seen for days), I wondered if something unspeakable were about to happen. And yet, I cheered when Bruno put on the striped uniform, and I cheered when he slipped under the fence. I could not help it because, I thought, here is an image of reconciliationand here is hope that injustice will not continue forever. I could not help it, but the moment he was on the other side, I regretted it. The boys ran through the camp, and searched in several huts, but, before long, they were caught up and corralled by German soldiers in a forced march.The marched in the middle of the group unable to get out and unable to see where they were going. They marched into a room where they were forced to take their clothes off. They marched into a room where they were pushed even closer together. Then, the soldiers shut the large metal door. I regretted that I ever wanted Bruno to be friends with Schmuel, let alone crawl under the fence, but I had wanted that. I had cheered him to his death.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bird Stealing Bread

Most of my blog posts, lately, have been about visual images. They are an attempt to bring words to a visual metaphor, and to explore its possibilities. But words themselves can generate imagery, and not merely describe it.

Today I was listening to Bird Stealing Bread by Iron and Wine, and I was stuck by the potency of some of the metaphors and the suggestiveness of the imagery. In particular, the way that Sam Beam plays with different aspects of the bird image is quite wonderful. Just to warn you, it is a sad song, and it is definitely worth the time. So I thought I would post the lyrics and encourage to you go to the Iron and Wine website and have a listen:
Tell me, baby, tell me
Are you still on the stoop
Watching the windows close?
I've not seen you lately
On the street by the beach
Or places we used to go

I've a picture of you
On our favorite day
By the seaside
There's a bird stealing bread
That I brought
Out from under my nose

Tell me, baby, tell me
Does his company make
Light of a rainy day?
How I've missed you lately
And the way we would speak
And all that we wouldn't say

Do his hands in your hair
Feel a lot like a thing
You believe in
Or a bit like a bird
Stealing bread
Out from under your nose?

Tell me, baby, tell me
Do you carry the words
Around like a key or change?
I've been thinking lately
Of a night on the stoop
And all that we wouldn't say

If I see you again
On the street by the beach
In the evening
Will you fly like a bird
Stealing bread
Out from under my nose?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Looking, Eavesdropping, Watching

I have been thinking a lot about how when we look at a painting we not only complete or finish what the artist began, but we also can become unwitting participants in the fictional world of the painting. In his wonderful essay "The Work of Art and Its Beholder," Wolfgang Kemp argues: "In the same way that the beholder approaches the work of art, the work of art approaches him, responding to and recognizing the activity of his perception." Kemp's essay is essentially an explanation of "aesthetic reception,"a methodological approach to art history, which takes this aspect of works of art very seriuosly. Aesthetic reception recognizes that works of art are made for an "implicit beholder" and that looking at works of art involves an "asymmetrical" communication between the artist and the real beholder.

He develops his theory through a wonderful and interesting analysis of Nicolas Maes' The Eavesdropper (above). In many ways, this painting is an ideal example for aesthetic reception. Of course there is an implicit beholder because the painting addresses the viewer through the maid who looks "out" of the painting and the curtain that partially obstructs the viewer's line of sight. The painting is a comment on the moral implications of looking, and it invites consideration of when an onlooker becomes a voyeur or eavesdropper.

In a sense, the painting provides the viewer with a fictional choice. Should we join the maid in her invitation to be an eavesdropper? Should we pull back the curtain? Kemp's comments in this regard are interesting. He writes:
The curtain has been drawn back to such an extent that half of the eavesdropped conversation becomes visible: A woman who stands behind a table and who, judging from the position of her arms, which she has on her hips, and her head, which she holds at an angle, reproaches a person opposite her. If now, as a result of the eavesdropper's invitation, we become active ourselves in the right half of the painting and lifted the curtain or tried to look behind it in our thoughts, the blank would close and we would really become the eavesdropper's accomplices. That this is not possible ... that by the art's grace we have "only" the painting, is made obvious by the curtain, which, as an everyday instrument of veiling and unveiling, yet belongs wholly and doubly to art by being part of the matter of the painting and, also as the painted curtain, its sign.
After reading Kemp's discussion of The Eavesdropper, I was reminded of the work of contemporary painter Eric Fiscl. Many of his paintings, like Maes', have a domestic setting. In particular, Fiscl's paintings of domestic interiors tend to look like fairly innocuous middle to upper-middle class homes. They would be a fine illustration of "suburban America." But in these familiar settings (at least for those who live in homes like them) we are confronted with scenes that are often disturbing in their display of sexuality. For example, his paintings Bad Boy (1981) and Birthday Boy (1983) are highly suggestive of an incestuous relationship between a young boy and his mother, or at least of a sexual relationship between an older woman and young boy. What is interesting about many of Fiscl's work, is his ability to make the viewer feel as though he is witnessing and potentially implicated in the scene before him.

