Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Women's Equality Day at the Democratic National Convention

Yesterday, August 26, was Women's Equality Day, commemorating the 88th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment which granted women the right to vote in the United States. At the Democratic National Convention, women were all over a program which included near-miss presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, Kansas governor Kathleen Sebelius, Arizona governor Janet Napolitano (whom I can't help but confuse with Concrete Blonde singer Johnette Napolitano), and equal pay activist Lilly Ledbetter. Despite the preponderance of powerful, successful women and their heartfelt speechifying, there was plenty of evidence that equal rights for women aren't yet a reality.

Lilly Ledbetter at DNC

Ledbetter's case is particularly discouraging. Over 20 years of solid, hard work at Goodyear Tire, she was consistently paid less than male peers for the same work. Upon discovering the discrepancy, she filed a suit which she won at the District Court level, but lost on Supreme Court appeal. The Supreme Court decision that equal pay lawsuits must be filed within 6 months of the offense, not the discovery of the offense, essentially protects all employers from liability for discriminatory practices. Employees are prohibited from knowing what their peers are paid, so how can they know about discrepancies in time to file a lawsuit? This case was one of the very worst examples of how the Bush presidency has destroyed the Judicial branch. A House bill to rectify this egregious pandering to corporate interests was killed in the Senate. Congratulations ladies (and men - anyone can suffer discrimination), you officially have no recourse.

Kathleen Sebelius at DNC

Another disgusting example of entrenched sexism was provided by the commentary surrounding Sebelius' speech. A few weeks back, Kathleen Sebelius was the subject of much speculation as a possible Vice Presidential candidate on the Obama ticket. On broadcasts today, it was accepted as given that she could not have been selected because the choice of another woman would offend Hillary Clinton and her supporters. This is probably true, and if so it is genuinely appalling and reactionary behavior by so-called feminists. To promote the stereotype that women won't support other women in the professional realm, and that there can only be one token woman in a leadership position in any organization, is entirely counterproductive. Between this and the P.U.M.A. morons, die-hard Clinton supporters are poised to set women's rights back by decades. News flash - equal rights sometimes means an equal right to come in second, not preferential treatment when it suits you and equality the rest of the time. These self-righteous and spiteful characters definitely fall into the "won't you just die already?" category.

Hillary Rodham Clinton at the DNC

Finally, it bears noting that Bill Clinton - with his peevish, over-macho posturing with respect to Barack Obama - continues not to do his wife any favors politically. She spent decades grooming and nurturing him into the highest office in the land, stood by him when his megalomaniacal sexual deviancy got him in heaps of trouble, and this is how she is repaid. Why she and her class act of a daughter haven't kicked him to the curb is beyond me.

At least one ongoing thorn in my side seems to have resolved. It never ceased to bug me throughout the primaries when commentators would refer to Candidate Clinton as "Hillary" while referring to Candidate Obama as "Obama." It's not as though we were going to suddenly confuse her with Bill - and using her first name was a means for her opponents to undermine her seriousness as a viable candidate. She fell prey to that one herself, emphasizing "Hillary" in a strange attempt to disassociate herself from her churlish husband. It didn't help her cause.

Anyway, it appears that Obama supporters have belatedly leveled that playing field, as throughout the day I heard him referred to quite casually as "Barack." Oh, for a glimmer of post-gendered hope!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Part 2 - Art Since the 1960s: California Experiments

Documentation from Chris Burden's 1972 TV Hijack is presented adjacent to Wegman in the Video gallery. The politics and ethics of this piece have always fascinated me, as they point out thorny issues within contemporary art and media practice.

Burden was invited to be a guest on a public-access interview show hosted by Phyllis Lutjeans, one-time Curator of Education and Performance Art at Newport Harbor Art Museum (aka OCMA). He arrived with his own videographer, and requested that the interview be broadcast live, which it was. During the course of the interview, Lutjeans asked him what some of his ideas for future projects might be. Burden responded by pulling out a small knife and holding it to her throat. He demanded that the station continue transmitting while he held his host hostage, abusing her verbally with sexual threats. The performance culminated with Burden's destroying the only studio tape of the broadcast, an act which he recorded as the coda to his own document of the event.

