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Katharina Grosse | Prospect.1 New Orleans, New Orleans Biennial, 2008
Acrylic on various objects; 750 × 1,200 × 500 cm (2951/4 × 4721/2 × 1963/4 inches)
Materials, surfaces, and supports aren’t enough to define painting, but in terms of both art history and art school training they have been integral to characterizing the medium, especially in the previous century under the rubric of modern art. Modernist painters were engaged critically and materially with the physical frame- works of painting—the wet materials that were applied to a (usually flat) surface; the implements and processes used to apply the wet paint to the surface (traditional artists’ brushes, palette knives, housepainters’ broad brushes and rollers, airbrushes, techniques such as dabbing, dripping, pouring, scraping, and so on); the physical surfaces (canvas, wood, paper, drywall, plaster, etc.); and the structure of the support.
Today the modernist valorizing of medium specificity comes across as retro- grade. The contemporary expansion and shifts in the materials and means of paint- ing are easily as dramatic as in the late Renaissance, when artists began to paint in oil on stretched canvas. Oil pigments allowed a vast new range of visual effects (including easily blended colors and the layering of translucent colored glazes); meanwhile the self-contained structure and relative lightness of stretched canvas enabled paintings to be portable, unattached to a singular location. Today the implications of new materials and means for how painting is categorized, created, and viewed loom equally momentous. The boundaries of painting are porous in terms of media, sites, and even authors. Above all, many influential paintings today have a strong spatial dimension, to the point of becoming installations. Many artists also explore the parameters of painting as performance. According to Daniel Birnbaum, “. . . painting no longer exists as a strictly circumscribed mode of expression; rather it is a zone of contagion, constantly branching out and widening its scope.”44
Katharina Grosse, a German artist, takes seriously the old ideas of painting as a tactile medium and is heavily engaged with dense, insistent materiality. The aura of the one of a kind and the handmade infuses her creations. Grosse self-identifies as a painter, implying loyalty to a discipline; however, she refuses to limit her practice to conventional boundaries and constraints such as flatness and two-dimensionality. Like other artists who often are discussed as painters but link painting with sculp- ture, installation, and performance, Grosse operates in an “expanded field,” extend- ing the medium boldly into three and even four dimensions, exchanging real space and matter for pictorial space and an ambiguous physical state.45 In conjunction with the inaugural New Orleans Biennial in 2008, Grosse spray-painted the walls and grounds of a decrepit house located a short distance south of the city [1-16]. The orange and yellow colors the artist selected signified an inferno or other flaming conflagration to some viewers. Created in the wake of 2005’s devastating Hurricane Katrina, Grosse’s artwork was criticized by some as adding “insult to injury,” accord- ing to art critic Peter Schjeldahl.46 Nevertheless, Grosse boldly spun her own memo- rable variation on the venerable art of painting, a medium defined (if defined at all) as an artistic composition of colors on a surface.
Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch
Ryan Trecartin | Film still from A Family Finds Entertainment, 2004
Does birthdate matter? Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch were both born in 1981, and they were art students together at the Rhode Island School of Design, graduating in 2004. They are part of the generation commonly known as millennials—those born in the 1980s and 1990s, who were “born digital,” many growing up with computers in their home and the Internet in their daily life. Trecartin first gained notoriety when his senior thesis project at RISD, a forty- one-minute movie titled A Family Finds Entertainment (2004) [1-19], received critical notice. Trecartin quickly was invited to participate in the 2006 Whitney Biennial as well as a much-publicized 2009 exhibition at New York’s New Museum, Younger Than Jesus, which presented work by emerging artists under the age of thirty.
A Family Finds Entertainment, which finally involved nearly fifty people (a number of them Trecartin’s closest friends), was shot with handheld cameras. The movie presents an over-the-top fictional chronicle of the teenage lead character, the suicidal Skippy, who “comes out” in a raucous sequence of scenarios (including his death and rebirth). The integration of clips of actors performing on constructed sets, animations, and scenes wildly doctored with software editing tools (colors intensified; images duplicated, segmented, repositioned, and rescaled), all serve to establish a visual style that is highly entertaining and, to borrow Susan Sontag’s term, camp. The movie flaunts queerness and shows the characters struggling (hilariously and mightily) for individual agency in the face of the onslaught of commercialization.