His painting The Bed, The Chair, Dancing, Watching (2000, above), masterfully draws the viewer into the action of the scene. A middle aged man sits, nude, upon a white chair covered in a strikingly red floral patter. He looks straight at me, scrutinizes me. I become aware of a shadow on the wall, and I recognize that woman is undressing before this man, and that I am somehow standing in her place. What relationship do these two people have? What exactly is going on here? Needless to say, I feel uncomfortable and unnerved looking at this painting. Unlike Maes' painting, Fiscl does not provide me with a curtain. I do not have a choice. By looking at the painting I am thrown into the scene and become a participant, become complicit, as this narrative unfolds. The bed directly behind the man suggests where the story is headed, and his gaze is hardly one of love and care.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Vote for Old Radicals

The team at Noonday Films have put together a fantastic documentary called Old Radicals, and you can watch and vote for it here at the International Documentary Challenge. It is a captivating story about courageous love and the unflinching pursuit of justice. The documentary is a moving story about a couple who risk their lives protesting corrupt regimes. And, no, they aren't idealistic college students trying to save the world. They are at least old enough to be my grandparents, and they are trying to save the world. Old Radicals questions commonly held assumptions about what counts as a "good" life, and it encourages us to make a difference.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Andy Goldsworthy [Part II]: Risk and Control

Goldsworthy intentionally incorporates a tension between risk and control within his creative practice. One way that this tension manifests itself in his work is through the relationship between geometric and natural form. Many of his sculptures take on the character of pure geometric shapes and volumes (such as circles, spirals, cubes, cones, etc). Geometry provides Goldsworthy with an ideal that he can never reach. His attempt to achieve perfection within a recalcitrant material gives his work a certain vibrancy and life. Striving for perfection provides Goldsworthy with an element of risk that actually enhances the quality of his work.

An excellent example of how Goldsworthy incorporates this tension between geometry and nature into his work is his Three Cairns project. “The project consists of three temporary cairns, three permanent sculptures, and three museum exhibitions.” Produced on a massive scale, the space between them stretches across the North American continent. The permanent cairns remain at museums in San Diego, California (the west coast), Purchase, New York (the east coast), and Des Moines, Iowa (central). The enormity of the Three Cairns project is suggestive of this Scotsman’s attempt to grasp the vastness of the North American continent.

The construction of a cairn typically requires some mathematical precision because it must be able to support its own weight. Nevertheless, Goldsworthy rarely uses mechanical devices or engineering manuals. Reflecting on this theme in his work, Goldsworthy writes,

The cairns are made by eye. I use a tape measure, just to keep within the limitations of the width that I feel is stable in proportion to the base. I always attempt to make the perfect cone but fail. A tension between what I want and what is emerging. This tension is important to the feeling of the piece.

The tension between geometry and the natural form is further heightened in Three Cairns because mathematical precision is the only way to connect the physically distant cairns to one another. Goldsworthy writes, “It is the way I carry with me the East and West Coast cairns and can project them into the space at Des Moines.” The difference between the ‘perfect cone’ and the one that is actually constructed could be seen as a flaw in his work, but he suggests that it is a fundamental aspect of the cairns.

Goldsworthy himself speaks about the process of building a cairn in which he, as one dialogue partner, is not in complete control. He writes the following at the time of constructing the “West Coast Cain” at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art:

I am now locked into an intense dialogue with the stone. There is a feeling of physical engagement with the material that is consuming and at times exhausting, a struggle in which a moment’s lapse of concentration can lead to a loss of control.

