Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Germans.

[Foto Bernd und Hilla Becher]
At my local bookstore - while trying to steer my eyes away from the hard core distractions of the lavish display of soft porn photo titillations by the likes of La Chapelle Testino Newman Olaf and so forth and so on - I got my nose stuck between the pages of a lucid book on the works of the Düsseldorf School of Photography, starting from the soothing and consolatory stern cooling towers by Bernd und Hilla Becher. I am not saying that the Ruhr Valley is the landscape that I love the most, but that the rigours of objective photography (Neue Sachlichkeit) can be at times a much-needed refreshment and the way to go for a project.

Somewhat to my surprise the moment found me peculiarly perceptive for the German look on things. Furthermore I had to think of my own work and recognize that at least part of it is related if not directly connected to it, at least to the same extent as the work of Atget is. I won’t go into the reasons why, but find that in general the Teutonic side of our personality is not one that we most easily admit to. Still it is there, we might just as well use it and learn from them instead of playing with our Airfix Spitfire replicas in the endless and utterly fruitless commemoration of glories that weren’t even ours to start with. Mittel Europa is far closer than we think, and better.
The dam busters were New Zealanders (and Jeremy Clarkson is allegedly an idiot). The surviving “Crauts” had to amend, rebuild from the rubble and their offspring now pays for the Euro while carrying the cross of past guilt indefinitely, at our pleasure, while being occasionally laughed and sneered at.

[foto Massardo]
It’s enough to grow resentment even in the most saintly and repentant soul, and I playfully suspect that the German revenge is in fact subtly taking place in the form of a race to excellence that can’t be matched by other Europeans, not on their terms at least. Industrially, commercially and artistically. With an at times maddening penchant for logic thought and hard work, plenty of money and an eagerness to do well, Germans excel in every field. May I be excused for finding it very irritating when I hear that Andreas Gursky’s photographs are selling at astronomical prices (in excess of a million dollars)? Admittedly, they are SHARP and BEAUTIFUL but still it reeks of blatant excess in market manipulation. His prints are industrial products, to be reproduced in the thousands if one so wished. I mean: he must have an ego the size of a Zeppelin, and where does that leave the rest of photography? I don’t think he cares and would find my query a petulant squeal to sneer at, if take notice at all if he got wind of it.

Benedikt Taschen is another character that I would like to mention, because we owe him so much in improving the availability of art books. Huge fat volumes full of colour reproductions of anything at all are now provided by this omnivorous publisher at a fraction of former prices. It feels at times as if Taschen is out to publish EVERYTHING. So as absolutes go, this one as well will not be attended in full, but it sure gets close.

Last thought that I would like to share with you on the subject is one that will make them endearing, because in fact much of this Grundlichkeit is actually an illusion, as any other preconceived notion is. Once in a while news of some monumental or minor cock up crosses the border to reveal that maybe things aren’t as perfect as they would have us believe. Far from undermining their worth as a nation, this fact actually allows for the idea that they may, in exchange for human fallibility, possess more of the qualities that are traditionally allocated to other people. So we can open up to the notion that not only there is a little German somewhere within our souls, but that the Germans themselves host quite a bit of us. Auf Wiedersehen.

[foto Massardo]

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Doing Virtually Nothing.

Computers are great at keeping us busy doing nothing. Powerful tools they may be, still many applications seems to be meant to entertain, distract or otherwise leave us as long as possible in that state of almost ineffectual existence that is virtual reality. Our bottoms leisurely sunk in whatever chair, futon, bench or sofa we may have chosen, our eyes fixed on the monitor, our minds engaged in this highly addictive surrogate of life. Lab mice, given the choice between activating their brains pleasure cells by hitting a button or eating, starve themselves to death. So would we.

The only way to keep track of our lives, and establish whether our computing habits are healthy or worthwhile, I guess, is to keep track of the input and output in analogue or real terms. Easy enough if you are at the office or workplace, and use the machine for work. Useless as the product of your job may seem at times, your computing toil generates at least your monthly income in very Real terms. Some applications are also easy to grade in this respect, as they directly control the physical world, such as flying a plane, or operating an instrument or a manufacturing machine, some scientific or medical apparatus. The information relates to the physical actual world and is as such relevant, the machine just a clever and efficient way to deal with it. Virtual reality, as applied in computer models to simulate phenomena and processes is in itself a good thing and a cost saving environment. But can it be trusted completely? Let’s leave that to the experts.

Two areas strike me at first glance as dangerously virtual, in the sense that they can be a great waste of time and have a tendency to excite delusions: computer games and internet social networks. Gaming seems to me a self-evident risk, social networks less so. A surrogate of real life they may not be, but it is tempting to connect with others in this apparently unobtrusive way, and alluring to “score” as many connections as possible, regardless of the depth, interest and frequency of the contacts. We are living in a time of economic crisis, and many are left unemployed or under employed. Often joining an Internet network is seen as a way to try to break the isolation that this state of affairs implies, and maybe get another job. Is this wishful thinking, or is it the way to go to establish contacts? Phone calls obsolete – after all we are all too busy computing and can’t be bothered to answer – e mails flooded with spam or limited to trusted acquaintances by draconian filtering, only the window of facebook, linkedin, twitter and the like is left ajar for strangers and friends of our friends to approach us. And can be readily shut too, creating a new and potent “cyber snobbing” effect, such as denying an invitation to join or ignoring incoming messages thus causing all too real offence and frustration.