Trecartin is the scriptwriter and artistic director of the videos (he prefers to call them “movies”) bearing his name. In this profile, we focus on Trecartin’s artworks as well as his projects undertaken with Lizzie Fitch, who has been Trecartin’s friend and regular collaborator since their days at RISD. Trecartin and Fitch’s collaborations include their designs for the sets that are filmed as well as the installations of furni- ture and sculpture that typically surround presentations of the videos in museums and galleries. In addition, Trecartin and Fitch appear in a wide number of roles as actors in the videos. They also have joined forces in creating sculptures apart from any videos. Trecartin and Fitch make the movies widely available for open-access viewing online, a viewing experience that can enable more focus on the strange fractured narratives, without the distractions of the furniture in the installation, other art, and other people. But an installation immerses you in three dimensions and the dynamic energy of real space.
Shirin Neshat | Rebellious Silence, 1994
B&W RC print and ink; 11 × 14 inches
Shirin Neshat, known for her work in film, video, and photography, undertakes multilevel projects that we could examine through the lens of most themes in this book, particularly memory, place, identity, the body, language, and spirituality. Here we discuss Neshat’s work primarily in terms of identity, an especially rich theme for this artist, who has explored her multiple identities as artist, woman, Iranian (and Persian), immigrant, and foreigner.
Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat moved to the United States in 1973 to study art in Los Angeles. When she was growing up, her homeland was under the leadership of the shah, who supported a liberalization of social behavior and economic changes modeled after the West. In 1979, however, while Neshat was still in America, Iran underwent a cataclysmic transformation: an Islamic revolution overthrew the shah, and in its aftermath the new regime of the fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini reasserted control over public and private behavior. Under his rule, even minute details of dress were dictated by sacred strictures. (A similar return to fundamental- ism occurred in many Islamic nations in the Middle East and northern Africa in the latter part of the twentieth century.)
Returning for a visit to Iran in 1990 after a twelve-year absence, Neshat was stunned by the magnitude of the change, which left her own cultural identity in a state of limbo: she had not adopted a fully Westernized identity, yet she no longer felt anchored to the culture of her homeland. The shock inspired her to try to understand and express through art what had happened to Iranian national identity, particularly as it concerned women. Through her art, she also began to explore gender roles, conflicts between tradition and modernity, and the psychological pressures felt by dislocated people who come to feel like perpetual outsiders.
One of the most visible changes that Neshat saw in Iran was that women every- where now wore the head-to-toe black chador, the loose robe and veil traditionally worn by women in Iran, which had been abolished in 1936. Women in chadors became an iconic presence in Neshat’s art. In her first mature body of work, a provocative series of photographs called Women of Allah (1993–1997), Neshat explores the ideology of Iranian women who are caught up in the revolution, even to the point of being willing to die as martyrs. Within each photograph [2-19], Neshat layers Farsi (modern Persian) calligraphy, the image of a gun, and the black veil, challenging “the western stereotype of the eastern Muslim woman as weak and subordinate.”33 The writing adorns those specific female body parts that remain visible in a fundamentalist Islamic land: the eyes, face, hands, and feet. The failure of cross-cultural communication is embodied in Neshat’s use of writing that is illegible to most Western readers. Westerners recognize the beauty of the calligraphy but don’t recognize it as poetry that is considered radical in Iran because individual poems offer different views on the value of wearing the chador. Whatever quick judgments that cultural outsiders may make when they look at the female figure and the gun, the presence of the writing implies that understanding requires deeper learning.
While many in the West expressed dismay and disdain at Iran’s return to fundamen- talism (charging, for instance, that fundamentalism totally subjugates women), Neshat’s artistic responses have been nuanced and full of ambiguity. Old and new stereotypes about the “Orient,” the Islamic world, gender roles, religious fanaticism, and violence meet and mix in Neshat’s work, without any resolution. In interviews, the artist acknowl- edges her awareness of the contradictions that are inherent in her use of loaded imagery.
