Sangeeta Sandrasegar, ‘The Secret of Spiders, Shadows and Cells’, catalogue essay for NEW04, ACCA, Melbourne, 2004

ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) is located in Melbourne, Australia.

At Combray, as every afternoon ended, long before the time when I should have to go to bed and lie there, unsleeping, far from my mother and grandmother, my bedroom became the fixed point on which my melancholy and anxious thoughts were centred. Someone had indeed had the happy idea of giving me, to distract me on evenings when I seemed abnormally wretched, a magic lantern, which used to be set on top of my lamp while we waited for dinner-time to come; and, after the fashion of the master-builders and glass painters of gothic days, it substituted for the opaqueness of my walls an impalpable iridescence, supernatural phenomena of many colours, in which legends were depicted as on a shifting and transitory window.

Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Sangeeta Sandrasegar builds in the shadows with filigree paper cut-outs, casting the haunting shapes of her serial motifs across receptive surfaces. She invites us into the intimacy of her lair, asking seductively:  come into my parlour … Sandrasegar weaves her work between obscurity and luminousity, in such a manner that shadows take on a materiality all of their own, which the clarity of paper and light merely frame. Her most recent project will feature the motif of the spider, who will make its way to us from her home in the shades in order to carry out her diligent household chores. In uniting the forces of the shadows with Arachne, the mythic persona of the spider who lays her trap as she weaves her home, we might speculate on Sandrasegar’s genealogy. The web of her explorations conjoins her practice with some of the themes explored by Louise Bourgeois, who knows all about the secret of spiders, shadows, and sacred cells. There is also a little of Marcel Proust’s magic lantern in the effects of shadow and light Sandrasegar creates. Mythic figures dance across walls that are rendered with an impalpable iridescence, and shadows become animated with life. To trace the thread of this tale, we will return to the ancient myth of the ill-fated Arachne.

The storyteller, Ovid, tells us of the grace of Arachne’s skillful movements as she wove the fine cloth that made her famous throughout the ancient world. The mortal girl, Arachne, intoxicated by her art, challenges the goddess, Pallas, to a competition in weaving. Arachne’s skill is found to be superior, and Pallas, in a rage, attacks her, repeatedly striking her in the forehead with a wooden shuttle, weapon of the weaver. Arachne, finding her plight unendurable, attempts to hang herself, as though on the thread of her own work. Pallas finally takes pity and transforms the mortal weaver, and all her descendants, into the arachnoid form we now so fear. The stricken Aracne’s hair drops out, her nostrils and ears disappear, her head shrinks to almost nothing, her slender fingers blacken as they lengthen, and her belly swells with the stuff from which she will continue industriously to weave her silvery web.  Her transmogrification is complete. Then, from the horror of the arachnoid form, Sandrasegar carefully weaves Arachne’s plight, fascinated in the way myths and stories stealthily enwrap us.

It is also from the fulsome belly of the spider that Bourgeois constructs one of her renowned cells. A steely webbed cage houses an old chair across which is laid a threadbare piece of tapestry. Bourgeois appropriates the trade of her father, a master in restoring tapestries and old furniture, and turns his weaves to her own ends. Though the centerpiece invites us to take a seat, we dare not rest still, as the door to the cell, hung with yet another tapestry, threatens to slam shut behind us, and the parlour chair become one of torture and death. The spindly, articulated legs of an enormous spider, the ends of which are sharpened like fine needles, extend beyond the cage, ready to clutch us in their lethal and sticky embrace. It is through these we must walk before entering Bourgeois’s cell, source of all threads. Bourgeois sets a spider’s trap, and creates her uncanny home, as each fragment of tapestry tells another secret tale. Sandrasegar likewise constructs a sacred cell as home to her spiders and their webs, it is coloured like the paper of her cut-outs, and levitates quietly in the main hall at ACCA.

