By Max Andrews
LUMA Arles is located in the former railway yards of Arles and includes a new building designed by Frank Gehry and the renovation of the industrial buildings on the Parc des Ateliers by Selldorf Architects. All photographs: Max Andrews / Mariana Cánepa Luna
A report from the symposium in Arles, France
Co-presented by the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College with the LUMA Foundation, the four-day symposium ‘How Institutions Think’ met to reconsider the habits and rhetorics of contemporary art institutions and curatorial practice. The event, held at the Parc des Ateliers, Arles, from 24–27 February, was developed in partnership with a long list of collaborators (Valand Academy of Arts, Gothenburg, Sweden; Afterall Books and the Exhibition Histories programme at Saint Martins, London, UK; Goldsmiths, London; the V-A-C Foundation, Moscow; and de Appel art centre, Amsterdam).
Taking its title from the 1986 book by British anthropologist Mary Douglas, the symposium played out on the site of the future LUMA Arles, a 20-acre former railway yard that includes a new building designed by Frank Gehry scheduled to open in summer 2018 as exhibitions spaces, archives, residency and study facilities, as well as a restaurant, hotel and park. Introduced by CCS Bard’s Paul O’Neill and LUMA founder Maja Hoffmann, the presentations were hosted in the recently-restored L’Atelier des Forges spaces in the middle of this construction site. O’Neill took the work-in-progress status outside as an invitation for the more than 30 speakers and around 150 delegates to debate not only what the future of art institutions in general might be, but more immediately, how new ways of operating could underpin this nascent institution in the south of France.
Model of the Gehry building in the information centre buildings at the Parc des Ateliers
Yet what transpired was something far more pervasive. An amplification of the noun ‘institution’ and the verb ‘instituting’ soon engulfed not only a discussion of art and academic establishments, but law, governance, and the psyche of the French state, post-November 2015 Paris attacks. The grim predicament of a Europe in the depths of the refugee crisis – as the symposium took place, at the other end of the country, Calais’s ‘Jungle’ camp was being dismantled – became the lens for considering nothing less than the spectral institution that is Western European colonial imperialism. In the first evening’s fragmented keynote by Zahia Rahmani, the writer and historian gave an account of the ‘Made in Algeria’ exhibition of colonial cartography she has curated for the MuCEM museum in Marseilles. She argued that we cannot plausibly think about the future of any institution without confronting the terrible failures and opprobrious injustices of the past, most glaringly what she characterised as the ‘toxicity’ of Western Europe’s colonial system.
‘Is institution building still desirable?’ wondered artist Céline Condorelli in her presentation the following day as she evoked All our tomorrows (2015), her installation that humbly corralled the symposium’s setting, comprised a large hanging curtain inspired by the ‘poor architecture’ of Lina Bo Bardi’s SESC Pompéia, the social and cultural centre established in São Paulo.
Clémentine Deliss, Independent Curator and Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Study (Wissenschaftskolleg).
Reflecting on his own transformative experiences made while directing the 2014 edition of the São Paulo Biennial, Charles Esche – Director of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands – astutely articulated both the decisiveness of Western Imperialism’s poisonous effect on the rest of the world, and the nervousness about whether anyone can even venture to be hopeful about the future. Esche persuasively argued that Western museums must make decolonialisation fundamental to their missions and no longer a marginal issue by analysing the entrails of neoliberalism’s ‘dogged persistence’ and, soothsayer-like, intuitively sensing the ‘weak signals’ of a more just politics.
Sociologists Luc Boltanski and Arnaud Esquerre spoke of France’s deep investment in what they termed the ‘economy of enrichment’ in observations that were particularly prickly given the art-destination place-making unfolding on the very site of the symposium. They submitted that the luxury brands that dominate the image of the country abroad enjoy a close but officially-unacknowledged complicity with heritage and culture. They argue that this compound myth of the French art de vivre accounts for the country consistently being the globe’s most visited tourist destination, yet also that, less innocuously, France’s defiance of normative economic rules about price and value make it both a haven for inequality as well as unusually susceptible to instability. Put candidly, the presence of refugee and terrorists is not conducive to tourism and handbag sales. Later, speaking about ‘turbo-fascism’ and a transition to ‘necropolitics’ (a term coined by philosopher Achille Mbembe regarding the politics of sovereignty over life and death), philosopher Marina Gržinić contended that we are living in a time of war in which our institutions battle to preserve this ‘good life’ at any cost.
Céline Condorelli, Artist, Professor at Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, Milan, and Founding Co-Director Eastside Projects, in conversation with Helena Reckitt, Senior Lecturer in Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Turning more specifically to art’s institutions, independent curator and editor Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez argued that they are so often so deeply implicated in an economy of precarity that they spawn new toothless art forms of ‘safe participation’ and ‘soft interactivity’. ‘Stubborn’ institutions thus appeared to be both the problem and the solution. Accordingly, Clémentine Deliss – recently dismissed as the Director of the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt – delivered a scorching critique of the racism and intransigence persisting in ethnographic museums founded in the 19th century, particularly in Germany and France. She characterised how the hundreds of thousands of objects ‘salvaged’ from the frontline of the colonial project are now trapped in a legislative embargo, reduced to little more than dormant entries on databases. Access to these hoards of material culture and their restitution is critical she asserted, yet young curators are too afraid to deal with them – contemporary art offers an easier ride.
