Monday, August 27, 2012

Booby Trap

by Drew Martin
Yesterday was National Go-Topless Day, which is all about equal rights to bare chests. It is legal in New York for men and women to be shirtless in public so the rally that formed at Bryant Park included a handful of women, younger and older, who were naked from the waist up. A friend invited me to the event (and I love a parade) so I decided to go into the city. I envisioned thousands of semi-nudists marching to Times Square and back, like a mobilized Spencer Tunick photoshoot, with throngs of New Yorkers cheering. How could I miss that? I even rode my bicycle fifty miles (round trip) to make the event more epic. The "happening," however, turned out to be one of the lamest things I had ever seen. The line at the supermarket this evening was more interesting than the string of people that participated. A topless flash mob would have been a better test of the law. Instead, the few bare-chested women were swarmed by dozens of men taking pictures of them casually posing. The only interesting thing about the afternoon was how this non-event had a large virtual presence in all the on-line hype prior to it and the social media postings that followed. After three minutes in Bryant Park, I was utterly bored so I sat down at a table and read some academic articles I had brought with me to illustrate for a journal. One of the topless woman sat down at the table next to me for a while. I asked to take her picture before she left because she had cartoon-eye pasties over her nipples, which made me laugh.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The Legitimate Rape of Europa

by Drew Martin
I recently watched The Art of the Steal, which chronicles the forced moved of the $25+ billion art collection of Dr. Albert C. Barnes to Philadelphia, "over his dead body." The collection was central to Barnes' private educational mission, which operated out of his estate in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a city that he made every attempt to keep his works out of for eternity. Barnes loathed the museum network of America's big cities and insisted that this collection never be sold, loaned or moved. This documentary explains how the Barnes Foundation was raided like a corporate takeover and how, in the end, did not honor his will. Several people in the film close to the vision of Barnes called the move, the worst crime in the art world since World War II.  To see a documentary that explores this reference, watch The Rape of Europa. I saw it earlier today and learned a lot about the absurd art motives behind the Nazis and the destruction of national treasures by all sides. It might seem insensitive to fret over artwork when tens of millions of lives were lost but it was a war in which a painting could be traded for a human life. The industrialized looting was planned before each city was invaded by senior German officers who were required to be keen on great works of art and eager to contribute to what Hitler had envisioned as the greatest art museum in the world (a tribute to his rule). Even shortly before taking his life, he expressed hope that his museum would be built. Art, after all, was central to Hitler's psyche. His rejection as an artist fueled him to rid Europe of what he considered decadent art and rob his European neighbors of their souls.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Icy and Sot: Made in Iran

by Drew Martin
Last night I went to the Openhouse Gallery on Broome Street in New York to attend the opening of Made In Iran by Icy and Sot, (the aliases of) two young stealthy street graffitistas who live in Iran.  At first I was really disappointed. It seemed like everything there was just a knock-off of Banksy, who (they told me) was a great influence on them. I thought a lot about these guys on my long train ride back to my house. When I got home I looked at their website and other images of their work online, and I ended up having a really different view of what they are about. So today I revisited the show without the crowd and I had a nice discussion with the cool Dutch curator. Most of their stencil paintings at the gallery are on white canvases so you are only left with stylized images without any real emotional tug; partly because this kind of graphic realism is popular in the graffiti world. The other part of this effect is very Iranian, whether they know it or not. I have looked at a lot of Iranian illustrations in the past five years and the prevailing content is what I would call 'the first idea,' which is something I find necessary to avoid in order to get deeper into your thoughts. The best way to explain this is a quote from a conversation I had with the Russian sculptor Leonid Lerman many years ago:

When I started my career, when I just started to work as an artist, I had a very poor understanding of the difference (between image and text). My objective was to get as directly as possible to the core of my idea. So if I see the human condition very tough, then I would make a man walking, actually walking on the razor blade. I sculpted the razor. I sculpted the man. It was very rough but; Here's a man walking on the razor. It's can you be more direct than this? But eventually I grew out of that because it is a little bit simplistic. So I have to just remove myself from this, to be very linear, and literal and narrative into a more suggestive thing. It is living less for the literature and more for the visual and formal sort of intrigue.

At the Made in Iran opening I was looking for some unique cultural perspective in the work, but I kept seeing American/western themes and ideas. What I was missing is what the show is missing: the site specificity of their work. A repeated image/theme of a boy carrying oversized Lego blocks is cute on its own, but when done on a remaining wall of a house in ruins (possibly bombed out) it has a much deeper meaning: it is no longer a playful image but one that suggests he is an orphan, rebuilding his dead father's house.