Neshat’s rise to international prominence stems primarily from the acclaim that greeted a trilogy of films: Turbulent (1998), Rapture (1999), and Fervor (2000). Shot dramatically in black and white, these films examine a mythic existence in an imagi- nary version of Iran stripped down to its poetic essentials. The Iranians (played in her first films by Moroccan actors), like people everywhere, struggle for individual free- dom while simultaneously seeking meaning in shared values and traditions. The ten- sion between these tendencies turns Neshat’s staged tableaus into tragic sagas.
José Bedia | Piango Piango Llega Lejos (Step by Step, We Arrive Very Far), 2000
The graphic power of José Bedia’s mixed media drawings, paintings, and site-specific installations captivates viewers in a glance. In many of his artworks, linear elements lock elongated figures within a pattern as eye-catching as a spider’s web. Bedia often cre- ates monumental wall drawings that are done primarily in black, accompanied by ob- jects that are handmade or culled from either pop culture or nature, such as a toy boat or pair of antlers. To access the deeper symbolic associations contained in his imagery, however, viewers find it valuable to learn something of the influences the artist has em- braced. Bedia is Cuban; his heritage blends diverse ethnic traditions, including Hispanic, Native American, African, Afro-Cuban, and European. Early in his career, he developed an interest in ethnographic studies, but since his maturation as an artist, his work flows primarily out of his internalization of ideas “concerning the relationship of human beings with the world, from Afro- and Indo-American viewpoints.”57
A frequent motif in Bedia’s art is the representation of a journey. A journey may be represented explicitly (by a boat or a bridge, for instance), or a journey may be shown implicitly (with a labyrinth or passage of paint that appears to glow, thus mark- ing an inner spiritual transformation). In Bedia’s imagery, a mystical journey repre- sents the process by which knowledge is gained. Gaining knowledge provides the opportunity for a metaphysical transformation; such a transformation is the dramatic center of many important works of art and literature of South and Central America as well as the Caribbean.
Spiritual or transforming journeys are central to Bedia’s art, as well as to his own autobiographic experiences. Starting in the 1970s, as a teenager in Havana, Bedia accompanied his mother on visits to a priest of Palo Monte. Palo Monte is a religious faith transposed to the Caribbean by black slaves who were brought from central Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; as a religion, Palo Monte claims a sacred connection between the world of humans and of animals. According to Robert Farris Thompson, an expert on the art history of the Afro-Atlantic world, “The name of the faith refers to ‘trees of the sacred forest,’ for the classical Kongo religion of Central Africa focuses on special spirits or saints, bisimbi, and ancestors, bakulu, and both are believed to reside in the forests beyond the city.”58 Since his indoctrination into Palo Monte in the early 1980s, Bedia has devoted much of his art to a represen- tation of reality as seen through the Palo Monte belief system. Words are incorpo- rated frequently into his imagery to pinpoint the specific issues (such as the frailty of life) that the artwork directs the viewer to consider. Words, inserted as titles or captions, are often snippets of Palo songs and expressions—mambos—some pro- foundly spiritual, others political and topical, often in reference to the challenges and injustices stemming from colonialism. In addition to incorporating Palo Monte words, Bedia’s art may utilize ritual objects and altarpiece forms to evoke the reli- gious practices of the Kongo that were brought to the New World by slaves. (In cen- tral Africa, altars can represent the face of the gods.)
The Palo Monte religion, an Afro-Cuban religion, contains “parallels with Native American cultures and religions such as the Nahuatl, Lakota, Sioux or Navajo.”59 Bedia recognized these affinities intuitively and then confirmed them through research in anthropology texts. In 1985, the artist traveled to the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, where he lived with a shaman. Among the Sioux, immersed in a North American Plains Indian culture, Bedia intensely explored art and artifacts in which “every element, color, and image carries a specific symbolic reference.”60 The shaman instructed Bedia in ritualistic practices, such as the sweat lodge, in which spiritual regeneration occurs through self-purification. Bedia’s own creative practice has since incorporated imagery (such as pipes for smoking and concentric patterns) that is derived from the cosmologies of the North American Plains Indians. An example of this influence is seen in Piango Piango Llega Lejos (Step by Step, We Arrive Very Far) (2000) [9-21]; the circular overall shape of this artwork and the rounded, reddish torso of the figure within the composition echo the circular motif that remains a cen- tral symbol in many of the world’s religions and cosmologies, including those of the Amerindian and Afro-Cuban traditions that have been particularly influential for Bedia. Within Bedia’s imaginative conception, “the transcultural pilgrim has mor- phed into a turtle, albeit one with human limbs and the ability to smoke a pipe.” The turtle’s shell is adorned with “elements of the visual vocabulary of Palo Monte, in- cluding the anvil, cauldron, knife, and the arriero bird.”61 A smaller version of the turtle figure extends on the right side of the artwork below the abstract representa- tion of water, both outlined by a glowing white linear pattern. A phrase in the Kongo language, which serves also as the artwork’s title, arcs across the top edge; the words imply the wisdom of caution: Piango, piango, lega lejos (“Step by step, you can go far”).
