Monday, March 29, 2010

Annunciations After the Fact

So Celeste Miller's splendiferously ambitious "The Annunciation...Sort of: Mary Says No" is history, having gotten, so far as I can tell, no reviews during its run.

It deserves more of a review than anyone who didn't take notes could give it, combining as it does alternate takes on our multiverse of discourse, from feminist readings of Mary's laundry-folding condition in Nazareth to a remarkable evocation of the wonderfully lovely and ambiguous history of the Apparition of the Virgin in the water-stained windows of a Clearwater, Florida office building (an image shattered eventually by a troubled slingshot-bearing boy) to explorations of the paradoxes involved in the notion of a divine nature outside of time and continuing all the way to strategies of parthenogenesis in nature and to Charles Darwin's dicta in The Origin of Species, the other primary text for this performance alongside the Gospel of Luke. "Did Mary have volition? Dictionary: define 'volition.'" Change partners; Gabriel ponders the laws of salesmanship and wonders if Mary will buy a vacuum cleaner from him if he lingers long enough in the world of time and learns his lessons well enough. Mary ponders the alternatives to her outright rejection of the original offer. They do not include vacuum cleaners, either.

And Mary of Nazareth in this alternate no-saying option of the multiverse can reach the age of ninety without the burden of knowing that the act of redemption for which she suffered will someday engender wars and inquisitions.

If the offer were of knowledge instead? if Mary were to become a different revealer of this universe, the only one in which we can live, in our one-at-a-time-ness? Gabriel considers the annunciation as the proclamation of discovery, the revealing of a new vision of earth and history. He has been sent off by God to learn about time from Charles Darwin, but as he announces disconsolately, "He refused to see me."

And the dance goes on. And the text and the recitation, improvised and memorized, also. The original text. The performers, and their choices. Mary says, and will say....

We live in a single history of the world, or we think we do. But there is more than one history of the world. And in this city, in this time, in this history, what things slip away almost unnoticed, because they do not suit our tidy categories?

Will we understand, ever, even, what it means to ask if we have the knowledge of our choices?

Well, you won't get the answers from the reviews, because they don't exist. Nor from this curious verbal outbursting.

There is some question as to whether you will even get the question. As though there were only one.

As though how the question were asked would not help determine the universe in which the answer would begin to make any sense.

You had to be there. But who outside the longtime circle of followers could know?

We live in a time bereft of messengers, on a very mundane level.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Paradise and Its Transformations

Paradise: Somewhere Between Lost and Found, as Always

Stephen Dupont at Jack Bell Gallery, London

Jerry Cullum

The purpose (or one purpose) of art is to wake us up, but it seldom wakes us up according to art historical or curatorial schedules. Like the patch of yellow in the View of Delft that alters Bergotte’s consciousness in Proust, art always communicates more (or less) than the maker of the art intended. All art is relational art, but it is the audience that provides the majority of the long-term content; the artist provides the catalyst, via an immense amount of craft and imagination.

Stephen Dupont’s photographs from 21st century Papua New Guinea are a provocative catalyst indeed, but I shall not address them directly. This is not a review, for I have not seen the exhibition itself.

Works of art such as Dupont’s serve to remind us of just how many countries there are that seldom or never send representatives to more than regionally specific biennials (or to residence in the world’s art capitals, which is usually a prerequisite for representing one’s country in the global biennials). They also seldom generate world-changing events, and until they do, we tend to know about them only through the equivalent of high-class travelers’ tales—when we know about them at all.

Given the number of microstates generated by the accidents of colonialism, such countries cover a substantial part of the world’s surface (albeit as islands in the midst of oceans) and may now constitute close to a majority in the United Nations.

Papua New Guinea is no microstate, given its occupancy of the eastern half of one of the world’s larger islands plus adjacent archipelagoes. Given its proximity to Indonesia and Australia, it is anything but isolated from global currents. Yet most artworld habitués outside of Australia and the Pacific are likely to know it only from college courses in cultural anthropology.

My first contribution to newspaper (rather than art magazine) reviewing dealt with “The Art of New Guinea,” a Georgia State University exhibition drawn from the personal collection of Atlanta artist Michael Murrell. I delivered the standard thousand-cultures-and-languages now-an-independent-country spiel as a way of getting into the discussion of Sepik and Highlands art and personal decoration. There was no room to do much more. (Murrell hadn’t traveled to the Asmat, so the West Papua issue didn’t arise.)

