During Art Cologne a retrospective on the American performance artist, Andrea Fraser, opened at the Ludwig Museum. At the opening weekend, the artist performed one of her works herself, ‘May I Help You?’, which was a demonstration of how exciting ‘live’ art is.
At the beginning of the show visitors encounter one of Fraser’s most provocative works: a confrontational video of a couple having sex in a hotel room. The couple is filmed by a single overhead camera and their encounter starts like a regular set up. First they sit on a bed, drinking a glass of wine, talking, laughing, followed by some tender caressing, kissing and fumbling at each other. 20 Minutes later, of the 60 minute video in total, the couple are having hardcore sex with each other. One wonders what is so interesting about what looks like a couple recording their sexual encounter on video, which they watch later at home.
The info card hanging in the room, tells the visitor that they are actually watching the artist having sex with an art collector. Fraser had asked her dealer, Friedrich Petzel, if he could find a collector to participate in a project that would involve having sex with the artist in a hotel room and pre-buying a videotape documenting the encounter. Petzel found a collector and a deal was closed in which the collector financed the project and purchased the first edition of only five videos.
Whether the collector received value for his money is for him to determine, but Fraser ‘goes all the way’, giving him a blow job, and undertaking intercourse with him in several positions, including ‘doggy’ style.
Looking at the video, one wonders what was the motivation of the collector to participate. Is it for his own glorification and does he ‘get off’ by viewing himself having sex in a hotel room with a well-respected artist? Is he interested in rubbing shoulders with an artist to elevate his prestige within his own circle? Or, is he interested in reasons of posterity, as the opportunity was offered to him to buy himself into a work of art?
Further, what of Fraser’s motivation? Is this a literal demonstration of the idea that ‘the artist is a whore’ or that art has become a perverse business?
Stimulating questions offered by Fraser that tap into the main theme of her work of ‘institutional critique’. This is a systematic inquiry into the workings of art institutions, such as galleries and museums, and the mechanisms of the art world. With her performances she gives a peek into the machinations and the commercial aspects of the art world.
Although Fraser’s performances convey serious messages, she manages to engage the viewer by using humour, surrealism and satire, which is aptly demonstrated in her performance ‘May I Help You’.
In the video we see Fraser giving a tour to visitors in a gallery. When a visitor enters a gallery, he or she is usually ignored, which is strange when you consider that when you enter a shop, “May I Help You” is a question one expects to be asked. In the video, the visitor is given a twenty minute monologue by Fraser that she assembled from interviews with artists, collectors, gallerists, and individuals unfamiliar with art. It’s amusing to watch Fraser, dressed as an elegant employee of a gallery, talking to visitors who seemed to be off balance by all the unexpected attention they receive.
Upstairs in the museum, Fraser performs her work ‘live’, which provides the visitor a first-hand opportunity to experience that is being experienced by the visitors in the video. Fraser stands within a group of visitors and steps to a wall where thirty objects are hanging that appear to be framed pictures that are actually painted plaster. She acts as though the frames are filled with different works, but the interior of all of the frames contain only black rectangles. She approaches one of them and, with her finger, clears some dust from the top of the frame. The manner in which Fraser conveys the stories behind the art work – over the top American – is something with which we’re quite familiar as, when an employee of a gallery starts talking to you, he or she unsollicitated starts to share what appeals them to the work or starts to rattle off paragraphs of the show’s press release.
In this environment Fraser makes us realize how banal, toe-curling, hollow and meaningless the jargon of the art world actually can be. “Now this artist is doing exactly what she wants. I asked her once what attracted her to the subject and she said quite interesting: it’s what I want to do [laughs]. She has the capacity to surprise me on a regular basis. Sometimes she comes in here… and then next thing I know, she’s off to Africa somewhere rolling in the mud [laughs].
“Now this is a piece that I find wildly exciting, a tremendous work. She is the real thing, she is out there, really out there, and she puts everything into her work: it’s her neighbourhood bar, it’s the songs her mother sang when she was a child, the man she loves, everything about life; and it’s not expensive. It’s incredible, it’s a woman in a bikini at a cocktail party. It’s so outrageous, everyone thinks it’s outrageous. I think it’s funny and it is sexy and it’s one of the ugliest smears of paint I have ever seen. It is the top. It’s a Waldorf salad [laughs]. What do you think?”
Well, in my opinion, ‘May I Help You’, is a witty, entertaining and stimulating piece of work that holds up a mirror to the art world.