In the context her work directing the SBG Gallery in Montréal, Canada, curator Pip Day discussed Canada’s settler-colonialist legacy, the evasions allowed by conceiving of decolonization as merely a metaphor, and her advocacy of the work of First Nation artists such as Maria Hupfield. Bassam El Baroni, an independent curator based in Alexandria, Egypt, later presented a paper that threaded a bewilderingly dense route through a tangle of cognitive philosophy and ‘prometheanism’. Yet Day’s case studies, as well as those discussed by Mélaine Bouteloup, curator of Paris’s Bétonsalon, regarding the recently opened Villa Vassilieff which is now the second site of that institution, helped to link such abstraction to more practical curatorial and artistic thinking-in-action that addresses the past while creating new knowledge.
Gehry’s LUMA building will comprise presentation and exhibition spaces, archive, library, offices, seminar rooms, artist-in-residence facilities, café-restaurant and hotel and is due to open in summer 2018.
Yet it was through the presentations by writer Dave Beech and especially architect Keller Easterling that the symposium actually approached something resembling a strategy to address what had been almost uniformly painted as the shameful, broken state of the contemporary institution. According to both Beech and Easterling, we should be paying keener attention to infrastructure rather than institution per se. Following her book Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (2014) Easterling’s bruising and exhilarating contention was that an enveloping urban medium (including preposterous towers, mall sprawl, special-trade-zone legal lacunae) defies consideration as a thing and is better thought of as a global operating system, a ‘disposition’ that thrives on saying one thing and doing quite another.
At the start of the symposium artist Liam Gillick – one of LUMA’s luminary consultants alongside Tom Eccles, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Philippe Parreno and Beatrix Ruf – had asked somewhat rhetorically, ‘can an institution be thought collectively on this scale?’ It was clearly not only Charles Esche who looked out at the spine of what will be a 24,000 square metre Frank Gehry-designed tower and noticed that the institution’s die was cast already – and thanks to an architect long synonymous with the art museum as an importunate form of trophy. Following Keller’s strategic spatial repertoire of ‘counterbalances’, ‘interplays’, ‘toggles’, ‘incentives’ and ‘ratchets’, as well as her talk of heeding the dynamics of joke-telling or dough-tending, she implied that if we are going to formulate a resilient future for art institutions, we had better start feeling our way – and get a whole lot more canny.
By Amy Zion
Ana Mendieta, Sweating Blood,1973, super-8mm film. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong
In an ongoing series, frieze asks a critic to select the best shows currently on view in their city. A new show will be posted each day this week.
Ana Mendieta ‘Experimental and Interactive Films’
5 Feb – 26 March
This exhibition runs concurrent with ‘Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta’ at the NSU Art Museum in Fort Lauderale, with both shows presenting works recently discovered by the gallery and the artist’s estate. As the first gallery exhibition of the late artist’s films in New York, it features 15 films as well as sound works and archival material dating back to 1971, when the artist was just 22.
Politically inflected from the beginning, the works testify to the range of Mendieta’s technical experimentation, but although only one of the 15 films that are shown side-by-side has sound, her work begs for a more intimate installation. Truthfully, I wish I could have been perched on a small bench, watching the films in succession, instead of standing and darting from one to another, as many works consist of long shots in which movement or change is barely perceptible. That said, this is undeniably a rare opportunity to experience such a wealth of previously unseen footage and gain a deeper insight into this important artist’s work.
Nasreen Mohamedi, Untitled, ca.1980, ink and graphite on paper, 27 × 34 cm. Collection of Dossal Family (Mariam Panjwani, Zeenat Sadikot, Laila Khalid)
The Met Breuer
18 March – 5 June
One of two inaugural exhibitions at the Met Breuer, this retrospective of the late Indian Modernist Nasreen Mohamedi, who passed away in 1990 at the age of 53, follows a smaller presentation of drawings and photographs at the nearby Drawing Center in 2005.
The show traces the chronological development of Mohamedi’s drawings as they transform from vaguely figurative ink and graphite compositions to highly abstract, grid-like compositions. Presented alongside are countless photographs and notebooks littered with concrete poetry and small abstract compositions, both keys to understanding the drawings and works in their own right.
While offering the obligatory biographical notes about the artist’s travels and her shifting influences, the accompanying wall text also makes reference to Mohamedi’s battle with Huntington’s disease. The condition increasingly affected her motor control towards the end of her career, in inverse proportion to how controlled and deftly precise her works eventually became.