Immersing himself in other Native American traditions (including Aztec and Mayan traditions of Mexico), Bedia has found inspiration for his simplified, almost cartoon-like forms. Among these preliterate cultures from ancient times the realms of people, animals, and nature interpenetrated on physical and metaphysical planes. In various artworks that the artist has produced over his career, figures often gesture to a void, while their eyes glow or stare at empty spaces, signifying the hidden di- mensions that lie behind the façade of everyday existence.
The artist claims that his use of symbolism is authentic, that his work is anchored in his own firsthand knowledge of actual traditions. In an interview published in 1999, he explained, “I don’t invent anything. For example, the sand symbols. I learned what each thing represents from a medicine man in Montana.”62 Drafted into the Cuban army in 1986, Bedia traveled to Africa; in Angola, he studied African religious beliefs that are ancestral to the Palo Monte and Santería traditions of Cuba. According to the artist, while he may duplicate an altar within the process of creat- ing an artwork, the resulting artwork is not a sacred altar. The artwork cannot function in a truly spiritual way because the artist would never place “the sacred elements of his religion in a secular art installation.”63 Such an artwork is never consecrated.
Among Bedia’s most powerful artworks are those the artist has created by painting or drawing directly on gallery or museum walls, attaching or adding other materials to complete the installation. An example of this creative strategy, Las Cosas Que Me Arrastan (The Things That Drag Me Along) (2008) [9-22] includes a double-headed figure being “dragged” forward through the space of the gallery, attached by chains to a collection of found objects. Each head is defined by a jaw protruding in a way that is characteristic of many of Bedia’s figures. Notice how the negative space between the faces and necks creates a dramatic white arrow that points out the path onward. Festooned across the enormous figure’s chest are pasted photographs of an iron cauldron and sweat lodge, symbols of the Afro- Cuban and Plains Indian faiths, respectively (likewise, the two heads also signify these two influences). Pulling the figure is a “team” of boats laden with objects that represent the range of Bedia’s knowledge of sacred rituals. For example, a coyote stands in the lead of the Amerindian boat; the animal is on a spiritual journey. Such a quest is the primary goal in all that the artist undertakes and all that his art repre- sents. The entire artwork functions further as a collection of talismanic images and objects that may lead the viewer along the path of enlightenment as well.
While containing symbolic passages that offer a political critique of historical injustices, Bedia’s art is, ultimately, suffused with a joyous optimism anchored in spir- itual awareness. For example, Esperando en los Cerros (Waiting in the Hills) (2009) [9-23] offers for contemplation a night scene in which a multitude of horned figures slumber while glowing heads scan the night sky. Meanwhile, unseen by these vari- ous figures, and yet prominent in the center of the composition, a golden female spirit illuminates the path on a dark mountain.
Born in Havana in 1959, Bedia left Cuba permanently in 1990. He spent three years in Mexico, after which he migrated to the United States in 1993, where he set- tled in Miami, choosing that city for its close ties to Hispanic culture.
Bill Viola | The Crossing, 1996 9-19 | Bill Viola | The Crossing, 1996
In front of or surrounded by one of Bill Viola’s videotapes or video/sound installa- tions, most viewers stand transfixed. In Five Angels for the Millennium (2001), we watch scenes of a figure ascending and descending into a pool of water at night; in The Crossing (1996), installed in a darkened gallery, we see a two-sided projection of a solitary man striding forward from a distance. Upon nearing, he comes to a stop, and then, on one side of the suspended screen, the man becomes engulfed in rising flames [9-18]; simultaneously, on the other side of the screen, the same figure becomes engulfed in a rapidly building torrent of water [9-19]. After he is totally immersed on both sides, the cascade of water and blazing fire die out. The man has disappeared. Then the cycle repeats. In describing this work, the artist wrote, “The two traditional natural elements of fire and water appear here not only in their de- structive aspects, but manifest their cathartic, purifying, transformative, and regen- erative capacities as well. In this way, self-annihilation becomes a necessary means to transcendence and liberation.”
