Art

In praise of: ‘Manifesto,’ dir. Julian Rosefeldt, starring Cate Blanchett (2017)

‘Nothing is original (okay?)’/‘So you can steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration and fuels your imagination (okay)?’

Cate Blanchett, ‘Cinema’ Manifesto, playing the part of an Australian primary school teacher

'Manifesto  is a 2015 Australian-German multi-screen film installation written, produced and directed by Julian Rosefeldt. It features Cate Blanchett in 13 different roles performing various manifestos. The film was shot over 12 days in December 2014 in locations in and around Berlin. The film premiered and screened at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image from December 9, 2015 to March 14, 2016. The installation was also shown in Berlin at the Museum für Gegenwart (at Hamburger Bahnhof), from February 10 to July 10, 2016, and the Park Avenue Armory in New York City from December 7, 2016, to January 8, 2017.

A 90-minute feature version premièred at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017

The film integrates various types of artist manifestos from different time periods with contemporary scenarios. Manifestos are depicted by 13 different characters, among them a school teacher, factory worker, choreographer, punk, newsreader, scientist, puppeteer, widow, and a homeless man. The film consists of 13 segments, each 10:30 minutes long.' 

Six people in the cinema, including me, it’s around lunch-time at the Cinéma des Cinéastes (Place de Clichy is just outside, the location written about by Henry Miller in books I thought about re-writing, or at least parts of them, from the point of view of the absent women). All very appropriate when watching Cate Blanchett feminise, embody, the great texts I studied as a much younger woman at high school and university. 

Listening to her intone the pop-sensibility of Claes Oldenburg as if it were a prayer, when saying grace to her own family (eyes closed, to their sudden laughter at one point) or declare the Dada manifesto at a funeral, spitting out the words with spite, at times. Here is an extract from one of the many manifestos written by Tristan Tzara, this is from 1918.

Every product of disgust capable of becoming a negation of the family is Dada; a protest with the fists of its whole being engaged in destructive action: Dada; knowledge of all the means rejected up until now by the shamefaced sex of comfortable compromise and good manners:

DADA; abolition of logic, which is the dance of those impotent to create:

DADA; of every social hierarchy and equation set up for the sake of values by our valets:

DADA: every object, all objects, sentiments, obscurities, apparitions and the precise clash of parallel lines are weapons for the fight:

DADA; abolition of memory: Dada; abolition of archaeology: DADA; abolition of prophets: DADA; abolition of the future:

DADA; absolute and unquestionable faith in every god that is the immediate product of spontaneity:

DADA; elegant and unprejudiced leap from a harmony to the other sphere; trajectory of a word tossed like a screeching phonograph record; to respect all individuals in their folly of the moment: whether it be serious, fearful, timid, ardent, vigorous, determined, enthusiastic; to divest one’s church of eve ry useless cumbersome accessory; to spit out disagreeable or amorous ideas like a luminous waterfall, or coddle them—with the extreme satisfaction that it doesn’t matter in the least - with the same intensity in the thicket of core’s soul pure of insects for blood well-born, and gilded with bodies of archangels. Freedom:

DADA DADA DADA, a roaring of tense colors, and interlacing of opposites and of all contradictions, grotesques, inconsistencies …

Originally created as an art installation with all the texts being heard at the same time, here they are transformed into ‘readings’ - as in readings for an audition, we are always aware that they are being performed because of Blanchett’s technique (see, for instance, that striking scene where she is a ‘tattooed punk’ inhaling smoke on the word ‘incandescence’ as if mocking the pretentious nature of the word and language itself. When checking this scene after writing that sentence, I realised this is my imagination, the inhalation of smoke follows the words, it does not frame them).  

I like the way the characters are named, this in itself is poetic: 'Burning flame; homeless man; broker; worker in an incineration plant; CEO at a private party; tattooed punk, scientist; funeral speaker; puppeteer; conservative mother with family; choreographer; newsreader and reporter; teacher.'

