Review /

Jack Smith Artists Space / New York

Anarchism and availabilism were the main rules of the singular utopia Jack Smith built throughout his life, a place for radical freedom. Decaying tropicalism and a sensational escapism were the main inspirations. Oneiric and erotic characters starred in his public film-performances, presided over by queer and syncretic goddesses, often after midnight in downtown Manhattan.

People still celebrate the artist’s latest myths. As the father of American underground cinema and performance art, Smith shaped his oeuvre as a political statement: he defied the capitalist nature of the art market by choosing performance art, a discipline in essence ethereal and ephemeral.

Smith started his performances in a two-floor loft space at 36 Greene Street, which he called The Plaster Foundation of Atlantis. He got evicted two years later because he refused to pay rent (rent was a capitalistic “fear ritual,” as he coined it), and moved to live on Mercer Street followed by an apartment in the East Village. It was after his eviction from Greene Street that he performed a couple of times at Artists Space and various clandestine locations. The exhibition at Artists Space, “Art Crust of Spiritual Oasis,” presents a string of byproducts from his various performances: props, photographs, flyers, notes, and of course films (all courtesy of Gladstone Gallery). Wandering through the show, it is not immediately evident that this is the same space Smith and his theater company performed in some forty years ago. If the aura persists, the material isn’t sharing its secrets. Smith’s art is almost like a civilization: if you didn’t live it, good luck spending your entire life deciphering its meaning and fantasizing the profundity of its originality. Part celestial tramp, part Dadaist, Smith used myriads of cheap props and lush metaphors to shower the audience with his exotic visions and frenetic jubilations. His goal was to merge art and life to the point where one couldn’t tell the difference, like a trance session. If it’s life, it’s a political statement (“escape far away from capitalism”); if it’s art, it’s the dream of a liberated life filled with infinite wealth, freely pouring from a mind without boundaries.

by Alexandre Stipanovich

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In Residence /

If It Need Be Termed Surrender

In the aftermath of organizing an unrealized exhibition at artist-run institution Odium Fati in San Francisco, K.r.m. Mooney offers a set of relations between figures. These six installments, contributed to Flash Art’s “In Residence” column, are a means for the artist to pursue the significance of each context-specific practice and the potential actions, kinships, and alignments between these figures.

I recently called on a friend who has been in direct correspondence with the gallery that represents Trisha Donnelly. Knowing there was a limited chance I would be passed along the documentation images of her 2015 West Coast exhibition at Matthew Marks, I sent a follow-up email about a book resulting from an exhibition at a local institution, which included two of Donnelly’s works. This Trojan horse produced a slight assurance that I would gain access to the images. When I received them, I impatiently saved them, feeling implicated in their transgression, their role as an active and animating force: one that participates in how the work means. Harmonic to the discretion that remains paramount in Donnelly’s practice, I’m sympathetic to Donnelly’s stance on circulation: a pursuit in which the values of the work remain imagined and hypothetically cast in order to reject the singular, a quest compromised when placed in a context of extreme acceleration or determined by language without contest of the hegemonic linguistic sign. I submit my personal favor and ask for the images because my memory is poor. There is too great a cognitive distance between the early fall of 2015, the time in which the exhibition took place, and the present. I try to remember what the exhibition felt like by looking up the weather for September 26, 2015, in an almanac. It details the average and maximum sustained wind speeds, which varied from 3.5 to 10.25 miles per hour. I’m curious about the significance of an exhibition that takes place on the cusp of two seasons.

Deceived by the stillness of the images, I continue to search for reviews that reference the tarps placed on the gallery’s six skylights. I recall my entrance across the darkened exhibition space. I find one description of how, when the wind picks up, the single unfixed tarp puffs open in erratic, billowing pulses. An incision. This pattern, buoyed by light, is beautiful. The text describes how “the tarp seems to dance; over time the tarps’ slow flashes start to synch with and pass attention to the large projection that is the room’s (and show’s) main event: an image of an isometric wavescape, pixilated spikes, all strobing between positive and negative, on and off. […] The projected image exceeds, in one corner, what at first appears to be the poorly keyed quadrilateral of ‘black’ thrown by the projector but is in fact a dim shape within a projected field too dim to see in a show daylit through cracks and tarps, brightened by the spillover of projectors. The tarp isn’t opaque; it wavers between grays. […] The tarp flaps like an analogue to the projection’s binary, as if reading a series of perfectly ephemeral peaks and valleys above the skylight’s bulge.”[1] I return here because there is a heightened sequencing in Donnelly’s works that is particularly useful as a means to animate the contingencies encountered within an exhibition space. With my tendency to read sites of exhibition in terms of their infrastructural and physical properties, I speculate about what the space of Odium Fati and a work of Donnelley’s might do while offering no commensurate precision. Proposed in a setting of sustained intimate contact, the incision of the tarp remains too appropriate for the space of a garage yet remains a touchstone. It facilitates a form of cross-modal interaction, a felt distance between the floor that a body might traverse and the infrastructures of light that make the exhibition available by sight — a consideration of spatiality in terms of nearness and farness, relations of proximity and entanglement and inter-implication rather than numerals or geometry.