Written by Thierry Somers. Andrea Fraser at Museum Ludwig, Cologne, until July 21, 2013
A lot of visitors to Roger Hiorns’s critically acclaimed show at De Hallen in Haarlem reacted with a mixture of fascination and disturbance when they discovered the type of materials the artist was using for his objects. There was particular reaction to the brain matter coated on the white-matt plastic panels and cows’ brains that were attached to the coins lying on the floor.
In my review of the show I wrote, “This morbid addition to the coins reminded me of the horror stories of BSE, the mad cow disease in the UK, where millions of cattle were destroyed and the linked human disease led to the death of many people”.
When I met with the Birmingham born artist it turned out that I wasn’t carried away by my imagination as Hiorns tells me that he became interested in cows’ brains during his time as a postman in South London – the job he held for six years to enable him to become an artist.
Hiorns is not the first artist who has worked as a postman. The Dutch artist, Jan Schoonhoven, renowned for his monochrome white grid reliefs, worked his entire life at the PTT (National Postal service), producing his work at night and during the weekend.
In his postal round, Hiorns was delivering medical information to one particular address where a boy was suffering from BSE – at that time an unknowable disease. He spoke with the boy’s family and neighbours about this brutal disease that spongifies and regresses one’s brain activity.
The area to which Hiorns was delivering mail was in a lower class area of London. A depressed social housing complex filled with people under the addiction to drugs, social problems and those suffering from mental instabilities.
Hiorns chose to be a postman as he was searching for the space and ability to think. “Being a postman is a very mindless task. You’re simply sorting letters and then you’re delivering them – that’s essentially it”, he says. “I was a postman for six years so that I could be, in parallel, an artist and just get on with thinking and making work”.
Some of the work he produced as an artist is inspired or enhanced by his period of being a postman, like the brain matter pieces or his transfixing work ‘Seizure’, for which 90,000 litres of copper was pumped into an abandoned council flat creating a place of wonder in not a particularly salubrious area of London –Elephant and Castle.
Hiorns looks like he could be a member of a British pop band or could have featured in Hedi Slimane’s book, ‘Stage’, for which the former men’s wear designer of Dior photographed the rock revival and the 2.0 generation. Hiorns is wearing the type of stylish over-sized glasses for which Jarvis Cocker is renowned, combined with the hair style reminiscent of Alex Kapranos, covering his forehead. Although Hiorns was born in Birmingham he doesn’t talk with a typical Brummie accent, but with a very refined accent.
I spoke with Hiorns about the risks of using the materials he employs for his work; on being not really ‘present’ in the making of the work; why it was not an option for him to start his career as an assistant of an artist, and the uniqueness to the ‘presentness’ of an artist.
RH: Yes, it was. It has to be a calf’s brain as it has to be under a certain age and that’s simply due to BSE. You can’t have cows’ brain as they can mature the disease. Calfs’ brains are containment free and you can, usually, buy them easily at the butcher’s.
200%: So you went to the butcher’s and asked for a pound of calf’s brain?
RH: No, I was buying it from a supplier directly in order that I had a consistent source. I was also interested to see the cows in their environment prior to having their brains removed.
200%: How did you prepare the material?
RH: It was straightforward – I simply blended the brain with some water. It’s all handled in the studio with a certain amount of care. I chose the material as I wanted to propose a new material from scratch, a material that is essentially unknowable, as a material that contains the structure and the consistency of all our brains. The material consists of a very intricate and unknowable structure. At this point, it’s important to add that we don’t know the inner mechanics of how our brains are put together in as meaningful way as we’d like. We know some of the outlines, but not the full story, of how the mind moves the body, the body negotiating space, and space itself conditioning our response. Thus, it was interesting to go through the process of producing, for a purpose, a material that is essentially real, a material made of some reality.
What fascinated me was that I was essentially painting with a material of lived experience, perhaps containing some truths. As it was a calf’s brain, though, it was, after all, non linguistic. Experience of a reality, applied onto matt-white plastic panels, plain and simple, uniquely banal. The work’s simplicity, seemed paradoxically an overloaded proposition.
RH: On a day when I was least mindful of making the work. I made the work on a day when I probably had a headache, that I didn’t particularly want to be in the studio. I had 40 panels to address; I coated each of them with the prepared brain matter in one short session. Trying to reach for abstraction, simply my action as a by-product of my presence in front of these bland white panels on a January afternoon in 2012. I wasn’t looking for composition or balance. The process involved making the panels without truly looking or of any deeper thinking, then leaving the room.
