Posts Tagged ‘ art ’

Conservative Politics in the Ancient World

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The Ara Pacis Augustae

The tropes of conservatism are well known: religion, family values, patriotism and a wider natural order of things. Politicians pose with their progeny, their wives, and have themselves seen in places of symbolic importance to their values. They evoke the rural, the family, the state as homeland and mother/fatherland in speech and symbology.

By its very nature, conservatism is not a political programme, it is instead in the realm of symbolic politics because it is rhetorical and demonstrative rather than programmatic and substantive.*

Conservatism is often a misnomer, since “the past”, “nature” and “the way things were and should remain” has very often been mobilised to convince people to accept the very opposite: sweeping changes, the destruction of nature, and the corrosion of the past. As a system of belief strays from its ideals, it often does so by fervently and paradoxically propounding those ideals.

The Ara Pacis, housed in the Museo dell’Ara Pacis, is a template example of the way conservative tropes are ironically employed to cement a radical power shift.

To give it its full name, the Ara Pacis Augustae (The ‘Altar of Augustan Peace’) is an altar to Peace, a minor Roman goddess. The monument was commissioned by the Roman Senate in 13 B.C. to honour the return of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, to Rome after his three years commanding Roman legions in Hispania and Gaul.

Having completed those conquests, Augustus ushered in a period commonly known as Pax Augusta (Augustinian Peace) in which peace was maintained within the boundaries of the expanded empire by means of Roman military supremacy.

However, the real danger to Augustus’s power was not invading or rebelling barbarians, but the Roman people themselves, and the living memory of the Roman Republic which Augustus had officially abolished (Julius Caesar had done the groundwork by becoming dictator).

The Ara Pacis was therefore a centrepiece in the Augustinian programme of winning hearts and minds at home. While ostensibly an altar to Peace, it serves to visually encompass the mythic requisites for Augustinian reign and the new ideology of Julio-Claudian power (the dynasty that would rule until Nero’s death).

Ara Pacis - procession of nobles

Frieze showing the procession of nobles. Agrippa, the son-in-law of Augustus, is shown with his toga drawn over his head. The depiction of children was very rare at the time, the child is probably Gaius Vipsanius Agrippa, Augustus’s grandson and favored heir.

Religion and piety is presented not only in the existence of the altar itself but also the frieze running around it. Augustus himself and several members of his family (of which many are realistically represented and identifiable) wear hoods (their togas drawn over their heads actually) which symbolise them acting in a religious capacity (Augustus appointed himself as high priest of Rome). Bulls are led to sacrifice by priests, and children are shown among the procession (children were unusual subject matter at the time).

Augustus then, is inscribing his reign into Roman religious life and even into Roman cosmology. Aeneas, Romulous, Remus and Mars are also depicted on the altar, and Augustus had already engineered the notion that he had descended from them, that he was in his rightful place in the pantheon of Roman religion.

The lower part of the internal wall imitates the type of rural wooden fence that would have enclosed a sacrificial altar. The upper part bears festoons that hang from ox skulls (bucrania, symbolic of sacrifice), with ritualistic shallow bowls in the intervals. The hanging festoons include ears of wheat, berries, and a variety of fruit and nuts, all underscoring the economic value of peace (and military domination). Between the “fence” boards and the festoons is a palmette border, a common motif.

Internal Wall - Ara Pacis

The internal walls of the altar are decorated with festoons and skulls, common agricultural and devotional symbols associated with rural life.

All this adds up to a symbology of power – of inscribing the new autocratic regime into the natural, the rural and the religious. It is ironic that these “timeless” and “unchanging” aspects of the Roman imagination were transformed by this symbolic intervention.

*While modern conservatism sees itself as broadly in favor of free markets and small government, history has shown conservatism to be pragmatic to the core. Look, for example, at agricultural subsidies, the British post-war consensus, the huge state borrowing and military expansion under Ronald Reagan.

Warhol’s Featureless Films

Vinyl 1965

Vinyl 1965

An edited version of this article was published on Art Wednesday, 10 April 2013.