Watching this film with its emphasis on foregrounds and still scenes (or aerial shots in the dramatic opening sequence) makes you think more about how cinema is something that is constructed. With this in mind the sequence with the mother leaving her sleeping child is particularly touching (and honest, I was grateful that there was no last-minute close-up of the mother embracing her child).

Outside as the dishevelled woman goes to her motorbike in an environment that echoes her face, etched with neglect, the scene reminded me of the great artist Chantal Akerman’s portraits of women and women’s lives. (Minutes earlier the character has the most remarkable language, poetry and politics fill her mind, as she wearily gets ready to go to work). 

Here are links to all the texts and the scenes and this music makes up the soundtrack:

Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power exhibition, Tate Modern London

‘The ghetto itself is the gallery.’

Emory Douglas, Black Panther Party Culture Minister

Before seeing this exhibition, based on the name alone, I was expecting a show turned up to peak volume; not that there is a problem with this, as someone who adores noise, the blacker the better, but wondered if it might operate on the level of radical pastiche.

None of this was a judgment of the curators, Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whiteley who have assembled 150 works from 1963-1983 by black American artists or the museum, but more an expression of personal confusion or alienation now that transgressive art, culture and ideas from the past are routinely transformed into commodities to be sold.

As I soon discovered, though, this often delicate and complex show was light years away from such mind-static. Introspection, restraint and a deep thoughtfulness pervaded much of the art – and its presentation - allowing us to take time to reflect and feel something of how it might have been to be alive then.

‘H20gate Blues’ Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson  (Winter in America, Strata-East Records, 1974)

Certain artworks, such as ‘Injustice Case’ (1970) by David Hammons worked on the level of the gut –

the artwork depicts Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther Party, gagged and shackled at his 1969 trial after the judge ordered he be chained to his chair following a series of interjections. He was being tried as one of the ‘Chicago Eight’ on charges for conspiracy to cross state lines, according to the history.com site, ‘to cause a riot during the violent anti-war demonstrations in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic National Convention’. He was later tried alone for contempt charges and received a four-year sentence.

Here, Hammons printed his own body, objectifying it, transforming it into an surface, he 'coated his body (along with his clothes and hair) in margarine and then rolled his torso and limbs onto a large piece of illustration board, printing the image by pressing his body onto the smooth surface of paper, often arrayed on the floor’ – this is taken from Apsara DiQuizio's article, ‘David Hammons: Printing the Political, Black Body’. 

Because of its life-size dimensions, the essential savagery of what it depicts – chaining up a man as if he were a dog at his own trial - and the genius of the presentation/idea, this work is deeply affecting. Resembling an X-ray in an airport, the image transforms Seale into little more than a squashed/flattened body/bones in his fingers, while forcing us into the role of those conducting the surveillance. An older white man standing in front of me, shook his head when reading the description for the artwork and swore under his breath.        

There’s a lot to write about in terms of this exhibition, I kept writing notes and taking photographs of the descriptions of the works, as I was struck repeatedly by the fragments and splinters of ideas, often formulated as questions, see this from the brochure: ‘Was there a ‘Black art’ or a ‘Black aesthetic? Should an artist create legible images or make abstract work? Was a choice to be made between addressing a specifically Black audience or a ‘universal’ one?’

***

Black Light

Roy DeCarava (1919-2009) Man in window, New York, 1978 

 

'... the self as a secret entity, as a secret, hidden place.'

Note beside an artwork by Martin Puryear, 'Self' with regard to his sculpture (1978) 

One of the rooms seemed darker than the others and held a series of fragile and extremely beautiful installations by Betye Saar from the early 70s that drew on time spent in Haiti, entering the room was like going into a crypt ... On the walls, there were finely-constructed collages, often held in wooden boxes, filled with very small objects. There was something deeply private and intimate about this art that moved me.

The act of collecting and putting these objects together was a recurring theme in the exhibition; for example, the room called ‘Los Angeles Assemblage’ that included this commentary:

Los Angeles was a city experiencing great racial tension in 1962, police had entered a mosque and shot an unarmed member of the Nation of Islam. Two years later, another instance of police violence in a predominantly African American neighbourhood triggered the Watts Rebellion, which left 34 dead and properties and shops in ruins.

