Cover of Penelope Umbrico’s (photographs) (2011).
Penelope Umbrico is a New York–based artist and recipient of a 2011 Guggenheim Fellowship in the category of photography. Her first monograph, (photographs), was recently published by Aperture. Umbrico’s work will be shown on two occasions in the Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival in Arles, France: as part of “From Here On” curated by Clément Chéroux, Joan Fontcuberta, Erik Kessels, Martin Parr, and Joachim Schmid, and in the Discovery Award exhibition. The festival ends on September 18.
IT WAS INTERESTING FOR ME TO THINK ABOUT MY WORK IN A BOOK FORM because my work is most always installation-based. I didn’t want the book to be a document of my installations, so it made sense to me to think about the book as architecture and to “install” the work onto its pages as I would in an exhibition space. The cover is a good example: I wanted it to have the tactility that the Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr installations have––it shows the dimensionality of the material prints, bits of tape adhering the prints to the wall, some reflections of studio light, et cetera. And I’ve taken this image and inverted its hues on the reverse side of the dust jacket (black suns on blue-green hues), making a formal and conceptual narrative segue between the suns and the black television screens with camera flash on the hard cover. This echoes the narrative that moves through the entire book from beginning to end.
The book is in two parts. The first part contains the work along with scans of texts I felt created an interesting dialogue with the work. And there’s a poem by Rob Fitterman at the beginning, which is actually the only piece written for the work in this first section. The second part of the book acts as an appendix: It has my descriptions of the work, my answers to questions about the work in the form of an interview by multiple people, and examples of source materials and installations. The distinction of voice between the two sections is important to me: While the “work” section takes the third person (I use other people’s images, and published texts), the second section is written in the first person––it’s about my work, the questions are asked to me, and I answer with “I.” It is an attempt to address a relationship between collective experience and subjectivity.
For the exhibition “From Here On” I will show a large-scale installation of my project Mirrors (From Home Décor Sites). If these mirrors are seductive, it’s because they are derived from consumer media where they were originally designed to seduce. But while a mirror allows you to see yourself and the space you are inhabiting, these mirrors tell you what would be behind you if you were actually inhabiting spaces of a catalogue or website, and they replace your image with the seductive objects you are supposed to want there. It’s a common theme in my work––the idea of subjectlessness or erasure––an idea for which the terms have shifted exponentially in our current “postindustrial” culture.
Aperture’s director Chris Boot nominated me for the Discovery Award at Arles, for which I made a new body of work titled “Signal to Ink.” The process of working on my book actually inspired me to think about my work within a narrative structure, to tell a story through a sequence of separate but related projects. For “Signal to Ink” I address media, materiality and immateriality, and the idea of a screen as a surface on which something is projected and seen, as well as the medium through which things are sifted (let through or kept out): As a substrate on which one sees an image, the screen both sifts and registers the result of the sift. The exhibition begins with images I’ve found on Craigslist of TVs for sale pictured sideways––in profile they reveal how awkwardly monstrous they are (no wonder people are trying to get rid of them)––and then navigates through various conditions of the screen’s physicality, from the electronic signal behind the screen (without image), through reflections of people in various states of undress on the screen (with no signal), to the disrupted signal of broken screens. The project’s trajectory culminates in an offset-printed newsprint book of the TV screens, printed at 125 percent density so the ink rubs off on your hands as you handle it––and your handling registers on the book’s images.
Adrian Paci, Via Crucis, Stazione 10, Gesu' e' spogliato delle vesti (Via Crucis, Station 10, Jesus Is Stripped of His Garments), 2011, print on Dibond, 34 x 21”.
Adrian Paci is an Albanian artist based in Milan. His work explores the boundaries between the personal and the political as well as the identities and rituals that are forged along those borders. Here, Paci explains his process in re-creating one of the most iconic stories in Catholicism, Christ’s torture and crucifixion.