I had gotten deeply interested in the politics, economics, and art of Papua New Guinea during the mid-70s run-up to independence, and was happy to revisit the topic thirteen years later. I knew a fair amount about the paradoxes of the place; the highlands that hosted the tribal sing-sings that were such a tourist draw were also a place of smallholder coffee farms, which had brought relative prosperity to some of the individuals who annually changed out of t-shirts and khaki shorts and into traditional sing-sing regalia. The birds of paradise whose feathers were used for the costumes could now be hunted with shotguns, according to one commonplace. The standard journalistic contrast that followed such observations usually cited the traditional communal houses along the Sepik River versus the gleaming multi-story architecture of Port Moresby, usually with the note that there was no way of getting from one to the other except by airplane or, in the case of the Sepik, thoroughly versatile boat.

I was fascinated by the fact that the national airline Air Niugini’s in-flight magazine was called Paradise. The title was suggested by the association of PNG with the aforementioned birds of paradise, which had gotten their name centuries earlier when the legless condition of the skins sold by traders suggested the myth that the birds soared eternally in the skies of Eden.

PNG’s major brand of export beer also promoted itself as “the beer of Paradise,” and a decade or so after Murrell’s show I duly included one of its magazine ads in my own Georgia State University exhibition, “Paradise and Its Transformations.”

But Paradise as mythic topic goes hand in hand with Fall and Expulsion. Reading the updated Lonely Planet guide to PNG at the time of Murrell’s show, I noted that once-recommended idyllic spots on the fringes of urban areas were now regarded as off limits to lone travelers because they were frequented by the local “raskols.”

I had previously been aware of the existence of a PNG urban gang culture that derived its visual style from the sources that gave birth to such films as The Harder They Come. Until I received word of Stephen Dupont’s show at Jack Bell Gallery, I had no idea that raskol culture had not only survived into the 21st century but had helped to gain Port Moresby a reputation as one of the most dangerous capital cities on earth.

The reasons cited in online sources are standard-issue: as the urban magnet for the displaced and disaffected of every one of the country’s subsistence-economy regions, the city has an unemployment rate of sixty per cent. Insufficient revenue has led to the effective abandonment of a few of the handsome buildings bequeathed to the government at independence, and the resultant migratory quality of some government ministries is said to be symptomatic of far more consequential financial shortfalls.

The commonplaces regarding the country have shifted without tourists outside the region paying much attention. And indeed, there seems to be little enough reason to do so for most visitors; urban areas hold only eighteen per cent of the population, and the Sepik River of the tourists and anthropologists is very far away. A perusal of on-site blogs (one discontinued due to inconsistent availability of broadband) reveals that even the volcano-devastated town of Rabaul seems to be rebuilding with some placidity. (Lonely Planet also remarks that "gritty" Port Moresby's reported problems are somewhat exaggerated.)

Stephen Dupont’s “Raskols” and “Sing Sing” portraits, viewable online as well as at Jack Bell, provide an abbreviated symbolism for PNG’s present-day stresses. The sing-sings, colorful tribal get-togethers that were begun fifty or sixty years ago at the encouragement of Australian administrators as a means of cohesion among rival groups, remain popular tourist attractions as well as genuine local social events. (Think Mardi Gras…these are not like the familiar rituals that are revived whenever a tour group shows up to pay for them.) The raskols are better thought of as a tourist anti-attraction. Dupont gained access to both. (Last year the Highlands were reported as inadvisable for tourists due to renewed inter-tribal conflict...and yet the 2009 Goroka Show went on without incident after financial issues caused its near-cancellation; see The same site reports a November 2009 clash "between two rival clans from the Upper Asaro area over the ownership of a Coffee Plantation" and offers video documentation of the robbery by raskols of a Madang computer store in October 2009. The details of both stories are instructive. Without Dupont's show, it wouldn't have occurred to me to follow the links leading to this remarkable in-country online source.)

Dupont’s striking documentary portraiture doesn’t give us a total picture of today’s PNG, any more than Vermeer’s patch of yellow gave Bergotte a total view of Delft. It does, just like the symbol as cited a generation ago by Paul Ricoeur, give rise to thought—and to productive investigation. I am en route to renewing my long-distance acquaintance with a complex and massively changing country.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

those of you who write about 1930s design....

I have decided to post a possible writing opportunity (and possible press trip with editorial guarantee of publication) on the joculum blog where my diverse readership seems more consistently into the non-contemporary and the well nigh traditional re-read in an untraditional sense.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Palimpsest Projects of All Sorts

There is in fact in Atlanta at the moment a Palimpsest Project designed to approach history through fiction, to allow the revelation of past layers through the productively distorting lenses of a present buffered by imagined narrative. There will be a time to consider this one at length. But for the moment I want to write about layerings and palimpsests in general, and someplace else.

