LA Talks /

Shearing away the Railings / Erika Vogt

In his memoir Close to the Knives, David Wojnarowicz recalls the despair and bliss of his dying — his thick, material immersion in the shimmering of the world. To call it beautiful would be belittling.

Under the ticking of the disease, his imminent departure had the effect of transforming a previously violent world into an Other World in which whatever had been imposed on the self — processes of subjectification, rigid modes of perception, social conventions, historical violence — dissolved as he stepped through an open door beyond which there were no railings. Time was compressed, he said, and so he urged: “Cut straight to the heart of the senses and map it out as clearly as tools and growth allow.”

For our own compressed present, Erika Vogt provides tools — an array of knives and shields — for the fostering of desire on what she calls “Eros Island.” Eros, because what we need now is drive and power, and Eros provides the inkling of the unknown that drives our hunger for knowledge. Island, because we are on Turtle Island, and any utopian dream must consider how we are tied both to history and to all of our relations, be they things, people, animals.

As we are living in the tragedy of democracy, amid the violent resurgence of racism, sexism and xenophobia, as a massive influx of refugees from Syria clamber for shelter (on Lesbos, among other places) and Hollywood spectacle is overwhelmed by global warming’s four-year-long thirst, Vogt’s tools offer to sheer our senses from their subjection to the dead present, the dead past, and the future that looms ahead — equally dead if we maintain our entrenched habits. She shows us that we need to keep the knives close. One way is to blow them up in size, make them palpable, visible, arresting. If our bodies are knives, our senses knives, they can cut to the shimmering reality of the changing world.

Vogt has been refining her cast of actants for a number of years, articulating new plastic and collective forms for subjectivity in objects, installations, videos and artist’s theater productions. She considers the latter a work of community building, the layering of a variety of media together and the composing of different artists’ works and bodies. Her trajectory began with experimental film, but she came to refuse what she felt was the single-mindedness of filmmaking, the specificity of the meanings that were attributed to images. If images and things can be treated as humans, we can do away with the rigidity of attributions and definitions, and this goes for ideas of identity. Perhaps this is simply a metaphor, but it might be a metaphor for good politics.

For her recent exhibition “Eros Island: Knives Please Rise” at Overduin & Co, Vogt compiled a book of research, an artist’s book, which was laid out on a table in the gallery. It provided a history and context for the objects displayed. Perhaps compiled via random searches on the Internet, by the stuff accumulated from life, the book presented an iconography of the knives and a timeline extending forward or backward from prehistory to today. There were knives used in sacrifices from the Peruvian Moche culture, ceremonial knives from Egypt’s Middle Kingdom, and from Late Minoan Crete. Some had been knife-shaped money in the Han Dynasty. There were butcher’s knives ; from the early twentieth century and contemporary surgical knives from the West. There were also objects called knives that were perhaps armor, dresses, pleat forms, and even an image of a woman dancing holding a knife. Not attempting historical comprehensiveness, the examples spoke to the effects of globalization, the confusion of expanded possibilities for knowledge, the production of subjectivity, and the threat of homogenization, exploitation and disaster. But also transcendence and sharpened resistance. The book reproduced a series of newspapers from 2013–16, highlighting the farce of the US election, the war in Syria, the so-called war against terror, the refugee crisis, domestic social unrest, pollution in China; there was also a series of images of stabbings, historical paintings, photographs and screenshots. Clearly, the production of culture is not a sphere apart.

The book opened with a play, Eros Island. Its four scenes comprise: (one) a distribution of knives to the audience; (two) what is called a “cascade” or live layering of players holding knives, who then enact (three); a litany of deaths, some repeated, some known, some willed: “Now is dead. The free market is dead. God is dead. The union is dead. Bill Gates is dead. Privacy is dead. Sex is dead. Now is dead.” In the final scene, the island players are on a couch, listing the day’s events, as well as past and future events. They better not be dead; otherwise, all we’ll see are the railings.

by Noura Wedell

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Review /

Arthur Jafa Gavin Brown’s enterprise / New York

There is no such thing as a silent majority. The expression became a popular euphemism for Middle America when Richard Nixon used it to justify the US’s continued military action in Vietnam. Since then, the silent majority has served a heinous political realism—power, as such—but, in the nineteenth century, it conjured an afterlife among the dead.

Against the false universalism of the former, Arthur Jafa’s video Love Is the Message, the Message Is Death (2016) emerges from the latter definition, though it offers a more ecstatic, vital and apocalyptic vision, that of the children of men.