The artists featured in this room - Noah Purifoy, John Outterbridge, Melvin Edwards and Betye Saar - ‘created art by recycling and bringing together objects in different formations, known as assemblage’.

Of particular interest to me was the ‘Lynch Fragments’ series by Melvin Edwards, a project he started in 1963. The aggressive-looking steel objects, made up from refuse found on the streets of LA completely reversed expectations of how to represent race-based violence; here there is no victim – and no audience – but an object of torture, made from scrap metal.

Melvin Edwards (born 1937) Some Bright Morning, Lynch Fragments 1963

Christopher Knight writing in a Los Angeles Times review of a show marking the 50th anniversary of the Watts uprising quoted Purifoy as saying the following regarding the Watts Towers that he said was 'arguably America's greatest modern folk-art masterpiece.'

What if these people could look at junk another way — as a symbol of their being in the world, their being just in relationship to something.

Knight then concluded with these sentences: 'Their being in the world — battered and discarded, like the broken glass and pottery of the soaring towers but also reassembled and reborn into something beautiful, mysterious and profound.'

mysteries.jpg

Romare Bearden (1911-1988) Mysteries, 1964 

Paris Récit: 'The Oath of the Horatii'

‘So, what can you see in this painting?’

The guide at the Louvre bends her body at a slight incline to speak to the primary-school children sitting on the floor in disordered rows in front of her. My son is one of the group; we’re visiting the Louvre as part of a school excursion.   

‘The men are standing up straight, the ladies are sitting in the corner,’ one child says.

‘What about the colours?’

‘The ladies are in darker colours to show they are sad. The men are wearing brighter colours – red, because they are going off to fight a war.’

We are sitting in front of Jacques-Louis David’s ‘The Oath of the Horatii’ (Le serment les Horaces) painted five years before the Revolution in 1784, which is part of the collection on display at the Louvre.

This is one of those moments when Paris in all its wonder opens itself up to me. My son is blasé, they have studied these masterpieces at his public school before coming to the museum. He has memorised an extract from Corneille’s 1640 play, Horace – his sweet little mouth changing shape, as he pronounces ‘Albe, Albe …’ (stressing the final vowel to allow for the essential poetry of the text). I studied the same paintings in my final year of secondary school, poring over the slides in another hemisphere, in another country where sudden dust storms coloured the sky red or orange in the middle of summer (sometimes).

In the painting, the three brothers express their loyalty and solidarity, with Rome before battle, wholly supported by their father. These are men willing to lay down their lives out of patriotic duty. With their resolute gaze and taut, outstretched limbs, they are citadels of patriotism. They are symbols of the highest virtues of Rome. Their clarity of purpose, mirrored by David’s simple yet powerful use of tonal contrasts, lends the painting, and its message about the nobility of patriotic sacrifice, an electric intensity. This is all in contrast to the tender-hearted women who lie weeping and mourning, awaiting the results of the fighting.

'The mother and sisters are shown clothed in silken garments seemingly melting into tender expressions of sorrow,' a description of the painting continues in the internet's free encyclopaedia. David invented this moment, when three men took their swords and vowed to defend Rome, to defend their beloved Republic, against their rivals from Alba Longa.     

‘What do you think about the building?’

‘In the background, there are arches. I think it’s a big house like in the old days, in Roman times,’ one child says.

According to one critic, the painting represents the virtue of patriotism that included self-sacrifice for one's country, while also reflecting the political tensions in pre-revolutionary France. It was a huge success after its public exhibition and led to David being allowed to study at the Louvrewhich was considered to be a great honour for artists in this period.  

On Friday morning, as I was collecting my phone from a repair shop in my neighbourhood, a man was shot by soldiers after lunging at police and soldiers guarding the entrance to the underground shopping complex at the Louvre. He was armed with a machete, and apparently called out Allahu Akbar.