Anyone who has been reading me for any length of time knows that I am fascinated by restorations that go awry, adaptations that aren’t quite, and in general things that are not what they seem, even or especially when they try oh so seriously to be exactly that.

It is a model for the self that we inherited from Carl Jung and Sigmund Freud alike, those figures of nineteenth century modernism whose models of the psyche bespoke the era from which they sprang—whether they intended it or not.

It is also a model of postmodernity, a now-dated term that I like to keep using because modernity was such an identifiable project that anything that came after it was indisputably “post-.” And since the postmodern was irredeemably plural and plurisignative, the twists and turns of the contemporary since the heyday of the postmodern have remained, irresistibly, postmodern, even if it is no longer cool to call them that. Contemporaraneity takes place under the sign of the aftermodern; the altermodern is somewhere else and something else, no matter what Nicolas Bourriaud may think.

As with all overlapping epochs, there are still quintessentially modern and modernist moments in contemporary history, and I hope to write about one of them in a subsequent Counterforces post—or, rather, to write about the story I wish I were capable of telling, which is a typically postmodernist take on a modernist tale of historical restoration and homage to the failed determination of a previous generation. But let that pass.

Back when my own palimpsest had considerably fewer overlays and erasures, I wrote in Art Papers about the Spanish monastery in Miami, Florida: a medieval cloister, disassembled for transport to the Hearst mansion and then hopelessly jumbled when its packing straw was burned to prevent the transmission of hoof and mouth disease. “The world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle” was eventually put together, sort of, in Miami as a tourist attraction that only partially resembled its lost original, and is currently both a not-quite-museum and an Episcopal church.

That is a different kind of palimpsest of history from the exquisite piece of medieval architecture of central Germany that turns out to be a completely reconstructed replica of a building that itself was actually a Wilhelmine replica of medieval architectural fashions. It is also not the same as the Margaret Mitchell House that was twice reconstructed in the wake of arson and today serves as a center for contemporary literature that contains the apartment in which Gone With the Wind was written, in which it is uncertain what, if anything, is original. These two are instructively variant reconstructions, belonging to the same species as “This is my grandfather’s hammer. My father broke the handle and put on a new one. I broke the head and put on a new one. This is my grandfather’s hammer.”

It is, as I wrote in Counterforces a while ago, fascinating that the palimpsest of the imagined and the real that is symbolized and summarized by and in the Margaret Mitchell House should now exist in proximity to the Millennium Gate’s faultless mix of reproduced-Roman and plate-glass-Parthenon architecture. The blend is brilliant, and as fine a tribute to the irresistible acids of postmodernity as the Ikea store in the complex to which it forms a point of entry. As I wrote in that truncated essay, when the Millennium Gate is combined with the statues of Peace and Justice whose pedestals already look like they have been restored after a conflict, it constitutes the filling in of a niche of architectural history that had been missing because of the South’s postbellum poverty. Atlanta did get, and later barely preserved, the neo-Egyptian and neo-Orientalist Masonic syncretism of the Fox Theatre; now, thanks to the Millennium Gate, Atlanta has a neo or creatively alternative version of the Greco-Roman triumphal-arch syncretism it didn’t get.

What occasioned this particular chain of reflection was a press release from Bénédictine liqueur regarding the art exhibition they are staging in honor of the liqueur’s 500th anniversary. It is a more multi-layered tale than one might expect.

Curator Ami Barak’s exhibition of work by Yves Klein, Wim Delvoye, Davide Balula, Richard Fauguet and others is apparently focused on an alchemical metaphor, with the unexpected and distinctive transformations of material in these artists’ assemblages being considered parallel to the transmutation of Bénédictine’s 27 herb-and-spice ingredients into the unique liqueur of which the integrity is reported to have been maintained over the course of five centuries.

Apart from the contents of the exhibition, which runs from May 13 through October 17, the building in which it is being held is already a metaphor of creative transmutations of history.

The Bénédictine Palais (so the press release names it, though one might think it is the Benedictine Palace or the Palais Bénédictine) in Fécamp has nothing to do with the Benedictine order in which Dom Bernardo Vincelli created the liqueur in 1510. The monks passed the recipe down through the generations in Fécamp until 1789, when the Revolution sent them fleeing from the country. How the recipe was discovered by Alexandre Le Grand in 1863 would be worth discussing, were it not for the more immediately relevant fact that what the industrialist did with it is a model of proto-postmodernity in the heart of the nineteenth century's moment of the high modern. (The company website reports that Le Grand found the formula in a “book of spells” acquired for a private library in 1791 and thereafter forgotten.)

Le Grand persuaded the Benedictine order to allow him to use their name commercially, in exchange for royalties. (The preceding words are borrowed verbatim from the press release.) He registered the brand as a trademark, designed a label, and the rest is history.