IN DECEMBER 2010, I was asked by curator Stefania Morellato to create a via crucis, the stations of the cross, for the Church of San Bartolomeo in Milan. Given that it was a via crucis, the theme and subjects were already decided: fourteen stations, each with its own scene. And, as if this were not enough, even the technique was indicated: It had to be a photographic via crucis. To be honest, in the beginning I had great reservations about this last condition. It risked being one of those choices people make to show that they are “contemporary” but that in the end reveals, more than anything, how much the Church lags behind in terms of the development of a visual language in contemporary art. This gap does exist: The past few centuries have seen an interruption in a long history of communication between art and the Church, and although there have been various attempts to restart this dialogue, no one has succeeded, especially with large-scale projects.
The via crucis has been addressed for more than a thousand years. It is not something you “invent”; Everyone is aware of this. It is rich with iconography. One of my first thoughts was: How do I respect this iconographic baggage without resorting to quotation? The other thing was to think about the intended audience for this work. Christians see the stations of the cross as a moment of comfort, and they recognize themselves in this path of pain and redemption. As an artist, how should I approach this need? Thus my stance was to maintain a level of destabilization and at the same time avoid falling into cheap provocation. You see, making a via crucis means addressing the representation of pain. The rhetoric of pain is something that really disturbs me, and I didn’t want to play with this aspect. What I have created is more an abandoned than a brutalized Christ.
As a subject, the via crucis belongs to the universal discourse on human pain. I understood that the work had to be brought into a familiar, almost domestic dimension. I decided to create this via crucis within my studio, using people close to me to construct the scenes. I avoided using symbols––there is not even a cross––in order to give it an immediate concreteness. I didn’t photograph the scenes but filmed them, then chose a frame from the video. I think doing it this way imparted to the work a certain static quality, characteristic of photography, which gives the narration a careful equilibrium, while also creating a more fluid dimension of time passing, which is the soul of the frame.
One of the goals I set in “removing” detail from the narration was to create a void, a space to be left for possible future development. The choice of video, which is in effect annulled through the decision to stop and use one frame, is also an attempt to allude to a moment that maintains the memory of what was there before and what could come later. Mine is a storyboard via crucis. They are stations that you are invited to fill.
Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.
Yael Bartana, Zamach (Assassination), 2011, still from a color film in RED transferred to HD, 35 minutes.
Yael Bartana is an Israeli-Dutch video artist based in Amsterdam and Tel Aviv. Her recent work examines the quasi-fictional Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland and questions notions of cultural identity, nationalism, statehood, and Zionism. In the Polish Triology, 2007–11, she follows the evolution of such a movement in Poland from its beginnings, at a rally, through the construction of a kibbutz and finally the death of its leader. Bartana is a recent recipient of the Artes Mundi 4 in 2010 and is representing Poland in the Fifty-Fourth Venice Biennale in her exhibit “ . . . and Europe Will Be Stunned.”
IN 2006, WHILE RESEARCHING FOR THE FILM MARY KOSZMARY (NIGHTMARES) I met Sławomir Sierakowski, a young leftist activist from Warsaw who later became the leader of the semifictitious Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland (JRMIP). Together, we came to the understanding that we share the same interests, namely to question the status quo in our respective countries and to build a new future for ourselves. You see, Poland had become such a homogeneous society after World War II. He and I wanted to break up the uniformity of Polish society. After we met, my desire to alter the status quo took the form of asking him to join the project: His political activities in Poland and his charisma convinced me that he should be the protagonist of the film. Following my request, he wrote a speech together with the scholar Kinga Dunin and then delivered it in the empty stadium in which the first part of the trilogy is set. Since then, we have continued to collaborate: He has become part of my work and I am the art director of the magazine he publishes with the political group Krytyka Polityczna—the magazine is also called Krytyka Polityczna (The Political Critique). We also give talks together.
