(I put on a happy face for that picture. I'm actually fed up today.)
Tuesday, 13 January 2009
(I put on a happy face for that picture. I'm actually fed up today.)
Tuesday, 7 October 2008
Tuesday, 26 August 2008
Wednesday, 18 June 2008
I've recently hung two pictures on my bedroom wall, both of which are by Maria Lassnig. Although a massive fan of this artist now, I had never even heard of her until I headed to The Serpentine Gallery one sunny Saturday in May to see the exhibition that had just opened. On my way to the gallery, I learned that she was an Austrian feminist avant-garde painter, but I had no real idea of what to expect from the exhibition. I certainly didn't imagine that within moments of arriving at the gallery I'd be utterly fixated by the work that was on display...
I'm not qualified to talk about the formal aspects of Lassnig's work, or to situate it within an art historical framework. But her paintings grabbed me almost instantly: they were big, bold, bright pieces that had me staring for ages as I got lost in the game of trying to grasp what was being suggested, and lost in my own thoughts about why the pictures were appealing to me so much. With each painting, I wanted to move on to see more to try and understand how the images worked together, but at the same time, I couldn't bear to move on, as that would mean taking my eyes off the painting I was admiring at the time. My visit consisted of moving on, then returning my gaze to paintings I'd already seen, as I tried to put my finger on exactly what it was about the art that had arrested my imagination.
Maria Lassnig was born in 1919, and although she's painted all her life, it seems that it's taken most of the world a long time to notice her talent: this was the first exhibition of her work in Britain, at least. Now almost ninety years old, she has finally found her work being appreciated widely for its thought, skill and depth, in an art world where well-developed aesthetics are frequently overlooked in favour of arguably more shallow efforts whose sole purpose often appears to be narcissistically promoting and overvaluing itself, and grabbing headlines for perhaps the wrong reasons.
Indeed, rather than relying on pure shock and awe to attract attention, Maria Lassnig's work benefits from the secure self-assuredness and strength of character that comes with experience and maturity. Is her output today the result of years of being overlooked and feeling frustrated? Perhaps, to some extent, but I feel on reflection that the paintings actually portray dominance rather than frustration: dominance of painting and drawing techniques, an understanding of her deeper feelings, and confidence that her work can give the art world something slightly different and wholly refreshing. There was an air of triumph and self-belief on display at the exhibition. For a woman in her eighties to paint a self-portrait in which she sits naked, legs apart, flesh sagging, holding one gun to her head and another pointed straight at the viewer, saying "Du oder Ich" ("You or me"), is a clear statement that she is not afraid of or unused to confrontation and challenge, and that she is well-equipped to deal with both. As she says herself: "Embarrassment is a challenge; I want to paint things that are uncomfortable."
One of the videos on show at The Serpentine exhibition was Lassnig's sometimes sad, often humorous, autobiographical song, "Kantate" ("Cantata"). Here she tells the tale of how she "failed" to become the things that society seemed to want her to become: she "failed" to become a wife, or a teacher, or a successful follower of the latest trends in art, yet she succeeded instead in finding happiness through a true love and appreciation of art. Indeed, she is by no means a failure: even if she "failed" to become a teacher who taught the male students how to conquer the art world, she succeeded in conquering the art world herself and eventually became the first woman in Austria to be offered a professorship in painting at the Academy for Applied Arts in Vienna. And even if she "failed" to find a companion for life, she succeeded in finding happiness and satisfaction through other means ("Instead of love, these days I watch TV," she jokes in the song). The fact that art has given her all that she needs to fill any existential void is apparent from her paintings.
Lassnig's success in conquering adversity with good-humour, flair and skill was evident at the exhibition, which showed the variety and depth of a talent that has been developed over six or seven decades of going against the grain and taking pride in being different and original, in spite of any inevitable and lazy criticisms that may have come her way. Importantly, however, it should be pointed out that most of the paintings on display were produced over the past few years. Rather than presenting a retrospective of her work, the curators exhibited paintings that revealed just how full of energy and excitement the octogenarian and her work still are today. There were canvases with beautiful bright, bold colours and dysmorphic abstractions, darker paintings where sinister plastic sheeting came into play, portraits of disgusting men destroying the world or dominating women narcissistically, remarkably tender and warm images of couples in love, and some surreal self-portraits.