The thrill of the show is that these two twenty-something guys are from Iran, so we are consumed by the implications of what they are doing in a less open society with a rush we have not experienced since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The curator told me a story that was quite funny and reminded me of Eastern Bloc tales. The shipments of their canvases to him depend on who is working in their town's post office. They have a green light when "the stupid guy" is inspecting packages. The curator pointed to a canvas with an elderly lady up on a ladder/wheeled walker, spraying an anarchy symbol. The dim-witted postman asked Icy and Sot what she was painting and they replied that it was just a decoration. Satisfied with that answer, the image was shipped to Amsterdam with no further questions asked.

My favorite work in the show is a short, stop-animation movie called Make Art Not War (which was part of a longer loop/montage that was playing at the opening) with a tank made of aerosol cans that rolls around the streets of a scaled-down city and "bombs" sides of buildings with their stencil work. The funny thing is that I can even see how someone who could cause them trouble in Iran might view what they are doing as being more critical of America than their own government, and yet the whole lot is being digested here as regime protest art.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Part of Me: Katy Perry's Self-Portrait Documentary

by Drew Martin
I did not see Katy Perry's Part of Me when it was playing a few blocks away from my house and it has all but vanished from my area. I did, however, find one matinee showing yesterday not too far away, so I drove down to the quaint town of Maplewood, New Jersey and watched it in a tiny theater with a handful of people: a mother with two pre-teens, and two teenage girls. Part of Me is actually an interesting behind-the-scenes promotional documentary that follows Perry on her world tour. It is not two hours of pop but a warts-and-all self-portrait that shows her with and without her makeup and wigs, and in her perkiest moments as well as her groggy mornings and sobbing collapses. Katy Perry and Michael Jackson are the only two musicians to have five singles from one album make the number one position on the pop charts. Jackson was a superior singer and dancer (no one did it better) but Perry is more creative, closer to her audience and puts together a better total package. Like Jackson, Perry worked hard for her rank. The difference is that Jackson was a childhood superstar and a natural. Perry had an awkward childhood but sang and played guitar in the environment of the Pentecostal church. The fact that her parents were strict Christians tends to offer a story of isolated repression but a clip in the film of her father preaching paints a different picture; one of an upbringing steeped in dramatic theatrical performance and a lot of time on the road. I like how Perry has stuck with people that she started with; her designer (pictured here) who she bumped into when she moved to Los Angeles, and a make-up artist she met behind a store's cosmetics counter. Her older sister tours with her as her voice of reason. The most amazing scene in the movie is when we see Perry as a total wreck after being dumped by Russell Brand. With a packed venue in São Paulo, Brazil, she is in no condition to perform but she pulls it together in the very last moment and puts on a show. In an interview I saw of her on Australian television, she speaks about the scene and how a switch on her costume, which makes parts of the outfit spin, is a metaphor for a switch of her emotions.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Measure for Measure: Spitzer performs Shakespeare

by Drew Martin
Yesterday I went with my parents to the F. M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre at Drew University (great name for a school). We saw Measure for Measure, a "comedy" about pride and humility, and justice, mercy and truth: "Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall."

In this "problem" play, the Duke of Vienna supposedly leaves the city but remains disguised as a Franciscan monk in order to observe the conduct of Angelo, who rules in his absence. Angelo condemns a young man to death for making love out of wedlock and then tries to make a deal with the man's sister; her virginity for her brother's freedom. The table turns when the Duke reveals his identity but allows Angelo to live if he marries a former fiance. "Measure for measure" is a line in the play but comes from the bible,

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Later in the day, I watched Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer on Netflix, which reminds us that Shakespeare's four hundred-year-old play is as timely as ever. Client 9 is a very slick film by Alex Gibney about how the power and influence that Spitzer earned for going after corrupt Wall Street big wigs was immediately and forever lost when he was exposed as a client of a prostitution ring. This documentary is intriguing, well-edited and full of candid interview moments with Spitzer who says his story is not a current event, but a Greek myth, like the tale of Icarus. In one exchange, he is asked what he learned about his wife after his exposure. He replies that the depth of her forgiveness is deeper than could ever be called for.

I am always surprised when art makes its way into a subject where I least expect it. In the very start of the film we are introduced to Hubert Waldroup, a painter who worked for an escort agency. He says that in New York, everyone is like some sort of animal; always hungry, always wanting to make more money, get more sex, date a prettier girl or a richer guy. He marvels at something he attributes to a "Chinese philosopher," that humans are hybrids between angels and animals, capable of great beauty and also destruction. Another reference to art is when Spitzer compares the inside of the Albany capitol building to M.C. Escher's impossible staircase. The performance artist Karen Finley also had a few interview moments. She describes Spitzer's acknowledgement and resignation as a "public performance of a private moment" and the trysts as an "ancient, unresolved cultural narrative."

