Monday, July 27, 2009

On to LA

Flying into Burbank

I'm in Los Angeles helping Matt and Michelle plan their upcoming nuptials. We're using this for inspiration:

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Landscape and interpretation

Which comes first, the artist or the landscape? I remember being profoundly disappointed when I went to Aix-en-Provence and discovered that the countryside looked exactly like a Cezanne. Damn! He just painted what was in front of him--although he did elaborate a bit on Mount St. Victoire, which was punier than I expected. And Venice looks just like Canaletto, Paris like that rainy day Caillebotte at the Art Institute in Chicago I've always loved, and while I haven't been to China, a friend told me that the mountains and mist look just like--Chinese paintings. So now that I live on the edge of the Hudson River Valley I think a lot about the painters of the Hudson River School and how they, too, were painting just what was in front of them. Or were they? Perhaps I see it the way I see it because I've been shown it through their eyes.

I thought about this a lot on our trip to Iceland, where we were shooting background landscape for our film about Olafur Eliasson and Einar Thorsteinn’s collaborations. Terry, who did his Ph.D. thesis on Olafur’s work, was visiting Iceland for the first time, and when he got there exclaimed, “Olafur is just appropriating the landscape!” Not that Olafur pretends to do anything else—it’s possible to trace almost everything he does back to Iceland in one way or another—but this time it was even more clear to me. Þingvellir is that most famous site in Iceland where the Vikings established their parliament back in 930 A.D. Now a national park, it is edged by a wall of black rock interspersed at intervals with waterfalls of various size and looking at it on this visit it was easy to imagine the black rock as the New York City skyline as seen from the East River, where Olafur placed his waterfalls. Americans expect waterfalls to be spectacular, but in Iceland, while of course some are spectacular, many, as in Þingvellir are simply columns of water whose movement animates the otherwise static rocky landscape.

I get annoyed when people apologize for photographs, but this is the best I have of the cliff line with waterfalls at Þingvellir, taken around 11:00 at night with an overcast sky. At least you get the idea. I haven't yet got the hang of taking photographs in Iceland, but it's something I look forward to working on.

Readers of this blog know how passionate I am about keeping the art experience free from any interference that attempts to interpret the work for viewers or bombard them with information that gives the impression that art is about, well, information. This is a philosophy I share with Robert Irwin and Olafur, who was greatly influenced by Irwin (did I get the idea from them or was I attracted to them because of it?—another question that can never be answered). No wonder I’m so comfortable in Iceland, because here is an entire country that appears to share my aversion to signage. The first time I went to Þingvellir I drove right past because there was a road sign but no more. No WELCOME TO ÞINGVILLIR, HOME OF THE PARLIAMENT, or its equivalent in Icelandic, not even a billboard with the park’s name on it. I also drove past the visitor’s center because there were no signs, no advertisements, nothing. The only way you’d know that the building, which appeared commercial, housed hospitality facilities would be to go look in the window. I love that. Because of course it is the Visitor Center--it's the only building within 50 km and it's where Þingvellir is on the map, but my American brain has been conditioned to look not for places, but for labels. And once you get into the park there are no plaques explaining what you are looking at here and there. You can have your own experience, and if you want to know something you can get a guidebook. Anyway, it’s an essential philosophy that Olafur seems to share with his favorite country, something to ask him about one day.

The only sign I saw at Gulfoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. The cloverleaf symbol indicates an official site of natural or historic interest.

And now I’m off to California, causing a friend to grumble something about my carbon footprint. Well I don’t know if it fully absolves me, but I do grow all my own vegetables.

I am proud of my garden but all I did was put in some seeds and keep the weeds out. I find it difficult to take credit for nature.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Bruno blahs

In between Iceland posts, I want to weigh in with a quick review of “Bruno,” which I went to see last night with four gay guys. As one said, and we all agreed, it was “flat.” Yes, flat, as in boring. I wasn’t even offended. In fact Scott and I left midway and went out for a quite delightful dinner. Could I say I loved “Borat”? Well the actual experience was a kind of torture, but that was the point. “Borat” was brilliant, a case of inspired political activism and a cultural milestone. It worked because Sacha Baron Cohen’s transformation was seamless—he was Borat. Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson talk about art that makes you aware of yourself, “seeing yourself seeing” as it were—well “Borat” is the ultimate example. Because no matter what Borat does, no matter how outrageous or disgusting he is, the person you’re most surprised by is yourself when you find yourself rooting for him. Bruno, on the other hand, is wooden, a schtick. And to what end? I’m still not sure what the point is, or what audience Baron Cohen was trying to reach. And there's no pacing; it just thrashes on. It’s sad because having been a fan ever since I encountered “Da Ali G. Show” many years ago on British TV where Bruno was my favorite character, I think Baron Cohen is a genius. Oh well.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Notes from Iceland--1

Flying into Keflavik at 11:00 p.m.

Our cabin at the Motel Alex near the airport, around 1:00 a.m., with campers sleeping in tents all around. It's hard to remember to be quiet when it's so light out.

Okay, I admit to being an Icelandophile. I love that it's so incredibly rugged and isolated yet inhabited by some of the most sophisticated and creative people in the world. And I love the way of life: daily swimming in geothermally heated outdoor public pools could easily get me through any long, dark winter. Open into the evening, the pools are community gathering places for everyone from moms with toddlers to high school kids, to old guys soaking and yakking in the hottest (44 degrees Celsius, 111.2 degrees to us, yikes!) of several “hot pots.” Because of the Gulf Stream, the temperature in winter is roughly that of New York City (if you don’t take into consideration the harsh Arctic wind), and in summer hovers around 60F. People always associate the extreme northern countries with high rates of suicide and alcohol consumption, but doing research I found that (except for Greenland with the highest suicide rate, which spikes in summer) statistics don’t bear these assumptions out. In fact one site lists Icelanders as being the happiest (this before the economic crisis). They at least enjoy some of the best health, and have a 100% literacy rate. Although most in Reykjavik speak flawless English, they prefer to communicate in Icelandic, and the number of books one finds in the stores translated into or written in a language spoken by only around 300,000 people, boggles the mind.