By "self-portrait", here I mean that Lassnig is clearly the person depicted in the paintings. However, the artist herself deems all of her painting to be self-portraiture, due to how involved she becomes, both physically and emotionally, with the process of painting. "Körperbilder" ("body awareness painting") is the label that has been applied to her technique. Lassnig says she tries to feel rather than see when she paints, and in addition to sometimes painting with her eyes shut, she chooses to paint in interesting positions, such as lying on her side. In this way, she subjects her body to different, sometimes uncomfortable, sensations, as she attempts to represent her internal feelings and a subjective reality rather than an objective, external world.
Of course, on the face of it, such a goal may not sound particularly new when compared with other art produced since the introduction of the camera. From Cubism onwards, various movements have sought to "rescue" art from the camera's gaze. Lassnig makes her own tongue-in-cheek contribution to the debate surrounding the relative merits of painting and photography in "Fotografie gegen Malerei" ("Photography against painting"), where a "grotesque" head with a rather cheeky, comical smile is placed on the end of the artist's paintbrush, as it faces up to a rather more serious-looking camera. Robert Storr has praised this piece for its ability to poke fun so deftly at the whole tired argument surrounding photography and painting, and I agree that humour is key here. Whatever we may think about painting and photography, the debate is almost suspended with this picture, which gives us something so enjoyable and entertaining to look at, that arguing over "Which is best?" seems rather trivial. Indeed, there is pleasure to be gained from the humour in so many of Lassnig's paintings, as she draws on her wisdom to gracefully put opinions and attitudes in perspective and in their place.
Humour, imagination and the search for new forms of representation can be found throughout the history of the avant-garde, and Lassnig joins this tradition while bringing her own vision to the table. While her technique and aesthetic direction can lead to rather surreal images at times, I personally wouldn't confuse her approach with surrealist techniques that try to reveal the hidden desires of the subconscious mind: the guiding principle of Lassnig's work is to focus on body sensations and represent the images that are produced by these physical impressions. As I understand it, she prefers to focus intensely on her conscious feelings and draw from these sensations, rather than trying expressly to tap into and represent her subconscious needs and desires (I don't believe that it is possible to ignore the subconscious completely, but it is clear that some forms of art put all of their emphasis on exploring the subconscious while others choose to focus elsewhere). Lassnig says the following about her technique and the philosophy behind it:
"I confront the canvas as if naked, devoid of intention, devoid of a plan, without a model, without photography, and I let things happen. I do work from a starting point, though, rooted in the insight that the only real things are the feelings unfolding within the shell that is my body: psychological sensations, a feeling of pressure when sitting or lying, feelings of tension and spatial expansion - aspects that are difficult to put onto canvas."
"Reality" is a personal image: the body is a prism which collects experiences through the senses, and these experiences are then interpreted according to the emotional makeup of the individual who is the subject of the experiences. We all see the world in a slightly different light to the next person. That is how I interpret her pronouncements on representational techniques, at least, and this is an aspect of her work which I find particularly interesting. Through shared signs - language in particular - the nuances of personal experience risk being sacrificed in order to guarantee intelligible communication. Language, at least when used conventionally, can often fail to represent our true feelings: as a shared set of signs, it possesses nothing that is unique to the individual, and as a logical game, it tends to lend itself more readily to the objective and the concrete than to the blur and confusion of body sensations and the subsequent emotional experiences (of course, I'm not for a minute suggesting here that language can't be used creatively to try to overcome its conventional shortcomings, but rather investigating the question of why Lassnig views painting as being potentially a superior form of communication).