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Bad Dream About A Bad Movie

by Drew Martin
I had a dream last night that The Cell was being refilmed and I was supposed to do a scene in it hanging from flesh hooks. It was a dreadful thought and throughout the dream I was like, "I am not going to do this." Fortunately, I woke up before anything weird happened. The Cell was a film from 2000 with Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn about a serial killer and having to link into his twisted mind in order to locate his final victim. It is not a good film but the director Tarsem Singh arrived at it from the world of music videos so it is visually loaded, but nothing original. The Cell borrowed heavily from the work of Damien Hirst and Matthew Barney. The scenes of the killer suspended from flesh hooks came out of the 1990's wave of body piercings that brought greater attention to artists such as Stelarc (Stelios Arcadiou) from Australia, who had been suspending his body with flesh hooks since the seventies. That era of performance art was shared with artists such as Chris Burden who did Shoot in 1971, where a friend shot him in the arm with a rifle. There was also his Trans-fixed in 1974, in which Burden was crucified on the back of a Volkswagen Beetle, with his hands nailed into the roof. Stelarc used flesh hooks to discover his psychological and physical limitations. He has concluded that we are "biologically inadequate" and need to be overhauled with cyborg parts. On his role of the artist he offered,

“I've always been uneasy about the artist as simply a craftsperson who just simply makes or produces cultural artifacts that are considered beautiful or sensitive or whatever. What's more intriguing is the artist who works with ideas, who uses (his or her) art as a means of exploring the personal and the public and who tries to get a sense of what it means to exist in the world. And I'm much happier if the artist is seen as a poet or a philosopher than as a craftsperson."

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Edition Over Original

by Drew Martin
Galleries are just empty rooms that rotate art with the hopes of luring potential buyers. They are not lofty-minded museums or good-willed educational facilities; it is all about the business of art and the transaction. Would it not be more practical to have a gallery in a bank where there is a steady flow of people and cash? This is the smarts (but not the blatant intention) behind Art-flow's upcoming group show "Edition Over Original" at BankAsiana in Fort Lee, New Jersey. The city is directly on the other side of the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan, high up in the Palisades. Fort Lee is best known for "Koreatown" the largest and fastest growing Korean population outside of Korea, which has been a very positive influence on the area. BankAsiana has been showing art in its public space for the past three years. I really like that the bank does this because it means that every month the employees and visiting clients are treated to an entirely new artistic experience. Art-flow is an arts organization that promotes artists and finds venues for their work. I am in this show, along with seven Korean artists am I am really excited about it. So far, it has been well organized and I especially like the theme, which challenges the participating artists to consider the relationship of editions to their originals. While most of the other artists will show reproductions, I have prepared seven original drawings made between 1995 and 2012 and will juxtapose them with interpretations that include a clay statue, stone carving, offset printer plate, book, online article, photograph and even a bottle of gin with one of the drawings worked into the label.

Edition Over Original
September 1-28, 2012
BankAsiana Public Space
172 Main Street, Fort Lee, New Jersey
Opening Reception: Saturday, September 17th, 5 - 7pm

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Bed Written

by Drew Martin
After a long run this morning, I ate a stack of pancakes with maple syrup, took a shower and fell into a deep sleep for a couple hours. When I awoke, I could not move. I was so heavy. It felt like my veins were filled with lead and that gravity had me pinned to the bed. So I thought about what I would look like from the ceiling and then I remembered an installation I did in college. The sculpture department had an abandoned house off campus for projects. I had a large room and a closet. For the main room, I cut out a slightly smaller footprint of the dry grass land outside the window and brought it into the space; like a carpet with a view of its source - not very interesting. The closet piece, however, is something that worked really well. I had a girlfriend from a rare and fleeting relationship take a picture of me lying naked in some kind of fetal position on a black roof below her window. I took that image (slide film) and projected it from the ceiling of the closet, down on a pile of sifting sugar in the small dark space. The projection of me was quite tiny, probably only six inches tall. It was interesting because the projected body changed shape with the way the sugar amassed, and the viewers were also moving the sugar around to contort the shape and were cupping mini-me in their hands.