David Hammons, Orange Is The New Black, 2014, glass, wood, nails, acrylic, 64 × 41 × 33 cm. Courtesy Mnuchin Gallery
David Hammons, ‘Five Decades’
15 March – 27 May
Formerly L&M Arts, the Upper East Side Mnuchin Gallery staged several solo exhibitions with the notoriously illusive and selective David Hammons before deciding to present this relatively small yet powerful retrospective – the first of its kind since MoMA PS1 mounted ‘Rousing the Rubble’ in 1990.
The exhibition positions more recognizable works like In The Hood (1993), Smoke Screen (1990-5) and Spade (Power for the Spade) (1969), alongside photographs from the artist’s personal collection, shown publicly here for the first time and set to a soundtrack of traditional Japanese court music. The poignant selections are installed in an eccentric manner that doesn’t aim to totalize or over-define Hammons, whose Untitled paintings and sculptures from the last three years are evidence that, almost half a century after the likes of Spade were realized, there is no sign of waning creativity.
By Bunny Rogers
Looney Tunes, ‘A Witch's Tangled Hare’, 1959. Courtesy the artist
As part of an ongoing series, Bunny Rogers presents a series of images that are important to her. A new image will be posted every day this week.
The Bugs Bunny soup trope
Bugs Bunny is a highly sought after and presumably delicious animal. He has a great personality, can make light of any situation, is lean and supple, and knows when to show vulnerability.
One of the most popular ways in which predators attempt to catch Bugs is to trick him into thinking he’s taking a bath, when he is actually in a hot soup-pot. The whole process of Bugs testing the water, sinking into the ‘tub’, enjoying himself, sometimes washing himself, slowly realizing the water is getting hotter and hotter and then taking in the appetizing smell is the closest we come to seeing him get fucked on screen.
Episodes in which Bugs Bunny gets in a soup pot:
‘Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt’ (1941)
‘Wackiki Wabbit’ (1943)
‘What’s Cookin’ Doc?’ (1943)
‘Hare Tonic’ (1945)
‘Which is Witch?’ (1949)
‘French Rarebit’ (1951)
‘Bewitched Bunny’ (1954)
‘Bedevilled Rabbit’ (1957)
‘A Witch’s Tangled Hare’ (1959)
‘Bill of Hare’ (1962)
(Side note: in My Little Pony, season 3, episode 13, ‘Magical Mystery Cure’, Rainbow Dash is tied up and put into a cauldron for stew.)
Peter Pan, 1953
A seagull lands on Hook’s hot-toweled face as if to roost. Mr. Smee accidentally prepares and shaves the seagull’s bottom instead of Hook’s face. The seagull appears mortified and tries to hide its nakedness as it flies away.
Felicity pulls a magic ribbon from her bracelet to replace Lisa’s broken shoelace
Wee Sing in the Big Rock Candy Mountains, 1991
The ‘Big Rock Candy Mountains’ are the fully realized dreamscape of a fourth-grader named Lisa. The gatekeepers are interactive, living stuffed toys (plushies) who direct Lisa to keep doing what she’s doing, only different.
Not through the power of believing ‘hard enough’, but through activating internally understood secret codes does Lisa find an escape route from her stationary backyard playset to something much more elaborate. The mountains are a physical backdrop befitting all of her best friends and all of her favourite things: a land where ‘you never change your socks’. It is Lisa’s self-reflexive world, nourished by self-replenishing bushes and endless sun.
Big Rock’s Lisa (‘Sad Lisa’; ‘Lisa Bright and Dark’) proves that private domains and imaginary friends are indistinguishable from their real world counterparts, and can be visited with the slight twist of a dial.
The Turbine Hall at Tate Modern, London. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons; photograph: Hans Peter Schaefer
Team Gallery closes its Wooster Street space, Tate Modern’s visitor figures drop and Galerie Perrotin plans a new branch: a round-up of the latest art news
By Pablo Helguera
A new illustration from Pablo Helguera
By Yuri Pattison
The illustration displayed on Google's 404 page. Courtesy the artist
In an ongoing series, frieze invites artists to present a series of images that are important to them. This week London-based artist Yuri Pattison shares his selection. A new image will be posted each day this week.
This sketch of a robot dates back to 2011, a time when internet error pages were far more common, and it still exists on Google’s 404 pages despite the company’s recent rebrand.
Of all the corporate characters in existence, I find this seldom seen error mascot the most relatable. Whimsically forlorn, we are meant to forgive both the broken robot and, by association, the corporate giant employing it, for not serving us with the information we requested. This manipulative anthropomorphism is a welcome reminder that my relationship with companies such as Google feels a bit cracked and incomplete.
As the robot says: ‘That’s an error. That’s all we know.’
Yuri Pattison, http://www.kxol.com.au/images/pale_blue_dot.jpg <– sums it up for me, 2013. Courtesy the artist
‘The Pale Blue Dot’
‘The Pale Blue Dot’ is a digital image that was taken at the request of astronomer Carl Sagan by Voyager 1 on 14 February 1990 as the spacecraft left our solar system. The image can be viewed as a sequel to the more famous ‘Blue Marble’ photograph that was taken in 1972, a more idealized rendering of the earth that, with the space race drawing to a close, had proved a powerful marketing tool for NASA.
