Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium

Radical Figures: Painting in the New Millennium

Whitechapel Gallery, London

until 30 Aug 2020

Since painting was pronounced dead in the 1980s, a new generation of artists has been revitalising the expressive potential of figuration. Charging their vibrant canvases with a social and political undertow, they echo the words of Philip Guston: ‘I got sick and tired of all that Purity. I wanted to tell stories’.

Michael Armitage 

#mydressmychoice, 2015 
Oil on Lubugo bark cloth
149.9 x 195.6 cm
Private Collection, London © Michael Armitage.

Photo © White Cube (George Darrell)

The paintings of Daniel Richter (b. 1962, Germany) draw from current events – the migrant crisis or Taliban mythology – as do Michael Armitage’s (b. 1984, Kenya) narratives of politics and violence in East Africa, equivocally conveyed in the lush, exoticised style of Gauguin. The rollicking surfaces of Cecily Brown’s (b. 1969, UK) canvases congeal into figures, whose sources range from pornography to art history, before dissolving back into painterly marks.

Sanya Kantarovsky 

Feeder, 2016 
Oil and oil pastel on canvas
190.7 x 140 cm
Tate: Presented by Stuart Shave © Sanya Kantarovsky; Courtesy of the artist, Modern Art, London, and Luhring Augustine, New York
Cecily Brown 

Maid's Day Off, 2005 
Oil on linen
200.7 x 198.1 cm
Courtesy of the Hiscox Collection © Cecily Brown. Courtesy the artist, Thomas Dane Gallery and Paula Cooper Gallery, New York

Nicole Eisenman’s (b. 1965, France) protagonists occupy a brightly lit universe that is both dream and nightmare, while Dana Schutz’s (b. 1976, USA) contorted figures give form to unconscious drives. Tala Madani’s (b. 1981, Iran) primal fantasies of abject men and children shift from comedy to debasement, from paint to shit. Sanya Kantarovsky (b. 1982, Russia) and Ryan Mosley (b. 1980, UK) look to art history, literature and children’s stories in their darkly humorous and carnivalesque scenes.

Ryan Mosley 

Cave Inn, 2011 
Oil on linen
Private collection. Courtesy of the artist, Galerie EIGEN+ART, Berlin / Leipzig and Tim Van Laere Gallery, Antwerp. Photo: Dave Morgan

Artists also critique from within or expand on the styles and subjects of canonical male painters. In Christina Quarles’s (b. 1985, USA) canvases, groups of polymorphous nudes are intimately entwined, merging with graphically patterned surfaces. Tschabalala Self (b. 1990, USA) pieces together paint, fabric and print for a cast of characters inspired by the streets of Harlem. Exuberant and explicit, each artist revels in the expressive potential of paint.

Dana Schutz 

Imagine You and Me, 2018 
Oil on canvas
223.5 x 223.5 cm
© Dana Schutz. Courtesy the artist, Petzel Gallery, NY and Thomas Dane Gallery

Leila Heller: La Grande Dame of Middle Eastern Art.

Leila Heller: La Grande Dame of Middle Eastern Art in conversation with Hania Afifi.

When the clock turned 7:00pm, a second window appeared on my screen and I saw the familiar perfectly coiffed blond bob of Leila Heller, swiftly followed by an extreme close-up of glossy lips.  Clearly, like myself, Heller was still grappling with the new norms of social distancing and online meetings.  

“Hellooo,” I exclaimed, failing to contain my excitement for the opportunity of interviewing a Middle Eastern art market legend.  She responded with a beaming smile and we quickly settled into our roles of storyteller and listener.  

Portrait of Leila Heller, Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

Heller grew up in Iran during the reign of Shah Ali Reza Pahlavi and moved to the United States of America in the mid-70s to pursue her undergraduate studies.  Initially, she intended to complete a degree in Economics at Brown University to follow through her father’s footsteps into the world of finance and business.  

Portrait of Leila Heller, Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

“I had no intention of studying art at university.  I was very much into economics.  I wanted to go back and become an immensely powerful woman … to be on the same level as men running businesses in Iran.” There was nothing unusual about women joining the workforce in Iran in the 1970s.  However, it was unusual for women to compete in business and trade with their male counterparts.  Yet, this did not deter Heller from pursuing this course of studies and interned every summer break at her father’s company until the first year of college.  “I really felt I was a good student, but by the time I got to Brown, I realised I am really not that great”, she explains, frankly.  Her sudden exposure to modern mathematics and computers; an alien object she had never encountered in Iran, left her feeling bewildered and not on par with her fellow students.  Fortunately, she had also enrolled in courses outside her major one of which was a study in art history’s Impressionism period.  And so, the formation of Leila Heller the gallerist had begun.

Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

Unlike the economic courses, the art classes proved to be a joyful ride for Heller.  She bolstered her wide art exposure during early life with academic understanding of historical contexts and artistic genres.  Her parents may have provided her with enticing visual experiences during museum visits across Europe, but it was Brown that shaped her artistic outlook.  Inevitably, she switched majors and left Brown with a BA in Art History and French Literature. Heller was determined to apply her newly gained art knowledge to further the work of the recently inaugurated Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art in 1977.  She joined Sotheby’s Institute of Art in London to acquire the necessary museum management and curation skills.  Her uncompromising work ethos and strive for perfectionism is best exemplified when she spent two hours digging through Sotheby’s outdoor garbage cart at St. George’s Street in search for a small piece of twine.

Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

“One day during lunch hour, I was at my desk and one of the gentlemen who worked in the front desk brought me a piece of plastic with twigs in it.  I asked him what am I supposed to do with this? And he said this is supposed to be a Christo, But Christo’s are wrapped!” she recalls vivaciously.  

It turned out the front desk had unwittingly unravelled Christo’s artwork and threw away parts of its assemblage which Heller rushed to salvage from the refuse pile of the auction house.  Although she re-wrapped the piece as instructed by her superiors, she continued to question its authorship until she met Christo many years later in New York.  He put her fears to rest when he re-asserted his authorship of the artwork, casting her as his inadvertent assistant.

Wrapped Magazines 
15 x 12 x 2" (38 x 30 x 5 cm)  
Polyethelene, rope, cord and magazines  
Photo: Christian Baur  
© 1962 Christo

Her zeal for perfectionism led her to a second museum studies program at George Washington University in the US.  Being only one of a handful of institutions that offered a post-graduate degree in museum and curatorial studies at the time, Heller was boosting her chances of securing a notable position at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art.  She opted to train at the Hirschhorn Museum during her final year where she worked with renown curator Miranda McClintic on the 1st ever retrospective exhibition for David Smith. “I learnt a lot from Miranda.  She was fascinating.  And I learnt a lot from Mr. Hirschhorn himself because when he would visit with his wife, I was put in charge of taking care of them.  He would show me a lot of the works he bought, where he bought them, why he bought them and why he collected so many French sculptures”, she fondly reminisces of that time.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 5: Leila Heller attends Inaugural Exhibition - March 6 - April 15, 2019 at Leila Heller Gallery on March 5, 2019 in New York. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/PMC)

Inevitably, all good things come to an end.  However, the end of Heller’s studies was nothing like she had planned.  Her final year at Washington coincided with the Iranian revolution of 1979 when the Shah of Iran was overthrown, and his government replaced by the Islamic Republic.

“My dreams of going back and becoming a curator in Iran never ever happened.  I moved to New York; where my brother had just gotten into Columbia Business Schools, without a job, not knowing what to do.  We were separated from our parents because our passports were cancelled.  For 2 years we didn’t see our parents.” Overnight, Heller and her brother found themselves stranded in a foreign country with cancelled passports, invalid residence permits and limited financial resources.  Once again, Heller was derailed off her chosen path by political turmoil.  In 1968, the student riots in Paris led her to switch from the French Lycée in Tehran and plans to study at the Université de Grenoble to an international school so that she can pursue her studies in the US.  Whilst the gravity of the situation was more intense this time, the outcome was the same.  Heller had to adapt and change course quickly.