200%: Did you research the risks of using brain matter extensively?
RH: Yes, I did some research before I went into making my work so that I would fully understand the hazards into which I was placing myself. In the same way that you would look into using plastics, like polyurethane, you have to be aware that you’re not killing yourself when you’re making a work.
200%: Did you wear protective gear?
RH: Yes, I wore wrist braces and a respirator. I was well kitted out, more than I needed to be. It was part of the process, part of the choreography of making the work, part of the fantasy of a studio practice in this unsure world. Studio practice; so old fashioned a term, to sit in a single place and simply produce, it’s unusual that this way of behaving should persist. I’m separated from the work, and the world by protective gear and thick gloves, separated in a way that I’m not really ‘present’ in the making of the work. I’m somehow breathing filters away from being completely ‘present’ with the work.
Perhaps the same issue occurred with my carvings into polystyrene, the works are of male couples having sexual intercourse. Made behind safety wear, so that I wasn’t poisoned by my actions. Sculpting sexual encounter in a material that is hazardous to myself.
RH: No, I don’t think it’s any more dangerouus than driving a car [laughs]. I haven’t focused too much on the possibility of death in making these works. There is risk in using these materials, of course, but you won’t feel so hindered by thoughts of injury when you are viewing the works – although I can’t speak for your experience in front of these works at all.
As I am an object maker, somebody who works with objects, I am very involved in the dominant materials and the dominant objects of the world. As such, you become interested in the make up of things as you are directly involved with them.
200%: Starting as a postman to become an artist is quite an unusual route. Didn’t you consider becoming an artist by working with other artists as an assistant?
RH: No that was just not acceptable. I couldn’t work with another artist. For your contemporaries, listen to them studiously, of course, and support the best of their new ideas, but make sure you have a path to an exit door at hand, to not become contaminated by their dogma when you’ve spent too long in their company.
I tell my students not to work with artists, not to be artists’ assistants. Whatever pre-occupations that the novice might have, new ideas they have, let’s be widely idealistic and try to keep that spirit, keep it intact. Younger artists, they will grow some new unique territory from essentially a misunderstanding of the world. This misunderstanding is important to somehow protect.
I hear artists, who reach a level when things they say gain attention, proclaim essentially a distain, a sense of the world that is based in loss – this sounds very general, of course. Essentially, steal or build on the best of their ideas, it’s important that we collectively share that possibility of progress. Otherwise cross the road when you see artists coming your way.
RH: Ideas will remain intact, ideas can be resilient, but there is an issue of artists becoming too obsessively tied to the business of running a studio as a business, as a profession. To produce without a thorough reason as to why they continue to produce, artists who simply make an uncritical agreement with the open market, a circumstance that is deeply conservative and in denial to the realities in which we are currently. A status that cannot question the nature of what it is of being an artist.
Being an artist – there are many interpretations: perhaps it’s a life spent in a close recognition of your circumstance. Or, it may be about an individual life spent within the world, to become acute to an understanding of the world, to become attuned to the poetics of the present, as covertly as they currently lie.
I’m probably sounding separatist, there is a uniqueness to the presentness of an artist. You can draw a parallel with life and you can entertain a relationship that is alongside the world. To design a new set of behaviours, to counter the conditioned foundations, we seek to move beyond. Observation and action and not simply performance and production.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers.
Pictures: Roger Hiorns, Seizure, 2008, a Jerwood / Artangel Commission, Harper Road, London, Courtesy Corvi-Mora, London. Roger Hiorns, Untitled, De Hallen, Photo GJ van Rooij, 2012, Coin machine Coins, brain matter, Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam. Roger Hiorns Untitled, 2011, Gesso board, brain matter 40 x 40 cm. Unique photo: Ilya Rabinovich Courtesy Annet Gelink Gallery, Amsterdam
For his latest piece, the minimalist composer Steve Reich has reworked material of Radiohead – an anticipation equivalent to Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal forming a doubles team. Prior to the highly anticipated world première of the piece, called ‘Radio Rewrite’, that was performed by the London Sinfonietta at the Royal Festival Hall in London this week, the expectations were very high, but were they met?