In contrast to the clarity of Blue Marble, the earth of the Pale Blue Dot only occupies a fraction of one pixel and is obscured by one of three lens flare bands; its sheer lack of resolution renders it an abstract, celestial body.
In 2010, 20 years after the image was taken, Chelsea Manning linked to a URL of the image in order to explain her own justification for leaking classified US military documents to Wikileaks in an encrypted IRC conversation with hacker Adrian Lamo. She wrote: ‘http://www.kxol.com.au/images/pale_blue_dot.jpg <– sums it up for me’.
In a betrayal of Manning’s trust, Lamo turned the chat logs of their conversations over to the US Government, and they eventually became public record after they were used as evidence in the trial against her.
My own (in)version of the Pale Blue Dot now resides on the exact URL that Manning linked to.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Alchemist, 1558
While working on a new piece with Eric Mu, an employee of a Chinese Bitcoin startup who had recently opened a new ‘mining’ facility in remote Kangding, Tibet, the topic of alchemy came up in our email correspondence. The deeper I fell into the topic the more I felt Bitcoin had become the latest technology mired by so-called experts and evangelists. Any ‘open’ or ‘democratic’ features the invention promised had become subsumed by greed and effectively blackboxed – there seemed no way in for the unassisted layman user.
The images and videos Eric was sending me of the Tibetan facility – a hastily constructed warehouse in a lush mountainous valley, housing a hyper-specialized data centre – told a different story. Within brick outbuildings the latest generation of Bitcoin computers were being serviced and hacked with improvised tools on tables that were decades old. They were then transported into the facility using a traditional wooden wheelbarrow. These images stood in stark contrast to the startup’s slick, ‘stock’ image heavy website, but at the same time it was a contradiction that the company seemed happy to publicly embrace.
At this time I had recently returned to Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Alchemist (1558), an image from a different time, a different world, but one that similarly seemed to reconcile this confluence of the past, the present and the promised future.
A poster for MIThenge, designed by Thomas K. Norton in 1975. Courtesy MIT Libraries
The sunset ritual known as MIThenge occurs twice a year at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in mid-November and late January. The event celebrates the moment at which the sun aligns with the university’s longest corridor – the ‘Infinite Corridor’ – a phenomenon first discovered in the 1970s by an architecture research student named Thomas K. Norton.
This poster – which was designed by Norton in 1975 – draws parallels between the Infinite Corridor and other historic structures that, whether by design or chance, align with the Sun in a similar way. It also appears to use the silhouette of Stonehenge in rural Britain to emphasize the sense of occasion. It is this non-scientific mixing of facts that I love about this poster, and it led me to ask current MIT students to film the event on my behalf, which they did last January.
MIThenge still manages draws a pretty big crowd, with a mix of students and professors pressing up against the walls of the corridor in anticipation of the Sun’s rays slowly tracing along the highly polished linoleum floors. (To avoid disappointment, please note: due to global warming, the November event is now usually blocked by leaves remaining on the tress outside the building.)
A doodle created on 31 January, 2008, to commemorate The Pirate Bay reaching 2.5 million registered users
The Pirate Bay’s commemorative doodle, 2008
Similar in format to the better-known ‘Google Doodles’, this temporary logo was featured on the homepage of file sharing website The Pirate Bay in January of 2008, a year before the founders were found guilty of assisting in copyright infringement in Sweden. The doodle was anonymously created to celebrate: ‘10 million peers. 1 million torrents. 2.5 million registered users. 100 blog entries. Jubilee!’
The image is a tropical-themed rendering of what a physical Pirate Bay might look like, with cultural references and important events in the site’s history scrawled upon the island’s landscape. For instance: the Grave of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), the Fall of MediaDefender, Mount Sharemore and Sealand (a World War Two sea fort off the coast of Suffolk that Pirate Bay claimed to be purchasing in 2007).
This map concisely records Pirate Bay’s activities up until 2008, the lifestyle adopted by the site’s founders and users, and the front-line role that the website played in re-organizing how digital culture is produced and shared. Tiny but enigmatic, the image reminds me of a war tapestry, which is maybe why I’ve always kept a copy on my desktop.
The National Debt Clock, New York, 2016, HD video still. Courtesy the artist; cinematography: Hideki Shiota
The National Debt Clock, New York
The National Debt Clock sits roughly half a block from the advertising billboards and video displays of Times Square, New York. In 1989, the original model was gifted to the people of Manhattan by Seymour Durst (philanthropist, multi-millionaire property magnate and father of the infamous Robert) in an attempt to educate the voting public about the issue of rising national debt.
Since Durst’s death in 1995, his family has kept the clock running to an annoyingly meticulous degree, even turning it off between 2000 and 2002 to acknowledge the rare period of declining debt. In 2004, a new clock was installed. Within four years it reportedly ran out of digits as the country’s debt approached the USD$10 trillion mark.