The overall effect of these examples of Viola’s work can confound us. Why? First, there is the issue of the function and meaning of his choices of specific images. We may be tempted to assume that the artist is using images from nature symbolically: a pool of water (in Five Angels for the Millennium), perhaps standing for purity, and the night sky, perhaps standing for the vast knowledge we have yet to learn. We have had practice interpreting such natural symbols in poems, movies, novels, and private walks in the woods; we are primed by culture to translate the rich potential of nature’s symbolism.
However, in deriving the core of his imagistic vocabulary from nature, Viola moves beyond a symbolic interpretation. Viola intends the video imagery not as mere representation or symbol, but as reification. The image does not carry the meaning of an external subject; it becomes the subject itself. And it does so on two key levels. First, “Time, life, death, space and the individual in Viola’s work are never concepts or events translatable to other languages, but languages in them- selves, places of immanence of meanings which cannot be articulated.”51 Second, Viola’s video imagery becomes a world unto itself that parallels and embodies those aspects of the human condition upon which the work concentrates attention. To put this into the terms of a specific work, in The Crossing the immersion in water is just that—an immersion; the immersion creates transmogrification, not on a metaphoric or symbolic level but on the phenomenological level. The video event is the event. Viola’s concern is not principally with the figure (the actor) in the imagery but with our (the audience’s) relationship to the imagery. We become immersed in the event of the total artwork.
In many of his works Viola concentrates our attention on the transformation of imagery from the beautiful to the awesome. We watch this occur in The Crossing as the rush of water builds from a glittering trickle to a frightening torrent. At the dra- matic ending of the cycle—when the figure has melded with the infinite power of water and fire—he (the man in the artwork) disappears into the cosmos, and we (the viewers in the gallery) are in the midst of experiencing the sublime.
What is the sublime? As discussed in this chapter, the sublime is a powerful ex- perience that combines disparate feelings. Cynthia Freeland applied the term in a careful analysis of several examples of Bill Viola’s video works. As she explained, “The sublime was overwhelming, something that might sweep one away with its vast size or power. Whereas the beautiful was smooth and soft, the sublime was rough and jagged. Stormy oceans and jagged mountains were typical examples.”52
A signature device in many of Viola’s videotapes and installations is the slowing of time; Viola elongates the duration of an event to allow our mind to catch up with our sensory perceptions. (In addition to slowing time, in Viola’s body of work there are also examples of time being rapidly speeded up, in which Viola’s keen interest in exploring the limits of human perception is manifest.)53 Seeing and hearing a slowed-down sequence of images and sounds—ocean waves, for instance—we have time to marvel at, and meditate on, what it is we are experiencing in the pre- sent moment. This slowed-down and focused way of thinking can become a spiritual exercise for the viewer. The water concentrates our attention on our relationship to the water, as an aspect of reality: the water and we, in the midst of watching the water, are unified in the temporal flow. Understanding this unification provides us with a gateway to understanding our unification with the whole of reality as our minds expand in greater and greater circumferences of thought. At the least, we believe that Viola’s work aims for this deep (if swift) connection of viewer and video, sound, gallery, meaning, and reality.
That Viola would ask us to consider a transcendent plane of meaning confounds us because the quest for a vivid spiritual connection is rarely so openly expressed in the current art world. In the West, an uncritical embrace of the spiritual realm lost currency during the heyday of modernism, at least in the discussions of critics. Fur- ther disengagement came during the dismantling of grand narratives in the late twentieth century. Art historian James Elkins has written on the difficulties and rarity of creating serious visual art today that celebrates, embodies, or explores religion or spirituality without irony or a critical stance.54 Viola’s creations do not aim for a scien- tific, economic, or political understanding of nature by providing data and observing patterns. Viola entices us to set aside a secular mindset and embrace a paradigm of meditative spirituality. His works are informed by a broad, though eclectic, knowl- edge of global traditions of religion (including Zen Buddhism and Sufi and Christian mysticism), literature, philosophy, and natural science. Viola also draws on personal experiences, such as his near drowning when he was a child. His goal in making the work is not to contribute to the perfection of society (as an artist focusing on nature from an ecological perspective might) but to the perfection of the individual. A par- ticularly confounding aspect of his work is that Viola manages to draw viewers into a meditative state—in which we are both inside ourselves and standing outside our- selves simultaneously in contemplation of life’s enduring mysteries—within a rela- tively short time in the rather crowded urban public space of an art museum.