The London Sinfonietta is not a stranger to working with Radiohead’s compositions. In 2005, at the Ether Festival, they performed with the Arab Orchestra of Nazareth Orchestra a symphonic composition ‘Arpeggi’ composed by Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke, the respective lead guitarist and front man of Radiohead. They also performed Greenwood’s compositions ‘Piano for Children’ and ‘Smear’.
In 2011, the London Sinfionetta and the US ensemble Alarm Will Sound had jointly commissioned Reich to write a new piece for them, but the American composer remarked in an interview that “it was going ‘terrible’.
In September of that year, during the Sacrum Profanum Festival in Krakow that was organized in dedication to Reich’s music, he witnessed Greenwood perform his arresting composition ‘Electric Counterpoint’ (1987).
Reich was impressed by Greenwood’s transfixing performance of his work. Although familiar with Greenwood’s soundtrack ‘There Will Be Blood’, Reich wasn’t familiar with Radiohead’s music. He listened to their catalogue online, was impressed by some of their songs, and decided to base his new work on two Radiohead compositions.
In his career Reich has paid homage to other composers, such as Pérotin in ‘Proverb’ and Stephen Sondheim’s composition ‘Finishing the Hat’ from the musical ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ that he reworked into a piano composition. This is the first time, though, that Reich took inspiration from the rock genre.
Reich chose ‘Everything in its Right Place’ from the ‘Kid A’ album and ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’ from the ‘In Rainbows’ album as the source material of ‘Radio Rewrite’. One can imagine why ‘Everything in its Right Place’ appealed to Reich as it is a minimalist composition with a repetitive rhythm and a sparsity of lyrics.
Reich was struck by the harmonies of ‘Jigsaw Falling Into Place’. It has an upbeat rhythm starting with a virtuoso composition played on a Spanish guitar as iconic and memorable as some of the acoustic compositions in Pink Floyd’s work such as ‘Wish You Were Here’ and ‘Is There Anybody Out There’.
‘Radio Rewrite’ consists of five movements. The fast-paced, odd-numbered movements, are based on ‘Jigsaw…’ whilst the slower, even-numbered movements are based on ‘Everything…’.
Whilst Reich had commented, prior to the premiere, that “It [‘Radio Rewrite’] is very unrecognisable, a lot of people will say where is Radiohead?” The question remained as to whether elements of the songs would still be recognizable. Reich decided to take some of their harmonies and melodic fragments that he found exhilarating and do whatever he wanted to do with them.
‘Radio Rewrite’ starts promisingly with the same energy as ‘Jigsaw…’ and elements of the song are (vaguely) recognisable. Fundamentally, though, the beginning is instantly recognisable as ‘classic’ Reich: two pianos playing a pulsating, repetitive rhythm that are gradually accompanied by two vibraphones, a clarinet, a flute, a string quartet and an electric bass. The beginning of the piece, though, doesn’t instantly grab you to the core as with other Reich compositions such as ‘The Desert Music’, or put you under a spell as with ‘Six Marimbas’.
The second and fourth movement, which draws inspiration from one of Radiohead’s most iconic song ‘Everything…’, contains some reference to the original but sounds more like a soundtrack for ‘Taxi Driver’ when Travis Bickle is riding through late New York.
Obviously one wouldn’t (and shouldn’t) expect Reich to compose a work in which Radiohead’s work is instantly recognisable, as the curiosity is to his interpretation of their music and how he reworks something from the rock genre. Reich has stated that it was not his intention “to make anything like ‘variations’ on these songs”, but ‘Radio Rewrite’ could have benefitted by staying closer to the original source material simply because it’s such strong, layered and rich material.
‘Radio Rewrite’ is not as arresting as one of the compositions on which it is based ‘Everything…’, the opener of the ‘Kid A’ album, where Radiohead broke with their history, deconstructed themselves and created a musical universe of their own. With this album, they made a radical shift from their previously successful work, which had reached a pinnacle with the ‘OK Computer’ album, and abandoned their signature sound of guitars and Yorke’s singing. They made a foray into electronics, started to use unusual instruments not normally associated with the rock genre, like the ondes martenot, and Yorke experimented with different ways of using his voice.
With their pursuit of innovation, Radiohead created an album that is as avantgardistic as ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ were when released, altering people’s view of pop music as they created music that had not been heard previously. One wishes that Reich’s reworking would have been as innovative as the material on which it was based and, most of all, as innovative as he has been with his previous work.