What is so interesting about Three Cairns is that the value of this “loss of control” is called into question. He writes, “Normally [a loss of control] can be interesting, but the parameters I have set for myself in the Three Cairns are so tight that they do not allow for that kind of variation.” His journals at the time that he was in North America constructing Three Cairns reveal an internal debate over how much this particular project can be made in his typical dialogical manner. While working on the “East Coast Cairn” for the Neuberger Museum of Art in New York Goldsworthy speaks much more positively about a lack of control in his creative practice:

Sometimes I feel that the source of a sculpture’s energy comes from the effort of trying to regain a sense of balance lost at some point when I lacked control or concentration or perhaps made an error of judgment.

As valuable as the experience of overcoming a loss of control can be, it is nevertheless very frustrating for the artist. While working on the “Midwest Cairn” in Des Moines, Iowa, Goldsworthy writes:

I had to leave the site and find a quiet indoor space in which to work out dimensions away from the stone. This is a very different way of working for me: problems are usually best solved in the making. This sculpture however needs a different approach. I need to look at the space between the three cairns as well as the stone in front of me.

Leaving the site on which he is working may not seem that radical, but considering the importance of place and the physicality of his materials, this choice by Goldsworthy reveals that he is willing to depart from his normal mode of practice to successfully complete these sculptures. Thus, the tension introduced by greater mathematical precision in Three Cairns proved to be a struggle for Goldsworthy, and one that provoked an exploration of new ways of making.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

The [Outrageous] Lives of the Artists

A common feature of 'modern artist' biographies is the inclusion of stories that illustrate the artist's propensity for eccentric, bohemian, or deviant behavior. While clearly contributing to the mythology of the 'modern artist', these stories can be rather fun (and also a little disturbing). I was reading Gils van Hensbergen's Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon when I ran across this little nugget:

Not long before the delivery of [Guernica to the exhibition site] Marie-Therese walked into the studio to find Picasso up on his ladder and Dora at his feet. For Picasso, it remained 'one of his choicest memories'. Francoise Gilot, Picasso's partner after the war, remembered the story as told to her by him:
"I have a child by this man. It's my place to be here with him," said Marie-Therese. "You can leave right now." Dora said, "I have as much reason as you have to be here. I haven't borne him a child but I don't see what difference that makes."
Picasso refused to intervene, preferring to watch the two women fight it out.
Finally, Marie-Therese turned to me and said, "Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?" It was a hard decision to make. I liked them both, for different reasons: Marie-Therese because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to do, and Dora because she was intelligent... I told them they'd have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle.
Picasso's relationships with women were, to say the least, complicated. During the making of Guernica Picasso would stay with his wife(?) Marie-Therese and their daughter on the weekends, but during the week he was working in Paris and accompanied by his mistress Dora Maar. This tale is the kind of soap-opera-situation that no one imagines would happen in 'real life', but when it happens to an artist we nod our heads and chuckle softly to ourselves.

Stories such as this one mythologize our notions of artistic practice by suggesting that creative power at least partially derives from the artist's capacity to break the rules. It is often assumed that living in a different, unique, or unusual is directly related to (or at least naturally associated with) the ability to produce works of art that exhibit a high degree of originality. But is this the way that creativity works? Is creative practice really antithetical to commitment and responsibility?

Monday, May 10, 2010

Andy Goldsworthy [Interlude]: In the City

Photo courtesy of Boutwell Draper Gallery

Another post of considerable length with further reflections on Goldsworthy's creative practice will arrive shortly. But, until it does, I thought I would share an excerpt from a recent article on Goldsworthy's work that Jon Mackenzie brought to my attention. The artilce, by Mike Wade, appeared in The Times Saturday May 1 2010:
You are not going to credit this, he says, his keen eyes shining with laughter, but he was almost arrested by the NYPD a month ago -- simply for being an artist. He'd been trying to make rain shadows outside the Rockefeller Center. His plan was to lie down on the pavement, just as a shower began, so that the dry shape of his body would remain after the raindrops soaked the concrete around him. Alas, as soon as he set about his work the long arm of the law intervened. "There is a video of me being evicted from outsid Fox News," Goldsworthy snorts. "Corporate America has such a fear of a terrorist attack. They own the bloody sidewalk."

So he was frogmarched away? "Oh yeah. To be honest, the police were great about it. They wanted to know what I was doing but the were OK. The security guards simply would not look me in the eye. I said to one guy, 'What's wrong with the world? I had far more freedom in Moscow when it was under communism than I have had in New York this week.' It was really oppressive."