Of the many Warholisms, the one that rings most true in his film output is “the idea of waiting for something makes it more exciting”, since there’s never really any action to come. Warhol’s films simply happen, but they do so in a provocative and often menacing way.

Ever needing provocation, I headed to the ICA over the weekend to witness the UK cinema premieres of three newly-restored Warhol films.Sleep, the first of the typically Warholian mono-action epics, screens his lover, John Giorno, slumbering naked in Warhol’s apartment. Alongside its continual screening, the ICA scheduled the viewings of two ‘feature films’ co-directed with Paul Morrison, Chelsea Girls and Vinyl.

The former, the action of which takes place in the centre of New York City’s creative universe – Hotel Chelsea, follows the lives of a number of the young ‘superstars’ that clustered around the Factory scene. Over six hours of footage is divided by splitscreen, giving us a diptych binary of the ‘white’ and ‘black’ aspects of the life of the hotel’s residents. The action takes place in front of a rapidly panning and zooming lens, giving the film a cool and detached aesthetic. Clocking in at over three hours, the film is a challenge of patience that at moments (with emphasis on ‘moments’) explodes with vainglorious brilliance and sordid shock-tactic.

Vinyl is a barely-watchable pre-Kubrick interpretation of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. In a starkly minimalist mise-en-scène, Factory superstars including Edie Sedgwick and Gerard Melanga shambolically play out the tale of ultra-violence and state control in the 70 minute film peppered with musical numbers by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones and Martha and the Vandellas.

While sharing a similar aesthetic as the fixed-lens Factory ‘screen tests’, the ‘actors’ bodies are cooped into a tight frame and shallow space (presumably in some corner of the Factory) and the camera stares down on them cruelly at a steep angle. There’s something sadistic about the film above and beyond the erotically-charged torture of Malenga – the cold Warholian objectivity is palpable throughout and the crude acting is almost abject. With no dialogue or real part to play, Sedgwick mostly looks on smoking, and appears in the film simply to appear, intermittently dancing and sniffing (what appears to be) poppers along with the other actors.

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Chelsea Girls, 1966

Both films have divided the critics since their release and will never be universally appreciated, I’ll admit I also found them hard to watch – they’re challenging to watch in their entirety for all but the most fanatical Factory scene devotees. The now late Roger Ebert observed that Chelsea Girls employed “perversion and sensation like chili sauce to disguise the flavour of the meal.” Whatever you may think of each film, they’ve made their mark more as a cultural statement, an epochal happening that we can still see reflected in self-destructive celebrities and the intrusive lenses through which we view them.

Sensory investigations into the power of light

CARLOS CRUZ-DIEZ Chromosaturation 1965-2013

Carlos Cruz-Diez, Chromosaturation, 1965-2013

Originally published on on 29 January 2013

I also spoke about Light Show on The Review on Monocle 24 Radio, you can listen to the show here.

Central to this thoughtful show is not really the use of light in art per se but how light appropriately serves a post-minimalist shift from the work of art to the environment itself. For the most part, the works here endeavour to shape the space around us or invoke a response on a physiological level.

The lower gallery’s main room is dominated by Cerith Wyn-Evans’s S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E (“Trace me back to some loud, shallow, chill, underlying motives overspil…”), 2010, made up of floor-to-ceiling columns of incandescent lights which “breathe” by slowly glowing bright and dimming, raising and lowering the light of the entire space. The effect is beautiful in combination with viewing Leo Villareal’s Cylinder II, 2012, in which random patterns rise and cascade in hanging sci-fi-like LED lights. Unlike Villareal’s silent fountain of light, Wyn-Evans’ filaments hum, vibrate and heat up in their delicate tubes. There’s a transformational difference between seeing these lights from afar and close-up, the ethereal gives way to the material in a few steps.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London. Photo by Linda Nylind. 27/1/2013.

Light Show at Hayward Gallery, London.