Forgiving Dr. Mengele: Levels of Understanding

by Drew Martin
After visiting both of the Auschwitz death camps last week, I thought I would need some time to digest the experience. One of the guys in my running group told me this morning during a long run that his father survived Auschwitz and that his grandfather was killed there. When I was in Krakow, I helped a young couple from Mexico, both medical students, make their way back to Prague. One of them had bought a book at Auschwitz about a survivor of the twisted experiments by Dr. Mengele. So, this afternoon I found myself watching the documentary, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, which is about how one of the twins he experimented on has coped with what she experienced. The film is centered around Eva Mozes Kor who is from Transylvania and was sent to Auschwitz with her whole family when she was nine years old. As she explained, as soon as the people were unloaded from the trains in Birkenau, the Nazis searched the crowds for twins. Dr. Mengele set up experiments at Auschwitz on twins because of their genetic similarities. Eva described the experiments and how one injection made her so sick that she overheard Mengele say she had two weeks to live. Not only did Eva fight to survive to prove him wrong but she also knew that had she died, they would have immediately killed her sister, Miriam, in order to do a comparative autopsy. The Russian army liberated the camp ten months into her stay. In the top picture here the two girls leaving the camp in the front of the line are Eva and Miriam. All the other members of their family were killed. The twin sisters ended up in Israel and then Eva moved to the United States. Miriam's injections had left her with stunted kidneys and died later in life due to this, even after she received a kidney from Eva. Of course the film is about all of this, but its central theme is about forgiving. Eva speaks about how forgiving makes you a stronger person and is the only real power you have as a victim, and the only way to heal yourself. Eva is challenged by the other surviving Mengele twins and finds herself exploring what forgiveness is really about when the tables are turned and she is asked to listen to the victim stories of Palestinians. Eva's young adult daughter describes her as unhesitant and that  having Holocaust survivors as parents is about levels of understanding. Eva raised her family in Terre Haute, Indiana. She made a Holocaust museum in that town, which was burned down as a hate crime. It has since been rebuilt. A friend describes her habits: saving every scrap of food, and sleeping on her purse. Eva shows off what she calls "survivor ingenuity": they did not have money to buy an electric grill to make grilled cheese sandwiches for her children who wanted to have them like their all-American neighbors so she prepared them by ironing cheese sandwiches between layers of tinfoil.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Art Bunker: "The Ugliest Building in Krakow"

by Drew Martin
Krakow is a gorgeous old city in southern Poland. It has the second largest medieval square in Europe and a castle that the Tibetan monks marked as one of the most spiritual sites on Earth. Its museum collections include priceless gems such as Leonardo da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine and the astronomical instruments of the local-boy-made-good, Nicolaus Copernicus. Even a nearby salt mine boasts fine art: one of the more ornate chambers was transformed into an underground ballroom with salt crystal chandeliers and illuminated salt statues. Modern art fits like a square peg in this traditional region where the people not only take great pride in their past but depend on it for a tourist-based economy. To make things worse for the avant garde, the museum that brought contemporary art to Krakow during the Soviet era demolished a beloved art noveau cafe in order to claim its lot on the edge of the old town. The raw concrete building immediately earned the reputation as "the ugliest building in Krakow." The exterior is tagged with the name, The Exhibition Pavilion, but has now embraced its derogatory nickname, the Art Bunker. I visited it last week and liked it a lot. For one thing, the thriving Krakow tourist industry does not know what to do with it. In a city of overpriced carriage rides, locals who pose as statues of knights, and flocks of tourists that gather like pigeons in the old town square to hear the Hejnal play his trumpet from the church tower every hour, the Art Bunker is a refreshing oasis from all the gothic- and renaissance-glory. The entrance fee is less than four dollars and is half that for artists with an example of work. The museum's giftshop/bookstore looks like a messy flat of the friendly and helpful biker-hipsters that work there. I also really liked the exhibits I saw there: Nicolas Grospierre - The City Which Does Not Exist and Laura Pawela - The Sky Won’t Fall in, even if You Walk Backwards.