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Andy Goldsworthy [Part I]: The Land

"The assumptio carnis means that God willed to coexist with the creature, that the creator willed to exist also as a creature for the reconciliation of the estranged world to himself." -- T. F. Torrance [1]

At the heart of Andy Goldsworthy's work is his personal relationship to the land. He works with objects in and elements of the land: using sticks, rocks, mud, clay, leaves, etc. He works in various environments and locations: fields, forests, rivers, mountains, city and gallery. Goldsworthy also travels away from his home in Scotland to other locations, such as Japan, the North Pole, or Spain. He works in the landscape: he explores landscape as a place that envelops and enfolds the human person. He works in a place: he is aware and makes use of the various processes -- natural and social -- that shape the land, and that precede and outlive his presence there. Goldsworthy explores all of these different aspects of what one can mean by 'land' through a creative practice that is both personal and intimate.

Goldsworthy's materials are the landscape. In relationship to the land, his creative practice has an epistemic goal; he hopes to discover something about his materials. In an interview, Goldsworthy emphasizes the exploratory nature of his creative practice:

I have an art that teaches mea very important things about nature, my nature, the land and my relationship to it. I don't mean that I learn in an academic sense; like getting a book and learning the names of plants, but something through which I try to understand the processes of growth and decay, of life in nature. Although it is often a practical and physical art, it is also an intensely spiritual affair that I have with nature: a relationship.[2]
Goldsworthy's creative practice is an act of discovery, but this is qualified by the statement that he is not trying to "learn in an academic sense." Instead, Goldsworthy's exploration of the landscape takes place within the intimacy of a committed relationship. He chooses to fully immerse himself in the physical terrain, and thereby gather a kind of "working" knowledge of the world as a whole. This epistemic dimension resides at the core of his work: "At the heart of whatever I do are a growing understanding and a sharpening perception of the land."[3]

Goldsworthy is profoundly aware that his presence as an artist is manifested in a place, and not simply before a homogenous mass of material. He writes, "When you make something [in Britain], unlike America, you work with a place that is so full of the relationship between people and the land, and also made so rich by it... The social nature of the British landscape demands to be acknowledged."[4] Goldsworthy's awareness of the land's human history, as well as its natural history, is evident in the long-term project Sheepfolds that seeks to restore numerous sheepfolds in Cumbria. His presence in Cumbria is like one stepping into a story already being told: he largely works on existing sites and he aims at restoring a function that has been part of the Cumbrian economy for hundreds of years. Although Sheepfolds is a highly original artistic project, it nevertheless is in continuity with the history and traditions of a place.

Goldsworthy's creative practice creates a space in which the land reveals its own creativity and beauty. His work is an act of discovery that finds in the ordinary stuff of the world an extraordinary element. The room required to achieve this discovery, to allow the land to present its beauty and meaning, is made by entering into the land and identifying with it as closely as possible. Similarly, in the incarnation, God comes to His creation in full creatureliness and reveals the true meaning of what it is to be a son or daughter of God. We may find a parallel here with Jeremy Begbie's suggestion that human creator's are to be "secretaries of God's praise."[5] Begbie argues for a Christologically oriented creativity which understands that "biblical language about the relation between Christ and creation should properly remind us that God's love for creation entails him honoring its integrity distinct from himself."[6] For Begbie, human creativity is understood as participating in the movements of the trinity. He writes,
In the humanity assumed by his Son, the Father has released our humanity from its crippling self-concern in such a way that a new corporate humanity has been made possible, one which is bound together with that same self-forgetful love which binds Father and Son. [7]
Goldsworthy's creative practice avoids modern obsessions with self-expression and individuality, and explores what it means to be in relationship with the land. At the same time, however, he 'uses' the land as his material. The epistemic nature of his creative practice is always seeking out new aspects and potentials of the land. Goldsworthy makes discoveries and brings them before the viewer in such a way that the land is felt to "speak for itself."

[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation, (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), 65.
[2] Andy Goldsworthy, Hand to Earth (London: Thames and Hudson, 1990), 164.
[3] Andy Goldsworthy, Collaboration with Nature, (New York: Abrams, 1990), 4.
[4] Andy Goldsworthy, Andy Goldsworthy: Sheepfolds (Michale Hue Williams Fine Art, 1996), 17.
[5] Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation's Praise (London: T & T Clark, 1991), 177.
[6] Ibid, 171.
[7] Ibid, 180.