All light, of course, has its material basis, and the oscillation between material and immaterial is a running theme. This is perhaps most obviously sign-posted in the first room of the show by David Batchelor’s Magic Hour, 2004/7, which exposes the arse-end of a stack of light boxes with power cables that hang loose and coil thickly on the floor. The boxes are haloed by the gaudy pinks and yellows it projects against the adjacent pristine wall. Batchelor’s use of light takes optically-focused modernist aesthetics as far as it can possibly go; as far as the other side of the mobius strip into the psychic junk – or poetry – of the viewers’ mental associations. It’s a fun place to be but perhaps the irony is a little too academic. Magic Hour thankfully feels like a good fit here given its physical bulk. It more than matches the challenge of the wide-open first room which too often overwhelms its contents.

Physical also are the bodies that perceive light, and our senses are limited. “Visible reality is only a crumb of what’s really out there,” Conrad Shawcross writes. But while his Slow Arc Inside a Cube, 2011, spells this out with its shadow play (and you need to read an anecdote about the work to get his idea), Carlos Cruz-Diez successfully demonstrates it with his Chromosaturation, 2010, an environment comprising of monochrome-lit rooms of red, green and blue which dazzles the eyes as you move through the spaces: you become acutely aware of the limitations of your senses; your very physicality, even.

Iván Navarro, Reality Show (Silver), 2010

Iván Navarro, Reality Show (Silver), 2010

There is a conundrum at the heart of this show, striking a balancing act between mere perceptual play and serious aesthetic exploration. Many of the works teeter into the space of theatricality, such as Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a Timeless Garden, 2011, which uses the trickery of strobe-lighting to give the effect of crystallizing water in mid-air. It is, of course, fascinating to watch but I wonder where this work really takes us. On the lighter side we also have Ann Veronica Janssens’s Rose, 2007, an environment of pink light and fake mist, the entrance of which is topped by Philippe Parreno’s neon and Perspex Marquee, 2008. These nods to Pop’s influence are cursory and perhaps superfluous as they really jar with the interesting themes of the show. Those themes are of course embodied more or less in included works by two principal ground-breakers: Dan Flavin (material) and James Turrell (perception), but the omission of Bruce Nauman is surprising.

The curatorial coup here is anchoring these sensory investigations into the deep, dark waters of power. The inclusion of Ivan Navarro’s Reality Box (Silver), 2010, a phone box-like structure that feels like a torture chamber out of the pages of 1984, opens up questions about the punitive use of sensory disorientation, the deliberate unravelling of our senses to erode or extinguish our sense of self. Navarro’s experience of Pinochet’s Chile lingers in his unsettling work –  we disappear to ourselves in his mise en abyme chamber while remaining fully visible to others.

Also tackling torture and power is Jenny Holzer’s Monument, 2008, a tall stack of LED displays which relays declassified statements from the war on terror like a sinister stock exchange ticker. Its column-like form gives its technology a monolithic weight and intensity which melds with the ticker’s authoritative power as pure and indifferent information. It strobes manically and scrolls a little too fast for us to keep track of the information that it darkly relays. These last two works cast a shadow over the other works like a twist in a novel, and this exhibition would not be as interesting without them. You suddenly feel unsure in your relationship not just with the environment around you, but the world itself.

Unsilent Night: The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens

Peter Paul Rubens - The Adoration of the Magi

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi 

Originally published on 20 December 2012 as part of the Yuletide Scenes series

Rubens’s gigantic masterpiece loudly contradicts the folkloric silent night. This typically muscular painting is deafening in its depiction of the commotion around the holy family when the Magi arrive to offer gifts to the divine king of Christian belief. The enormous entourage of camels, braying donkeys, war horses, servants and soldiers, richly ornamented in oriental colour and clothing, pile up in a decrescendo behind the composition’s quiet, even vacuous, centre of gravity: a tender moment as one of the Magi (perhaps Caspar) lifts the lid on his gift of gold coins which the infant Jesus delicately touches. In the characteristic theatricality of the baroque style, you can almost hear the quiet chink of the gold coins amid the cacophony surrounding the serenity of the holy family and the reverent Magi.