This issue of language and communication made an explicit appearance at the exhibition in "Sprachgitter" ("Language Grid"), where the woman depicted appears to be almost like a cyborg: approximate to a living being, but missing something vital. The head of the woman is connected to a body that has been modified with nodes and a grid. The facial expression evokes strong feelings of empathy in the viewer as they look at a body that seems to have been robbed of its ability to express its emotions. Perhaps Lassnig's conceit here is that while we may be able to create messages which approximate experience using language, there is always something missing: the vitality of our experience cannot be fully expressed using this tool.
As Lassnig says, she tries to represent "aspects that are difficult to put onto canvas": as she paints, she is trying to find a new language to represent her own reality. Emotions are perhaps the only true reality, and purely mimetic modes of representation don't appear to be capable of representing the mystery and wonder of what goes on when we cross into the sometimes bewildering realm of subtlety and ambiguity. Perhaps it was this attempt to represent something deeper and more challenging that had me staring at the paintings for so long when I first saw them. Maria Lassnig's paintings have the virtue of presenting confusion, uncertainty and awkwardness as a wholly interesting, and often joyful, experience.
Indeed, with her mature aesthetic and well-developed theory of representation, Maria has joined the group of artists whose work is relevant to my own inquisitions on the topics of broken mirrors, disfigured emotions and twisted realities... When the metaphorical mirror breaks, what happens to our picture of reality? When illusion is shattered, how are we supposed to feel? And how can we hope to find answers to these questions without an adequate representational framework? Lassnig's work attempts to offer a new form of representation to help us try and tackle the more challenging questions in life.
Monday, 26 May 2008
<< There come times when life seems so boring and I find myself with nothing to do to pass the time until that blissful moment of sleep arrives. ... At best, my brain manages to process everything as nothing and connect it to nothing, leaving me with a feeling that there's nothing to life, no point in anything, not even death, which is probably just the same as life anyway, so we're doomed to boredom no matter what. ... This is all such bollocks, it really is. >>
A couple of years before discovering la nada as explored by Macedonio, nothing was being connected to nothing, and nothing was being stirred within the void.
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If you're lucky enough to find a point to life, then you instantly run the risk of impaling yourself on that very point.
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My life is far from boring and sleep is no longer an escape route.
Thursday, 17 April 2008
Jim has returned home from Manhattan ("home" is one of those nowhere towns where not much really happens), and he's clearly suffering from major depression. However, fortunately - and this could only really happen in a film - he manages to randomly meet (and have embarrassingly brief sex with) a very caring girl, Anika... She's a nurse, so he sees her again when he has to visit his brother in hospital (after his brother's second failed suicide attempt). And, what a surprise! She might just be the girl who's able to break through the dense darkness that prevents him from seeing any real reason to want to live...
The quote that summarises the plot nicely for me comes when Jim takes Anika (and her son) back home, on their "second date":
Anika: So, do you still live with your parents?
Jim: Yeah, but it's only temporary... I came home to have a nervous breakdown, but my brother beat me to it...
I don't think that there's anything particularly new that can be said about the absurdity of life, or how depressed people respond to what they understand to be a meaningless and useless existence: this has been explored over and over again by so many creative types over the ages - many of whom have their picture on Jim's bedroom wall. Anika looks at these pictures and seems saddened that people could be so unhappy. She cares about people, and she knows that happiness is important. One of the many touching moments in the film is when she turns up at Jim's house with a smile for one of his literary idols (William Burroughs?). Jim doesn't think it looks right - but Anika tells him that it's because he's not used to seeing the guy wearing a smile.
What stands out in this film is just how caring Jim's mother is, and just how caring Anika is. We learn very little about either woman over the course of the film, other than that they seem to have decided that their purpose in life, which will bring them happiness, is to work really hard at making the lives of others more comfortable. The mother is labelled a lunatic by virtually everyone, but she never seems to complain, and the love she has for her family is unending and wholly unconditional. Anika too is mad, as Jim tells her himself: why on earth would she want to hang out with a loser like him? On the flipside, Anika can't understand why on earth Jim would want to think like that.