“I reconnected with Lisa whom I knew from Brown at an event.  She was appointed Assistant Curator to Diane Waldman at the Guggenheim, and she offered to see what is available there”, recalls Heller.  She was content with whichever job was on offer and keen to acquire new skills.  She landed a position in public relations eventually working her way through the different departments at the museum until she was united with her friend and saviour Lisa Dennison, former director of the Guggenheim and current EVP and Chairman of Sotheby’s Americas, at the curatorial team. During her two years at the Guggenheim, Heller cultivated a support network who remain until today her best friends.  “I fell in love with being in a museum and the pain of being away from my family and being so scared about the future, they became my family.” She refers to the likes of Michael Govan; Director of LACMA, Wendy Lawson-Johnston; great grand daughter of Solomon Guggenheim, and the late Thomas Messer; former director of the Guggenheim museum as members of her extended family.

Heller moved from the Guggenheim to an investment bank where she became the curator-in-charge of their art collection.  She frequented artist studios like William Bailey and Martha Rosler to gain insights and a further understanding of artwork development.  During that period, the bank had acquired the renown French art publication Connaisance des Arts of Paris in which Heller became heavily involved learning the ins and outs of publishing and marketing.  When she obtained her green card and could travel again, she visited artist studios in Paris including Antonio Seguí and Fernando Botero.  By that time, Heller had witnessed and experienced all facades of an art piece.  From conception to resale, including exhibition, marketing, and promotion; she learnt it all and felt ready to embark on her own adventure.

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 5: Leila Heller attends Inaugural Exhibition - March 6 - April 15, 2019 at Leila Heller Gallery on March 5, 2019 in New York. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/PMC)

“It was Studio54 days.  The 80s in New York City were fascinating.  All the artists were a buzz, Warhol was there, The Factory and all those young great talents,” she enthuses.  I glimpse a flicker of light in her eyes when she recalls the unexpected reaction of Leo Castelli when she told him she wants to open her own gallery.  “Tony Shafrazi [former art advisor to the Shah of Iran and to Karman Diba the former director of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art] took me to meet Leo Castelli to get his blessing for Tony’s Soho gallery opening.  Leo was a father figure in the art community.  He was so nurturing and immensely helpful to Tony, and I said well, I am thinking of opening up an art gallery.  He said, my daughter … go open.  Any questions you have anybody you want to meet, just come to me.”

Indeed, it appears to be that the 80s were a time in which the art communities were happy to connect, collaborate and network regardless of financial implications.  There was a business side to the art world, but there was also a social element at which Heller excelled in.  

“I remember one night when Shafrazi was opening his gallery, he asked me for USD 1,000.  He said, “I need a $1000 in cash.  This guy wants cash.  Do you have a $1000 on you?””.  Shafrazi offered Heller a choice between 10 drawings by Keith Haring or 5 portraits of her executed by an emerging eastern European artist in exchange for the immediate loan.  “I stupidly in my vanity chose the 5 portraits of me by the Eastern European artist whom I forget his name, even Tony forgets it too.  If I had lent him the money for the 10 Keith Haring drawings, I would not have had to work today.” Such is Heller, courageous and at ease when she acknowledges her shortcomings to me.  That courage was finally directed towards a business venture that made her a name to be reckoned with in the art market.  Arguably the inception had begun during her Parisian visits whilst working at the bank, when she met many Iranian artists living in exile.  Some of them she knew since her childhood days in Iran, others, she was newly introduced to.  “I felt guilty that they had left Iran and had no career in the west.  All of them were lost and did not know what to do.  I felt like I need to do something for my compatriots”, she explains the driving motivation to opening her first gallery.

It was certainly no easy feat.  The Middle Eastern artists had not yet acquired a space on the global art scene.  To sustain her gallery, she represented American, European, and South American artists who were collected by the New York crowd whilst slowly developing her Middle Eastern artists and cultivating a market for them. “I met YZ Kami in Paris and encouraged him to move to New York City.  His name was Kamran Youssefzadeh, but I sort of changed his name.  I told him Kami, it’s going to be hard.  Youssefzadeh is a long name and everyone is going to ask you where you are from.  Iranians right now are persona non-grata with the American hostage crisis”, she reveals the story behind how the prominent Iranian American artist whose has been collected and exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney Museum, to name a few, had acquired his trade name. Her big breakthrough came in the form of a curated exhibition by Jeffrey Deitch in the summer of 1984.  Entitled Calligraffiti, the show which explored the gestural brush stroke in artmaking, combined western graffiti artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf with Middle Eastern artists; amassed by Heller, who engaged with calligraphy in some of their repertoires including Etal Adnan and Hossein Zenderoudi. 

Jacob Hashimoto, 'The Eclipse', 2017. Courtesy Leila Heller Gallery

The unprecedented amalgamation of western street art and progressive eastern calligraphy showcased the subliminal influence of abstract expressionism and pop art, thus demonstrating to western audiences the shared modern vocabulary in artmaking.  Deitch and Heller’s show narrowed the gap between east and west, unveiling modern and contemporary middle eastern gems that were buried under political tension.

“There were 120 artists in that show.  Of the 120 artists, 60 were graffiti artists.  There was also the Letterists from France.  We had a nude performance by a Letterist artist.  It was quite shocking as we did not know it was going to be performed in the nude.  In fact, David Nahmad’s secretary had almost fainted when she saw the dancer”, recalls Heller. The attendees list of the frenzied opening read like a Who’s Who directory of the artworld.  Kenny Scharf rubbed shoulders with Andy Warhol, CY Twombly with YZ Kami, Shirin Neshat with Thomas Messer.  The movers and shakers of the 80s artworld were at Heller’s gallery that May evening, and continued to party along with 3000 guests until the early hours of the next morning at Area; a celebrities night club that stood on Hudson Street in Manhattan.

Courtesy of Leila Heller gallery

Her successful joint curated show was revisited 3 decades later in the fall of 2013.  By then, Middle Eastern modern and contemporary artists were breaking records on the global auction scenes.  In fact, they accounted for 42% of total sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s for that year according to a published report by the financial consultant Moore Kingston Smith.

“I now had 4,000 feet of gallery space. We had El-Seed do the windows of the gallery and it was the first time El-Seed was exhibited in America”, continues Heller.  Like its predecessor, the exhibition enjoyed great publicity and many reviews.  Some were aghast at the hanging of Dubuffet with wall painted LA2 murals, others felt the Twombly’s paled next to ROSTARR, but all enjoyed the playfulness and enticing experience of the show and commended the expertly written exhibition catalogue. Although most galleries deal with the secondary market to stay financially afloat whilst their artists grow into sought-after names, Heller highlights the historical significance and artistic perspective of the pieces on display to lend them an educational element.  This is evident in the fact that a lot of the artworks in her curated shows including Calligraffiti are not-for-sale and students from different art programs are invited on guided tours of her exhibitions.  The curatorial art history background had never left her, and she still employs it to this day when searching for new artists.

“I have been looking for great Emirati artists ever since I opened my gallery in Dubai.  Since the world fair, which was supposed to take place in 2020 and now is postponed to 2021, was taking place in Dubai, it was going to be the year of Emirati artists”, she laments yet again her derailed plans.

Despite this setback, she installed midst the pandemic a solo exhibition for Abdel Qader Al-Rais; one of the UAE’s pioneering painters.  By showcasing the different phases of his artistic oeuvre that span from representational realism to meditative abstraction, Heller presented the painterly alternative to current understandings of the UAE’s art history as rooted in highly concept-based and anti-aesthetic installations.  Like other guest curated shows, she preserved the educational and historical context.

It has become increasingly apparent throughout our conversation that this was not your classic rags to riches story in which the protagonist overcomes adversity through perseverance and sheer force.  On the contrary, Heller hails from the bourgeois Iranian society where notable figures like her parents travelled the world and collected fine art.  Even Andy Warhol had mistaken her for a Persian princess.  Instead, this was a story that made me reflect on Epictetus words nearly 2000 years ago, when he wrote “Circumstances do not make a man [or woman] they merely reveal him to himself.”  Heller faced every calamity with grace and the classic Middle Eastern traits of collaboration and extending familial support.  Your mentors and your elders become your uncles and aunts.  Your friends turn into your brothers and sisters.  You extend to them the same love, respect, and generosity that your freely give to members of your own family.  As Heller said, “I just could not get the Middle East out of me”.