Last summer I stood beneath the clock considering how, as a physical representation of the current economic climate, it is almost perfect: illuminated digits endlessly ticking skyward, depicting figures once thought of as astronomical. Out of all of my visits to America, it’s the only sign I’ve seen that’s not trying to sell something.
The Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Georgia. Courtesy the artist
The Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Georgia
This is a quick iPhone photo I took outside the Crypt of Civilization at Oglethorpe University, Atlanta, Georgia. I made the pilgrimage to the Crypt this time last year with my partner Cécile and our friend Victoria, who had recently moved to the city.
The Crypt was initiated by Thornwall Jacobs and is acknowledged as the ‘first successful attempt to bury a record of this culture for any future inhabitants or visitors to the planet Earth.’ by the Guinness Book of Records (1990). It is noted as popularizing the ‘time capsule’ phenomenon.
Jacobs, the president of Oglethorpe (1915–43), had previously worked in advertising and the time capsule was a marketing ploy to rejuvenate the University. Inspired by recent discoveries from ancient Egypt (including the tomb of King Tut) he set the suggested future unsealing date of the Crypt to 8113 CE – a date calculated using the Egyptian calendar – and canvassed the public for suggestions for its contents.
Today, just as when it was sealed in 1936, the Crypt sits in the basement corridor of the Gothic revival campus, which is now in use as extra classroom space. Stacks of spare chairs from the language department sit beside an art deco stainless steel handle-less door sealing the crypt. A plaque on the door, some casual signage and a few framed photographs are the only clues to the contents or purpose of the room.
One of these framed photos is an image I had encountered many times online while looking for information on the crypt. Much clearer in its original printed form, the image is the only known depiction of the room’s contents shortly before it was sealed. We had travelled pretty far but this is as close as we would get to seeing The Crypt of Civilization.
By Jonathan P. Watts, Harriet Blaise Mitchell and Anna Churcher Clarke
The Merz Barn c.1953. All images courtesy Littoral Arts Trust; photograph: Sprengel Museum Archive
One hundred years since the birth of dada, what does the future hold for Kurt Schwitters’s Merz Barn in Cumbria?
November 18, 2015. Rain-flecked mobile phone footage on YouTube follows the cascades of Aira Force in the Lake District in the north-west of England. This typically picturesque waterfall, which makes cameo appearances in several of William Wordsworth’s poems, looks as if it might sweep away the bridge below. It’s one of the wettest and warmest British winters on record. Just over a month later, on the London Review of Books blog, Huw Lemmey writes of treading carefully across a bridge at the top of the falls. He recognizes Aira as a symbol of the convergence of austerity, negligence and an outmoded attachment to a romanticized rural ideal that enabled Storms Desmond and Eva – unhelpfully anthropomorphized by the Met Office as a benign elderly couple – to wreak widespread havoc across the region throughout December (‘In Cumbria’, 30 December 2015).
Local MPs Tim Farron and Rory Stewart were, Lemmey notes, quick to don their wellies and ‘strike heroic poses’ in reconstruction work. Yet both oppose allowing increased upland vegetation growth and reforestation, measures which, argues Lemmey – citing an experiment by the Forestry Commission, United Utilities and the National Trust in a nearby part of Cumbria – would have helped lessen the surge of flood water which hit towns.
Kurt Schwitters and Hilde Goldstein outside the Merz Barn, c.1946. Photograph © K und E Schwitters Stiftung, Hanover
‘Farron and Stewart’s opposition lies in the obsession with maintaining a very specific idea of “nature” in the Lake District: an idea stuck in the 19th century, when the bare uplands had been thoroughly degraded by sheep farming’, says Lemmey. Stewart’s dismissal of the scientific management of upland areas is based on an, ‘outdated caricature of Cumbrianness’ – an evocation of tradition that masks the subsidy-dependence that shaped upland farming. Romantic visions, Lemmey concludes, may be best left to poetry and museums, such as Wordsworth House museum in Cockermouth, which, due to flood damage, has been closed since December (it is set to reopen later this month).
The Lake District national park is one of the country’s leading tourist attractions. At the end of January, David Cameron announced a GBP£2 million fund to repair infrastructure in the national park damaged by the December storms. Highlighting the region’s nationally important cultural and heritage sites, he pledged a further GBP£1 million for a PR campaign to persuade tourists to visit the north of England during the Easter holidays (sums deemed ‘totally inadequate’ by the Labour leader of Cumbria County Council).
Less than 20 miles south of Aira Force, it remains to be seen whether the site of Kurt Schwitters’s Merz Barn on the Cylinders Estate in Langdale will be ready to reopen by Easter. The site is strewn with trees downed in December. During the worst of the storms, all of the barn’s windows were broken, including a skylight, which led to flooding, and an adjoining wall partly collapsed when a spring opened in the bank behind it. Time is running out. Littoral Arts Trust, who own and manage the site, recently wrote a letter inviting David and Samantha Cameron to visit the Merz Barn when they do their bit for the local economy by holidaying in the Lake District later next month. How does the legacy of Schwitters speak to a convergence of austerity, negligence and romanticism specific to the Lake District?
Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbau, Hanover, 1932 Photograph: Kurt Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum, Hanover
It was Schwitters’s encounter with the Berlin dadaists, particularly Hans Arp, Raoul Hausmann, and Hannah Höch, in 1918 that influenced the ‘Merz’ collages he is best known for today. Consisting of discarded scraps of paper and objects, ‘Merz’, the second syllable of the word ‘Commerz’, was appropriated from a found fragment of text, in full ’Commerz und Privatbank’, that Schwitters used in a collage of 1919. Semantically bound to commerce, ‘Merz’ revalued the detritus of capitalism, while retaining, for Schwitters, an obscene sense of the word ‘shit’. ‘Merz’ became a prefix for many projects, including his Merzbauten, the most significant of which he began constructing in his parents’ Hanover house in 1932. Like a living organism, the sculptural installation grew month by month, incorporating found objects in its many chambers, until it broke through a skylight, exceeding the limits of its host structure. When Schwitters’ art was included in the Nazi ‘Entartete Kunst’ (Degenerate Art Exhibition) in 1936 (ironically, one of the most important exhibitions of continental avant garde art), he fled to Lysaker, near Olso, where he began work on a new Merzbau. When the Nazis invaded Norway, Schwitters fled again, to Scotland, only to be held as a refugee in various internment camps around the British Isles. Following the war, and a brief period in London, he moved to the Lake District where, in 1947, he began his last Merzbau. In 1936 the Hanover Merzbau had been destroyed in a bombing raid; in 1951 the Merzbau in Lysaker was destroyed by a fire. This, the ‘Elterwater Merz Barn’ as it’s sometimes known, would be his enduring legacy.
Asked what will happen if emergency repairs are not undertaken, Ian Hunter, the director of Littoral, explained that the barn will continue to deteriorate and the end wall of the building is likely to collapse. The Merz Barn project has, in the past, received substantial funding from the Arts Council. It’s also been the recipient of a lot of good will. In 2006, an auction of works donated by renowned international artists – among them Tacita Dean, Damien Hirst and Bridget Riley – enabled the trust to purchase the site. At this particular time the Arts Council maintains that its remit is not to fund restoration work. ‘We are,’ Hunter told A-N magazine recently, ‘obviously exploring other fundraising options including crowd sourcing and the possibility of some funding from the Cumbrian flood relief scheme. This is now rather unlikely, as it is only for farmers and local businesses.’
Kurt Schwitters, The Merz Barn installation in situ. Photograph: Ernst Schwitters. © Kurt und Ernst Schwitters Archive, Sprengel Museum, Hanover
The exasperated strains of Littoral’s recent press release announcing an international ‘Save the Merz Barn campaign’ lists the many doors already closed to the organization. They’ve even invested their own money: last year the trust’s co-chair, Celia Larner, sold off part of her home to pay for the cost of repairs and damage caused by storms the previous Christmas and New Year. As the press release asks: Are we really willing, in the year of dada’s centenary celebrations and the opening of Tate Modern’s GBP£260 million extension, to let Britain’s only dada-inspired architectural experiment crumble into dust? When Tate Britain politely ‘brushed-off’ Littoral’s appeals, Littoral approached Glen Lowry, current director of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, asking them to support, or even take ownership of, the site. In 1947 MoMA granted Schwitters USD$1,000 to commence work on this his last of four Merzbauten, which remained unfinished when he died the following year. Why will no one now help restore the last standing Merzbau?
We were all involved with Littoral and the Merz Barn for overlapping periods between 2006 and 2008. Our engagement with the project was brief, perhaps 18 months in total – at turns intensely inspiring and intensely frustrating. At the end of summer 2008, the relationship came to an abrupt end, just as Northern Rock customers were beginning to queue anxiously at branches across the UK to draw out their life savings. Littoral, presumably anxious about how the recession might affect them, withdrew their funding for a summer school project we’d spent the past year devising. None of us was a particular Schwitters aficionado. Instead, the Merz Barn was a point of departure for, in the spirit of the German refugee’s boundary-crossing work, our shared interests in socially-engaged art (particularly outside of London), anthropology, material culture, sound art and oral culture.
Ian Hunter, the director of Littoral Arts Trust, and Celia Larner, the Trust’s co-chair, inspect the December storm damage at the Merz Barn.
The period we were involved was charged by a powerful sense of possibility. It might have been youthful élan, the forging of peer relationships in the uncertain period after university, lack of responsibility, lack of monetary drive – or even the straitened economic reality we still endure, eight years on. A sense of serious play underlined everything that went on at the Merz Barn. And the power of the absurd: we were captivated by a story of the late jazz singer George Melly frightening away muggers (or was it Black Shirts?) by bellowing Schwitters’s nonsense poem Ursonate (1922–32). We identified with Black Mountain College and a tradition of radical pedagogy then being explored by, for instance, PLATFORM, a London-based arts organization campaigning for social justice and ecological awareness.