Originally painted for the Antwerp Town Hall in 1609 to commemorate a truce between Spain (at its imperial height) and the Netherlands, the original painting was given over to the Spanish in 1621 perhaps to win favour for Antwerp as aggression still loomed. When Rubens joined the Spanish court in 1628, he expanded the size of the canvas and reworked the painting while still under the stylistic influence of Titian. With its wedge-like composition and writhing figures clad in drapery, there’s more than a passing resemblance between this painting and, say, Titian’s Bacchus and Ariadne which hangs in our own National Gallery. Rubens added a self portrait on the far right and increased the height of the canvas to include the flying putti and the inclined camel’s head which pushes our eye back across the action toward the infant Jesus.

It’s a painting which underscores the political power in Christian art, particularly at its height in the post-reformation baroque period, during which painted and sculpted Christian allegories were wielded as increasingly theatrical weapons of influence and persuasion as kingdoms competed for the souls of their subjects. One of a series of Adorations by Rubens, who was an emissary for the Spanish Court, the message here is that all earthly kingdoms, in their racial and regional diversity, must submit to God and, by extension, the Roman Catholic Church.

Goya, Witches and Reason

Goya, Witches in Flight, 1798

Goya, Witches in Flight, 1798

Partially naked warlocks wearing coned hats levitate in the night sky clutching a naked man struggling against them, two appear to be biting him. Immediately below them a man with his head covered in a blanket stumbles forward with his arms out, he holds his thumbs in his clenched fingers in a gesture of figo – the warding away of evil. From the darkness to the right, a donkey stares forward uncomprehending and unfazed while on the left another man lies face down clutching his ears.

It’s a mysterious painting, and little is known of what Goya intended of the darker images he painted as he grew weary of the Spanish establishment from the late eighteenth century. Goya had a serious illness in the 1790s that left him deaf and withdrawn, he continued to paint for the Spanish court but also began a huge body of experimental work that was kept largely private, including Witches in Flight. At the same time, his privately expressed liberal and rationalist views increasingly alienated him from the Spanish establishment, culminating in his self-imposed exile in the 1820s.

The ironic reading of this painting is that Goya wasn’t attacking witchcraft, rather the opposite: he was attacking the organised religious authorities that mutually buttressed the ruling classes. Intermittently from the Inquisition onward, authorities exploited hear-say and hysteria among the lower orders of society around the practices of witchcraft (most notably during the Basque Witch Trails which implicated thousands). Maintaining a sense of fear of the occult guarantees it’s opposite: hope in the power of the church and faith in God.

While the meaning of the painting is a matter of speculation, I’m inclined to buy into the ironic reading. I’m inclined to do so not just because of circumstantial evidence, but more importantly because of the way the painting was produced: its composition and formal elements. Form and content, you see, are not mutually oblivious.

The various elements surrounding the central action suggests that this picture is allegorical, as does the sparse backdrop: the sky is pure blackness, there is no register of air: no clouds of any kind, no horizon, not even tree canopies to imply atmospheric movement. Only the clothing of the men holds the implied movement of their sudden ascent. The picture has space without environment. Only an arid ground serves as stage here for these four principal elements that are not necessarily connected. The man escaping is blinded while warding away evil that he couldn’t possibly see, the other man cover his ears, to muffle the screams? But he too cannot see what is taking place. Could it be that the air-borne victim is the spiritual doppelgänger of these terrified or insane men?

Supporting this reading are interpretations of Goya’s later Black Paintings. Some, including Saturn Devouring his Son (1820-23), and A Fight to the Death (1820-23), are highly allegorical or reflective. They are read as a commentary not only on the ageing Goya’s mental state but also on the fate of the Spanish nation from which he was exiled to France.

The Great He-Goat (Witches Sabbath)

Goya, The Great He-Goat, 1820-23

Included among them is a return to the theme of Satanism, The Great He-Goat (1820-23). Here witches sit in the presence of the devil in the form of a goat. These distorted faces betray the horrific vision before them while an isolated and veiled woman to the right of the group, possibly an initiate, sits still. The witches may well be hallucinating (various potions and brews were often drunk during these ceremonies), but the tables are turned here: the devil is clearly defined in silhouette while the coven of Satanists are distorted, they are, in other words, a synthesis of the manifestation of their inner state with the outward appearance. For us, there’s something dreadful not in the appearance of the goat, but rather the people themselves who appear to be less than human, abjectly obedient and drunk on superstition.