It is that familial setting which she loves most about the business environment in the UAE.  Speaking about the handling of the COVID 19 crisis by the local authorities, Heller gushed, “In the UAE, I feel we are doing it very much as a family,  It’s really a family and that is a feeling you can never have in the west because it is a big country.  Whereas here [in the UAE] everyone is so approachable, so kind and I really feel like I belong here”.

To Heller, the concepts of Home, Family and Friendship denote to the same things: love, warmth, comfort, and security.  She can adapt to whichever situation she finds herself in and climb over hurdles that life throws in her path if the aforementioned needs are maintained through the circle of people around her.

Investigating photography. Duane Michals’ narrative shots.

Investigating photography. Duane Michals’ narrative shots.

by Lorenza Zampa

Duane Michals, Heisenberg's Magic Mirror of Uncertainity, 1998, 1998 / Courtesy MEF - Museo Ettore Fico, Turin

A situationist, precise, resourceful, innovative; rebellious, passionate, daring to document or more simply a lucky “seeker”: this is the profile of the good photographer or the characteristics one must have to aspire to being one, then it would be enough to leave the house well equipped and just wait for the world to enfold with its outstretched arms, offering interesting ideas onto which one could rest the gaze on, even before the mind. A lot of photography seems to have been produced and appreciated precisely thanks to the virtue of this imitative principle, which would make the surrounding reality appear as an incredibly suggestive place, and the human eye as a white space where to record the “impressions” that in the best of cases become “interpretations” -, a place inside a place, reactive like an effervescent tablet dissolving in water.  

But not everyone aspires to be like Steve McCurry, or Letizia Battaglia, or Salgado, or Doisneau, just to name a few. In fact, it may happen that they consider themselves more important than all those renowned and continuous images that wander in the mind, waiting to come out and to find a meaningful visual narrative and content almost as important as the idea itself, which came simultaneously. This is what happens in the aesthetics of Duane Michals, an American photographer, who is now over 80 years old, and who had the merit of freeing photography from the hindrance of having to be a linear story, faithful to concrete reality, giving us instead photographic sequences that are small narratives, emotional and cosmic, with titles and captions that have an eschatological value. Above all, Michals did not impose his vision of the world on us but sought to show how complicated, as well as fascinating, investigating the mystery of the feelings whether they belong to oneself or to others. Photography becomes a humble but profound act of generosity that frees itself from a purely documentary character. In a delightful video interview from 1980 (Visions and Images: Duane Michals), the photographer, with the proverbial positivity that belongs to his fellows, clarifies what the essence of a good photograph is, and that the mind is what is most involved in its realization. The mind is what builds the structure of the well-defined questions on the meaning of existence. In this regard we should mention photographs such as “The human condition” (1969), “The fallen angel” (1968), “Chance meeting” (1972), “Letter from my father” (1975), “Heisenberg’s magic mirror of uncertainty” (1998), “Things are queer” (1973) and “Boogeyman” (1972), just to list some that even after visceral scrutiny can still leave questions unsolved. In fact, after denying of being «reportage person» who is just waiting to stumble on some magnificent or fortuitous event, he says that “the great wonder is that each of us has its own validity, its mysteries and it is the sharing of these gifts what really makes an artists». Some people define it as surrealist photography. Or a photography where the inner reality really happens in the outside world, and what is returned to us is a set of interweaving visions and reflections, a labyrinthine succession of pieces of infinity, a bit like in Gilbert Garcin, another great living photographer. The sequence of images to which Michals is most closely linked is “I build a pyramid” (1978), in which he knows how to express all the “creative potential of mistakes”, as he himself said. What appears in the six shots that make up the photographic narration is Duane himself, funny and obstinate: he is not far from the majestic pyramids of Giza, and we can see him positioning, almost stacking them on the sandy ground, some rough stones, which will eventually form a small imperfect pyramid, “bigger than the others if looked at from the right point of view”, as the photographer himself says jokingly. 

“We must fill our ears, our eyes of all of us with things that are at the beginning of a great dream. Someone must shout that we will build the pyramids, it doesn’t matter if we don’t build them, we have to nourish the desire”, as said by Domenico, the old madman of the film Nostalghia by Tarkowskij (1983), a characther who shares with Michals the obstinate courage to give importance not to what we see but to what we imagine can happen.

Interview with DARA BIRNBAUM

DARA BIRNBAUM in conversation with Kostas Prapoglou

Since the mid-1970s, Dara Birnbaum (b.1946, New York) has painstakingly been investigating the multi-layered ways television and film are constantly being resculpted and redesigned, reflecting contemporary economic and socio-political conditions. American mass culture has always been in the epicenter of Birnbaum’s visual lexicon. Her pioneering experimental video works focus on specific qualities that define the construction and deconstruction of the identity of American household through the prism of televised imagery and its ideological follies. Repetition, fragmentation, image manipulation and visual analysis are only but a few key-elements in Birnbaum’s practice. Her video installations are often characterized by profound architectural elements echoing her primary studies in architecture. 

Dara Birnbaum
Erwartung/Expectancy, 1995/2001
(Partial view)
Video projection on Duraclear mounted on Plexiglas with quadraphonic sound
Dimensions variable
Installation view, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2001
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Jon Abbott
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum
Dara Birnbaum
Damnation of Faust, 1984
Two-channel color video, quadraphonic sound, black & white photographic enlargement, and painted colored walls 
Dimensions variable
Installation view, S.M.A.K.(Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst), Ghent, 2009 
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Dirk Pauwels
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

Spanning six decades, Birnbaum’s career is empowered by the in-depth evocation of the balances between public and private domains. Her solo exhibitions and screenings have been presented at various museums and galleries around the world, some of which are: Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI), Rome, Italy (2019); Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, USA (2017, 2011, 2002) and London, UK (2018); South London Gallery, London (2011-12); Serralves Foundation, Porto, Portugal (2010); S.M.A.K. Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst, Gent, Belgium (2009); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2008 and 1981); Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna, Austria (2006); Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, Germany (1997); Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, Frankfurt, Germany (1996); École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, Paris, France (1994); The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA (1989); Kunsthaus Zurich, Switzerland (1986) and The Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Massachusetts, USA (1984). 

Dara Birnbaum
Photo credit: Rehan Miskci
Dara Birnbaum

Her work has widely been presented in hundreds of international group exhibitions at museums, art foundations and film festivals worldwide such as MoMA PS1, New York (2019); Bundeskunsthalle, Bonn, Germany; Espoo Museum of Modern Art, Finland (2019); National Portrait Gallery, London; Grand Palais, Paris (2018); Brooklyn Museum, New York (2018); The Met Breuer, New York (2017); Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (2017); J. Paul Getty Museum, Getty Center Los Angeles (2016); Hamburg Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany (2015); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2015); Museum of Modern Art, New York (2014); MACBA Collection, MACBA, Madrid, Spain (2012); Centre Pompidou, Musée National d’Art Moderne, Paris (2012); MoMA PS1, New York (2011); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (2008); The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (2007); Fine Arts Museum, Taipei, Taiwan / Museum of Contemporary Art Sydney, Sydney, Australia (2006); The Haifa Museum of Art, Haifa, Israel (2003); Venice Biennale, Venice, Italy (2003); XXIII Moscow International Film Festival, Moscow, Russia (2001); Seoul Biennial, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Seoul, Korea (2000); San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco (1999); Museum of the Moving Image, New York (1998); Guggenheim Museum Soho, New York (1997); Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris (1995); documenta IX (1992), documenta VIII (1987), documenta VII (1982), Kassel, Germany, and Whitney Biennial, The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1982). 

Dara Birnbaum
Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, 1978/1979 
(Video still)
 Single-channel video, color, stereo sound, 5:50 min.
 Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
 Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

She has also been the recipient of numerous prestigious awards such as The Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center Arts Residency (2011); the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (2011) and the prestigious United States Artists Fellowship (2010).

Dara Birnbaum
Psalm 29(30), 2016
Six-channel color video and sound; 8 min., looped
Installation view, Marian Goodman Gallery, Paris, 2016
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Rebecca Fannuele
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum

Kostas Prapoglou: 

Your visual vocabulary engages with the architecture of those tropes that dictate how truth and reality are being presented and communicated by the media to wide audiences. What triggered your interest in such a practice? 