The strategy for these new works follows the development of the movement. The first film was made to look small-budget––one person in an empty stadium and only a few boy scouts are around to engage with his speech. Then, in the second part of the trilogy, the group has more members and establishes a new kibbutz in the former Warsaw ghetto. In the last part, a thousand members of the movement convene at the farewell ceremony for the leader after his assassination. His assassination is a metaphor for the transition from fiction to real. I am working with the tools of cinema to allow the fiction to feel real. That goes back to my early practice when I was documenting real events and manipulating them so they looked like they could possibly be fictive. I am always trying to find the line between the real and the fictive through strategic filmmaking.
What if politicians could work with their imagination and use artistic tools? How can artists use political strategies in their works? These are questions I return to again and again. The film trilogy gives a voice to personal stories and collective narratives. I employ nonactors in my films. For example, one person in the film is an actual Holocaust survivor who was born in Poland and gives her testimony during a speech about deportation and citizenship. She tells us that she desires the Polish citizenship she lost in the 1940s due to the war. When I show my work in the Polish pavilion, which is a very international platform, I have the opportunity to feature the voice of a person wishing to become a citizen of Poland again. On the other hand, I also include a person who speaks in the name of Zionism and believes that the only place for Jews is Israel. These are the sorts of contrasts I am creating.
JRMIP is a social experiment that allows people to connect through culture. The work also plays with nationalism, in that it uses the same tools of propaganda but tries to undermine the nationalism and reflect on it. Some people are scared of such a movement because they think that such a huge influx of returning Jews will completely change their life. It is also very threatening to Israel. This is the success of the work––that it really challenges the sense of identity of two nations. The last part depicts the assassination of Sierakowski’s fictionalized self. A year from now, the Jewish Renaissance Movement in Poland will convene, as part of the 2012 Berlin Biennale. There will be two days of meetings and lectures. It will really allow people to connect to one another and witness the potential power of social movements.
Dorothea Rockburne’s first retrospective is on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, until August 14. Rockburne is well known for her commitment to painting, which has carried her career from her intricate geometric studies of the late 1960s to more recent abstractions that explore the solar system. The exhibition also tracks her lifelong interests in ancient knowledge, topology, and astronomy.
VIEWERS SHOULDN’T HAVE TO KNOW a lot about math and science to understand what’s going on in my work. Art communicates on an emotional level. While a novice might not understand that Matisse, for instance, was dealing with Byzantine space and not with Cubism, they can still stand in front of a Matisse and fall in love with the work and know nothing about art. However, I think if one understands the basis for an artist’s work then it just makes it that much fuller. I can’t be responsible for other people’s responses; all I can do is paint my heart out and hope that it reaches them, which I think it does.
It’s wonderful to have many works in the retrospective that I haven’t seen since they were made. For instance, there’s a painting from the “Pascal” series, The Light Shines in the Darkness and the Darkness Is Not Understood, and it belongs to a museum in Texas. I haven’t seen it since it was shown in 1967. All of the works look very alive and have the same presence as when they were made, and it’s revealing to me to see the constant thread through it all. I don’t have a master plan for my art or life, but as I went through the work and my diaries, I realized that besides having a geometric base for the work, there is also a philosophical base that is continuous.
Usually, when I begin to see work in my mind’s eye, I envision the kind of material that it needs. The thought, emotion, and material aren’t separate. I am always following this vision I have, and it has a lot to do with understanding nature, but from the point of view of topology. One of the quotes I use in the retrospective’s catalogue is from Max Dehn, my math teacher at Black Mountain College. He said, “Nature is written in numbers.” It’s important to understand those numbers.
Max was so completely seductive in the way he taught. He had to talk me into taking his class. He must have been in his early eighties. I thought I was not trained properly, since people were coming from all over just to study with him. I did not have much of a math background, but he taught me so much about the mathematics of nature, and it all just sank in and made everything understandable in a way that it hadn’t been before.