K.r.m. Mooney is an artist living and working in Oakland, California.

[1] http://x-traonline.org/article/the-image-of-trisha-donnelly-at-matthew-marks/

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Review /

Sharp Objects: Daydreams Can Be Dangerous

“She wanted to shield her, from the bullet of an ordinary life.”

—Rachel Cusk, Arlington Park

I believe, perhaps counterintuitively and certainly masochistically, that a good film or TV show should make you feel profoundly banal. It should not transport you or give you hope that dreams come true. It is the role of avant-garde television to make you understand that you are a cliché, that there is truly nothing remarkable about you, that no one will tell your story, that everyone has been wounded and only some wounds are worth watching.

Such is the case with Sharp Objects, Jean-Marc Vallée’s miniseries that premiered on July 8 on HBO. Coming off the extraordinary success of Big Little Lies, Vallée brings us another murder story mixed with a biting comedy of manners, this time with a healthy dose of Lana Del Rey Americana. Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) has escaped her stifling, socialite mother Adora (Patricia Clarkson) and the small town of Wind Gap, Missouri, to become a reporter in St. Louis, only to be sent back to cover the murder of two young girls.

The story is one that has been told countless times — a woman with a dark past returns home to confront traumas internal and external. To say that Sharp Objects is innovative would be an exaggeration, but this is exactly my point. So unapologetically does the series embrace the hackneyed traditions of crime shows (especially those starring women) and melodramas that it becomes something discomfiting that dares us to love it despite our entrenched desire for that wink-wink that tells us it is all a joke.

The irony never comes. In this way, the sincerity of Sharp Objects denies any such markers of highbrow enjoyment and instead provokes a hysterical need to chase the impossible — to become that booze-swigging, chain-smoking, windows-down-tunes-blasting woman with a traumatic secret you have seen so many times onscreen. Sharp Objects reminds us that some people have their lives immortalized onscreen, but those people are only characters. We can never approach that freeing artifice.

by William J. Simmons

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Review /

Mona Varichon Goodan Family Graduate Art Gallery, ArtCenter / Pasadena

On May 16, Mona Varichon graduated from ArtCenter’s two-year MFA program. She had her final critique earlier that day, laudable from what I gathered, and by dusk the whole scene had evolved into the usual awkward standing-around-chatting of any Los Angeles opening, right before the crowd stumbles toward the latest dive bar–cum–project space in Chinatown, this evening rumored to be serving a signature cocktail called the Mona Spritz.

(Had I known that the final critiques were open to the public — an institutional attempt at critical inclusivity — I would have been there.) But, I rocked up circa 8 p.m., fashionably late, and instantly felt like a mega-loser, stranded on the concrete plaza outside the main gallery. Adding to the scene’s Twilight Zone vibe, the signature clinks of bottom-shelf Chardonnay and shuffled plastic glasses were clearly audible from an audience absolutely out of sight. I embraced my late flop, stumbled into the exhibition.

It is so rare to have a first foray into an exhibition with the surprise unspoiled by trigger-happy social-media shares and avant la lettre documentation. Graduate shows have this debutante glow to them; the act of coming out comes with a particularly enchanting mélange of existential iffiness, studio malaise, though also freshness and excitement unfettered by “the real world.” Marking a break from the excess visuality that invariably awaits on the “outside,” Varichon has been figuring out what it means to make work beyond an onslaught of images. Visuals exist in her films to cast aspersions on the brooding tête-à-têtes, deliberations, and interviews that scroll through a screen as subtitles. Confabulatory in the senses of the conversational and conjured up, with a Proustian bent, she’s compensating for lost time by collaging past memories.