I had become good friends with Suzanne Kuffler in the mid-70s and subsequently was asked to present my work alongside hers at Artists Space, NYC. At that time, I had barely begun to seriously approach my own art and mainly had been working on some performance/conceptual works (Six Movements,1975.) Confronted with my first gallery show, I had to think about what was most important to me at that precise moment and I realized that it was the language of television. This was directly because the average American family, in 1977, was –according to the Nielsen ratings– watching television some seven hours and twenty minutes per day. I felt that it was thus our main vocabulary and language. Journals, important to me, like Screen magazine from London, were analyzing film but never –at that time– approaching television. Therefore, I thought this type of television analysis must be done. My first show at Artists Space, entitled Lesson Plans: To Keep the Revolution Alive (1977), consisted of five sets of B/W photographic panels. Each set of five photos depicted a reverse angle shot from a prime-time crime-drama series on television and it was matched with a text panel, which revealed what was being said on TV during each of the captured still frames. Together, these pairings revealed to the viewer the way reverse angle shots were the prime piece of vocabulary for such shows. However, it seemed that viewers exposed to my work, took this critical information, or dialogue, home with them to explore other programs on TV, including and especially political programs. My second work, (A)Drift of Politics: Two Women Are Active in A Space (1978) took the popular TV-show Laverne & Shirley. I utilized the ‘two-shot’, which had these two women actresses (Laverne DeFazio and Shirley Freeney, as played by Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams) confronting the audience, thus the world, together. In the beginning of each show, these two actresses sang a song, which included the phrase “doing it my way”. Again, this show was presented with Suzanne Kuffler’s work, this time at The Kitchen, NYC. I continued using prime tropes from TV with Technology/ Transformation: Wonder Woman (1978/9). That work, now considered a classic of video art, utilized a ‘special effect’, when the average secretary turned into a ‘Wonder Woman’ to help save mankind. 

Dara Birnbaum
PM Magazine, 1982
Four-channel color video, three audio stereo channels, 6:30 min; 
two chromogenic prints, Speed Rail® structural support system, aluminum
trim, one wall painted Chroma Key Blue, and one wall painted red
Dimensions variable 
Installation view “Cut to Swipe” at MoMA, New York, 2015
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo credit: Jonathan Muzikar
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum


Shooting methods, language techniques and other broadcasting manipulation systems employed by the media have been the focus of your filmmaking for years. Have you detected a shift in these practices involving specific changes in the aesthetics and ideologies as well as the ways subliminal political meanings are structured and transmitted? How are these reflected in your work?


In 1980, I did a work in collaboration with Dan Graham entitled Local TV News Analysis for Cable-TV. We did this through A Space, Toronto, Canada. The work showed an hour of local TV news and we formatted the footage so that it revealed: 1) the inside of the television station and its control booth; 2) a family-at-home watching this news; and 3) the actual news broadcast itself. This composite of all three elements was then screened the following night on a separate cable-TV station, exactly during that next night’s evening newscast. It turned out that the structure of the news was basically the same from one night to the next. This included the way that the news was announced, to when certain types of stories would occur, to when the weatherman/woman would take over, to a recap, with some humor, etc. I think that since the mid-60s the structure of major network news has stayed mainly the same. However, CNN broke the mold when they delivered 24-hour international news. Now certain stations will do breakaways to major breaking news stories. Or, for example in the U.S., if the president chooses to make a speech to the country during prime-time, the news will breakaway for that. Some roles have changed. More women have been given bigger roles/positions, such as ‘anchor women’ on major stations in the U.S. Also, the traditional weatherman will now sometimes be a weatherwoman. Dan had previously observed that the formatting of the news team actually resembled the family-at-home, with the anchor being male and thus similar to the post WWII man in the U.S. at the head of his household. However, across the last decade the gender of such role positions has changed. In addition, several years ago stations such as CNN would have reporters in the field. With the desire to keep production budgets down, now there is more use of online interviews and ‘panels’ that perform commentary and less in-the-field work.  I also think that the audience is now more aware of such structures and that there is less oblique or subliminal political meanings behind newscasts. There is more directness as to the political leanings of each channel, or station. So, it is directly known that i.e. FOX news represents primarily Trump and the Republican right. Whereas, stations such as CNN are more overtly ‘democratic’ and present a more complete news picture, with some attempt to present both the left and right opinions of news stories. On the left you have stations such as MSNBC in America. For my own work, I have usually used news stories for the content of their shot, such as showing how CNN and CBS were both taken off-air by the Chinese government, in the summer of 1989, in light of the Tiananmen Square uprising (Tiananmen Square: Break-In Transmission, 1990). There is also in this work the footage from a cable channel (Channel-L on Manhattan Cable TV), where a song performed by sympathetic Taiwanese students was aired. However, it was coming through very broken up, but they chose to transmit it anyway. Major news channels would never have allowed such broken-up footage to be televised. I showed each of these critical moments in the work.

Dara Birnbaum
PM Magazine, 1982
(Partial view)
Four-channel color video, three audio stereo channels, 6:30 min; 
two chromogenic prints, Speed Rail® structural support system, aluminum
trim, one wall painted Chroma Key Blue, and one wall painted red
Dimensions variable 
Installation view “Cut to Swipe” at MoMA, New York, 2015
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo credit: Jonathan Muzikar
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum


You have been working in the fields of video and installation since the 1970s. How have these evolved over the past five decades?


The work has gone through several different phases. I would say that mostly from 1975-1982 I concentrated on being able to express several observations and concepts about the language of television. Hoping that by the use of different approaches –repeated edits, slo-mo, and then what became known as  ‘appropriation’ and ‘deconstruction’ of the vocabulary of this medium– I could reveal its hidden agendas and make this basically commercial media’s manipulation much more apparent. When I was in Documenta 7, in 1982, I felt that perhaps such manipulations were already becoming apparent, through my work and that of other artists (eventually known as The Pictures Generation) –such as Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine– whom I felt close to at that time. I decided to alter my strategy and started a series entitled Damnation of Faust Trilogy (1983-1987), where I composed my own imagery, yet again tried to dissect a mythology, that of Goethe’s and Berlioz’s versions of Faust. By 1987, when I finished this trilogy, I then took on other projects of interest –an Artbreak (1987) for MTV and Rio VideoWall (1989), as the winner of an international competition held by Ackerman & Company–for an ‘electronic art work’ for their commercial shopping center, designed by Arquitectonica. These projects, in ‘public space’ were an attempt to bring the investigations I was doing earlier on into a larger arena, while still providing a type of ‘deconstruction’. The 90s started a period of working more directly with political events, such as the kidnapping and slaying of Hanns Martin Schleyer (Hostage,1984) and the Gulf War (Transmission Tower: Sentinel, 1992). On the contrary, works from 2000 forward attempted to deal further with gender, such as Arabesque (2011) and Erwartung/Expectancy (1995/2001). By 2014, my focus went back to investigating how to express the necessities of our time, as through Psalm 29(30) (2016), which relates directly to Syria’s civil war and unrest and its subsequent devastation. This work compiles, in part, an interior chamber revealing footage from the World Wide Web, which soldiers –against the regime in power– shot while on patrol. The last work, which was also very political in nature, The Soul Train (2018) was actually censored by the very museum that commissioned it! This work explores civil unrest in this country in the 1960s. I thought its attempt at revealing this critical time period was crucial, perhaps too much so –given our current demonstrations and unrest in the U.S., which has emerged on the tip of the COVID-19 virus and as sparked by the murder of George Floyd.

Dara Birnbaum
Arabesque, 2011
(Partial view)
Four-channel video installation; four audio stereo channels; 6 min 30 sec., looped
Installation view, Marian Goodman Gallery, New York, 2011
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: John Berens
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum


Have you observed any significant changes in the way feminist artists express themselves through video or other/new mediums?