Chris Burden, TV Hijack, 1972 (click for attribution)

Burden had employed violence in his works before, most famously with Shoot, 1971, in which he had an assistant shoot him in the arm with a .22 rifle inside a Santa Ana gallery. The earlier action was billed as a performance, the spectators and participants relatively clear as to their roles in what would take place. The difference with TV Hijack was that Lutjeans was not a willing participant, and at the time, she genuinely believed that her life was at risk. Burden's use of another person's genuine terror as the means for his art, coupled with the nasty introduction of gender-specific power dynamics through his use of obscene threats, make this his most vicious and hostile project - more so even than Trans-fixed, 1974, in which he was nailed to a Volkswagen Beetle by the hands and feet.

Chris Burden, Trans-fixed, 1974 (click for attribution)

TV Hijack is generally less well-known than Shoot or Trans-fixed. Perhaps this is because documentation of the piece is more difficult to come by, but I think it also has to do with an unwillingness among the contemporary art illuminati to call a sexist, violent action what it is, and the fact that many art historians and critics would prefer to gloss over this ugly reality in favor of a detached, over-critiqued analysis of Burden's oeuvre that treats fear and abuse as an inside joke.

The question posed by any act of mimicry as critique is, does the action cross over into becoming what it is intended to criticize? In the case of TV Hijack, it does. The criticism of media as a site of detachment from the consequences of violent action, as played out in countless summer blockbusters, war movies and the like, is negated by the artist's willful act of violence. This callousness toward human dignity has other manifestations in contemporary art practice, most notably in the work of Santiago Sierra, the Spanish artist whose works have included hiring migrant workers to stand for hours in a gallery and paying destitute individuals to tattoo a line across their backs.

Santiago Sierra, 250 cm Line Tattooed on 6 Paid People, 1999

Sierra argues, as does Burden, that these actions draw our attention to the violence we take for granted every day, fueled by divisions of class, race and gender. I disagree with the inherent assumption that we all take such violence for granted, regardless of where we stand in life, and argue instead that this is work directed at an affluent art world elite and justified by the same insularity it proposes to attack. I also question the validity of the artists' argument that because they mean to call attention, their exploitative acts are somehow less exploitative. Instead, it seems that the artists benefit and even profit from said exploitation, while those they take advantage of are left exactly as they were found. How is this different from the exploitation conducted by corporate interests for their own gain?

In summation, the art world is just another market economy fueled by the unremunerated contributions of nameless masses, while a very few (mostly white, mostly male) get the benefits. Artists like Burden and Sierra are important because they remind us of this reality in which they each play a complicit part.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Art Since the 1960s: California Experiments at Orange County Museum of Art

The Orange County Museum of Art has a thoughtfully didactic exhibition on view through September 14. Art Since the 1960s: California Experiments is divided into subject areas such as Conceptual Art, Performance, Pop Art, Assemblage and Installation. Each section features prominent California artists as well as documentation of national-profile art actions that took place in Southern California. The work is drawn from OCMA's collection, much of which was acquired through purchases from the old Newport Harbor Biennial under the museum's original moniker, Newport Harbor Museum of Art. It's enlightening to see Orange County positioned at the center of key movements in late 20th century American art, having served as a launching pad for the likes of Chris Burden, Eleanor Antin, Robert Irwin, William Wegman and James Turrell. Some of what's on view is familiar, some surprising.

William Wegman, Selected Works, William Wegman, 1973-74

William Wegman is one of the surprises here. Long known for portraits of his Weimaraners that often cross the line from ironic to kitschy, his early video works demonstrate that at one time he was fully engaged in a critique of 1970s video/performance art. He intelligently skewers Vito Acconci, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman et al through funny videos that work seamlessly as conceptual art. Naturally, the dogs make an appearance. In one film, he impersonates a canine in a parody of Acconci's hyper-aggressive 1971 performance Claim, growling and snarling in the dark. In the next, he lectures his dog Man Ray about spelling errors, as if attempting to trade social roles with the animal.

Tomorrow: Some thoughts on Chris Burden's TV Hijack.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Help The Prids

Our good friends The Prids were in a terrible accident last month that cut short their west coast tour. This happened when I was in New York, so I only recently heard the details. The Portland, OR-based band were driving from a gig in San Francisco to one in Los Angeles when their cargo van blew a tire, causing the vehicle to fishtail and ultimately to roll over several times. Everyone is alive, thank (insert deity here), but like most independent artists, very few of the band members have health insurance. You can help by donating to their PayPal account here.

The Prids retrieve their gear from their smashed van, Firebaugh, CA, July 23, 2008

The Prids are known for their ethereal sound, which invokes early postpunk/New Wave. Unlike their contemporaries Interpol or The Faint, The Prids haven't yet developed a national profile, but they are every bit as deserving and this is soon to change. Touring is how they make their living, driving from town to town selling self-published CDs and hand-silkscreened merchandise. The Prids are lifers, in this business for real and not just to be cool or be famous (although they are the former and should be the latter).