Written by Thierry Somers
For his project ‘Fig. 1-99’, the photographer and graphic designer, Anthony Gerace, created 100 colour studies on vintage paper sourced from magazines including ‘Life’, ‘Time’, ‘Playboy’ and others. Out of these source materials, Gerace created some fascinating chromatic collages with subtle colour gradients. The balance between figuration and abstraction in Gerace’s work is intriguing, for example in ‘Only One’, a raspberry coloured image where one can recognise the silhouette of the helmet of darth vader.
Subsequent to discussions with Gerace regarding his work, we asked whether he would be interested to create some collages based on the four printed editions of 200%, and to discuss his creative process in doing so.
The Canadian born artist, currrently residing in London, quickly responded and told us he was excited by the idea to make a collage based on contemporary sources – something he had never undertaken before.
200%: Can you explain your train of thought as to how you came to create these images out of the visual material of 200%?
Anthony Gerace: The train of thought is pretty simple – look for areas of tone with minor variation or interesting typography, isolate them, and then destroy and rebuild them. It was weird working with contemporary sources as I’m so used to looking for muted, soft-palette colours, and of course that becomes much harder when the magazine is printed on glossy paper. It was, though, a really interesting challenge: I ended up taking as my source imagery from pretty different pages per issue.
It’s weird as the headspace I’m in when I’m making collages – especially more abstract ones – is one of desperately trying to make it fit together in the ‘right’ way, even if I don’t know what that way is. Thus, a lot of the time I’m unaware of my thinking process outside of knowing it needs to be perfect, even if I don’t know what that actually means.
AG: Yes and no. I think that in my most recent body of work, ‘People Living’, I’m trying really overtly to find that balance, and to find the place where the abstraction of the colour studies can exist within more traditional and clichéd collage forms. I really like the pureness of tone and line that the colour studies let me explore, and how to find humanity in the subtleties. I think figuration in my abstract work is both the most subtle and the least important element: it’s there, and it’s encoded in the source material, and it’s responsible for a lot of the conceptual elements of the work, but it’s not necessary for the pieces to be engaged with – so I’d say that whatever balance I find is an added bonus: for me, it’s as much about the exploration as it is about the end result.
200%: The idea of a collage is where the artwork is made from an assemblage of different forms, thus creating a new whole. Is that also your idea about collage? If yes, for what kind of new whole are you looking with the new images based on the artwork of 200%?
AG: For me it’s less about an objective and more about seeing how the work changes along the way, at least with the abstract pieces I do. I’m not looking for anything particularly but, instead, looking to the mechanics of the source images themselves (colour, tone, form, and counter form) as a way of defining the new image. In that respect, what I’m looking for is defined entirely by its source. Thus, you can’t really define collage as anything but “an assemblage of different forms […] creating a new whole”. The language just isn’t there yet. It doesn’t follow that to assemble something new means that you’re necessarily looking for something – that becomes the definition of objective, figurative collage, and that isn’t what I do. It’s not simply a “yes” or a “no” (or in this case an enforced “yes” as there definitively can’t be a “no” to the first question whilst still describing it as collage… yet, at least). The result I’m looking for is one that’s emotive and readable without being direct or objective, that isn’t reliant on a cultural trope of any kind to make it work. I don’t know if I’m quite there, but it’s always the goal.
200%: Are the images that you created related to the theme of 200%: a magazine that features passionate creative people who live life to the full for their art?
AG: If they are, they are in the broadest sense: I think any image made that defines itself as art and is created as an end unto itself (as these were) is related to the idea of living life to the fullest. As I’m not really sure what that means – living life to the fullest is such an objective thing – although I know that I try and live to my ideals in everything I do. Thus, in that respect, they are related to the theme.
Contemporary: Jacob Whibley, as he uses the absolute least amount to the greatest outcome, without resorting to figurative imagery. His work is that to which I aspire: completely abstract, apropos of nothing, yet totally true to the qualities of its sources and aware of the disconnect between the forms he creates and the ones that he’s using.
Matthew Partridge, for incorporating typography so eloquently into his work and with such a sense of humour, without sacrificing the strange otherworldliness that his collages have.
JP King, for his work ethic and his ability to make incredibly technical and well thought out pieces look effortless and naive. His work looks like it just fell on the page, and stuck. It’s that good.
Historically: Kurt Schwitters, because of course Kurt Schwitters: he managed to turn the crassest advertisements of his era into timeless and resonant pieces of art that were also politically conscious acts of protest. The kind of collage he made has never been made successfully in my lifetime, and always dates itself immediately. It might just be the language barrier, but to me it’s incredible (and incredibly inspiring) that his work remains as relevant today as it was when it was made.