The effects we describe can be experienced clearly in any number of examples. The video and sound installation Room for St. John of the Cross (1983) [9-20], for instance, consists of a darkened gallery within which a mural-size video projection of distant mountain peaks covers one wall. The sound of roaring wind fills the gallery’s interior; the projected mountains shake on the wall (the result of purposefully un- steady filming); in the center of the gallery stands a black cubicle. The cubicle meas- ures slightly less than the height of an adult: it is built to the recorded dimensions of the cell in which Saint John, a sixteenth-century Christian mystic, was imprisoned during the Inquisition. Gallery viewers must stoop to peer inside the cell’s window. During the nine months of his captivity, Saint John was released from his cell only to be tortured; in solitary confinement, he produced lines of ecstatic, visionary poetry. In Viola’s installation, visitors listening at the window hear excerpts from the poems, spoken in barely audible Spanish, that include visions of flying over the mountainous landscape. A single writing table sits inside the cramped cell; on the table, a much smaller image of a single mountain is projected on a small monitor.
Exploring Room for St. John of the Cross, the viewer ponders her or his role in the implied drama. Is one a witness? possibly even a torturer? Could the viewer also “be” Saint John? The darkness of the gallery isolates each of us so that we each become the saint in solitary meditation. The tiny mountain on the monitor, a point of calm within the cell, functions like a Zen koan, providing a focus for meditative en- gagement. Alexander Puhringer explained, “Viola views his work as a kind of indi- vidual exercise. But what makes it transcend the private realm is the way it is treated. Of decisive importance here is the fact that Viola—in William Blake’s sense—grants every person the ability of having visions and being in contact with the divine imagi- nation.”55 Viola choreographs the entire scene so that viewers/listeners are not merely captivated by the experience but are also transported. From this spiritual perspective we see the mountain. The mountain landscape moving on the wall is the mountain, and the still mountain on the monitor in the cell is also the mountain. One does not symbolize the other. The mountain is not a symbol of escape or en- durance. The mountain is the mountain. Existence is being.
Another interesting aspect of Viola’s work, given its spiritual import, is the reli- ance on the medium of video, a technology related to television, perhaps the most commercialized of all contemporary media. For Viola, time is the fundamental ele- ment of video. The flow of time in video parallels the dynamic, continual changes that take place in reality. Thus, form and content blend seamlessly. Viola analyzes the relationship of medium to motif: “Most important, it is the awareness of our own mortality that defines the nature of human beings. . . . As instruments of time, the materials of video . . . have as a part of their nature this fragility of temporal exist- ence. Images are born, they are created, they exist, and, in the flick of a switch, they die.”56 Reality is in flux; transformation and transition occur incessantly. In Viola’s Tiny Deaths (1993), the imagery consists of a group of anonymous figures, whose poses mimic those of the museum audience. In the video imagery, each figure glows for a period of time and then slowly loses contrast, turning luminescent before finally disappearing.
In the mid-1990s, Viola began to create video versions of iconic Renaissance paintings (such as The Greeting, based on a visitation scene by the sixteenth-cen- tury Italian painter Jacopo Pontormo). In Viola’s versions, the stillness of the imagery is revealed as an ever so slowly changing video image. The greatest conundrum of all, in Viola’s art, appears to be time itself. Time is change, and in time all will change.
Viola’s work is most compelling because it confronts and compels viewers with a secular outlook to consider questions to which there is no secular or scientific answer: Why do we live? Why do we die? What is the meaning of time?
Bill Viola was born in 1951 in Flushing, New York. He received a bachelor of fine arts degree from Syracuse University. Viola and his wife and collaborator, Kira Perov, currently live in Long Beach, California.