Of course, using the magic of fiction and the movies, the writer uses the story to put a point across, and the ending is hardly a surprise. The tagline for the film is: "Change your outlook. Change your life." I don't need to say much else about the film, but this tagline is important...
Depression is a difficult topic, because when deep-rooted feelings and emotions are involved (not to mention suicide, murder, drug addiction, and other manifestations of mental and emotional damage), certain points of view can become taboo, mainly because they're unappealing to certain people. Having tousled with the question : "La vie: vaut-elle la peine d'être vécue?" since first reading Albert Camus over ten years ago, having suffered my own fair amount of terrible unhappiness and despair over the years, and having had more depressed friends than happy friends over the course of my life (birds of a feather...), I feel qualified to hold an opinion on the subject of depression. I disagree wholeheartedly that depression is a disease over which the patient has no control. I side with with Thomas Szász and others, and believe that depression is a choice. I know that this opinion upsets a lot of people, but I would like them to realise that the claim that depression is a disease is also no more than an opinion (and a remarkably profitable opinion, that you'll probably wish to back up by funding hundreds of "scientific" studies, if you're peddling anti-depressive drugs).
Whatever your take on depression, if you're interested in people, life, happiness and sadness, then you might well find Lonesome Jim to be a very moving film. There really are some wonderful people in the world (yes, there are some absolute ***** as well, and perhaps they outnumber the nice people, who's to say?), who work hard every day at making life better for everyone else. If you're one of the people who's ever felt guilty of taking such love for granted or of rejecting it in a fit of selfish self-pity, then you'd do well to watch this film in a dark cinema, because you might find that tears come to your eyes.
Tuesday, 18 March 2008
Oulipo is a writing group which defines itself by the constraints it imposes on the writers. An example of one of the most simple to understand Oulipian constraints is the lipogram, where a certain letter of the alphabet - commonly a vowel - is prohibited, and the writer must not use words which use that letter. There are also far more complicated constraints which can serve as structuring principles for the text: the text in the spotlight on Monday night was George Perec's La vie: mode d'emploi. This text is structured according to all manner of constraints: the basis is that it is about a house with 100 spaces, and each space is dealt with by a chapter. I don't claim to have read the book, nor would I expect to follow it very easily.
This first gathering took place at L'Institut Français in South Kensington, where both the bibliothèque and the stage were totally packed (the latter was overflowing, in fact, and M. Le Tellier had to place a table at the side of him in case he fell off the stage completely). There followed a highly interesting talk by David Bellos regarding the difficulties of translating a writer such as Perec, in which he himself put together a technically entertaining inquisition about whether the few mistakes regarding laterality (left and right) in Perec's novel were intentional, how to translate such obstacles, and whether his translations of the obstacles were valid. Perec, it seems, had self-confessed problems with laterality, or dichotomies of any sort (the audience laughed when even the Capulet / Montague dichotomy was listed).
After the talk by the translator, the Oulipians performed some wonderful bilingual readings of Perec's work. It was clear that they were thoroughly enjoying the event, and the audience was too. It was no surprise, then, that on Tuesday night the Calder Bookshop in Southwark began to fill up well before the show began. The atmosphere that the group of writers was creating was very warm and welcoming, and there was a definite sparkle to the way in which some of them spoke. Paul Fournel in particular, who presented the show and participated, was very entertaining . At the bookshop, the Oulipians read from an array of texts (generally their own work, although Fournel and Chapman read some of Queneau's Exercices de style). We were treated to a variety of poetic brilliance that made the time just fly by.
I've been interested in Oulipo for some years now, so getting the opportunity to share the same room as some of the Oulipians was a very pleasurable experience. On both nights, the writers managed to make the audience ignore their uncomfortable chairs and escape into a humorous and entertaining world of productive texts. Who knows when such a gathering will occur again, but anybody involved this time around will agree that the events were very special indeed.