In the context of the Black Paintings, The Great He-Goat is seen as a horrific satire of the slide into superstition of Spanish spiritual life. In the aftermath of the French retreat from the Iberian peninsula intellectuals and scientists were persecuted by the church, and tales of witchcraft multiplied as Spanish royalists snatched power back in the vacuum that Napoleon left. Could The Witches Flight be a precursor to late Goya’s ambivalence to church and state? Were the seeds of Goya’s private dissent already sown? No one knows for sure, but I hope my formal analysis of the painting goes some way to suggesting that this is the case.

Rothko/Sugimoto: Dark Paintings and Seascapes, Pace Gallery

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Baltic Sea, Ruegen, 1996

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Baltic Sea, Ruegen, 1996

Written for The Arts Desk 10 October 2012

Half-way through Death in Venice, Thomas Mann’s tragic hero, Aschenbach, settles down on a beach to gaze out to the sea to “take shelter from the demanding diversity of phenomena in the bosom of boundless simplicity.” Aschenbach is suddenly returned to earthly complications when the horizon is intersected by the boy he desires. The passage is evoked on entering Pace’s new and enormous Chipperfield-renovated gallery as suited attendants walk among Rothko’s hard-edged late paintings and Sugimoto’s seascape photographs. It’s a fitting quote given not only the bisected format of all the works, but also the artists’ ambitions to evoke a sense of this “boundless simplicity” and the heroic inadequacy of their attempts.

Both artists are juxtaposed here for the purpose of what the Pace Gallery describes as a visual dialogue. The similarities, on the face of it, are superficial: the works are characterised by a binary format of a black and grey surface and, as such, rhyme visually. But it is nevertheless an interesting pairing. The whispered subtleties alternately chime together on the same walls or face-off as counterparts on parallel walls.

Mark Rothko, Unititled, 1969

Mark Rothko, Unititled, 1969

Rothko’s late black and grey paintings can be seen as a new direction or a dead end. Given the artist’s suicide not long after they were made, it’s tempting to read them as the latter. But despite the limited and arguably sullen palette, these works show a Rothko breaking out of his famously sumptuous mode of painting towards territory that is hard-edged and minimalist. Patches of paint no longer float like figures, replaced by bands of horizontal colour that evoke contemporaries like Ad Reinhardt and (early) Frank Stella. You can only wonder where Rothko could have gone with this new format were it not for his suicide.

The first painting confronting the visitor entering the gallery has an opaque black, its grey section is more a soiled white. Broken brush scuffs of grey skip over the surface of black, and there is both speed and contemplation in the execution of this painting. To the left, Untitled, 1969, has a translucent grey-black, over a muddy grey. Washes and dry-brushed scumbles animate the veil of paint with an anxious energy. A lot more than tiny differences set these two paintings apart, and they open the proceedings up beautifully. There’s a language to them, rich in intonation if limited in vocabulary. To their right, Sugimoto’s Liguran Sea, Saviore, 1993, has such a sharp contrast that it feels like a painting, as if the colours meet on its surface as blocks. But as you approach you can make out the dark water’s low undulations emerging from a grey haze.

As you turn into the second suite of pictures, things diversify a little more. Sugimoto’s images diverge from the bisected format, some carrying soft patches of light that are hard to imagine as vast swathes of water. The largest Rothko (which is huge) taking a central place in the gallery seems to ground not only the images around it but also the people. Its extreme – but not hard-edged – horizontal of two metres or so foregrounds the living figures that intersect it in a way that a shoreline gives distant silhouettes an existential gravity. It’s this animation of the surroundings around the pictures that is most minimalist about them, that emphasises the break Rothko had made from his earlier work, not only in form but in the spirit in which they were intended: less imagistic and contemplative, more sculptural.