My work has been based on the golden mean for a long time now. This ratio is something that, when you use it, just lends itself to rhythms and vibrations and magic––force, form, divisions, and so on. It’s more obscure in my recent work, but I still begin with that proportion. It’s there in the ten latest pieces in the retrospective, which are all from the “Stardust” series. With these, I’m using some pretty complex geometry, but of course I am trying to simplify it. They are based on topological premises, which I learned from Max, who was also a topologist. Topology is a form of geometry I am really interested in, and I like that it lends itself to astronomy. I had wanted to make these works for the past twenty years, but more recently some understanding of how to do it developed. When utilizing topology, it’s always a matter of trying to put a four-dimensional construct on a two-dimensional surface, and that’s very hard to do.
I began to become interested in stardust after someone sent me a photograph of a perfect hexagon over Saturn in 2007. I began to think about how the hexagon got there, and I realized that there must have been an explosion that released particles, and that some electromagnetic current in space pushed on those particles and turned it into this shape. But how that happened remains so mysterious. Of course, when stars explode there are particles, and right now we’re really seeing these things through sophisticated telescopes. I’m looking forward to our being able to see further into the earlier universe as time goes on. Perhaps we will discover not only how but also why this all happened.
Jesse Jones, The Struggle Against Ourselves, 2011, color film in Super 16 mm transferred to video, 21 minutes. Production still. (Photo: Chiara Giovando)
Jesse Jones is a Dublin-based artist whose work was featured in the 11th International Istanbul Biennale in 2009. In tandem with the premiere of her 16-mm film Against the Realm of the Absolute at the Collective Gallery in Edinburgh, Jones’s US debut opens at REDCAT in Los Angeles on June 30. That evening at REDCAT, there will also be an artists’ talk between Jones and Andrea Bowers at 6:30 PM.
THE REDCAT SHOW BRINGS TOGETHER TWO FILMS: The Spectre and the Sphere, and a newly commissioned work, The Struggle Against Ourselves. The latter film is based on a collaborative project I made this past April with a group of CalArts students. When I was invited to exhibit in LA, I really wanted to host a workshop in the theatrical idea of biomechanics and the series of theatrical études created by Vsevolod Meyerhold in the 1920s. These blend Taylorism with the historic, theatrical devices of commedia dell’arte and Kabuki. The études have an incredibly fascinating history and formally resemble the mass spectacles found in Busby Berkeley’s films. But the études have a very different ideological intension, of course. They emerged from a postrevolutionary Russian period in which the idea of the mass still held some idea of historical agency.
Meyerhold’s workshops were very influential during the postrevolutionary period and featured participants such as Igor Ilinsky and Sergey Eisenstein. Konstantin Stanislavsky was also a big fan of Meyerhold, and he believed that they were going to create the theater of the twentieth century. But because Meyerhold became persona non grata under Stalin, none of his ideas were exported to America. He fell out of history; in America, he is virtually unknown. Rather than stage a reenactment of the workshops, I’m instead attempting to stage this kind of event that was historically impossible; it’s presenting a possibility for a different version of mass culture. The performance I made with the students is based on series of photographs of the Meyerhold workshops that were taken in late 1930s by Alexander Grinberg. While looking at Grinberg’s images it is impossible not to draw comparisons to the high Hollywood spectacles of the ’20s and ’30s.
Chi-wang Yang of the Cloud Eye Control theater company facilitated the workshops at CalArts. He brought a huge amount of experience to the project and built the performance with the students during three initial workshops to prepare for the film, which was made over a weekend at CalArts. The film appears at first as an observational documentary, but then it shifts into a dream sequence that echoes the Hollywood style of the Berkeley films. In this way, The Struggle Against Ourselves is a scramble between two vastly different historical impulses––communism and capitalism––and it questions the ways in which that narrative can be played out through the body.