For the First International Kurt Schwitters Autumn School, in 2007, Littoral gathered an eccentric array of art historians, experimental musicians, poets and artists in a programme that included a conference, exhibitions, performances and a community radio station devoted to Schwitters in England. Ursonate was performed at the Conservative club in the local town, Ambleside (a purposeful provocation). At the Cylinders Estate, by the Merz Barn, Rosanna Raymond performed traditional Maori songs by firelight. Florian Kaplick, a leading expert on Schwitters’s sound poetry, found a clearing and led a group recital of passages from the Ursonate. To this day we can still recite those passages – a testament to a kinaesthetic model of learning fundamental to the activities around the Merz Barn. It was chaotic and beguiling.
The Merz Barn, December 2015
Schwitters is an unlikely figure in a landscape dominated by the tradition of romanticized rural idealism identified by Lemmey. The artist’s work is evasive. It’s an evasiveness at the very heart of the Merz Barn: in 1966, Richard Hamilton, with the help of a fine art student at Newcastle University, Fred Brookes, relocated the entire barn wall, clad by Schwitters’s sculptural relief, to the Hatton Gallery in Newcastle. Since then Cylinders has been a place where Schwitters’s relief – to some extent, the Merz Barn’s defining characteristic – was straining the relation between site, heritage and authenticity. Where is the Merz Barn? Where it is materially located or where it is performed? We felt the barn was a pretext for everything else that happened on the site. It seems like there are more fundamental questions about what the function of the site should be. Should it be a contemporary art institution? Or is it a site for the study of art history? It certainly isn’t a museum. If Littoral should one day realize their obsession with making it into a functioning visitors’ centre, perhaps the sculptural relief removed by Hamilton and Brookes should be returned to its original site?
When Schwitters finally settled at Cylinders he spent a significant amount of time in Ambleside and Elterwater. We met locals who regarded him as a great character: someone who, when necessary, suspended his avant-garde activity to produce Sunday-painter portraits and landscape scenes for money. The Cumbria Merz Barn was a place of refuge for an artist in exile from the Nazis, who regarded him degenerate. Britain has an admirable history of receiving refugees, not just from Germany, but numerous conflicts including the Spanish civil war and, today, amid much contestation, limited numbers of Syrians. Schwitters’s work sought to transgress boundaries of all kinds. As Europe erects borders the Merz Barn’s meaning changes once more.
Volunteers, friends and members of the Littoral Arts Trust at the Merz Barn
Each of us spent time in Cumbria and Yorkshire (also affected by the winter storms) over the Christmas holidays, and felt a shared sense of bewilderment and anger at the ignorance and misrepresentation of Storms Desmond and Eva’s effects by London-based newspapers. These ‘once in a lifetime’ floods have become three times in a lifetime floods, and counting. Let’s help Littoral receive the Camerons this Easter. Who can say what might happen?
By Paul Clinton
Dexter Sinister, diagram showing statement of intent for the Serving Library Company Inc., 2010. Courtesy Serving Library, New York.
The autonomist Marxism of Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, the paranoia of American politics and the subversive potential of the selfie: a round-up of the best things we’ve read online this week
By Orit Gat
Holograms of protesters in front of Gyeongbokgung Palace, Seoul, South Korea, on 24 February, 2016. Courtesy: AP/Press Association Images; photograph: Lee Jin-man
They gather in front of the old royal palace on Gwanghwamun Square, a public plaza in central Seoul demarcated as a demonstration-free zone. They’re here to protest the South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s increasingly draconian measures against free speech, but they’re not breaking the rules because there’s no one to arrest: the chanting characters are projections marching across a transparent screen.
This is a hologram demonstration; it was organized by Amnesty International following a similar event that took place in Madrid last year. It’s a response to laws prohibiting the freedom of assembly, an attempt to simultaneously visualize the potential consequences of such bans and to resist them: the presence of demonstrators and their absence at once. The silhouettes of the 120 people who modelled for the projection are slightly larger than life-size. A few dozen people surround them – journalists, police officers, bystanders, organizers. They’re all there to watch.
This is the image of disembodied resistance, the purple proxies pointing to some haunting future. The humanoid demonstrators have been called ‘ghosts’ in the media, but looking at them feels comfortably distant. Remote viewing is safer than real life assembly, but these apparitions seem flimsy – more apparition than manifestation; meant for eyes, not ears.
It seems intentional: the holograms’ cyan tone transfers beautifully to the display of a computer screen. The frozen images travel past local politics, leaving behind them that always-spine-chilling realization: we live in very strange times.