I have basically followed the dynamics of the changes that have occurred in mass media over the decades. Thereby, my concentration has not been in feminist art, although I am included in the category of ‘feminism’ in the arts. I have definitely attempted to unwrap the role of women, mainly historically, through such works as Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman, Arabesque, and Erwartung/Expectancy, etc. Works regarding the ‘role’ of men on TV have perhaps been less noted, although I feel they are equally strong, such as Pop-Pop Video: Kojak/Wang (1980). I think that grouping women artists into a feminist category can limit the reading of the work of the many women artists I know. There was a wonderful poster by the Guerilla Girls, which in part stated: “Don’t worry, any art you make will be called feminist”. This is not to discredit, at all, those women working very hard on the ability for women to strongly express themselves and also choosing to make strong statements directly affecting their voice through their gender. However, I have not followed through on those significant changes made by ‘feminist artists’ through video and other mediums. Perhaps now, with a bit more acceptance of ‘women artists’ their voices are all the more strongly felt and heard. 

Dara Birnbaum
Kiss the Girls: Make Them Cry, 1979
Two-channel color video, two channels stereo audio; 6 min 26 sec., looped
Installation view, The Art Institute Chicago, 2019
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum


What does someone like yourself think when watching the news today, especially with all these ongoing disturbances set off by the global pandemic and the current social unrest? To what extent do you feel artists will get influenced by these and how will they respond?


The only agreement I may have with our current president is that there is what he chooses to call ‘fake news’. Since the mid-60s in America, the news has been ‘owned’ by corporations, such as CBS, ABC, NBC, and CNN. Before that time, historically, news was not owned by corporations. The mid-60s was a turning point in America, with the killing of major important leaders ‘on the left’ such as John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King. However, ‘fake news’ is also a horrible term –causing one not to believe in anything, or any attempt to get real news across to the people of a country. It is just that if one chooses to educate oneself, it becomes possible to read the prejudices involved with most news stations. I would say that the majority of reporters in this country make a great attempt to give facts, but during such difficult times, ‘truth’ is very hard to come by. The use of the term ‘fake news’ is for this president an attempt to shut down valid news reporting, so that nothing can be believed. That is a crime and takes away from our first amendment rights. Artists have always questioned a dominant way of looking at the world. I believe that one gift of art is that perception is challenged and new observations can be made. The currency of these times challenges all, including artists. I would think that many artists will comment directly on this unique and critical time period. Others may choose to carry on the work they already have been engaged with, despite the overwhelming crises of this time. I would like to think that it is not the responsibility of artists to always and directly reflect their times. However, many may choose this path and that certainly can be for the good of a society. Already some people here, in the arts, are almost readily dictating that the only path an artist can choose, at this time, is to reflect the crisis we are in. I think this will happen naturally but does not have to be a dictate that all artists must pursue.

Dara Birnbaum
Transmission Tower: Sentinel, 1992
Eight-channel color video, nine channels stereo audio, two sections of Rohm steel transmission tower, custom-designed hardware and brackets
Installation view “Operations: The Gulf Wars 1991-2011” at MoMA PS1, 2019/2020 
Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery
Photo Credit: Alex Yudzon
Copyright: Dara Birnbaum


Do you see the beginnings of a new era in artistic expression following such paramount events?


Such epic events as the COVID-19 pandemic and recent protests and demonstrations, strongly based in current critical movements, such as Black Lives Matter, will certainly have an effect on many artists and creative people in the United States. I do think a new era in expression will evolve. In the U.S. there, for decades now, has been an emphasis on the marketing and commodification of art. Art was beginning to be seen as stock to some people, including investing and collecting enterprises. An earnest love of artwork seems to have been replaced by a wheeling and dealing mentality toward finding ‘genius’ artists, who are then collected. Just now, in the U.S., our unemployment is greater than it had been during the Great Depression. The art market is prepared for a serious hit. Perhaps a time of experimentation and freedom from commodification can re-emerge. That would seem to be a very good thing. We are at a point of inevitable destruction if we continue the ways in which we have lived and how we have treated our planet. We must choose a path out of this destruction, or we will be at the beginning of an end. Artists have, historically, paved the way for new insights and it is my hope that this can happen again.

Alison Jackson: Beyond the Truth

Alison Jackson: Beyond the Truth

by Dolores Pulella

Since its origin, photography has been perceived as a faithful reconstruction of reality and in this was the feature that made it feel almost miraculous; During its history almost two centuries long, the photographers that have sensed the power of the medium became more and more, understanding the potential of something capable of turning into reality even the images that were part of the subconscious, also thanks to the practice of artists that have operated in this sense, influenced by the art of Dada and Surrealism.


It can be said that the artistic path of Alison Jackson, an award-winning British artist, revolves around the ability of the photographic medium to make the lie true; any scene can become reality and therefore truth just by “activating the shutter”. This magic element of photography is used by Jackson to turn into reality thoughts that have become images in the minds of millions of people. The artist, first studied sculpting at the Chelsea College of Art and Design and then continued her artistic training studying photography at the Royal College of Art in London. Since the time of her graduation in 1999, she has focused her attention on the world of celebrities, and on how much this world is considered the pantheon of contemporary society. If at first her photographs were not well received, she was eventually asked to collaborate with the press and to work for television, winning the British Academy Television Award in 2003 for the series “Doublefake” made in collaboration with the BBC.

Alison Jackson, Queen, Camilla, Kate Hair Salon, ©

The key element in the modus operandi of Jackson’s work consists in putting under the spotlight famous personalities of our time, such as members of the royal family, politicians and international stars, and having them in embarrassing or in absolutely normal situations, she accomplishes this through the use of impersonators who she finds around the world. Once the mise en scène has been prepared, all that is left to do is to take the photograph which is then subjected to careful post-production work. The results are so close to reality that even an expert eye can be misled. This is how she realized her first shots of Lady Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed with a mixed race son, of Marylin Monroe with President J.F. Kennedy, of G. W. Bush and T. Blair in the sauna,of the bachelorette party of Camilla Parker Bowles, or Queen Elizabeth in her underwear, Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle as they fight furiously… just to name a few. These are scenes that “at least once each one of us has imagined”, Jackson says, and which become concrete thanks to her work that satisfies the voyeuristic thirst of an audience that looks at the “images” in need of reassurance .

Alison Jackson , THE QUEEN ON THE LOO,  C Type Archival Print  
Alison Jackson, WILLS, KATE AND THE BABY IN THE BATH C Type Archival Print

In recent years the artist has been attracted to the controversial figure of Donald Trump. In November 2016, she organized a flashmob protest with an impersonator of the President in front of the Trump Tower in Manhattan, in addition, she made him the protagonist of several provocative shots in which he appears in compromising poses, particularly significant is the famous one with Miss Mexico.

Alison Jackson , TRUMP SPRAY TAN C Type Archival Print

In Jackson’s work, which has been defined by some as “humorous”, there is a certain component of protest, an invitation to reflect on the characters who decide the political fate at a global level. This is the case of the series of photographs featuring Bush and Blair at the time of the war in Iraq, or those of David Cameron and Boris Johnson. It could be said that it is a humor flavoured with a certain dose of political satire, a form of protest that masks itself with irony. In addition to investigating the contemporary Olympus of celebrities, in the “Disaster” series the artist has focused on the feeling of fear that pervades us when we mentally see ourselves projected in a plane crash, a terrorist attack or the sinking of a ship, sometimes, in fact, anticipating what would become reality. Although photography and video are her expressive media of preference, Jackson has also experimented with sculpture, the subject of her first degree, always with the aim of confusing the context of reality and fiction; this led to the silicone sculptures of G. W. Bush, D. Trump and Queen Elizabeth, exhibited at the Tate in London and at the Center G. Pompidou in Paris.

Alison Jackson , TRUMP COCKTAIL C Type Archival Print

Alison Jackson’s works are currently part of the collections of MoMA San Francisco, the Royal College of Art in London, the Center Pompidou in Paris and the Musée de la Photographie in Charleroi, and have been exhibited in the most prestigious museums, galleries and international events such as Fotografiska Stockholm and Tallin, the Hayward Gallery, Paris Photo, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the International Center of Photography in New York, the Venice Biennale, the Musée de la Photo in Montréal and the Kunsthalle in Vienna.