Bourgeois and Sandrasegar both explore such figures as spiders, scissors that snip and puncture, long tendrils of silken or tangled hair, scenes of violence, and tableaus that feature the dire struggles of woman. Though Sandrasegar weaves the secret of spiders, shadows, and cells, along another passage, she too arrives at the inner sanctum of Arachne, the sacred cell of the labyrinth in which we fear we will find nothing but an immense and terrifying void. This is the threateningly empty place that Sandrasegar, reading Roland Barthes, identifies as the abyss of woman, her sexuality and her cell of her procreativity. Here the domestic and the sexual promise to become interwoven upon the transport of the spider’s gossamer threads. Sandrasegar relies not only on the west to extrapolate her myths, she also turns to the east, where she discovers the Japanese figure of the great earth spider, Tsuchigumo. The earth spider of Japanese myth digs its cell into the dark earth and refuses to be ousted by new comers. Tsuchigumo is the indigene that will not be colonized, and its determined immobility becomes its strength as, vampiric-like, it drains its opponents of their vital essences.

In the past Sandrasegar’s serial motifs, cut from paper, and occasionally ornamented with glitter and sequins that are applied with great delicacy, have featured scenes of erotica borrowed from diverse cultures, from pillow books, the Kama Sutra, The Arabian Nights (which, it should be pointed out, Proust much admired, speculating that he had perhaps written the Arabian Nights of his own milieu). The thread of her incised line becomes the cipher of the cultural sources Sandrasegar has pillaged. Some of her vignettes entirely erase the conjoined figure of two lovers embraced, so as to leave behind the silent walls of an empty room or pavilion. Recently, she has taken up the sub-continental story of Phoolan Devi, the Bandit Queen. To augment this tale Sandrasegar has deployed the hand and foot shapes of henna stencils to mark out the confines of another kind of cell, one which frames the courageous and violent exploits of the ruthless outlaw, who subsequently remade herself as formidable politician before being assassinated.

With the present work, housed in ACCA’s largest hall, Sandrasegar further confines us with the shadows in a cell, but one now augmented with cut-out webs, like the lair of a mythical spider. The hair of this artist’s spider has not fallen out, but like the story of Rapunzel and her long golden tresses, becomes the promise of a means of escape. Sandrasegar tells us that the humming of the fabled spinning wheel of the spider-weaver sets the rhythm to her songs of immobility, as she dreams of the travels undertaken by her masculine counterpart, whether he is loved or reviled. As such, the discourse of absence is carried in the womb of the mother as earth spider, woman who weaves, but despite, or because of her immobility, she becomes mobile through her creations. Sandrasegar’s mythic weaver is housed in a discrete minaret, lit from within like a magic lantern, and enclosed with a length of drapery. The four long panels of web-like narrative that compose the magic lantern cast their patterns onto the inner walls of the spider’s sanctum. Each panel encapsulates another scene, as though stories of loss and mournful distance have been trapped in the loom of the woman who weaves.

Proust’s magic lantern both mesmerizes and disturbs his childhood self, for the familiar walls of his room become strange, and the myths projected upon the dissipating surfaces fill his imagination with both specters and poetic dreams. As with the proliferating and frequently contradictory stories of the Bandit Queen, the mythopoetic impulse is featured in Proust’s Search as he divulges his great fascination in the lineages of the French aristocracy. Proust’s cell, the one in which he chose to spend the better part of his writing life secluded, was largely woven of the fine strands composed of his overweening love for both his mother and his grandmother. In these most strong of his affective ties, Proust reveals himself as becoming-woman. He stands in the shoes of his mother, and grandmother, becoming indiscernible in their sticky embrace. Some months after his grandmother’s death he kneels to tie the threads of his shoelaces, and with these knots the involuntary memory of his grandmother returns to him, suffocating him with emotion. He is tied firmly by apron strings to his busy activity of writing, and the weaving of his grand text, his search for lost and wasted time. Gilles Deleuze describes Proust and his Search as a spider in its web. From the shades of Proust’s eternally twilit room (he always preferred to work through the silent midnight hours), with his fine, transversal threads, he casts lines of narrative association. Deleuze argues that with Proust there is, in fact, no difference between spider and web, and that together the two make up one marvelous loom. After all, what scenes were featured on the marvelous tapestries woven by Arachne and the goddess Pallas? Each depicted, in the most intricate detail, narrative threads telling the tales of the cunning and heroic exploits of mortals and gods, their inextricable and occasionally carnal relations. It is a tradition of weaving in which Sandrasegar has fully engaged, so much so that her delicate gestures become woven into the work itself.