Lake Superior, Cascade River, 2003

Lake Superior, Cascade River, 2003

Sugimoto’s nature-capturing work is of course softer. Lake Superior, Cascade River, 2003, is almost monochrome, a uniform faint grey except, as you look closer, for the skeins of little waves that evaporate again as you step back. All these photographs situate you at the cusp not just of land, but also, in the imagination, at the cusp of consciousness in their evocation of a kind of primordial sublime. While Rothko’s late paintings attempt to turn away from romanticism, Sugimoto wholeheartedly embraces the tradition. Given that Sugimoto claims to have been driven in this direction by seeing these particular Rothko works in 1978, the notion that there’s a dialogue going on here starts to slip a little. This isn’t a conversation, this is a counterpoint duet.

Remote Control at the ICA

Those Who Don't Change Will Be Switched Off', by Simon Denny, 2012

Those Who Don't Change Will Be Switched Off, Simon Denny, 2012

I wrote this review for the Arts Desk 5 April 2012

Remote Control and its accompanying series of events, Television Delivers People, coincides with the analogue to digital switch-over, marking a shift in the history of a medium which will soon be eclipsed by on-demand content. While this may sound mundane on paper, the humble light-emitting box has been the elephant in the room for the last half-century, profoundly transforming living habits and shaping political discourse. What’s more, television at its worst has represented the kind of passive, habitual looking to which art-making is intrinsically opposed. The show itself is a survey of artistic meditations and interventions, looking to break open the social and political mechanics of programming.

The exhibition is torn between two poles: on the one hand is the physicality of the equipment, and on the other how the medium is used for artistic ends. Indicative of the former are Matias Faldbakken’s rough-shod casts of flat-screen television sets presented with partial cardboard and wood casing. These stained and fractured ghosts are evocative of urban decay but textured with the moulded contours of consumer technology. Then there’s Simon Denny’s remnants of a huge, now obsolete analogue TV transmitter, which, with its defunct switches and levers, occupies a central place in the gallery. But beyond its impressive size, it’s not really adding much to the discourse.

Beside this mass of old technology are artists’ TV projects, each of which you can watch with a single pair of headphones and totalling up several hours of footage. Richard Serra’s Television Delivers People, 1973, a bizarre addition to this sculptor’s oeuvre, is a polemic against the medium. White text floats up a blue screen while muzak plays, informing us that “You are the product of TV… You are delivered to the advertiser who is the customer”. It attempts to do what Serra accuses corporations of doing (changing our behaviour), but with less success.

Serra’s sloganeering can’t match the nuances and complexity of the medium, and more compelling are the artistic deconstructions of televisual language. Stuart Marshall’s The Love Show, 1979, examines constructions of sexuality, as does Joan Braderman’s satire of Dynasty, whilst KRIWET takes on that seminal moment of communal television-watching: the 1969 moon landing. Surprisingly, Andy Warhol and Chris Burden, two major artists who notoriously ventured into the medium, are not present.

Works upstairs mostly synthesise the physicality of equipment and television images. Taryn Simon’s Alhurra TV Broadcast Studio, Springfield, Virginia, 2006-07, reveals TV’s place in the soft-power strategy of the war on terror. We see an Arab channel funded by the US congress and broadcasting from the heart of America. A female newsreader sits serenely in profile under the gaze of floating cameras while on a background screen a masked man holds an enormous rocket-propelled grenade up to a far remote camera. Richard Hamilton’s famous image of the TV-mediated Kent State massacre is here, as is Mark Leckey’s Felix Gets Broadcasted, 2007, a beautifully shot film of an early test card machine.

In his 2007 book Feedback: Television Against Democracy, art historian David Joselit argued that in a world where democracy is conducted through images, art history has the capacity to become a political science. It’s a bold and true statement, but the problem with this show is that while it comes good on giving us a decent survey of artistic responses to TV, it doesn’t give them enough thematic context. It’s an ambitious show for the weakened ICA and credit is due, but a subject like this needs a major museum’s attention.