I welcome the development if it is to deliver us from the hell of having either to receive or perform cold calls on the phone. Still it is troublesome that we should be encouraged to become socially inept without the machine – technology doesn’t seek to expand our lives, but to make us dependent - and worrying that spam makers and other even worse evil doers constantly infiltrate the chat boxes with bad intents. Again, input and output are the key words. Processing is just a tool.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Edificatory Art.

To Rodchenko and the other Russian artists of his generation, Art wasn’t an end to itself but it needed to serve a purpose, i.e. to help the Construction of the USSR. The creation of the first world socialist utopia state was a daunting task, an impossible one has it eventually proved itself to be, but a very exciting one and they took to it with panache and great talent. Normally one tends to consider most endeavours more or less unworthy of the effort, especially in Art where things have a tendency to feel quite arbitrary, individualistic, not essential, or as Wilde would have it, utterly useless. But surely the creation of a fair society is the ultimate goal for each generation. At least they did get a chance and tried their best to make the most of it. They can hardly be blamed for what happened next – neither Stalinism - nor can their failure to beat the impossible odds stacked against them be a measure to judge the honesty and goodness of their ideals. It strikes me that avant garde culture never really becomes main stream, but stands in history as an attitude that beacons us further into actual progress, which itself moves at a much slower pace and to different actual results. Experiments were never meant to become widespread reality, but they are the test ground for unlimited creativity.




The twenties in Moscow were for a while as close as it will ever get for avant-garde artists to put their ideas straight from the studio into general practice, both in editorial and advertising use. The poet Majakovsky was writing ad slogans, the painter Rodchenko had turned multi media. Abstract paintings turned into daring graphic design, new typography – to us westerners made even more exciting, possibly, and exotic by its being based on the Cyrillic Alphabet – the photo collage and photography itself applied in new and refreshing ways taking full advantage of a new handy format and a tiny camera completely new at the time: the 35 mm Leica. They were after dynamic images, and accomplished them both by photographing objects and people in motion or by using the diagonal as a dynamic element of their compositions. Even static buildings, or stone columns, seem to soar or progress through the image, in motion.

If we could slice the building of the FOAM museum in Amsterdam right now, we would have kind of a cross section of present and past avant-garde. The lower floor and one room at the top displays a selection of young Dutch talents, the bulk in between houses an exceptional exhibition dedicated to Alexander Rodchenko with many as of yet in the west unseen photographs, all the very famous ones, and many collages and graphic art. The size, amount and quality of the prints is staggering. They are all vintage, unusually large for the period – most western photographers of the twenties didn’t print as large as Rochenko did – and they are very beautiful. So in a way we are forced to make a comparison if not hold a competition between the Now and Here, and the Then and There, and maybe feel invited to look for similarities and influences. Well, there aren’t many of those. We live in very different times, and young artists cannot but reflect a very different approach. Personally I feel a lack of originality and ideals in the modern work. It feels like a gimmick, motivated more by personal ambition than by any ideal beyond it. Using Photoshop as a random generator of images rather than a super clever tool for image editing seems to me one of the signs of almost fatalistic total cynicism, if not laziness. It’s all about the result (read Success) but don’t be mistaken, the resulting image is as unemotional as the chip that produced it. Can they be blamed for it? Probably not, very few people escape or transcend the limits of their times.
If there is a legacy that we could profit from in the Exhibition of Rodchenko, other than the sheer joy of looking at the work, it must be the lesson that great results can be obtained with little means, when talented people are motivated by noble ideas and work hard.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Heritage at the Hermitage along the Amstel.

When things got on top of her and she felt like spending some time on her own, Catherine the Great of Russia found refuge in a palace that she had had built next to the Winter Palace, in St Petersburg, namely the Hermitage. There she would enjoy among other things her notable Art Collection. Fast forward some 3.5 centuries, shift focus from Russia to Holland and zoom into Amsterdam’s Amstel riverside, sprinkle a little snow on the pavement and the flimsiest dusting of it in the air and join me, if you will, on a quick visit to the newest Museum to have opened its doors around here: the Hermitage aan de Amstel.

Put into the perspective of a city where two of the main museums are partly or completely closed for extensive renovations that will last years (Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk) and the centre itself gutted in the middle by the North South Metro Line Works that promise to last much longer than planned and overshoot the budget by a mind numbing number, the success of the HaA is very good news. Almost a year after its opening, the amount of visitors has risen to double the estimates. Deservedly. The infrastructure is well designed.

Theme of the present exhibition is a choice of clothes, costumes, uniforms and precious objects from the court of the Tsars. Pivoting around a central hall, the Throne on one end and a central isle filled with the costumes and uniforms, a sequel of smaller side rooms hosts a series of displays dedicated to different aspects of Court Life, such as Religion, Marriage, War, and so on. A corner projection room gives one a black and white impression of early 20th century St Petersburg streets through a non-stop compilation of vintage films. Then a few photographs to top the lot.

The scale of the building and of the show is quite right, enjoyable and fresh, instructive without being overwhelming. Maybe a little thin on the historical perspective, so that if any well informed person can find it impossible to feel nostalgia for such a sorry state of affairs as the Tsarist Regime actually was, the display of so much gilded glory and fine craftsmanship could induce in a more casual visitor a state of blissful amnesia. Selective memory could be construed as being as misleading as outright lies, when history is concerned, and I fear that a modern agenda is at the heart of this as other choices concerning this exhibition. Far out of my scope to fathom exactly what this hidden purpose may be, I can only welcome the Cultural Exchange that will benefit my city and hope that future exhibitions will bring more of the enormous Hermitage Collection within our easy reach. Were I given the privilege of some curatorial say in the matter, I would call for more paintings and Art in general.