The dream of life in the magical reality of Petrit Halilaj

The dream of life in the magical reality of Petrit Halilaj

The artistic research of Petrit Halilaj (born in Kostërrc, Skenderaj-Kosovo, in 1986) could be considered part of the artistic and literary current of the magical realism where reality and imagination, political and folklore elements, personal and collective memory are mixed.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

Petrit Halilaj operates on a traumatic past that links his personal experience to the history of his country of origin, Kosovo. Born during the war in the ex-Yugoslavia, the artist subsequently emigrated to Italy where he grew up and completed his artistic training. His practice consists in re-elaborating the facts of the past and the reality that constitutes it, transforming it into an imaginative universe in order to wake up the collective and personal consciousness.In a history of violence, the daily experience is interwoven with symbols that obsessively refer to  traumatic events. This characteristic can be summarized in the phrase: “I am here to remind you that that time you forgot something, but you survived” which is repeated obsessively until the everyday life is unbearable and the present is unreal.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

In Halilaj’s practice, the elements of reality that belong to history are transformed, they become part of a dictionary of symbols that includes birds, canaries and chickens, the nest, the ocarina, a Neolithic musical instrument, moths etc. Instead of being removed, these elements are reintegrated into a horizon of poetic creation that returns to act on reality by modifying it. Shkrepëtima, the exhibition presented at the Merz Foundation in Turin in 2019, curated by Leonardo Bigazzi, on the occasion of the awarding of the Mario Merz prize, is the representation of an awakening of consciousness. Shkrepëtima, in fact, is an Albanian term that means ‘lightning’, as in a ‘flash of genius’, or in the expressions “Eureka! I got it, I understand”. It is an expression that indicates the awakening of the mind, in the complete sense of body, soul and intellect. The exhibition was the final event of a project divided into three parts: the first consisting of a large-scale performative effort presented at the Casa della Cultura in Runik, the artist’s city of origin, on July 7, 2018.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

The theatrical performance was part of the final event, of a real and direct intervention by the artist within the space that had been left neglected and abandoned due to the war. Back in Runik, Halilaj decided to ‘occupy’ the House of Culture by reorganizing its spaces and cleaning it from the rubble. With the latter, he then created sculptures that gave birth to the scenography of the performance and which were subsequently installed at the Merz Foundation. The main work of this scenography titled Dreaming on, fast asleep, your face came to my mind.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

When I open my eyes it was nowhere to be found (2018), is a ‘nest-bed’ from which millions of fragments of wood that seem to have exploded branch off in the air. The plot of the show is the story of a boy who falls asleep and dreams of some characters, half man and half bird, who explain to him how he can save the House of Culture. Following the artistic performance, which also involved the citizens of Runik, the space was finally declared as part of the cultural heritage and, therefore, worthy of being preserved. Changing reality through imagination is an act of refuge and escape at the same time. Precisely through the creation of a parallel world we can accept reality and what is its very essence, the solitude and the absurdity of life. The second moment of this project was an exhibition at the Paul Klee Zentrum in Bern, an occasion that eventually represented a link with his previous artistic effort.

Petrit Halilaj
Poisoned by men in need of some love (Falco Peregrinus, Falco berigora), 2013/2020
iron, cow excrement, soil, glue, brass
57 × 253 × 201 cm (22 ½ × 99 ⅝ × 79 ⅛ inches)

The sculptures of the series Poisoned by men in need of some love are hand-sculpted copies of many of the taxidermy animals once displayed in the former Natural History Museum of Kosovo.
Funded in 1951, the museum existed until 2001, when an official decree ordered that the museum’s entire animal collection would be removed and stored in a rather unsafe way, behind hidden doors in various cellar-like storage facilities. The artist discovered the the lost museum collection and its destroyed animals between 2011 and 2013. The video July 14th documents step by step their rediscovery.
The sculptures are made from a mix of earth and animal excrement, partly from the artist’s native Kosovo, and based on the found photographs portraying the state of the animals before they were removed. Copies from photographic copies of already dead originals, they convey a sense of absurdity, levity, but also incredible tenderness.
Halilaj’s project attempts to give the museum and its specimens another life and a renewed political resonance.

On display were some of the sculptures made in Runik and a video installation, The city roofs were so near that even a sleepwalking cat could pass over Runik without ever touching the ground (2017), where the artist shows the story of the archaeological findings of the Neolithic period discovered in the same region; among these there is also an ocarina, a musical instrument whose sound can be used to imitate the verse of birds, and which recalls the sound of a flute and that now is kept in the History Museum of Belgrade in Serbia. The exhibition also featured some installations of the RU exhibition presented in 2017 at the New Museum in New York. Among these, particularly worthy of a mention is the work Big Wall (2017), a wall built from a set of branches from which small sculptures emerge, as faithful reproduction of the archaeological finds discovered in Runik, to which the artist has added thin bird-like legs, creating half-object and half-volatile mutant creatures, entangled in huge giant nests.

Petrit Halilaj
I don't have a Room, I don't have a Mind. 
Nevermind!, 2014
Canary costume
Dimensions variable

The exhibition at the Paul Klee Center also presented a series of drawings of birds and the same fantastic creatures, object-bird hybrids, this time made on the documents and the accounts of the Theater. Birds are something that may appear seemingly innocent and that that we believe we can dominate and control for life, locked in a cage, perhaps a golden one. But suddenly they wake up, and they wake us up, with their singing and their voice.

Something that at the same time welcomes us and rejects us. Something that looks at us from the other side, they always observe us. No matter what we do, they constantly appear before us as intruders in our city life. The final phase of the Shkrepëtima project is the installation at the Merz Foundation, which reproduces the space of the Runik Culture House and where the sculptures and installations that served for the sets were transferred. Also part of the display were the ‘bird-man’ costumes, used by the actors and personally made by the artist, a figure, halfway between the human world and the natural world, with divinatory and supernatural powers. These characters cross the boundaries between dream and reality and like birds they communicate and they know no barriers or boundaries.

Petrit Halilaj, Alvaro at Night (13.01.2020), 2020
Wood, metal, fabric, speakers, mp3 player, sound, Variable dimension
40 × 23 × 43 cm (15 ¾ × 9 × 16 ⅞ inches) 10 min. 48 sec. loop

Alvaro at Night (13.01.2020) is a sound installation by Petrit Halilaj. In this work, Halilaj built a birdhouse and placed in it a recording of his partner and occasional collaborator, Alvaro Urbano, while sleeping on January 13 2020. 
Embracing the symbol of the nest as a shelter and a protective structure, the work provides a glimpse into the private sphere. Both charming and effacing, Alvaro at Night invites reflection upon the balance of love, the sometimes disruptive consequences of sharing a life as complementary parts of human nature.
The work is an ongoing series continued individually by both artists. Alvaro Urbano’s series Petrit at Night is a series of birdhouses with sound recordings of Halilaj sleeping. Each birdhouse contains a recording from a different night, and has a unique shape.
The two groups of works, which refer to each other, constitute the notion of a continuously developing portrait of a partner.

The bird man with a feathered hat allows everyone to dream, but not in order to close the world outside and not even to close it inside, but to sink into the abyss of the imagination, transforming the world into a possibility when also reality. The textile medium is continuously present in Halilaj’s artistic practice, we have a relevant example in the work Do you realize there is a rainbow even if it’s night? presented at the Venice Biennale in 2017 and at the exhibition at the Hummer Projects in 2018. The artist made a series of moth-shaped costumes by hand with the help of his mother, which were then worn by the artist to interact with the visitors of the exhibition. The costume and the mask are therefore the means that allows Halilaj to communicate what is not immediately conveyable, what in fact can only be expressed through body language, what is needed to find the strength that allows us to manifest our nature without having fear of showing our fragility. Like moths, which transform and evolve in various stages and in various directions. Starting in 2014 Petrit Halilaj began a creative journey together with the Madrid-born artist Alvaro Urbano. The two, in parallel with their individual practice, have developed a research that reflects the possibilities of a coexistence in a humanized horizon of natural elements. Almost at the beginning of their coexistence, Halilaj and Urbano decided to have canaries as pets in their study and to take care of them. But instead of locking them in a cage they left them free, or rather in a condition of semi-freedom. Thus starting a process that closely resembles that used by falconers and that in technical jargon in the breeding of hunting birds is called ‘manning’.