Interview conducted by Thierry Somers; All images by Anthony Gerace. From top to below, image based on issue 2; image based on issue 1, and ‘Fig. 20’.
A moment of contemplation at the inaugural, well-attended, edition of the photography fair ‘Unseen’ in Amsterdam could be found at the stand of Flowers Gallery. The London-based gallery presented a mesmerizing series of serene nudes by the Israeli-born photographer Nadav Kander, which feature in his new book ‘Bodies. 6 Women. 1 Man’.
Over a period of 2,5 years, seven naked sitters were depicted by Kander in his studio, resulting in a body of work consisting of 30 pictures. Flowers exhibited three pictures of women whose bodies are painted white with dust that comes from marble sculptures and photographed on a black background. As the models are turned away from the camera or their faces are hidden by their arms, the attention is focused entirely on the shape of the body. Some of the bodies become beautifully abstract, like ‘Elizabeth with elbows hiding face’ where her body appears to become the shape of dough being kneaded for bread.
This picture makes one recall Lucian Freud’s famous painting of Sue Tilley. Kander admits that Freud subconsciously has been at the back of his mind. He admires how Freud painted humans and loves the painter’s brushstroke and how he succeeded to make human flesh come alive in his work.
Photographing the body as a sculptural form has been a subject that has occupied many photographers. ‘Earthly Bodies’ by Irving Penn is a collection of nudes where the American photographer captured bodies of curvaceous women with their faces not in the frame.
In his book ‘Some Women’, Robert Mapplethorpe, depicted their naked bodies like Greek classic sculptures and Bill Brandt made a series of nudes on the beachside and positioned the bodies of women in such an angle that they appear to be like stones.
For models and photographers nude photography can make them feel uncomfortable or perhaps even embarrassed. By turning the sitter away from the camera, to hide their face or to not make them look into the lens, may be a way to alleviate any feelings of shame. The model may feel less exposed and vulnerable at being naked in front of the camera and the photographer might feel less like a voyeur.
Though breasts and vaginas are completely exposed, with no faces identified, Kander’s pictures don’t become erotically charged. Also, the viewer doesn’t feel like a voyeur in staring at these naked bodies, which is inevitable, as you become entranced by the rapturous beauty that Kander has captured.
Whether Kander photographs Chinese people along the Yangtze river or Barack Obama and his staff for the New York Times, his signature is always present: utterly sophisticated, understated elegance and exquisitely tasteful. There is also an air of distance in his work that may be a reflection of Kander’s shy and introverted personality.
Kander attended the ‘Unseen’ fair for an interview on stage and made time to sat with us to discuss his new body of work, and his interest to create images that are slightly difficult to view, but simultaneously quite beautiful.
200%: How did your new book ‘Bodies. 6 Women. 1 Man’ originate?
Nadav Kander: I have often photographed nudes, but I don’t think I have ever been comfortable with what I have photographed as it’s usually too erotically charged. They fall in a genre of photography that I don’t really like or with which I would like to be associated. I have often pursued it, but I never found a way that I could photograph nude people that was satisfactory to me. I always loved the work of Lee Friedlander, André Kertész and Bill Brandt, particularly with their nude work, for their honesty and the way that they showed humanness in different ways without it being sexual.
NK: I started photographing women in my studio and I had a reference point of the Renaissance. I was interested in the thinking of the fifteenth century of the way whiteness was associated with dignity and purity. We painted bodies white with dust that comes from marble sculptures, suspended in cream, like a make-up, whitening people and starting working with reference to effigies, to Ibn Tumart, to sculptures that have been used in churches.
That’s how it began, but I very quickly realised that it fitted much more into the way in which I always photographed. It took me quite a long time to realise that this whole Renaissance thing is actually a reference point and the context of fine art paining; it isn’t an affectation, but it is really just a beginning point. Really what I was doing was exactly the same thing that I had done since I started to photograph at the age of 20, which is to look for paradoxes, for opposites, for things that are slightly difficult to view, but simultaneously quite beautiful.
NK: I think that it is about vulnerability, being exposed and yet covered and turned away. They bring up feelings in the viewer of truth that you which you can’t turn away, one’s dark side. You can’t have health without disease, you can’t have beauty without imperfection. I find the imperfection in beauty always more beautiful than just beauty.