Erica noted that everyone walks slowly to the point where, if we concentrated on it, the people on Reykjavik’s main shopping street appeared to be moving in slow motion. They are also quiet spoken, but at the same focused and deliberate. Is this because their sense of time is so unlike ours? In Iceland, rather than moving through time, you are suspended in it, and indeed we were told that the Vikings didn’t divide the year into months but gave each day its own name. I loved that it was light all the time, although the landscape seems less dramatic (if that’s possible) in summer because the light is more diffused. When I was in Iceland in the fall, the sun hovered just above the horizon, always in your eyes and casting long shadows from even the smallest rocks. Last week there was an hour or so of twilight around midnight and then, with a change that was more sensation than visually perceptible (something a photograph, for instance, could not capture), it would shift to dawn. In the space of a few minutes I’d go from anticipating more of the evening ahead to feeling as if I’d been up all night and wanting to go to sleep. There was also a different pattern of activity—more people out on Reykjavik’s streets at midnight on Saturday than at any time during the day.

Hotel Fron, Reykjavik, midnight

Not only is there no familiar reference for time in Iceland, there’s none for space. With no in-between, nothing in the middle range, you have only near and far—no way of telling whether it’s a walk to the mountains you see in the distance, or an hour’s drive. This makes the landscape nearly impossible to capture in photographs, so most photographers try to include something for scale—a building, an animal, a person in a boat—which makes for images that make it look like a National Geographic Anywhere. Certainly not Iceland, because what distinguishes Iceland is that there’s NOTHING there. Outside the city, you have to plan where you’re going to get gas, eat and, yes, pee. The tourist board publishes a map of the entire country with red dots--and not a lot of them--indicating rest stops “with W.C.” As for dashing for cover by the side of the road, forget it. There is no cover. You haven’t seen a car for at least 20 minutes, but if one of those giant SUVs (you need them in Iceland) with the high wheel beds were to suddenly come barreling across the gravel, you’d be completely exposed.

Random landscape shot

...with Terry and Erica shooting landscape for our video project, for scale.

On our drive, my companions and I had a misunderstanding. Too late I realized we were setting off on the route to a certain waterfall, which meant forgoing the restaurant Einar recommended. I was wondering, did they really intend to go without lunch and dinner? Now I realize that they must have been planning to pick up something on the way, while I was thinking this is Iceland, where there is no “on the way,” and if we know of a food source, we should go there. We did, happily, find our way to another restaurant where Erica pronounced the lamb chops “worth the entire trip.”

Landscape at Þingvellir, with flowers for scale

Gullfoss: if you look carefully, you can see people standing on the top of the ridge

Monday, July 6, 2009

Catching up

Just back from Iceland, I segued into being so absorbed with painting that I don’t want to stop even to eat or go to the bathroom. But I know that soon enough I’ll be back to my normal self, wanting to share the images and thoughts from the trip that have been percolating in my head since returning. For an Icelandic art experience in New York, I recommend spending contemplative time with Finnbogi Petursson's beautiful installations involving sound, light and water at Sean Kelly. I became interested in Finnbogi's work on my first trip to Iceland in 2004, and was lucky enough to see the other half of the show last Saturday at i8 Gallery in Reykjavik.

Just to give you an idea, here's an earlier piece: Finnbogi Petursson, Elements, Water, Earth (2005), courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery.
And for something to read, this is Jerry Saltz writing about the state of the art world through the lens of the Venice Biennale (“Entropy in Venice”—could not be better named). These are issues I’ve been grumbling about for years, so it’s gratifying to find those opinions shared, and so succinctly summed up. You can read the whole thing on Artnet:

Venice is the perfect place for a phase of art to die. No other city on earth embraces entropy quite like this magical floating mall. There are now more than 100 biennales around the world (most of them put together by the same 25 celebrity curators, drawing from the same pool of 100 or so artists); Venice is often called "the most important" of them. The main show of the 53rd Venice Biennale, June 7-Nov. 22, 2009, is the work of Daniel Birnbaum, a well-respected 46-year-old Swedish critic and curator. His "Making Worlds," held in the Palazzo delle Esposizioni delle Biennale and in the magnificent Arsenale, attains an enervating inertia of exhibitions and brings us to a terminal state of what we’ll call "the curator problem."

Birnbaum’s show, containing the work of 90-plus artists, doesn’t offend or go off the rails. Rather, it looks pretty much the way these sorts of big international group shows and cattle calls now look; it includes the artists that these sorts of shows now include. It’s full of the reflexive conceptualism that artists everywhere now produce because other artists everywhere produce it (and because curators curate it). Almost all of this art comments on art, institutions or modernism. Basically, curators seem to love video, text, explanations, things that are "about" something, art that references Warhol or Prince, or that makes sense; they seem to hate painting, things that don’t make sense or that involve overt materiality, physicality, color or strangeness.

Any critic who says this, of course, is accused of conservatism, of wishing for a return to painting. I’m not for or against video -- or any medium or style, for that matter. Nor am I wishing for a return to painting, which can never come back because it never went away. (That said, it’s hard to imagine anything more conservative today than an institutional critique. That sort of work is the establishment.) My beef is with the experience that "Making Worlds" produces. It’s just another esthetically familiar feedback cycle: impersonal, administratively adept, highly professionalized, formally generic, mildly gregarious, esthetically familiar, totally knowing, cookie-cutter. It is time we broke out of that enervated loop.