Having spent the last year recording and translating telephone conversations with her mother in Paris, from French to English, Varichon subsequently created No, I Was Thinking of Life (2018) — twelve minutes of FaceTime nonspace projected single-channel onto a wall. Theirs is a conversation that fumbles in the dark, and not just over the monochrome black of the screen; long distance, loss, improvisatory laws, and bilingualism each tie in as evasive subjects that find family resemblance in their total lack of control and risk of miscommunication. It’s straight out of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who famously said, “I’ve told my children that when I die, to release balloons in the sky to celebrate that I graduated. For me, death is a graduation.” Varichon’s take on death is far less literal, its implied finish more a daily rite of phone calls clicking to an end, or the ends we encounter in the uncertain realm of foreclosed alternatives, missed connections, and close encounters in our little lives. Looped via a two-minute transition that sees the black screen fade to gray, white, then reverse, the film’s gradational quality preserves this atmosphere. So much to muse on in the monochrome “image,” though more to the point: What does it mean for a film to be all about (its) denouement?

[The year was 2017]

As the film’s prologue, this annus mirabilis comes announced in the eldritch sheen of a neon font, its eerie FX mawkishness foreshadowing the mood of mother-daughter rapport. (“Coucou!” her mother exclaims a second later, lifting the mood in a flicked frame.) What reads like a seamless chat passed through a centrifuge of Jonas Mekas films is actually a handful of separate phone calls, collaged out of dozens of recorded hours. For a while I thought about what it means to account for everything said to one’s parent over a year, let alone return to the potentially incriminating evidence. Varichon mentioned to me only in passing that she had realized, listening back, how little she actually listened sometimes. (Personally, I wouldn’t go there.) Perhaps the reconstitution of their phone calls as partial fiction is a way to mend the gaps — make a conscious rejoinder to what was left adrift in the moment. Carefully enunciating a quote from an interview with Mekas, Maman’s French accent stumbles into a space between meanings: “Chance has its own logic. Improvisation has stronger logic. It works according to its own loss.”

No, I Was Thinking Of Life (CC), installation view
No, I Was Thinking Of Life (CC), installation view at the Goodan Family Graduate Art Gallery, ArtCenter College of Design, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Varichon hesitates: “Laws ou loss?” Despite eventually acknowledging that Mekas might have said “laws,” her ESL slip makes a more interesting point — that improvisation battens on lack. It riffs on the past to turn a profit (in the sense of profiter) with what’s available, like the “frenzied construction of the future (shifting furniture, etc.): futuromania,”[1] which hit Barthes in the wake of his mother’s death. Varichon skirts with graceful curiosity these privations of her mother’s life by edging what has been lost with what can be contrived. Some of the more affectionate raillery in the film occurs as she muses on her own future funeral. Laughter makes her voice crack; her mother’s tension breaks. As does the seamless cohesion of the conversation, interrupted by a chronological glitch on Varichon’s cue, “They reminded me of Jonas Mekas films, your videos of the beach.”

[The year is 2018]

With a floated serif and bright white backdrop, the film enters its changeover. Tousled winds hit the microphone, “…yeah, the blowing wind…,” and from the small nod noted above to Mme. Varichon’s own filmic oeuvre, we might assume to be listening in to her work. A mutual recognition in the works of Mekas sets the film going, though its own enlightenments on looking, loss, and language tack onto a far more circuitous source. Too cheesy to clasp at the unbearable lightness of being, I’d settle for thinking of light as the film’s unintended dénouement — not exactly clarity but maybe relief? Or not relief, as Varichon remarks on her “ceremonial” [sic], “something inspiring, to take your mind off things.” (Like how we create images of those we love, things left unsaid to them, their eventual loss.) Touching on conclusiveness but never quite reaching it, the film angles at the wicked reality of personal relationships. Put blankly by Janet Malcolm: “We cannot know each other. We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain.”[2] Instead, we improvise.

by Sabrina Tarasoff

[1] Barthes, Roland. Mourning Diary. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012.

[2] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1980/11/24/i-the-impossible-profession

 

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Report /

Liquid City / Bruges Triennial 2018

Zygmunt Bauman’s Liquid Modernity was first published in the year 2000. As described in the text, “modernity” was the natural conclusion of postmodern man, who imploded in an oscillation between overcoming modernism, which ultimately failed to fulfill its promises, and a hyper-self-awareness of future failure.

The “liquid society” derived from society’s inability to take form, manifesting only through expressions of extreme individualism — the only viable way for a society to rebuild itself from the ruins of the last “ism.” From Bauman onward, it has become difficult to think of the word “liquidity” without registering implications beyond its literal meaning. His definition has continued to ring like an empty truism, often deflated under its own theoretical weight.