I’ve always known that all my work is authentic to me, but it’s always very hard for me to articulate what it is about my work that makes it in a way always the same. Whether I go to China or do still life’s or do nudes I think I’m starting to realise – and I must be stupid as it took me a long time to realise – that it’s about being human. I find great solace in beauty, in pairing things down to the minimum. I think that there is no difference in the feeling I had when I was in China photographing a person in front of a big large bridge to doing these nudes. They don’t feel different to me. They’re both quite ‘naked’, they simultaneously show beauty and ugliness and conjure up that feeling that you can’t turn away from the truth.
200%: There is also an abstraction in this body of work, for instance, ‘Elizabeth with elbows hiding face’. Did you consciously look for abstraction?
NK: Not particularly. Maybe subconsciously. I don’t know if I find them that abstract. I’m finding a balance between being there and not being there, by being turned away, by being covered up in paint. I’m trying to find that slight uncomfortable place. Perhaps the abstraction aides to it.
200%: In your work I found something understated and cool, and also something distant and introvert. Is that a reflection of yourself?
NK: Yes, I think it is. I think what you pick up on describes me quite well. I do try to be honest with my work. There is no point doing it if I’m pretending. I hate that part of the art world that is full of pretence. It’s not interesting at all to me. I always said what I love in the work is seeing the person behind the lens, seeing the person behind the painting. Freud and Picasso are great examples of that.
200%: You started your career in commercial and advertising photography and produced very successful campaigns for Nike and Levi’s. Coming from this background, do you experience that the art world finds it hard to accept your work as art?
NK: I think there might be people that see me as a person that does commercial work as a negative but I think it’s less and less. People are realising it should be the work that counts. The question that people should ask: is the work authentic or not, not if it’s commercial or not? If they look to the work displayed on the wall and they feel it is authentic to the artist than it’s good art. All I can say is that I know that anything I exhibit is really authentic to me and that’s why I’m comfortable with it. I often can’t articulate what it is, but I know when it’s me. That’s the bottom line.
I still do commercial work and I get a real buzz out of collaborating with people. I enjoy the potency of working with other people and coming together to produce a good result that a billion people might see in three months time. I don’t have a problem with it, if other people do, than they do. I find most of the commercial work that I’ve done has great integrity and I don’t hide behind it at all.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers. All images by Nadav Kander: ‘Elizabeth with elbows hiding face’, 2012; ‘Audrey with toes and wrist bent’, 2011; Isley standing’, 2011.
‘Bodies. 6 Women. 1 Man’ by Nadav Kander will open 10th January 2013, Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London
‘Bodies. 6 Women. 1 Man’ by Nadav Kander, published by Hatje Cantz
In the previous post, Carol Lu shared her thoughts on the level of art critical writing in China. This was also one of the topics we were keen to discuss with another participant of Witte de With’s art criticism symposium, Aimee Yu Lin, an independent writer and former editorial director of the Chinese contemporary art magazine ‘Leap’.
Recently (September 2012), Lin left the magazine that she founded with Philip Tinari. Their concept for the magazine was to create something qualitative for Chinese contemporary art by building up a platform on which new Chinese art could be exposed. The first issue was published in February 2010. By publishing ‘Leap’ bilingually, and distributing internationally, the editors also wanted to improve the understanding between Chinese contemporary art and the rest of the world.
‘Leap’ also features fashion-shoots styled by visual artists. “They are looked at for inspiration across the globe”, says Defne Ayas, the director of Witte de With. “Her work sets the standard and continually raises the bar for inter-disciplinary approaches to creativity at large. Aimee is a true firecracker at the cross-section of architecture, fashion, and visual arts. She is savvy, strategic, bold, and always on top of her material”.
We sat with Lin and discussed with her whether the art critic has an obligation to entertain its readers; if the Chinese understanding of art criticism differs from the West; and why the level of art critical writing in China is no longer as good as it used to be.
200%: I gained a sense when we witnessed you in the panel discussion earlier that you are funny, quirky and have a dry sense of humour. Is that also reflected in your articles?
AL: [laughs] I won’t mind if it is. Some people can recognise that in my articles. I don’t do it, though, to amuse or entertain people.
200%: Why not? We once interviewed Adrian Searle, the art critic of the Guardian, and he commented on the role of the art critic: “One does have the obligation to entertain… I am well aware that most of my audience will not see what I am writing about but I want them to read it anyway and to go on a little critical journey.”
