Archive for April 13th, 2013

13 Rooms exhibition

On Thursday I went to the first publicly open day of this exhibition – see lots of information and videos at http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/13rooms/. It’s described as “performance art” and before going I didn’t understand that in almost all cases the artists have trained or sent training instructions for the work to be presented / interpreted by re-performers. There’s a video of one of the curators in which he describes it as “living sculpture”, which at first I found helpful but later made me very uncomfortable about the objectification of the people we stared at. If I think of it as theatre it suddenly switches to “acceptable”. Clearly I’m still sorting through impressions, and I’m in no particular hurry to find any kind of resolution. In this post I just want a brief record of some of what I saw.

biennale_19_do

Air and Inner, by Honore d’O

The exhibition is at Pier 2/3 – a wharf built in the early 1900s and in the short term operated as a cultural facility while redevelopment (still arts / creative purposes) is considered. Rather annoyingly I didn’t take a photo of the overall setup. The first photo is Air and Inner by Honore d’O, part of last year’s Biennale (see my post 8-Sept-2013), to give just a hint of the interior space.

13rooms_01In the foreground here is one of the twelve purpose built rooms in the current exhibition. This particular one didn’t have a door. It is Man=flesh/Woman=flesh – FLAT (1997) by Laura Lima.

As you can see, people crouched or lay on the floor to peer inside (there was an angled mirror on a pole for anyone who couldn’t).

13rooms_limaInside lay a person – silent, looking at a lamp. We were informed that they had a physical disability of some kind.

Years ago I started a degree in Social Work and had a work placement at a rehabilitation centre. As an experiment a small group of us went to a local shopping centre and took turns being pushed around shops in a wheelchair. Around half the time, if the person in the wheelchair asked a question the sales assistant would direct their response to the one pushing the chair. Is Lima’s work in some way about seeing the person in front of us, about the constraints we put on someone with a disability, about experiencing a limitation in our own movement…?

13rooms_hirst0213rooms_hirst01
Above are two photographs of Damien Hirst’s work Hans, Georg (1992). This was the first room you come to after entering the exhibition space, and I think it must be a deliberate choice to start people with something so engaging and non-confrontational. All the twins were chatty, open and friendly. Each pair had been given a clothing allowance plus a choice of reading material. The boys here, musicians in their “real” lives, had chosen Moby Dick (both were on page 45 at the time, although they got a bit confused when during the conversation they wanted to check if they were on the same line). The two girls had gone to different schools, were studying different subjects at different universities. The dots of colour at the back are the same colours, but arranged differently. It seems to be a simple comment about not judging too quickly or making assumptions on the basis of appearances. I’m trying not to get too side-tracked from my main line of study for OCA, so haven’t researched further so far.

13rooms_xuzhen13rooms_clarkbeaumont
On the left above is In Just a Blink of an Eye by Xu Zhen (2005). On the right is Coexisting by Clark Beaumont (Nicole Beaumont and Sarah Clark) (2013). These are two of the real physical endurance performances, together with Marina Abramović’s Luminosity (1997).

Clark and Beaumont are the two artists actually performing their own work. They occupy a plinth together – eight hours a day for the eleven days of the exhibition. They were frequently communicating with each other as they shifted around to relieve pressure on their bodies, sometimes twined around each other, at one point a rather perilous sequence for one to stand up on the plinth. The work was about the process of their collaboration and negotiation – but it was their collaboration, their experience. I was an on-looker, and the intensity of their relationship heightened the feeling of exclusion. This could be part of their intent, but that wasn’t my impression.

No photography was permitted in Abramović’s room. The performance was a naked woman, sitting on a bicycle seat that was mounted a couple of metres up on the wall, lit by two strong spotlights. There were some posts protruding from the wall on which the re-performer could partially support her feet and arms if she wished. For much of the time I watched the performer’s body formed an X, her unsupported arms held up, her heels just touching the supports. For periods she would look straight ahead. Then she would look directly into the eyes of a viewer for minutes at a time. There was no expression, no acknowledgement. Was she even paying attention to me, other than just as a predetermined place on which to focus? It was interesting to watch the other viewers, all standing intensely focused but uncommunicative. I have read about Abramović before, on the OCA blog (http://www.weareoca.com/fine_art/the-artist-is-present/ posted 19 March 2013 – read the comments too, some interesting discussion and information).

There is a series of videos about the exhibition, and in one – http://vimeo.com/63799220 two of the re-performers who are presenting Luminosity speak. One, Kathryn, talks about “sharing the experience with the audience” and being “open and engaging”. The second, Nadia, has the view that while the work is about light, she will have to do a lot of work on grounding and sees herself testing her limits. Nadia quotes Abramović – “art is like a war and you have to conquer yourself” – and that is more what I felt from the work. I did not feel engaged or sharing. I felt I was watching a woman focused on her chosen task of pushing her body and mind further than she had gone, determined to conquer this personal everest. I had the image of an ascetic nun, pushing herself through self-discipline and mortification of the flesh to find enlightenment – an image strengthened by a body position so crucifixion-like.