The other film in the show, The Spectre and the Sphere, was made in 2008 in Dublin and Ghent. Both take something from the culture of early-1920s Russia as a starting point––the etudes for The Struggle Against Ourselves, and the theremin in The Spectre and the Sphere. There is an attempt within both of these works to excavate these things, which came out of the ether of the postrevolutionary period and at the time operated as a form of popular culture. The theremin itself has these incredibly interesting origins. It was invented in 1919 by Leon Theremin, who upon its creation brought it to Lenin. I learned that Lenin was very impressed with the instrument and had wanted to learn how to play “The Internationale” on it, although for various historical reasons that didn’t happen. I asked Theremin’s great-niece, Lydia Kavina, to play the song for The Spectre and the Sphere.
The two films are installed so that there is a dialogue created between them; they are projected on opposing walls and sequenced to play at intervals with a specially designed computer program. I’m also showing a new light installation, which plays two sound tracks at interval points within the sequence, so the audience’s vantage point is shifted constantly through the duration of the two works. It is my hope that this light installation draws attention to our spectatorial role within the space of cinema.
Merce Cunningham, Event, 2010. Performance view, Israel Museum, Jerusalem, June 10, 2011. Merce Cunningham Dance Company. (Photo: Barak Aharon.)
The inaugural Jerusalem Season of Culture, a multidisciplinary cultural celebration that began in May with a philosophy festival and will feature performances by Steve Reich and Renée Fleming in addition to several other events, runs through the end of July. Here, Itay Mautner, the artistic director, and Naomi Bloch Fortis, codirector, discuss the scope of the project.
JERUSALEM IS an exceedingly distinct city, given its complexity and everyday reality. When we decided to create this season three years ago, we wanted to highlight the very vibrant and dynamic cultural scene that enlivens this place, since you cannot find anything like it anywhere else in the world. Of course, when you think of the word Jerusalem, two things come to mind first: religion and conflict. Culture might seem irrelevant. And yet art, dance, film, and theater are important here. Our aim is to show art made in Jerusalem and Israel alongside art by international artists who are now coming to look at this beautiful place and translating it into their work.
In early June we had the “Under the Mountain” section, a festival dedicated to the alternative scene in Jerusalem. Even though it’s the capital, this has never been a mainstream place, and some of the most radical art has emerged from this city; it’s been an active playground for experimental thinking. A local collective has curated a show in the Natural History Museum where many artists have responded to the land and are also performing in a very transdisciplinary way. These are the alternative stakeholders in Jerusalem, who would work without the season’s initiative, as they’ve done for years before. At the same time, we have the Merce Cunningham Dance Company here performing their “events” in the galleries of the Israel Museum, which is the last time they will ever perform in a museum. There’s also the Merce Campus, a series of talks with the dancers and their crew, at the local nonprofit gallery space Yaffo 23.
On July 14, we will have “Contact Point” at the museum, which aims to help visitors reimagine what a visit to a museum can be, as well as the role of the institution. Usually you go to a museum, you walk quietly, and you stand in front of an object . . . and that’s it. You have feelings, and then you keep on going. This part of the season will serve as a natural extension of some of the ideas percolating during “Under the Mountain”––in essence, that art isn’t a dead object: It’s still living.
Eight months ago, we invited artists from various different artistic fields––including dancers, actors, musicians, and poets––to pick their favorite object in the museum and to try to find a contact point between them and the object. The resultant work will be shown live for only one special night when the museum is open until 2 AM. Visitors will walk around and view the Israel Museum in a totally different way. They will see a new work that has been produced from the combination from an object and an artist, who might be singing or dancing or reading aloud.
We hope that visitors to the season’s events will come away with the knowledge that Jerusalem is not a small city that needs to be revitalized by culture. As the locals already know, it’s a big place and culture already exists here. The only problem is the way it was known until now. It was a bit hidden, and most people were not familiar with it. But we don’t need to invent; we just need to reinforce what’s already going on. What is important now is brushing off some of the dust that hides the beautiful cultural scene that’s already here––and thriving.