AL: Okay, the thing is I hate reading boring articles, and I believe no-one does. If a sense of humour is necessary in writing, for which I am totally, it is because writing is about pleasure of intelligence. I agree with Searle’s opinion on “entertain…” as it is talking about another important purpose of writing – to communicate with people. I will be very careful, though, to use the word “entertain” to avoid that the works or artists I am writing about become a consumption object. I will be happy if I make people laugh, but it doesn’t mean the writing itself is a product for consumption.
Aimee Lin: This question reminds me of the panel discussion earlier this afternoon as to whether art criticism is a Western concept or not. The Chinese understanding of art criticism is the same like as that of the rest of the world. There has been art criticism in Chinese traditional culture such as calligraphy artists. The artists practiced all their life just to earn one or two sentences from a critic.
A sentence in English can refer to a ‘sentence’ you write but also to a ‘sentence’ given by a judge. In traditional China, art criticism is about formulating one or two sentences to pass judgement on someone’s work, or whether an art practice is working or not. Also, if someone’s skills are better than others or if the work is a successful reflection of someone’s personality and whether the artist has a free mind. This is what intellectual painting in China is all about: a free mind.
200%: What can you say about your style of writing in your art criticism?
AL:I always believe in what I’m writing. My voice stays very close to who I am as a person.
200%: Do you believe it is the task of the art critic to explain the deeper meaning of the work of the art critic and not the artist?
AL: For me there must be someone translating an art work from the artist’s own language into a universal language that everyone can understand. Someone must do this work. I think, though, that’s changing, as artists are able to translate and explain their own work quite well and they can even provide different interpretations of their work.
200%: Thus, when artists are able to produce a perfect translation of their own work what can the art critic bring to the equation?
AL: I still consider the job of an art critic to explain the work of the artist but his or her main job is to say if it works. That’s what I believe is the core value of an art critic. An art curator can’t do that. They can provide context and they can even be part of the creation, but the art critic is there to pass judgement on the artist’s work.
200%: Do you believe that the enormous prices some artworks fetch at auctions today alter and influence the consideration for the work?
AL: Normally, the auction price has little to do with the quality of the art work itself or the artist himself. It’s about the dealing behaviour of dealers, owners and collectors. The mass public who are not so familiar with the art world, don’t comprehend the truth I just mentioned. These huge auction prices will influence the public’s understanding of art and I don’t think that’s a positive thing. On the other hand, and I can only comment on the situation in China, if these huge auction prices will arouse the public’s interest in the arts, though be it not in the best way, I believe it’s still good: it’s welcomed.
Before you go to your next question I would like emphasize something: I agree with the importance of art criticism but I don’t think it is the only important role in the art world. It’s as important as art curating and art creation and even other commercial parts of the arts. I don’t think you should depend on art criticism to answer all the questions or build up this fighting field between art criticism and other fields. These auction questions are not a concern for me as I believe people should not be exposed and controlled by any single source, not by art critics, nor by auction prices.
200%: We talked with Carol Lu about the booming contemporary art-scene in Beijing and Shanghai that is fueled by China’s new money, as well as record prices people in the West pay for Chinese art. Do you think that contemporary art in China is now in greater need of serious curating, scholarship and criticism than ever before?
AL: That’s a very relevant question. It’s my experience that the money in Chinese art first came from the West. The first collectors of Chinese contemporary art came from the West. In 2005-06, came the new money of China. My observation is that since the market has started to boom the quality level of art criticism in China is reducing.
200%: Why so?
AL: The first generation of independent art critics quit around 2003-04. They were quite active from the late 1990s until 2003-04. This was a very good generation of art critics with people like Leng Lin and Pi Li. What happened to them? Leng Lin is the now the president of PACE Beijing and the founder of Beijing Commune. Pi Li started as an art critic and, in 2005, he founded Boers-Li gallery with Waling Boers. Recently, though, he withdrew from the gallery business and started to work as a senior curator of M+, a museum of visual culture in Hong Kong. Thus, the ‘matured’ generation of art critics are not into this profession anymore and there is a re-start of a new generation of art critics. Their articles are not as good, yet, in comparison with the previous generation as they don’t have that much experience. That’s why good art criticism is really a problem now in China.
Interview written and conducted by Thierry Somers. Image: Martin Dijkstra (published in 200% #3 as the art work for an interview with the Art Critics Adrian Searle, Hou Hanru, Peter Schjeldahl and Matthew Collings).