‘Is he French?’ I asked the man who was organising the paperwork for me to sign so I could take the phone with me.

‘Probably.’

‘This is unbelievable, it’s going to affect the political scene here so much, again - just before the election.’

‘Not just that,' the man replied, 'But tourism, as well. I mean, the Louvre.’   

Celebrating ‘small magazines’ - Meanjin (in a minor key cont.)

One of the Internet’s negative aspects is also its greatest strength; everyone and anyone can be published, with no intermediary: it’s DIY in excelsis. No-one could argue against this, but it has also weakened the status of print publications, such as literary magazines (and newspapers, of course).

In this era of vast mass publishing, there is a constant hum of content where high/low jostle for attention. Readers skim, scan, jump & start up again, go to the comments, make comments. It’s a totally new process of reading. Lost here, though, is any feeling that you are entering a private space. Choosing to read something, over an extended period of time – just like choosing to listen to a record over an extended period of time … - is personal. The fact that you have made that choice makes it more intimate.

My father sent me two books for Christmas: Ten ways not to commit suicide the memoir by Darryl McDaniels – aka DMC (from the legendary 80s hip-hop group, Run-DMC) and the most recent issue of Meanjin, a literary magazine that has been in existence since 1940. I’m reading both in bits and pieces as a break from my reading/writing on the (terrorist) ‘brothers’ and haven’t finished either. Reading Meanjin again, however, reminds me of the value of small literary magazines and independent publishers …

As we all navigate our way in a more venal and frankly stupid political world, which includes the primary-school antics of El Bizarro in the US (how could he think that having Putin as ‘a fan’ is a compliment?) I think it’s time to go ‘elitist’, niche as way of affirming an alternative community. In the words of one of our wise men:

We brave in the heart, playin a part, amazingly smart
Razor sharp, futuristic raps, state of the art

Refusing the norms imposed by tabloid jesters, affirming something completely apart, can also be political and an act of transgression. 

In a literary magazine, such as Meanjin there is no effort to contort the writers, or the pieces they have written to fit into some kind of house style; the mix and diversity is what counts. Having said that you can also feel the imprint of the editorial team in a way that is unimaginable within the vast store-room of a newspaper or many online news & entertainment sources (unless they are self-consciously esoteric). And then small magazines support the eco-sytem of writers, those starting out and established, forging points of connection between disparate voices that could not, or would not fit elsewhere.

It’s hard to imagine a newspaper, or magazine showing any interest in publishing those long essays on Borges, or Houellebecq, for example: Heat edited by the understated, but crucial figure in the Australian literary world, Ivor Indyk was their obvious home. (The essay on Lou Reed appeared in an earlier issue of Meanjin).

Only part way through Meanjin I’m already been impressed by the range: Alexis Wright’s essay on Aboriginal (literary/political) dispossession, ‘What happens when you tell somebody else’s story?’ followed by Ben Wilkie’s piece on a ‘seven-metre obelisk of grey granite’ that was put up by white colonists to mark the burial place of Wombeetch Puyuun/Oombete Poonyan, who was thought the be the last surviving Djargurd wurrung person.

I liked the way the two pieces of writing – different in style and voice and sensibility and perspective, necessarily – were side by side; reading the two together was valuable, as this desire to ‘mark the passing’ of the First Nations people (the monument included the dates, 1840-1883, which Wilkie says marked the period when the local Aborigines were ‘displaced’ - his word) is, of course, problematic.

It is also rare. In Australia, as with the United States, or any country where there is a history of long-term race-based, or colonial, violence, it’s almost unthinkable for those who claim victory to keep a public record of their brutality. Wilkie ends his essay this way, in part:

As one Australian novelist put it recently, memory is a wilful dog; it visits when it’s hungry, not when you are. Maybe this is why we entrust some memories to stone but hide them away in cemeteries, away from the war memorials and pioneer monuments that take pride of place in our country towns (…)

There’s still much more besides in this issue of Meanjin – a wonderful memoir of a Polish Jewish actress who survived, Sonia Lizaron by Arnold Zable and a really strong poetry, fiction selection as well. The story by John Kinsella, ‘Sisters’ included this description of the wastrel junkie who came to stay that appealed to me: ‘He was high maintenance, but he was hardcore’.