For the second edition of the Bruges Triennial, “Liquid City” is both the title as well as the incipit upon which the exhibition is developed. The Bauman label here functions mainly via its metaphorical readings: applicable to the difficulties Bruges must overcome as a city suspended over water, the weight of its melancholy past (recall Bruges-la-Morte, or The Dead Bruges, by Georges Rodenbach), and its outlook toward the future. The adjective “liquid,” if it is indeed a reference to Bauman, sounds almost like an epithet; yet if we instead limit ourselves, as suggested by the curatorial statement, to simply thinking of Bruges as a city on water, we might avoid overanalysis and theoretical quagmire.

The premise of this triennial is primarily one of reconsidering a city in a way that projects a new future. This is rendered particularly difficult due to the fact that Bruges represents political factions in sharp contrast to one another, and is still linked to its medieval baggage of tradition and lifestyle that continue to define its society and public spaces. The courageous proposal of the two curators, Till-Holger Borchert and Michel Dewilde, in wishing Bruges a leap toward the contemporary (referring to visual arts and architecture), goes hand in hand with the idea that the city will not become isolated in the collective imagination as the drowsy and austere cradle of Flanders, brimming with swans and splendid Hans Memling paintings.

Much like the first edition of the Triennial, the second edition expands outdoors, crisscrossing the city from north to south, activating its most iconic locations. The projects — installations, sculptures, participatory experiments — attempt to respond to the city’s problems, including its inhabitant’s reluctance to share public spaces. G.O.D. (2018), by architecture duo Ruimteveldwerk, is a kind of meeting room consisting of a wooden platform enclosed on two sides by a white curtain reminiscent of those often found in the city’s houses. Located in the inner courtyard of a “social house” — formerly a shelter that later became a place of worship for the needy and elderly — the installation invites tourists to engage with local residents by modifying the appearance of the structure with flowerbeds, which contain a classification of vegetable species instead of adhering to their usual decorative function. Similarly, House of Time by German studio Raumlabor experiments with repurposing common areas in the hope of fostering a harmonious cohabitation among different generations.

OBBA, The Floating Island, 2018

The installations near the water convey a certain monumentality: the Selgascano Pavilion, a fluctuating bubble of fluorescent colors; The Floating Island by Obba, a navigable white waterway in the canal; the MFS III Minne Floating School by NLÉ’s Kunlé Adeyemi, a mobile classroom overlooking a park; and Skyscraper (the Bruges Whale) by Studio KCA, which is made up of five tons of plastic waste. Diametrically opposed to these examples is ACHERON I by Renato Nicolodi, a parallelepiped structure suspended over water, a whispered, tomb-like anti-monument, almost naturally inscribed in the city.

It is curious, however, that none of the projects will remain among the urban fabric of Bruges.

The Triennial instigates a worthy discussion, both ethical and theoretical: In the context of the urban landscape, will these commissions be considered public artworks or monuments marking a city’s turning point?

by Eleonora Milani

(Translated from Italian by Caroline Liou)

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Subtext /

MacArthur Park by Andrew Durbin / Nightboat Books

It skulked within the sky: deterioration. Lightning skewered our chat; every rupture lacerated the clouds in thunderclaps like disembodied, stroboscopic sniggers. The sky purred, tightening into sultry accumulations ceding to tremors. Rainfall plundered clarity like a blunted contour. Macerating matter became slushy in the gutters; plashes multiplied in the slurry of it all. Sopping, delight shivered over us; the privilege of stable observation afforded us the dumb pleasure of being mere witnesses to the sky dissevering itself.

This was only London; it blew over, largely traceless. The minor outbreak was only ever the whisper of jeopardy, an evanescent threat that allowed us to treat the storm as a novelty. Its impression demonstrates how the apocalyptic has become a blockbuster aesthetic, disaster as mere entertainment for those who have the luxury to purchase its ticket, disaster as a specious, probably italicized term among millennials. Andrew Durbin introduces the disaster imaginary in the beginning of his debut novel MacArthur Park, starting in 2012 with the arrival of Hurricane Sandy in New York, where the protagonist, Nick Fowler (a poet and writer), is housesitting for an art collector in the West Village. Its aftermath haunts Nick, who decides to visit the bedrock of ecological trauma: Miami. The essay functions as a preface to Nick’s larger project on the weather.