After that, things really get interesting. Circa 1888, give or take a reconstruction after a catastrophic fire, Le Grand erected the Bénédictine Palais in Fécamp. The press release describes this building as “Le Grand’s ultimate marketing tool, a modern building with a 16th century feel, completely dedicated to his beloved spirit.” It’s the sole distillery for the liqueur. It is also home to the Le Grand family’s collection of religious artifacts from the 13th century onward, plus a library of a thousand volumes dating from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Since 1998, it has also been a gallery for contemporary art, in spaces previously used as industrial bays. It has hosted 70 or so exhibitions that included such figures as Niki de Saint-Phalle and Andy Warhol.

The liqueur has its own mystique without the hybrid history and architecture of the building…I’m sure the description can be found online readily enough, including the fact that only three people know the secret formula at any one time (I omit the obvious reference). But it is the Palais that caught my attention.

As much as other buildings I have discussed, the Palais was clearly created to fill in a gap. I am curious as to what became of the Fécamp monastery after 1789*, but even a secularized medieval building, had it survived, would scarcely be appropriate for the production of a liqueur in 1864…even though the monastery presumably housed a distillery of some sort or another prior to its dissolution.

Thus we got a Palais that looks authentically 16th century but is authentically of its 19th-century industrial day. And that, plus the juxtaposition of Klein and Delvoye in the same exhibition, is enough for me.

*An innocuous press release, on which the draft of this was based, often leads into thickets of Wikipedia entries. We learn if we are persistent that the abbey church survives in the city (but the entry is vague as to details) and that Fécamp was noted for miraculous doings: “According to legend, the trunk of a fig tree carrying the Precious Blood of Christ collected by Joseph of Arimathea was washed ashore on the riverbank at Fécamp in the 1st century. Immediately, a fountain of Holy Blood gushed from the site and the relic quickly attracted many pilgrims, enhancing the reputation of the city. The name ‘Fécamp’ was artificially connected with this legend by monks: Fici-campus, the camp of the fig tree.” A church associated with the Precious Relic still exists in Fécamp, which shrine apparently was unconnected with the Benedictine monastery. The “ruined buildings of the Benedictine abbey” are mentioned in conjunction with the Bénédictine Palais, so apparently there was some effort on Le Grand’s part to build on the original site.

If so, the Palais would be a literal as well as a metaphoric palimpsest. But I have traced this particular palimpsest as far as I am going to.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

and if you're passing through Valenciennes this Friday....

The retrospective of the work of the late Mildred Thompson that opened a year ago in Düren, Germany continues in Valenciennes, France, though only her semisculptural wall pieces will be exhibited (the one illustrated here is from the Düren exhibition):

March 12, 2010 6 p.m., opening

Place: Galerie Laquarium, 6 rue Ferrand, 59300 Valenciennes

Falling Through the Cracks: "Folium darwinii" at the Seen Gallery, Decatur, through March 17

One of the many pitfalls of transitional art reviewing in metro Atlanta is that shows presenting a certain number of practical and conceptual challenges tend to slip by unreviewed.

"Folium darwinii" is an exceptionally interesting portfolio of prints produced in 2009 for the Darwin bicentenary by Asheville Book Works and the Atlanta Printmakers Studio. My attempt to photograph the individual works failed dismally and insofar as I can determine from a quick survey of websites, the actual pieces are not reproduced online.

The works range from an attractively ambitious timeline with portraits to allegories of the voyage of the Beagle to an evocatively lyrical nightscape. The whole portfolio holds its own against other Darwin homages from the bicentennial year, and deserves the kind of reflectively critical review that I have found myself unable to write for a wide variety of reasons.

Apparently no one else was able to write one, either. As one might expect from a collaboration that was based on a call for entries from two membership organizations, some of the contributions are more conceptually inspired than others, but none are unworthy of consideration. In a less disordered art critical universe than the one we currently inhabit, "Folium darwinii" would have gotten its due, even if that due would have included some moments of negative critique.

In the year 2009, in the American South, the simple collaboration on an homage to Charles Darwin, using traditional printmaking media for contemporary critical purposes, was a political act as well as an artistic intervention. It should have stirred at least a little conversation.

But first somebody would have had to have found the time and the mental energy to discuss the individual pieces in some depth, evaluating their successes and failures and asking whether any of them delivered a successfully complex message as well as an aesthetically pleasing homage to the author of The Origin of Species.

And this, for many reasons, I was unable to do. Given competing needs and the brief time remaining before the close of the exhibition, I am assuming that no one else will feel inclined to do so, either.

If they do, I hope they find it easier to produce acceptable photographs of the artwork.