The web flew out and floated wide, the mirror cracked from side to side. The woman weaver is always the one confined to the shadows of her cell at the risk of losing her life. And the spider’s children will eat her to gain nourishment. Such are the sacrifices that women have made, time immemorial. And yet the woman-mother-spider is resilient, her secret is woven into the sturdy tendrils of her work. From her apparent immobility, and in the modest, if not minute scale of her work, she resists, remaining unmoved, even lethal, as we, unwitting spectators, wander into her divine trap.

The ACCA sequence collects a series of commissioned essays I wrote for the now defunct ACCA-mag. ACCA (Australian Centre for Contemporary Art) is located in Melbourne, Australia.

Review: Taking a Stroll through the Sydney Biennale, 2004

The Sydney Biennale, 2004, is to be digested at a leisurely stroll that can be choreographed according to whim and preferably across a series of days. My perambulatory survey began at the MCA on a Friday morning, where I managed a brief glimpse before I met my philosophical American friends, Daniel and Emily at Circular Quay at noon. We wandered through the Botanical gardens and the various installations on display there, and then wound our picturesque way across to the Gallery of NSW. With tactile delight we penetrated its felt-like threshold installation, part of Carolyn Eskdale, Untitled Room series begun in 1995. We were even allowed to touch! Somewhat fatigued and over-saturated with art, we concluded our tour at Art Space in Woolloomooloo bay, where, disconcertingly, we discovered a mostly empty gallery space. And during our entire flânerie, the sun shone with an indecent brilliance (at least for a tourist like myself visiting from grim winter Melbourne). On the Saturday I returned to the MCA with James (artist). On the Sunday I ventured again through the Gallery of NSW, and the Museum of Sydney (though it was too early to witness Daniel von Sturmer’s site specific installation) with Karryn (film-maker). I had decided to practice looking through other people’s eyes.

To take in the Sydney Biennale it is necessary to have, ready to hand, instructions for use in the form of the free exhibition guide. At least two themes appeared to be prevalent. One was concerned with subjectivity, and the malleable fiction of the self, and the other with decidedly architectural investigations, such as Eskdale’s furry threshold at the Gallery of NSW, Amilcar Packer’s mad under the carpet crawl (Video#02, 2002), Nathan Coley’s retro-Modernist facadism, and so on. The American philosophers and I discovered ourselves avidly pouring over our instructions for use so as to decode the various works we apprehended. This resulted in too much textual analysis (an occupational hazard for the philsopher). It was Daniel who stumbled upon the first theme, which he took quite personally. He found he was being repeatedly asked to reassess the formation of his own subjectivity, and took some humorous affront at this. The otherwise sturdy relationship between the subject and a world of banal and manipulable objects was, as Dan suggested of his own accord, “problematised.”

Emily, on the other hand, was confronted by the abject horror she read in the dark photographed forms of Helena Almeida, who, as the catalogue informed us, uses her own body as a canvas. We discovered that neither the soul nor the body remain safe havens, nor can they necessarily be distinguished one from the other. A filmic series of large format black and white photographs (Untitled, 2003) depict Almeida emerging in fits and starts from the amorphous form of her black clad torso. First a foot appears, then a hand, but never a head. The artist rendered acephalous (headless). Pat Brassington’s reworked installation In My Father’s House (1992), also disturbed Emily, specifically its conjunction of title and uncanny spaces hidden behind creaking timber doors. While I enjoyed the bleak photographic emergence of Almeida, I was most disconcerted by the serial pink cervical chasms examined with gynaecological detail by Emiko Kasahara in Pink (1997). Not to mention her irksome circular arrays of blonde hair, marked off on the gallery floor with black tape so that no one would trespass into their hairy midst. An excess of hair has always made my skin crawl, I explained to Emily.