Nick soon returns to New York and his affectless milieu; he meets Simon, a lover who later becomes a cipher. Together they watch the sunrise over Lower Manhattan, but the weather lacks coherency: “It might have been snowing. All winter I kept thinking that it was snowing, though it was often too warm to stick or seemingly too cold to snow… The weather did not like to make itself understood.” Crisis, much like the weather, gives one shape, but its edges lack definition. MacArthur Park reads like an extraterritorial landscaping of this porous feeling: both eminently real and deceptive, realized in a meta-narrative that saunters and drifts with sleeper-like breadth. Crises challenge collective and individual memory, betraying Nick’s conviction as he recollects the first scene as mere fabrication: “Had my mind added that bit later, to place myself among accountable things since I was otherwise left in the abstract space of someone else’s apartment, just at the edge of disaster? I could have said anything about my past.” Durbin’s reiteration attempts to reinforce his place in the present — much like “everyone wants to be an artist because everyone wants to speak about the now” — but ultimately his precision lies with periphrasis.

This also lends Durbin’s tone a leisurely quality that quivers with subliminal anxiety: he analyzes his characters and interactions to extreme crystallinity even when Nick’s “untitled book thing” folder on his computer, and the travels made in pursuit of its realization, elude him. We get closer: “I wanted to write about what the weather made people do — and the weather of what people did. Weather as politics, weather as history.” The weather of places and psyches, of private and public histories, highlights the discrepancy between the representation of a place and the place itself. Such representations manifest desires for self-inscription, a catalogue of self-portraits, and can merely cruise the façade to pamper aspiration; Durbin’s research into fanatics such as Aleister Crowley and Aimee Semple McPherson, however, are rich accounts of other kinds of mythmaking, and here they serve as historical aids rather than propulsions for plot.

Nick travels to a troubled art commune, the Tom of Finland Foundation, the Madonna Inn, the Fire Island Pines, Hampstead Heath, California, Vienna, and New York. In his latter travels across Europe, a fresh social vulnerability surfaces, replacing disaster with the brutal organization of public spaces, and how private desires are negotiated in such spaces. Throughout, Durbin’s attention rests on the surface, swirling inward with Nick’s interior monologue. Information also arrives spontaneously, in block quotes and index-style lists. The research can be so digressive, its connection to the core narrative so subtle as to appear a blissful stray that dodges assessment of genuine narrative influence; when this research floats it incites the desire to return to Nick’s actual purview.

As for the novel’s namesake, Durbin conspicuously elides the actual palm-tree-bordered lake of downtown Los Angeles in favor of Donna Summer’s disco rework of Richard Harris’s saccharine ballad. “Disco performed travel for me,” Durbin writes, and Summer’s refrain takes him further:

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing, flowing down
Someone left the cake out in the rain
I don’t think that I can take it
‘Cause it took so long to bake it
And I’ll never have that recipe again.

In this liquid mode of metaphor I’m reminded of Durbin’s collection of poetry-cum-cultural-critique in Mature Themes and its extrovert glitter tactics, hot and feverish. MacArthur Park is smoother, attenuated to Nick’s persistent, self-reflexive welding of form and narrative arc. But it retains a glimmer of Mature Themes’ effervescence, that is, a recipe of frictions: destruction, disorientation, hallucination, criticism, its coalescence into a novel, a deckled bildungsroman, a recipe lacking template, the well malformed. In this way, Durbin’s approach to form and structure recalls the 1970’s New Narrative movement, as exemplified by Robert Glück. Durbin’s arc comes back to the park, to California, as “the end of an arc constructed over the dead who resisted it,” back to the molten baked blunderbuss: “As soft architecture, it isn’t built to last, rain comes through; the party forgets it as they head for shelter, and so it begins to break apart in the storm … The cake is a theory for cake that proves that cake doesn’t last.”

Nick: “The issue at hand was my own inarticulate desire to know a place I didn’t live in, the intimacy I wanted to produce out of visiting it, specifically in writing.” Admittedly cloistered, soft with glamour and dense with fascination, this issue nevertheless delivers slick exchange between reader and novel, even as his subject slips “out of sight, into my own spiraling digressions.” A carousel whose loops unfurl into hard-cut occult histories, to goofed attempts at astral projection, to impassioned delirium in The Spectrum, to organize the anxiety of the extremity while the cake continues to melt.

Subtext is a column by Alex Bennett exploring new and old books, art and ephemera.
 
Alex Bennett is a London-based writer, online editor at Novembre magazine and co-founder of Tinted Window publishing.
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