The brief work condenses an incantatory pastiche of black culture in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. And Kanye West’s gospel-like “Ultralight Beam” scores the video, though Jafa affectingly edited the appropriated footage slightly off-tempo from the song. A football player outruns his opponents and James Brown catches his breath; a young woman smiles to the camera and Malcolm X raises his hand. The video collects gestures, intense for their vulnerability. In one segment, a woman staggers in front of an audience, only to play it off as heart-melting poise and swagger. Jafa suspends resolution, developing a cinematic grammar of black identity honed to the bittersweet.

A fine line separates visibility and exposure, and the range of footage heightens the tension between black bodies and our cultural gaze. The video is also a spiritual, and Jafa reinforces a desire for deliverance through kids. Startlingly, a young boy slaps his mother in the face, yelling, “Mommy wake up!” His voice, like his innocence, buckles under his furious entreaty. Throughout the video, Jafa concentrates on the moment of impact, which is profoundly chilling in scenes of police violence. There is no time to prepare for a cop’s running tackle of a woman, and no time to reflect after. The quick editing renders the collision’s brutality visceral.

For Jafa, the task of visibility involves making black identity felt — a theme shared by “Ultralight Beam,” which refers to a divine and redemptive light and, seemingly, ultraviolet light, an invisible frequency that nonetheless penetrates the skin. A blazing sun punctuates the video, at times possessing a placid splendor, at others bursting forth. The video’s abrupt ending is deliberately disenchanting. Suddenly woken from a dream, the threat of the forthcoming administration is utterly pressing, though the black community has already been more intensely burning.

by Sam Korman

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News /

Against Mediocrity / Donald Judd Writings

Donald Judd engaged a lifelong struggle against mediocrity and its hazards. “Mediocrity is lazy thinking,” the artist’s son and Judd Foundation co-president Flavin Judd told Flash Art. “Don was very curious, and this innocent idea — that you can’t know enough, that you have to dig deeper and look wider — is what he thought everybody should do.”

A new book of Judd’s essays, published this fall by the Foundation with David Zwirner Books, expounds on this notion. Its modest orange, cloth-laminated cover and minimalist typeface, reading simply Donald Judd Writings, belies its weighty contents: one-thousand-or-so pages worth of the late Judd’s musings on his vast body of interests, written between 1958 and 1993. Many of his essays, both the well-known and the previously unpublished, with some of the later hailing from his college days, are pedantic, incisively critical evaluations of the art world. Topics include the virtues of Lee Bontecou’s reliefs (“primitive, oppressive, and unmitigated individuality”); the decline of new art over the fifteen years leading up to 1983; navigating New York, the “world’s leading art center”; and why a young Yayoi Kusama should receive a US visa. Other essays, alongside scattered notes — wry one-off epiphanies that the Foundation has painstakingly deciphered and organized — explore other topics: architecture, design, politics, consumerism. “Some TV sets are not so bad,” he wrote in 1982, “and some are awful, like Zenith and Johnson and Burgee.”

“Just as the language cannot have the physical, visceral effect of the art, the art cannot tell you where it came from and why it matters,” writes Flavin Judd in the book’s foreword. The artist’s writings give a deeper context to his artwork by constructing a portrait of his understanding of the world, his curiosity and his piercing wit. But the foreword ends in disclaimer: “It would be a mistake to think that after reading nearly nine hundred pages of Don’s writings you will know him, but that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to find something within the writings that is useful, something that can be a tool for future use… Ideas are tools and this is a toolbox.”

by Janelle Zara

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Review /

Peter Wächtler Chisenhale Gallery / London

Peter Wächtler’s Far Out (2016), a four-minute animated cartoon, presents visuals whose deceptive simplicity underscores the work’s narrative complexity. A catchy rock-and-roll tune captures one’s attention in the otherwise dark space.

The animation is projected on a short wall built to divide the gallery in half lengthways, positioned central to its width. Wächtler plays with audience expectations and a somewhat elementary idea of entertainment by constructing the visuals to fit the duration of a rock song.

The film is composed of just thirty-five frames. The artist has described its slightly hypnotic quality as akin to that of a screensaver. A black screen, the distant sound of wolves howling in the night, fades into an almost fixed landscape, where a character in a top hat and tails walks away, his back turned to the viewer, toward a moonlit castle on top of a barren mountain. The Gothic night scene is complete with a full moon, a flock of black bats hovering over the castle and a mysterious light mist. A slow zoom gives the impression that the character is approaching his destination, while his walking remains static.