The unanimous highlight of our Friday afternoon was the plastic bucket amphitheatre in the Botanical gardens, attended by a young art student who sat knitting long, colourful scarves. Pravdoliub Ivanov’s Water Monuments (1999) featured a series of vividly coloured plastic wash basins and buckets, which had begun to catch garden debris and water. They were inserted into a sloping swathe of grass so that their lips were flush with the green. The young artist told us that it was she who had volunteered to undertake the thankless task of digging the containers into earthy holes. Hence also her continuing presence. Now she had to watch out for distracted joggers and over-excited children who might be caught unawares by the bright bucket potholes. We lingered. As for the Spanish twins, MP & MP Rosado, and their two doppelgangers sitting in the branches of a fenced off Mortan Bay Fig nearby, we almost missed the joke altogether. Dan and Emily raised their eyebrows (we had been standing for some while by the wrong fenced off tree wondering where the art was).

Earlier in the day, on the third floor of the MCA in front of AES+F’s Action Half Life (2003) I stumbled into listening distance of a tour guide’s interpretative remarks. In keeping with the title of the 2004 Sydney Bienalle, On Reason and Emotion, she was encouraging emotive responses from her audience. Images from Action Half Life are featured on the cover of the exhibition guide, leading one to suspect it should be read as one of the more important pieces in the Bienalle. Beautiful children in pristine white clothes captured in the midst of an active gesture hold aloft weapons of mass destruction. AES+F describe these children, the coming community, as their heroes. They proclaim, “the driving concept behind our art is our perpetual attempt to precipitate the ‘genome of herosim’ out of today’s world of grimmer reality.” But the children’s faces are frozen in fake mannequin smiles, and their exquisite purity (to borrow one willing audience member’s description) speaks of unimaginable dystopias, and Hannah Arendt’s conception of the ‘banality of evil.’

When I returned to the MCA with James (and a hangover) on Saturday afternoon, we spent much of the time sitting on the third floor of the MCA fixated by Javier Téllez’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Rozelle Hospital), 2004. One woman after another confided descriptions of a struggle with madness, as on the opposite wall Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 film (cut with additional ‘inter titles’) depicted Joan of Arc’s face in discomforting close-up as she suffered her religious ecstasies. We sat like spectators at a melancholy tennis match turning our heads to and fro so as to witness the distraught narratives relayed by projection onto opposing walls. “A film about them and us. A film about emotions … A film about reason,” murmurs the artist’s statement in the exhibition guide.

The screening of Werner Herzog’s La Soufrière (1976), a documentary set on the island of Guadeloupe where Herzog and a small team of film-makers await the inevitable eruption, forever forestalled, of the volcano La Soufrière, drew Karryn the film-maker and I back on Sunday. Later we sat in front of Almeida again, and I explained to Karryn Emily’s sensations of horror at her abject form. Karryn pointed out that the woman’s figure (the Almeida–canvas) seemed to be approaching and then retreating from us. The frame appeared to restrain her from entering into and sharing our very own space. In the montage-like sequence of Sem Título (1994–1995), she turns a red painted hand to us as though showing a heart on her sleeve. Karryn could not bare to consider the serial cervical cavities either, and pointedly kept her gaze averted. But we both took great joy in Yin Xiuchen’s Portable Cities (2004), where such metropolitan centres as Paris, Sydney, and Lisbon, were sewn out of a luggage of clothing and packed like pop-up books into suitcases. We wondered (as had Daniel, Emily and I on the Friday) what would happen if the suitcase cities where closed up and made ready to check in at the international terminal, Sydney. You see, both of us were dreaming of absent loved ones, hers presently in Auckland, NZ, and mine even further away in Port Rush, Northern Ireland.

Review: James Angus’s Green Mack Truck

There is a wonderful and oft recited scene in the preface to Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things where the philosopher–historian recounts the unusual contents of a Chinese Encyclopaedia imagined by the South American writer, Jorge Louis Borges. It is Foucault’s shattering laughter that resounds through the given passage as he lists that class of things “animals are divided into.” According to the given encyclopaedia the class is composed as such: “(a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies.”[1]  Foucault discovers humour in our thwarted desire to “tame the wild profusion of things,” recognising the limits of our thought in the face of a chaotic, unpredictable world. I suggest that this wondrous humour can likewise be detected in the work of the Sydney based artist, James Angus.