No need to smooth any of the rough edges in any of this, the value is to be found in the clash and intersection of radically different voices; this is what gives it its spark. And again, is something unique about small independent magazines – and publishers – who are not so taken with the notion of branding themselves to compete.

Commentators offering advice on how to survive the next four years, let’s hope the Weird One loses interest in the low-energy nature of daily 'intelligence' and returns to his playground, so high up in the clouds, before then, have repeated the importance of supporting independent media, I can only endorse this.

Subscribe to small magazines, if that’s of interest, and/or support the big newspapers as they are the only vehicles with the heft and capacity to cause damage, if that is something that appeals to you.

To find out more about Meanjin, including the most recent issue's contents, go here.   

Soulèvements exhbition, Jeu de Paume Paris

Uprisings (Soulèvements) is a trans-disciplinary exhibition on the theme of human gestures that raise up the world or rise up against it: collective or individual gestures, actions or passions, works or thoughts. They are gestures which say no to a state of history that is considered too “heavy” and that therefore needs to be “lifted” or even sent packing. They are also gestures that say yes to something else: to a desired better world, an imagined or adumbrated world, a world that could be inhabited and conceived differently.

I went to this exhibition about art and political protest yesterday at the wonderful Jeu de Paume, on the edge of Tuileries Gardens and Place de la Concorde in Paris; the square that was renamed Place de la Révolution and saw the execution by guillotine of King Louis XVI on the 21st January 1793 - and later his wife, Marie-Antoinette, among others - to cheering crowds of onlookers. Post-revolution, the square was renamed after the murdered King and then following the 1830 revolution it became known as the Place de la Concorde.

This exhibition, which ends on the 15th January cleverly combines photographic journalism, with conceptual art; historic artefacts (for example, the written notes by Victor Hugo from 1855 against the death penalty; or on the anniversary of the 1848 revolution, written in exile; or the first known photographic image of an uprising or political event, the Barricade at Saint-Maur Popincourt, published in 1848) and sketches by Miro, for instance.

Hiroji Kubota, 'Black Panthers in Chicago, Illinois' 1969

Hiroji Kubota, 'Black Panthers in Chicago, Illinois' 1969

Much of it impressed and touched me, while I also noted how intelligently the work was put together in spaces linked by captions (Les murs prennent le parole/The walls speak up) and at one point linked by colour, but the murky, green video by Argentine artist Hugo Aveta in his work called 'Ritmos Primarios, la subversion del Alma' (Basic rhythms: subversion of the soul) from 2014 really struck me.

Included below is an image from the series, which is based on photographs of 2001 protests in Buenos Aires, as Adriana Almada writes in her article on the work:

Hugo Aveta produces the ultimate artistic achievement: distance. We can even say he has found the right distance: between close and far, before and after; he has built this distance on the fringes of the legible and the indecipherable, thus exposing the subversive power of the image. An image in revolt against its own representative role, obsessed by the desire to show that in passing from one instant to another, it is possible to insert the unrepresentable.

Nothing is quite as it should be, everything can become what our intuition senses: the tension of friction and/or the encounter; the pleasure principal and the death impulse; the secret and the explicit, the public and private, the whole and the parts.
The images — fallout from a bigger story, fragments of a grand yet incomplete vision — resume the violence between those who hold power and those who confront it; between those who resist and those who defend it.

Once the event has faded out, only the shadow remains. These images are the shadow and, with only themselves as references, they enter the cellular memory of the entire social corpus. The video shown in this exhibition can be interpreted as an extended cry that ends in silence.

Silence that is as painful as a non-consensual disappearance. The rise of indignation, in Latin America as elsewhere around the world, is expressed in the form of society’s rebellion against its own creations: the individual against the State, minority communities against big corporations; individuals versus a universal power that governs from the shadows.