Since visiting the exhibition the thing I’ve been puzzling over most, the thing I find strange about many of the works is the relationship between the artist and the viewer. In some works the viewer became an active participant – conversing, swapping, perhaps by meeting a gaze. In Marina Abramović’s work in particular a communication may be intended – but the artist herself isn’t there, isn’t listening, and the re-performer didn’t seem to really see me. If the idea is to pay attention it’s odd to be absent. I suppose the answer could be in my assumptions. In most artforms something is created and presented, the viewer or listener perceives or interprets, often at a different time and place – there is no feedback loop. I thought performance art was more intimate – but why, given it is a “performance”?

There were other works, but I’ll finish with one where I did experience a connection, where I felt like a person and not an audience. This was Xavier Le Roy’s Untitled (2012). Again no photo, but this time because in a sense there was very little to see. The door was fixed partly open. The room was unlit. Walking in I was aware of the carpet underfoot, just a sense of the sound of movement, other visitors standing and looking into the darkness on the other side of the room. As my eyes adjusted I began to see a something, a form moving on the ground. There was a woman sitting near a wall, occasionally warning people that they were close to something, and I sat in the dark beside her. We sat in the darkness watching, sometimes chatting quietly. The world slowed down. I could see, or almost see, two bodies wrapped around each other, slowly rolling and moving around on the floor. A toddler ran up and patted the shape. A group of young school children came in for a while. The woman asked what they thought it was – “an elephant” one said. We chatted about the work – the woman was a friend of Xavier Le Roy, was one of the performers but acting then as their watcher. She didn’t want to answer directly my question about the meaning of the work, but drew me out, helped me to explore my own reaction. It was a warm, peaceful, engaged experience. I’m sure it was physically demanding on the performers, but that seemed to be more something they accepted as necessary to achieve their objectives rather than the whole point of the thing. There’s a photo at http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/13rooms/xavier-le-roy, but it looks quite artificial, which feels odd since this work was the one that felt to me most genuine.

The exhibition closes 21 April, so if you’re in Sydney you’d better hurry up.

More information
13 rooms, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach: http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/13rooms/
Pier 2/3: http://www.arts.nsw.gov.au/index.php/creative-spaces/arts-properties/pier-23/

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 2

In a previous post (17-Mar-2013) I tried to figure out what “The Canon” is – not surprisingly a confusing post, given my own confusion.

I’ve since found the term used in a slightly different way, in John Summerson’s The Classical Language of Architecture (1). To quote (p. 10): “It was Sebastiano Serlio … who really started the orders … on their long career of canonical, symbolic, almost legendary, authority”. Excellent – a chance to see the concept used in action and thereby perhaps make better sense of it.

orders_townhall

Sydney Town Hall, by JH Willson (~1889)
Composite columns at main entry, corinthian upstairs.
(French Second Empire architecture)

“The orders” are types of columns – Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite. I used to think of these as decorative, just a matter of how fancy the carving at the top was, and except where standing clear and holding up a porch many columns seemed more like moulding on the walls than actually structural or integral to the building.

orders_nswlibrary

State Library NSW (1910).
Ionic columns driving the plane of relief

However when used The Orders (I feel a need for the capitalisation) define a “plane of relief”. They support an entablature – architrave, frieze and cornice – which moves with the columns. If the columns are changed from free standing to half embedded in the wall, the entire face of the building changes. The Orders control the structure (page 20). The spaces between the columns can completely change the impact.

The Orders started with the Greeks. The Romans used and extended them, and added arches. In the Renaissance this architectural grammar was re-established, then in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the Orders again became the major discipline in architecture.

Queen Victoria Building (QVB), by G McRae (1893 - 1898) Is that a temple up there? Federation Romanesque style

Queen Victoria Building (QVB), by G McRae (1893 – 1898)
Is that a round temple up there?
Federation Romanesque style

orders_qvb

Inside the QVB

One thing I was troubled by when writing earlier about the Western Canon was the prospect of an inflexible and suffocating set of rules. In practice the canonical orders have evolved over time. Summerson shows the progression of a circular temple – from the Temple of Vesta, to Bramante’s Tempietto (1502), to Wren’s St Paul’s (1696 – 1708), and (my addition) a variation in McRae’s Queen Victoria Building (1893-1898). New ideas and extensions are added, appropriate to contemporary needs.

This developmental arc is not just refinements and extensions. There can be boredom and revolt, although it seems to me that Summerson’s example of Giulio Romano is more an extreme exaggeration, not turning to a new path. It seems the arc can also be traveled in reverse – for a long period Greece, as part of the Ottoman Empire, was basically off-limits to Western travelers. Ancient Greek architecture was known from old, inaccurate drawings and through Roman buildings. In 1762 Stewart and Revett published a volume of new and accurate drawings, feeding a Greek Revival in architecture.