Photo by Andrea Rossetti Courtesy of ChertLüdde, Berlin and Petrit Halilaj

“For the birds” is the work conceived after a year of residence in Villa Romana in Florence and subsequently presented in the group show “Trouble in Paradise” at the Bundeskunsthalle in Bonn. The installation consisted of a path designed to make the canaries fly from the apartment where the artists lived to their studio, a tubular structure made of a fence net for chickens and of  wire which followed the flight of the birds.

The manning of birds in falconry is a very ancient art. The birds of prey in particular could not and should never be completely domesticated since otherwise they would lose their hunting instinct. In the manuals of the 17th century this coexistence without submission based on mutual respect is obtained through patience, gentleness and love. And still today in Mongolia, and in the regions on the border between Russia, Kazakhstan and in Korea, there are nomadic tribes that live together with the Golden Eagles. Eagles that are not restrained in cages but that share the same spaces as humans, sleeping and eating with them, exactly like the canaries of Halilaj and Urbano.

Halilaj’s research summarizes and expands within a horizon that goes from Surrealism to Arte Povera that then collects the most recent performative heritage that goes from Joseph Beuys to Felix Gonzales Torres. Petrit Halilaj’s art has to do with cure and remedy, even when this involves fatigue and pain. Imagination plays an important role here and can be understood in many ways. In Halilaj’s practice, in fact, he seems to gather the power of a defense mechanism, a barrier between ourselves and the world around us, which protects us when we don’t agree with it or we don’t like it. But it is also, at the same time, a remedy for pain when we cannot find the words to express it. Fantasy detaches from reality and leaves room for the intervention of various symbols that remind us of the power of life. These symbols bring with them what has upset us and how we have saved ourselves. They remind us of how we survived and what threatened us, acquiring the power to subvert and change reality. It is as if they were resurrecting a tree branch, a childhood memory, a piece of straw, and transforming it into something alive, like a nest.

Elda Oreto

BROADCAST / Alternate Meanings in Film: Chapter Three

BROADCAST / Alternate Meanings in Film: Chapter Three

Gagosian Online

June 30 – July 20, 2020


You’re only as young as the last time you changed your mind.
—Timothy Leary

Broadcast: Alternate Meanings in Film and Video employs the innate immediacy of time-based art to spark reflection on the here and now. Looking to the late 1960s—a historical moment marked by deep uncertainty, social unrest, and radical transformation—this online exhibition loosely adopts famed psychologist and countercultural icon Timothy Leary’s mantra “turn on, tune in, drop out” as a guide for negotiating our present moment.
The third chapter presents five films and videos by artists who adopt experimental approaches to explore the unique potential of their respective mediums.

William Forsythe - Alignigung II (still), 2017; Single channel video; 16 min. 30 sec.
Choreographic Concept: William Forsythe, Rauf "Rubberlegz" Yasit Choreographic realization: Riley Watts, Rauf ”RubberLegz” Yasit Music: OP.1 (For 9 Strings) by Ryoji Ikeda © Ryoji Ikeda Cinematographer: Steeven Petitteville

In “Turn On,” William Forsythe and Steven Parrino use unconventional means to generate awareness of their immediate environments. In Alignigung II (2017), Forsythe treats the intertwined bodies of his two performers as tools for exploring the limits of the self and other. In Guitar Grind (1995), Parrino “turns on” to the possibility of using the bass guitar and amplifier atypically, whether as a “bow” for a guitar or an apparatus to generate feedback noise, respectively.

Sterling Ruby - Hiker (still)
2003; Single Channel Video; 2 min. 20 sec. - © Sterling Ruby

The two works included in the “Tune In” section represent divergent approaches to complicating mass-media conventions. In his commercial for fashion brand Jun Ropé in 1973, Richard Avedon presents an exploration of the social performance of gender identity that deviates from the typical content found in the television advertisement genre at the time. In Hiker (2003), Sterling Ruby deploys various horror film techniques—such as a lurking camera perspective and evocative sound design—in a short video of a female trekker ascending a mountain, casting a sinister pall over the otherwise innocuous visual content.

Representing the curatorial category of “Drop Out,” Man Ray’s film Emak Bakia (1926) exemplifies the visionary techniques and oneiric imagery that characterize the early twentieth-century avant-garde movements of Dada and Surrealism, which sought to awaken contemporary society to alternative possible realities no longer beholden to rational thought.

Man Ray - Emak Bakia (still)
1926; 16 millimeter black and white, silent, motion picture; 16 min. - © Man Ray Trust/ADAGP

Each chapter of Broadcast will introduce a new set of films and videos on Tuesdays. The next chapter will debut on July 21.

Rinus Van de Velde: Ashtrays

Rinus Van de Velde: Ashtrays

KÖNIG Galerie, London

Wed 1 Jul 2020 to Sat 8 Aug 2020

KÖNIG LONDON presents Ashtrays, an exhibition of recent works by Belgium-based artist Rinus Van De Velde. This is Van De Velde‘s fourth solo exhibition with König Galerie, and his first at König London.

Rinus Van de Velde: Ashtrays; Installation view. Damian Griffiths, courtesy of KÖNIG LONDON.

As an artist working across a variety of media, Rinus Van de Velde has made a career of exposing the limits and potentials of art’s seeming unreality. Van de Velde’s work suggests that the fictitious quality of art relates to its distance from the particulars of everyday life. But if art is something that we can only experience at select – one might even say privileged – moments, viewers still have to account for the living, breathing personalities who shape a work. While centuries of criticism have claimed that art should aspire to disinterested formalism, Rinus Van de Velde foregrounds the strange identity of an artist with his art. The fact that he often uses an alter ego to sign off on his works serves to make the relationship between an artist and his art even more apparent – as well as wryly conspiratorial.

Rinus Van de Velde: Ashtrays; Installation view. Damian Griffiths, courtesy of KÖNIG LONDON.

For Van de Velde, dramatic characterizations provide the key to an ongoing story about the imbricated relationship of art and life. In the current show, ashtrays become the symbolic complement of this narrative awareness. As objects referencing design, they nevertheless take on an expressive aspect similar to sculpture. The unwieldiness of Van de Velde’s ashtrays, which are replete with little creatures at work or play, denizens of a miniature Bosch-like landscape, compels viewers to become complicit in their still-frame lives. To the extent that we might think to actually use these ashtrays, we become little gods, ominously lording it over the majesty of an alienated creation, exhaling plumes of fire.

Rinus Van de Velde: Ashtrays; Installation view. Damian Griffiths, courtesy of KÖNIG LONDON.

Rather than relying on an abstract notion of process, Van de Velde fleshes out the reality of process in the form of dramatis personae. Making ashtrays under the guise of an alter ego, which is both the artist himself and something of a literary guise plucked from his unconscious, he continues to pioneer a distinctive sensibility, known to manifest itself as large-scale charcoal drawings, or environing installations pieced together from rudimentary materials found in his studio. For Van de Velde, art is best dished in the form of a mask, a fictitious host. Simultaneously, his chosen persona takes on the borrowed flesh of the artist it recreates, simulating the individuated life of a person bound to the realities of birth, suffering, and death. Tracing out the contours of a projected self which is larger than life, or, in this instance, smaller than life, Van de Velde showcases the range of decisions made possible when art melds with artifice – whenever a fictive ego substitutes for biography.

Rinus Van de Velde: Ashtrays; Installation view. Damian Griffiths, courtesy of KÖNIG LONDON.

Born in 1983 in Leuven, Belgium, Van de Velde lives and works in Antwerp. His solo shows include The Colony, at KWM Art Centre Beijing (2019); Now I am the night of nights, at Kunstpalais Erlangen (2018); Rinus Van de Velde, at Gemeentemuseum (2016); Donogoo Tonka, at SMAK, Ghent (2016); Kunsthalle Sao Paolo(2015); and CAC Malaga (2013). Upcoming one-person exhibitions will be held at Kunstmuseum Lucerne, FRAC Pays de la Loire, Nantes, and BOZAR – Centre for Fine Arts Brussels, Belgium. Rinus van de Velde was in- cluded at group shows in international institutions such as the Hayward Gallery, UK (2018-2019); Kunstmuseum Luzern (2018); Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen (2018); CAFA Art Museum Beijing, China (2014); and Nanzuka Underground Gallery Tokyo (2011).