In praise of: Chantal Akerman

Not so long ago as some plumbers hacked away at the the tiling around my shower, I watched a very powerful documentary about the (Belgian-born) film director Chantal Akerman; it was almost a hidden experience, trying to make out Akerman's words while the men worked, crashing and bashing at all available surfaces. You can watch the 2015 documentary, dir. by Marianne Lambert, I don't belong anywhere here, or check out the trailer:

Two parts from the documentary particularly affected me and remained with me afterwards. First, when Akerman talks about how in her work she wants us experience the film as if it were happening in 'real time' (or what the US director Gus Van Sant says Akerman calls 'her time'). 'Often when people come out of a good film they say that time flew without them noticing,' she says. 'What I want is to make people feel the passing of time, so I didn't take two hours of their lives, they experience them.' For her the notion of forgetting time, via escapism, is a kind of theft.   

Van Sant says that placing the camera in the same location as the actor gives the scene a kind of hyper-authenticity while also opening it up to chance occurrence, outside the director's control. To illustrate this the documentary includes an extraordinary scene from Akerman's 2011 film, La folie Almayer where you see an actor who sits still, in the centre of the shot (another figure is half-obscured in the darkness). You notice his skin, his bony chest, the half-shadow on his body and then over time and then quite suddenly, within a few seconds, there is a dramatic change in the light that transforms the image, by chance.

'I am cold/The sun is cold/The sea is black.' 

Here is the famous scene of a woman peeling potatoes from the film that launched Akerman's career when she was only 25 and is perhaps her best-known film, Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1976). With its natural sound, unmoving camera angle we watch the woman work and yet it's unavoidable for us not to feel something: her quiet desperation, or oppression, her boredom. 

The film is largely silent. The central character doesn't speak and yet this lack of commentary is extraordinarily powerful. In this respect it reminds me of an Australian film, Samson and Delilah (directed by First Nations film-maker Warwick Thornton, 2009) where the Aboriginal male character says only one word - his name - during the film; we observe him, we watch what happens to him and how he reacts, but he does not speak. (Even though the tone and location of the two films could not be any more different from one another).   

Here in this interview, Akerman speaks about how she wrote the film quickly, in two weeks. Interestingly Akerman refers to the way she wrote the 'gestures' of the film, not the words, or dialogue. These gestures, these chores that made up the central character's daily domestic routine are the essence of the film, giving her some peace, echoing absent Jewish rituals and providing the film with its unmistakable quality that is part menace, part voyeurism (and all about containment) that Akerman likens to a 'Greek tragedy'. 

The other scene from the documentary that so struck me was an extraordinary sequence were Akerman filmed a very long shot from the back of a moving car of a road with no commentary. This road was the location where a Black American man was murdered (tied to the back of a car and dragged to his death). Over time the very substance of the road, the bone-coloured dirt, its texture, becomes abstract and takes on a kind of presence outside of how we would normally perceive it. (It reminded me of moving water, even though the colour was wrong). It's unnerving, but meditative: unsettling and with a certain beauty even if it is difficult to explain why.

All One Night [Toute Une Nuit] (Chantal Akerman, 1982) - this excerpt from the Vincent Canby New York Times review captures something of the magic of her work.

In the course of a long hot night in Brussels, a succession of men and women meet and make love, or don’t meet and are bereft, as the Akerman camera observes them at a discreet distance...

[Toute Une Nuit] is probably as good a choice as any for getting to know this most seductive of avant-garde film makers.

Akerman’s work is mimimalist to the extent that instead of compressing time, she seems to stretch it to the point where one can hear the beginning, middle and end of a single footstep. She composes her films of facts presented without comment or emotion, as if they were inventories. Yet at their best, her films are loaded with the associations that she magically evokes from the cooperative viewer.

To read more about Akerman's art that changed the direction of cinema, see this feature article on Akerman in the New Yorker published after her death from suicide last year and this obituary from the New York Times, or this feature detailing the way other directors have been inspired by her work (also from the Times).