By Luiza Teixeira de Freitas and Claudia Segura
Dahn Vō, 'Banish the Faceless / Reward your Grace', 2015–16, exhibition view, Palacio de Cristal, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid. Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; photograph: Joaquín Cortés / Román Lores
Coinciding with the 35th ARCO art fair in Madrid, a rundown of the city’s highlights
In the last week of February, Madrid celebrated the 35th anniversary of its art fair ARCO with a range of art exhibitions, events, book launches, talks and parties. Definitely noteworthy was the series of site-specific solo presentations, ‘Año 35. Madrid’, that curator Javier Hontoria organized in some of the city’s most iconic civic spaces. These include Rogelio López Cuenca’s ‘Accessories’ at the National Museum of Anthropology, which comprises headless mannequins interspersed among the vitrines – they are dressed in different outfits (such as maids, waiters, soldiers, construction workers), in a reference to Madrid’s ongoing struggle with social changes and problems. Works by Khalil Rabah exploring the tension between reality and fiction, globalization and his Arabic heritage are displayed at Casa Árabe, including his nomadic institution the Palestinian Museum of Natural History and Humankind. Brazilian artist Adriano Amaral responded to the powerful architectural elements of Tabacalera Estudios – old showers, sinks and damp rooms – to explore materials and their capacity for meaning to shift with form and function.
Maria Loboda, ‘The Ngombo’, 2016, digital impression on Hahnemühle cotton paper, 76 × 61 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Maisterravalbuena gallery, Madrid; photograph: Roberto Ruiz
Not far from Tabacalera Estudios is the Calle del Doctor Fourquet, a street full of commercial galleries. Maria Loboda’s exhibition at Maisterravalbuena, ‘DOMESTIC AFFAIRS AND DEATH’, explores the intertwining of relationships and the domestic sphere. Different groups of works explore the private, the public – and death. The show included a series of photographs, ‘The Ngombo’ (2016), which depict objects that have spilled from anonymous women’s open bags: car keys, make-up mirrors, painkillers and other personal items, all mixed in with chicken bones and feathers. The title translates as ‘shaking up the divination basket’ in the language of the Chokwe people of Central Africa and reflects the idea that our bags carry not only our personal objects but also all our secrets. Other works included a bottle of good wine, representing celebration – but filled with 27 sleeping pills.
Jorge Méndez Blake, Other Literature, 2015, Ediciones MP (Manufacturados en Papel)
The week also celebrated various new artist books. Jorge Méndez Blake, a Mexican artist who explores ideas around literature and writing, had a signing for Other Literature, which he published with the young Mexican publisher Ediciones MP. Mateo López’s XYZ was launched at the home of the collector Juan Varez – each edition includes a unique paper sculpture by the artist – and Colombian artist José António Suarez Londono, best known for his obsessively detailed drawings that illustrate imaginative stories, launched Pages from a Drawing Book.
Hito Steyerl, ‘Duty-Free Art’, 2015–16, installation view, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid. Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; photograph: Joaquín Cortés / Román Lores
To view all 13 works in Hito Steyerl’s exhibition ‘Duty Free Art’ at Museo Reina Sofía, would take at least six hours. Steyerl is analyzing how we both live and view art today; according to her, rather than creating a critical mass we’ve simply become passive consumers. Her work speaks about communication, the dissemination of information and the potential of images to narrate ideas. In conveying all of this, the exhibition was successful; it reflects the frenetic and often virtual character of much contemporary life.
Dahn Vō, ‘Banish the Faceless / Reward your Grace’, 2015–16, exhibition view, Palacio de Cristal, Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid. Courtesy: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía; photograph: Joaquín Cortés / Román Lores
The highlights of the week, however, are in Reina Sofía’s off-site venues, Palacio de Cristal and Palacio Velazquez, in El Retiro, Madrid’s largest park. For his show in the Palacio de Cristal, ‘Banish the Faceless / Reward your Grace’ (the title is taken from Nico’s song ‘Afraid’, 1970), Dahn Vō’s has placed various objects throughout the impressive glass building, creating several intertwining stories. These include a photograph from the first spacewalk, a 19th century ivory Christ, an empty milk carton, a farewell letter written by a French missionary in Vietnam before being executed – that was transcribed by Vō’s father’s Phung Vo, who can’t speak French – and a number of mammoth fossils. Impressively blending into the landscape of the park that can be seen through the glass structure, these fossils, which are suspended from the ceiling, recall both tree branches and 19th century museum display, when skeletons were often hung from the ceilings. The weight of history that Vō explores seems lighter in such an environment; as if time has been paralyzed in space.
Andrzej Wróblewski, Execution Against a Wall, 1949, oil on canvas, 119 × 85 cm. Courtesy: Muzeum Wojska Polskiego, Warsaw
Palacio Velazquez is host to Polish artist Andrzej Wróblewski’s solo show, ‘Recto/Verso’. Despite the artist’s premature death at the age of 29, Wróblewski is a key figure for the Eastern European art of the 1950s. His prolific body of work is characterized by his double-sided paintings, which are often exhibited one side at a time. This display (which also includes his sculptures) affords a rare opportunity to see both sides of his paintings at once. Double-sidedness was at the heart of the artist’s work – an experiment that challenged and embodies many of the basic tenets of modern art.
Mateo López, XYZ, 2015, S/W Ediciones
Despite the long shadow of tremendous financial, political and social crises, Madrid’s art and culture scene is vibrant and vital. In fact, there’s so much going on, it’s hard to assimilate everything in only a few days – and still have time for a pit stop at the Prado.