Ólafur Elíasson / Beyond Human Time

Ólafur Elíasson / Beyond Human Time

i8 Gallery, Reykjavík

Thu 25 Jun 2020 to Sat 15 Aug 2020

Ólafur Elíasson’s newest exhibition at i8, Beyond human time, brings together recent watercolour artworks by the artist. Watercolours have been a sustained interest of Elíasson’s that he has used since 2009 to investigate colour, movement, and time. The works often conjure subtle illusions of space and light through the repeated application of thin, transparent washes onto a single sheet of paper in a meticulous, highly physical production process. i8 is pleased to present two series of related works and a new, large format painting made with melting glacial ice.

ÓLAFUR ELÍASSON - Beyond human time
2020; watercolour, pencil on paper; 153 x 230,2 x 8 cm - Courtesy of i8 Gallery.

The seven works entitled Solar short-term memory are each built around a central glowing, contemplative circle. Spreading out from this central motif, a series of concentric variegated rings reveal that the surrounding greyish colour field is in fact the accumulation of layer after layer of colour. For viewers who stare at the circle intently for a few seconds, these works also conjure an afterimage effect. A spectral circle in the complementary colour of the work remains in the viewers’ eyes once they look away. Because this image is actually inside the eye of the beholder – in your sensory apparatus, that is – you are in a sense the one who makes the artwork; you are the artist.

ÓLAFUR ELÍASSON - Solar short-term memory (14 seconds)
2020; watercolour, pencil on paper; 71,6 x 53,9 x 6 cm; Courtesy of i8 Gallery.

The smaller paintings, called Circular hand dance voids, feature delicate, hand-drawn ellipses that bear the imperfect traces of the drawing process that went into the creation of the works. The overlapping shapes and muted palettes conjure an illusion of transparency and shallow depth. The ellipse is a recurring motif in Elíasson’s oeuvre, important to the artist for its spatial ambiguity and sense of motion.

ÓLAFUR ELÍASSON - Circular hand dance voids (Bhutan book)
2020; watercolour, pencil on paper; 39,8 x 28,8 x 4 cm; Courtesy of i8 Gallery.

Both series explore the relation between what the artist terms ‘voids’ and ‘solids’, between the (almost) blank paper and the areas where paint has been applied. Since lighter hues are achieved in watercolours by diluting the pigments with water rather than by adding white, the areas of the works that seem the most luminous are those that contain the least amount of paint. For Elíasson, the artworks arise in this subtle dialogue between intense layers of paint and patches of almost bare paper, just as cities consist of both their built environments and the atmospheric spaces between buildings.

ÓLAFUR ELÍASSON / Beyond Human Time
Installation view, courtesy of i8 Gallery.

The eponymous work of the exhibition, Beyond human time, was produced using pieces of ancient glacial ice that were fished from the sea off the coast of Greenland during production of the large-scale installation Ice Watch, 2014. For that work, realised by Elíasson and the geologist Minik Rosing on three occasions from 2014 to 2018, the large chunks of Greenlandic ice were allowed to melt in public spaces around Europe to raise awareness of the effects of climate change and to encourage action. Elíasson used small fragments from these blocks for the work presented here. The ice was placed on a sheet of thick paper atop thin washes of colour. As the ice gradually melted, the resulting water displaced the pigment, producing organic swells and fades of colour. Employing chance and natural processes, these watercolours are experiments that attempt to enlist the spontaneous behaviour of natural phenomena as active co-producers of the artwork. The artwork thus bears within it traces of time – the days it took to produce it and the millennia it took the glacier to form.

Peter Peri / Course

Peter Peri / Course

Almine Rech Gallery, London.

June 18 — July 31, 2020

Almine Rech London presents Course, an exhibition of recent work by London-based artist Peter Peri, on view from June 18 to August 1, 2020. This will be the artist’s fourth exhibition with the gallery.

Peter Peri - Blind Field 1
2019; Marker pen and spray paint on canvas; 55 x 45 cm - Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery

Candy-striped beams radiate around a quadrilateral shape, bleeding. Hand drawn with a ruler, aerosol paint and flecks of ink, the coloured lines exude demonic symmetry. Staring at Peter Peri’s large painting Super Topology (2019) resembles something like riding a carousel at a haunted, Victorian-style fun fair, whirling into the dark. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the artist’s earlier projects were inspired by horror novels. I sense the phantom of writer H.P. Lovecraft lurking beneath the saccharine grid on view here. In the 1920s Lovecraft – who was a real noxious ghoul – drifted around New England’s white, neo-Gothic buildings and picket-fenced, emerald lawns, penning weird tales inimitable in their vistas of despair and bone-soaking chill. Peri’s paintings, such as The Call (2005), referenced Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu mythos’: a cycle of stories about a Leviathan-like creature who rises from the depths of time to torment humanity. Peri’s spiralling compositions remind me of Lovecraftian narrative arcs: the writer’s monstrous ‘circling’ around a cold space. They synthesize a vortex and pull you into the centre.

Peter Peri - Super Topology
2019; Marker pen and spray paint on canvas; 190 x 280 cm - Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery

As titles such as Super Topology suggest, the works are also imbued with the cerebral gloss of early twentieth century Modernism. In revolutionary-era Russia, for instance, artists painted geometric shapes against plain grounds in a visual enactment of radical philosophy. They probed deep mathematics and the laws of physics within their practices. And then watched them fall apart. Kazimir Malevich’s Suprematist oil painting Black Square (1915) depicted a void of infinite blackness that swirled all logic into oblivion. It invoked a darkling lunarscape lifted from the Futurist opera Victory Over the Sun (1913), which imagined a solar system where the sun is caged inside a concrete cube, dripping crimson fire.

Peter Peri - Blind Field 3
2019; Marker pen and spray paint on canvas; 185 x 75 cm - Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery

Nearby, in Peri’s drawing Soldiers March (2020), the artist smudges Suprematist sublimity with old-fashioned experiments in opticality. Created using a magnifying glass and pencil on unbleached paper, up close the hairline-like markings shimmer and flow. (The spidery texture is disarmingly real – I wonder if each strand may horripilate in cool air.) From afar, however, the metallic contours transmogrify into a jagged, three-dimensional structure, wielding points as sharp as a silver dagger. Step forward and disembodied faces float within the tan, leather-soft backdrop, gently rousing you out of the abstraction’s spell. The ground’s naturally occurring dots and slashes become an angelic eye, or an aquiline nose, with the wave of a warlock’s wand.

Peter Peri / Course; installation view; Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery.

Looking at Peri’s paintings can also resemble falling down a pictorial wishing-well. In Tower of Rising Clouds (2019), for example, viewers are transported back through history’s silvery mist to the ninth century court of imperial China, where the painter Mi Fu is blotching a pane of silk with ink, glittering wetly. Dark, cursive brushstrokes and nude flushes feign the Chinese landscape. Back to the present: Peri’s vertical seams simulate three-dimensional curves. Their compositional arrangement reanimates Fu’s undulating hilltops as if now levitating in front of the canvas. Elsewhere, in Blind Field 3 (2020), bluish grooves cascade down another graphic landscape. Collectively, these works evoke the ancient Chinese painting technique and belief in ‘dragon veins’, along which waterfalls, mountains and luxurious greenery conjured the Earth’s enchantment. It’s as though the exhibition were the result of some transtemporal, art-historical meeting, existing, like a Lovecraftian extra-terrestrial, within the cracks between dimensions.

Peter Peri - Soldiers March
2020; Graphite on unbleached paper; 78 x 210 cm; Courtesy of Almine Rech Gallery.

‘Course’ also refers to progressions of time. The idea being that the works achieve, what I would describe as a ‘visual time’, from a sensation of their own making. But the noun ‘course’ also delineates a process in architecture: a slow, ‘continuous horizontal layer’ of stone within another wall. Peri’s rainbow streams are embedded within thick black grounds. He tells me this is a visual metaphor paralleling earlier artistic experiments with temporality. In H.G. Wells’ novella The Time Machine (1895), for example, the Earth melts into a state of entropy. As the protagonist time-warps they witness, and are sometimes sequestered within, layers of decaying rock. In the final pages Wells drops you onto what remains of the planet’s sweeping, white sands to watch a dying star. The smouldering sun grows to a perilous size, fading red.

Gabriella Pounds


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