Grave Masses at Auschwitz

by Drew Martin
I went to the southern Polish town Oświęcim last week, more commonly referred to as Auschwitz. The original Polish name actually means enlightenment. The German approximation has no meaning but references three places: a quaint town with a beautiful historic center, and the two Nazi-run death camps; Auschwitz I and II. Auschwitz I is across a river from the town and not so close from the center. It was originally built for Polish political dissidents and Russian prisoners of war. It is an organized complex of sturdy brick buildings, a gas chamber and a crematorium surrounded by not-so-high guard towers and barb-wire fences that were once electrified. Auschwitz II, known as Birkenau, is a huge place and even farther from the town. The are many brick buildings left standing but the original wood barracks have disintegrated. A few were recreated to show what the structures would have looked like. What remains of this area are endless rows of the brick fireplaces and chimneys that would have (poorly) heated the barracks. It was hard to make the connection at the site to all the stories, documentaries and movies I have seen about the Holocaust. I was there on a warm summer day with a strong, refreshing breeze. The brick buildings were cool inside. Most of their interiors were converted into museum spaces with bare interiors and a lot of oversized photographs. The tours are given by whispering guides to flocks of visitors who listen via amplified headsets. Sometimes two or three groups merge, but the dedicated channel per group makes sense of their respective tour guides. The impression of both camps are quite different. Central to Birkenau is the train track that leads into the site and the ground platform where the deportees were deboarded. The shock is that there is nothing really left. Most of the structures are gone so you have to conceptualize the events that took place. The shock of Auschwitz I is the display of piles of hair, shoes, pots, prosthetic legs, glasses and suitcases from the people who were sent to the camp. The displays are overwhelming, especially the room flanked with mounds of hair, but all of the items are behind glass so you do not smell the hair or leather. The hair is so old and matted that it does not read as human hair any more. If you do not know the history of the camp, the displays have a purely sculptural presence, like you might find in the installations of artists such as Ann Hamilton or Tara Donovan. There is nothing saddening about a pile of old spectacles but as a proof of genocide that same mass is horrific.

Tereza Damcová and the Magical World of Children's Spirits

by Drew Martin
The most interesting artists are the ones who are embedded in their art and make you think not only about what they do but (more importantly) why they do it. After a year of brief correspondences with the Czech artist Tereza Damcová we finally met at the opening of Rituals and Sacred Spaces. At the show Tereza did a doll dance in front of a small crowd and was joined last minute by Peter Boyce Le Couteur who improvised and sang a melody with Tereza. The front row of enthralled children perhaps made the event read a little bit like children's theater but Tereza's work is not so simple. She is working on a Ph.D. at the Faculty of Landscape Design in Brno, with the topic of the magic garden. In 2008 she started to work on children’s playground artifacts, which were placed in a park in the historic center of Plzeň. She writes on her website:

The motive of this work is fairytale metamorphosis of a little doll, Bubačka, who in children´s eyes springs to life and transforms into flowers, animals, fairytale creatures, people and so on...I am interested in drawing, painting, performing, creating artifacts, objects and audiovisual installations. My inspiration is metamorphosis of dreaming into reality, the magical world of children´s spirits, jumping into a freezing-cold swimming pool, running around in the landscape of airports covered in snow. I am interested in fairytales, legends and authors who work with dreams.

Tereza's dolls are hand-made, with stuffed bodies, sewn costumes and ceramic heads. They all have names and are characters in a never-ending story she spins. Tereza and her friend gave me a ride to Brno after the opening. The ride lasted for several hours and was one of those here-and-now magical moments. Her friend drove her white Škoda along the winding roads of southern Czech into the night, with a full moon in front of us. I sat in the back with a laundry basket full of her dolls by my side. She spoke about a city where we had both lived, in Sudetenland. People familiar with the place typically speak of the city's factories as an eye sore but Tereza affectionately referred to them as giant sleeping dinosaurs. Her favorite doll is one that "loves everyone and everything, and everyone and everything loves him." On the back of one of the tiny jackets were a couple words I did not recognize. I asked her what they meant and she replied, "I do not know either, they are in his language, which I do not understand."

Rituals and Sacred Spaces of Bohemia

by Drew Martin
Last week I set up for and attended the opening of Rituals and Sacred Spaces at Galerie Califia in southern Bohemia. The show was inspired by sacred clay figures from India that were collected by a Czech doctor, Jan Petránek. A video by the art group Rafani loops in the main gallery. Petránek has an adjoining room with an installation of terracotta figures that are viewable through a peep hole in the side of a wooden crate. There is also a two-meter-wide print of a photograph he took of Tubrad hill in India. Veronika Richterová  installed a pagoda made of colorful recycled plastic bottles, which also looks a lot like a bell and sounds like a clunky wind chime when a breeze enters her space. Another room has a video by Alejandro de Tuddo and a small installation of photographs and a glowing sink by Natalia Vazquez. She also wrote phrases in Spanish and English on walls with the tips of burned wood found in a local campfire. I have a room as well where I hung a large silk print of a photograph I took of my neighbor's hands. Central to the space is a shrine I made to the town, using found objects that I gathered there for two days. A few other little shrine-like pieces fill the space and I made line drawings along one wall with a blue chalk line reel, which my grandfather had owned. Another key part of my room is a multi-paneled series of drawings and text I made during my three-day "pilgrimage" from Newark to Horažd’ovice. The show opened with a nice crowd and included a performance by Tereza Damcová with an improvised collaboration by Peter Boyce Le Couteur.