The Prids performing in San Francisco

On top of their enormous talent and dedication, The Prids are also incredibly sweet, intelligent and all around nice people. As happens too often in this life, a terrible thing has happened to the people who least deserve or can afford it. Please help them get back on their feet so they can get back on the road to uncompromising musical success.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Arctic Hysteria: New Art from Finland at P.S. 1

Also at P.S.1 through September 15 is Artic Hysteria: New Art from Finland, which introduces sixteen contemporary Finnish artists to an American audience. Art from Finland, it turns out, is dark, honest, dryly humorous, and executed with sophistication. All media from drawing to sculpture to video to installation are included, along with some creative uses of P.S. 1's more unconventional spaces.

Pekka Jylhä, I Would Like to Understand, 2000-01

A spooky rabbit by Pekka Jylhä lurks in a corner inside the galleries. Another sits at the edge of a massive saucer, pondering or perhaps commanding it. Though tiny, they are menacing, and their intentions are never clear. Jylhä has used stuffed rabbits, goats and birds in several works. Each seems burdened with terrible knowledge.

Tellervo Kalleinen & Oliver Kochta-Kalleinen, Complaints Choirs, 2005-08

Complaints Choirs, organized by Tellervo Kalleinen and Oliver Kochta Kalleinen, invites people in cities around the world to come together and sing about how much the world sucks. Participants in Birmingham, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Hamburg, Chicago and Singapore have created their own lyrics, submitting their complaints ahead of time. Accepted without audition, their laments are robust nonetheless.

Stiina Saaristo, The Celebration-Festen, 2006

Stiina Saaristo's large graphite on paper drawings depict festively clad, glum-faced figures in ostentatious surroundings. Clad in gowns, these stern characters are matronly yet ambiguously gendered. The drawings are hyper-realistic and detailed, the silk of the dresses soft and luxurious. In its grotesque decadence, Saaristo's work evokes Velazquez, referencing the doll-like princess of Meninas in one image.

Veli Grano, installation view at P.S. 1

P.S. 1's converted city school building provides some wonderfully strange gallery spaces. Veli Grano's film installations are situated in the basement boiler room, beside the 100+ year old wood-fired central heating oven. The history of the building is complex, spanning a political machine-driven scandal over its construction, the consolidation of the City of New York from independent municipalities, 70 years of elementary school students and 32 years as a contemporary art mecca. The boiler room is cavernous, filled with dusty pipes and canisters, and Grano's atmospheric black-and-white films haunt the space.

Veli Grano, Meet You in Finland Angel, 2000-03

Grano's work is based in documentary methods. The centerpiece, Meet You in Finland Angel, introduces a tireless cart collector at a popular ferry terminal, and his house-bound wife. His seven-day-a-week schedule leaves her alone with her sorrow, which eventually reaches a peak. Smaller video portraits of these subjects peek out from within the room's vast heating machine.

The Futuro Lounge, an homage to Finnish architect Matti Suuronen's futuristic design of the Futuro House from 1968, 2008

A more utopian architecture also plays a part. One gallery is given over to the Futuro Lounge, a reimagining of architect Matti Suuronen's 1968 Futuro House. A pocket-house designed to function as a ski lodge, it has been adapted into a video lounge. Its tranquility is inviting, but the sleek white surfaces can be intimidating. The atmosphere is oppressive enough that it becomes apparent why the original houses were discontinued after 10 years. Still, the project is significant for its inventive approach to exhibition design.

Still many more artists are to be discovered in the exhibition, which spans 1 1/2 floors of the enormous building. Though the show ascribes a neurotic nature to the Finns, much of the show feels contemplative. The cold and dark seem to enable a certain emotional directness to emerge from the Finnish landscape, resulting in a clear-eyed look at the human condition.

More images of the exhibition can be seen here.