A light-hearted, more decorative approach on this circa 1881/1882 building

A light-hearted, more decorative approach on this circa 1881/1882 building

The Greek Revival extended into the early twentieth century – and walking around Sydney, I think rather longer here… and I pause briefly to savor the moment. When family and friends ask what I’m up to I’ve been making a bit of a joke of the course notes research point which begins “Find out as much as you can about the Roman occupation in your area”. Not a lot to find here in Sydney (although it has been claimed that Melbourne has the third largest Greek-speaking population in the world (2)), but when you get to the Greek Revival and to classic influences of the Modern Movement suddenly we’re at least in the game. Something that seemed purely academic has become more directly relevant.

National Library (1968)

National Library of Australia, by W Bunning (1968)

orders_natlib_01

Leonard French, Stained glass window. (1967)

Leonard French, Stained glass window. (1967)

These photos show the National Library in Canberra. Opened in 1968 the stated aim of the chief architect was “to design a building that was a contemporary derivation in the spirit of Classical Design”, while the refurbishment completed in 1999 “succeeds in expressing the design language of the building with a fresh interpretation, achieving a contemporary derivation of classical design” (3). I’m directly quoting my source with such abandon because in a sense I didn’t need it. I was in Canberra last weekend, visited three different exhibitions at the National Library, and given my recent reading couldn’t have missed that it’s a modern Greek temple.

All of the photographs in this post were taken in Sydney and Canberra. In fact Sydney’s enthusiasm for this western world classical style building has me wondering. Was it simply a matter of the architectural vogue at the time that much of Sydney was built (ignoring earlier more temporary wooden buildings)? Going back to John Summerson I find “… the shop-filled arches and arrogantly bedizened Doric columns of Australia House – Bramante again, in the age of British Imperialism: date, 1911” (p. 43). Arrogant. Imperialism. With Australian federation as a nation in 1901, were our leaders and planners a little over-keen to show that we had made it – no longer a colony but ready to take our place among the great nations as cultured citizens of the world. Could there be a whiff of cultural cringe?

Lands Dept (1876, 1888)

Lands Dept, by J Barnet (1876, 1888)

orders_lands_02This particularly extravagant and arrogant building is the Lands Department office built in Sydney in two stages in 1876 and 1888. The department was responsible for the administration, selling and leasing of Crown lands, including resolving disputes between settlers, speculators and pastorialists (4). Notice who are missing from that brief? Non-Australians might not know of “terra nullis”, the extremely convenient theory used by the British Government of the time to treat Australia as uninhabited and thereby take the land from the Aboriginal people – a nasty piece of work with consequences that are still very much felt today (see for example http://treatyrepublic.net/content/terra-nullius-0). I don’t know which would be worse – that the planners of this building with its statues of heroic explorers of the “empty” land were sending a message of power and control to the traditional owners of the land, or if those planners were absolutely unaware or unconcerned about them.

The canonical Orders have retained their strength and influence over more than 2,000 years. They have been able to survive adaptation, refinement, enhancement and perhaps the occasional debasement. They also have been used to project or assert power, prestige and authority.

(1) Summerson, J. (2002) The Classical Language of Architecture. London: Thames and Hudson.

(2) http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/ABOUTMELBOURNE/HISTORY/Pages/multiculturalhistory.aspx [Accessed 12 April 2013]

(3) http://www.bvn.com.au/projects/national_library_of_australia_executive_offices_and_foyer_and_mezzanine_refurbishment.html?OpenDocument&idx=&pcat=&tpl=ext [Accessed 12 April 2013]

(4) NSW Land & Property Information (2013) History of Land and Property Information. [online] State of New South Wales through NSW Land and Property Information. Available from: http://www.lpi.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/169035/Brief_history_LPI.pdf [Accessed 12 April 2013]

Additional information
Lands Department Building: http://www.sydneyarchitecture.com/cbd/cbd1-005.htm [Accessed 13 April 2013]
National Library of Australia: http://www.bvn.com.au/projects/national_library_of_australia_executive_offices_and_foyer_and_mezzanine_refurbishment.html?OpenDocument&idx=&pcat=&tpl=ext [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Queen Victoria Building: http://www.environment.nsw.gov.au/heritageapp/ViewHeritageItemDetails.aspx?ID=5053525 [Accessed 12 April 2013]
Stained glass by Leonard French: Fuller, J. (2010) Leonard French’s stained glass windows at the National Library of Australia. The National Library Magazine 2010 (March) pp. 12- 15. [online] Available from: http://www.nla.gov.au/pub/nlanews/2010/mar10/Leonard-Frenchs-Windows.pdf [Accessed 12 April 2013]

Sydney Town Hall: http://www.sydneytownhall.com.au/building-history.asp [Accessed 12 April 2013]

UA1-WA:P1-p1 The Canon take 2
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part one: Classical and religious art.
Project one: Ancient Greece.
Topic: Canonical Orders.


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