The backbone of the work is its soundtrack, composed and sung by Wächtler accompanied by up-tempo boogie piano music. The lyrics tell of the opportunities on the road ahead as well as the desire to leave a troubled present behind. They appear in large subtitles on the screen, but as the singing gets increasingly hysterical, the written words start to disassociate themselves from the song and turn into a monologue.

There are moments when the viewer feels addressed directly: “Choose your way and so will I, this road will never ask us why” is the refrain. The choice of cartoon animation opens a space for absurdity — at one point the moon explodes in the sky — as the narration becomes disjointed and unreliable. Caught between carefree excitement and uncertainty, Wächtler’s work is rich with pathos, melancholic and farcical. Like the slurred but insightful speech of a drunken man in a bar who has seen it all, it draws from the outlandish to touch deeper truths about existence.

by Silvia Sgualdini

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News /

Ten Years on the Waterfront ICA / Boston

Throughout the first ten days of December, the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston will be celebrating a decade of activity in its current location on Boston Harbor. Filling a sleek water-facing building designed by the architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the relatively new museum space has become integral to the landscape of the city’s bustling Seaport District.

Over its eighty-year existence, what is now the ICA has undergone numerous changes in both name and location. Since its inception as the Boston Museum of Modern Art in 1936, when it was intended to be a sister institution to MoMA in New York, the collection and programming have moved to different buildings around the city thirteen times. The emphasis has been consistent despite these various transitions: to present challenging contemporary art across media and introduce the concepts of current art practice to the greater Boston area through a range of education programs.

The current facility on the waterfront has allowed the ICA to increase the scale of both its gallery exhibitions and general programming. (The museum also claims that audience attendance has risen tenfold since the move.) Recent exhibitions have included surveys of work from Nalini Malani, Geoffrey Farmer and Walid Raad, as well as the first comprehensive museum overview on the legendary cross-disciplinary activities at Black Mountain College during the first half of the twentieth century.

To celebrate ten full years on the Harbor, the ICA is hosting ten days of performances, artmaking and educational programming, all with a reduced admission cost. There will be chefs cooking new takes on traditional New England cuisine, innovative choreography, “movement installations,” creative workshops and dialogues for area teenagers, multiple tours of the collection with curators and a wide array of concerts from across the musical spectrum.

A highlight in the galleries is the show “First Light: A Decade of Collecting at the ICA,” which “brings together new acquisitions and permanent-collection favorites in a series of interrelated and stand-alone exhibitions.” Works by Kara Walker, Paul Chan, Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and Andy Warhol, among others, are included in this diverse overview of the museum’s aesthetic. The overall emphasis of the ten-day program will echo the museum’s mission since its early origins — of bringing together the local Boston community and demonstrating the broad possibilities of contemporary art.

by Matthew Erickson

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Review /

Akram Zaatari Galpão VB / São Paulo

Vila Leopoldina is a former industrial district undergoing verticalization in the form of a series of generic high-rise apartments. It is here that Videobrasil has organized “Tomorrow Everything Will Be Alright,” the first survey of Lebanese artist Akram Zaatari in Brazil.

While the title sounds more like an affirmation of Temer affiliates associating themselves with the recent right-wing coup here, the exhibition itself brings together a number of works that call attention to image-making conditions in the Arab world as well as a certain homoerotic cosmos within it.

On entering the warehouse, viewers are confronted with a timeline of Zaatari’s production. In this antechamber the curators have assembled a series of monitors featuring short documentaries in which the artist contextualizes his practice, commenting on early works such as Teach Me (1996), Crazy of You and All is Well on the Border (both 1997), which he produced while working for Lebanon’s Future TV. Also included are photographic works acquired by the Arab Image Foundation and collated by Zaatari alongside Walid Raad.

Tomorrow Everything Will be Alright (2010) unfolds through a series of miscellaneous filmed images: cars moving through tunnels, a typewritten dialogue between two ex-lovers, the last sunset of the twentieth century. Zaatari interrupts the flow of video installations with a series of sexually explicit, though notably vestigial, drawings, entitled X Tube (2010). Based on found footage of erect phalluses and their penetration of a watermelon, these images are notable for the overt erasure of the male nude’s head. The show concludes with Dance to the End of Love (2011), which reiterates the heterogeneity of Zaatari’s production. Installed in austere fashion, a four-channel video projection juxtaposes the sounds of a synthesizer with found web imagery of men handling arms, performing stunts in SUV vehicles, and muscle-flexing in front of the camera. Away from São Paulo’s downtown queer scene, Zaatari’s work addresses the queer aura of macho stereotypes in unfamiliar surroundings.

by Tobi Maier

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