Monday, August 04, 2008

NYC Waterfalls by Olafur Eliasson

The New York City Waterfalls, on view along New York's East River through October 13, are four installations on the Manhattan, Brooklyn and Governor's Island waterfronts. They can be seen from any of several riverside parks or by boat. Circle Line is offering some free tickets to see the project, though they are hard to come by. I managed to take advantage of the free boat ride by getting up absurdly early in the morning, which resulted in the following video:

NYC Waterfalls: Brooklyn Bridge, 2008

The Waterfalls cost roughly $15.5 million to construct and install, mostly supported by private donations via the Public Art Fund but also by $2 million from the city's Lower Manhattan Development Corporation. Like most public art installations, they are controversial. The scale of the four installations is quite small in relation to the famous Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. 90-120 feet tall, they seem insignificant not only against the architecture, but also the majestic East River waterfront. At the same time, they have been paid for in part by public money, which begs the question of whether supporting a famous European import like Eliasson is an appropriate use of lower Manhattan's development monies. Considering the fact that New York's artists are rapidly being priced out of Manhattan altogether, many people feel it is not.

NYC Waterfalls: Pier 35, Manhattan, 2008

In a way, the Waterfalls are similar to other Public Art Fund projects, in which monumentalism is generally eschewed in favor of subtle gestures like Lawrence Weiner's permanently installed manhole covers, or performances like this past spring's Rodney Graham Band featuring the amazing Rotary Psycho-Opticon. Their structures are exposed scaffolds just like those surrounding large-scale construction in the city. The mechanism of the Waterfalls is presented matter-of-fact, with no effort to hide either the filtration pools from which the water is drawn nor the pipes which carry it up the scaffolds.

How the Waterfall Works (click for link)

Personally, I appreciated the understated scale of the Waterfalls, though I understand how many might feel that they are unworthy of their budget or hype. My experience as a viewer focused on the river itself, the newly built parks along both shores and the rare treat of a boat trip which most New Yorkers never take. It's debatable whether the river requires Eliasson's help to be a summer destination - most NYC residents' lack of air conditioning seems to accomplish that - but as a gesture to highlight significant reclamation work done on the city's waterfront, this seems adequate.

It is necessary to ask, can a public art project - especially a costly one - get away with simple sufficiency? Is Eliasson's claim that the work is about exhaustion good enough? Or is this project another example of an artist building a worse mousetrap and calling it Conceptualism? With Eliasson, the answers to such questions are never clear, and the museum establishment's embrace of him only serves to further confuse the issue.

Reversed Waterfall, 1998, installation at P.S. 1

Other examples of Eliasson's work with water and undisguised mechanisms are on view at P.S. 1 through September 15. More video of the Waterfalls and related projects can be seen here.

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Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Corpse Walker by Liao Yiwu

I recently read The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China from the Bottom Up by Chinese dissident, activist and writer Liao Yiwu. This remarkable book was recommended to me by the great independent American journalist Phillip Robertson, who is about to embark on his fifth tour in Iraq as a reporter for the Associated Press. Phillip is one of the few journalists who has managed to report on the Iraq war since its inception with a minimum of pro-Bush administration agenda meddling, censorship or spin applied to his work. He is a dear friend and someone I trust completely for insights on both current events issues and literary recommendations.

The Corpse Walker is a collection of interviews with prisoners and social outcasts in China, all of whose stories reflect the tragic effects of Maoism in that country. Some are innocent bystanders caught up in events beyond their control, while others are vicious and petty criminals. Each one describes unthinkable atrocities, made more horrific by the matter-of-fact way in which they are recounted. The stories of starvation, persecution, corruption and abject, mindless cruelty are so horrific that they could not possibly be made up - only real life can be so truly terrible. Sexual slavery, cannibalism, wanton theft and property destruction have all been tacitly promoted by the rigid policies of the Chinese Communist party, strewing devastation throughout that country so that an entire generation of Chinese who lived through the failed social experiments of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution consider their lives completely wasted.

With all the hype surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympics, it is easy to forget that Chinese society remains closed, its government tyrannical and its people largely oppressed. The massacre at Tianenmen Square happened less than 20 years ago, and its consequences continue to be felt even as economic prosperity sweeps through much of urban China. Read The Corpse Walker before you watch the opening ceremonies and remember how the international community has conspired to squash all protest of Chinese policies on Tibet, Falun Gong and dissent among its citizenry.

They'll probably never let me back into this country after writing this, but that's ok as I've already seen one of the most beautiful spots in the world, the Three Gorges, an area along the Yangtze River which has since been submerged and environmentally devastated by the construction of a dam there. Like too many of the Party's projects, this one was motivated more by political machinations than by its value to the area's residents, many of whom had their entire villages relocated. The reality of China today is a sobering reminder of how easy it is for oppressive regimes to buy the complicity of their populations through the promise of wealth, much as our own government has done with the economic stimulus package and other propaganda meant to distract us from failed policies. Is it any wonder our administration turns a blind eye to Chinese brutality?

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