Following the theme of Borges’s fantastic encyclopaedia, there is a three part taxonomy that I would like to draw out of Angus’s oeuvre. It should be noted immediately that the artist himself objects to my wilful arrangement, concerned that I might attempt to tame his work with dull clichés and the familiar landmarks of art criticism. Angus agrees that there are “unsaid connections” in his work that a good writer might unpack, “though not many manage to take it on properly. So far,” he says. His instructions to me suggest that one must look at his sculptures very thoroughly as they are embedded in history. Certainly the fascination Angus expresses in a collection of modernist iconographic buildings places his work in relationship to that tradition, as does his attention to his craft.

In good humour we might remark that Angus’s work can be arranged in three classes, though this list must be considered open-ended. First, his series of banal everyday objects (transistor radios; teapots turned inside-out; soccer balls dropped from the cruising height of a 747 airplane and cast in bronze). Second, his multi-coloured menagerie (fluro rhinos that run on walls; pink giraffes; timber veneered mosquitoes; improbably smooth, white manta rays), and finally, a series of contortions of modernist architectural icons. For example, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram building turned through a möbius loop, (2000); Le Corbusier’s Domino House, modelled in marginally displaced coloured acrylic repetition (2002); Oscar Neimeyer, Le Corbusier and Costa’s 1930’s Ministry for Health and Education building in Rio, modelled in two iterations, one mahogany the other birch, and collapsed to within a hair breadth of one another. This last piece Angus was researching in early 2003 while I was living in Paris, so we made a joint visit to the Le Corbusier archive at the Villa la Roche. I’m not quite sure where Angus’s upside down, hot air balloon fits (Shangri-La, 2002), but we know from the Chinese encyclopaedia that an incongruous item makes the class all the more deliciously perplexing. Perhaps from a very long distance away it looks like a fly?

Late February, early March, 2004, a selection from Angus’s remarkable collection was on show in New York at GBE (Modern), on Greenwich St. I visited the gallery in New York after the fact to get a feel for the exhibition space, and imagined its stark white walls, cold polished concrete floors, and fluorescent tubes as the perfect abstract container in which to set his sculptural objects in tremulous suspension. The mosquito, for instance, which was generated with a wire–frame computer model of innumerable facets, subsequently translated into dense foam, and then meticulously covered in a selection of timber veneers (Angus achieves this last, most laborious part of the process in front of the cricket, or with the radio on), is preserved in uncommon stillness. It is an insect-in-amber capture that seems to draw our attention to a relay of effects that pass between the immaterial space of the digital realm of computer software, and the very material practice of the sculptor and his investigation into the thingness of things. Angus evinces a fine attention to his craft, despite which he dreams of a studio where all such labour might be delegated to assistants. But what would keep the artist occupied then?

When I arrived in Sydney recently and called Angus to invite him to a philosophers’ soirée he told me mischievously that he had a new project brewing. In the Art Gallery of NSW Angus plans to install a Mack truck. Already, a prominent truckers’ magazine is planning a two page spread of their new found hero and his outrageous scheme. Angus began by approaching the gallery and asking whether it would be possible to remove the roof. They looked at him in disbelief and said, resoundingly, no. Thus, through two modestly sized doors, located at either end of a gallery space of about 6 by 12 metres, Angus has given himself the task of inserting a Mack truck. There isn’t a driveway in sight, and the only access onto the given floor of the gallery appears to be by way of some escalators. I asked him, in bewilderment, “HOW?” He responded: “with a spanner.” And then he laughed. It’s going to be like pulling a camel through the eye of a needle, and it’s going to happen by the 7th of August, 2004. The front and backside of the truck will press against the openings so that it will be impossible to enter the gallery space itself, though we will be able to look under the chassis of the truck. Angus compares this new sculptural feat to the construction of a discrete architectural project. A team of workers will be on hand to set all the constituent parts in place. Angus is looking somewhat anxious, but his Houdini trick is one that should not be missed.

[1] Michel Foucault, The Order of Things, trans. Tavistock Publications (London: Routeledge, 1970), p. xv.

Review: Tacita Dean

*Tacita Dean, 2003

Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris

7 May – 22 June 2003


What remains of art? Perhaps only a vestige.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Muses

 One of the great disappointments of my soon to be terminated residence in Paris is that I was unable to bear witness to an encounter arranged between the artist, Tacita Dean, and the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy. I discovered the details of this rencontre, hosted by the Musée d’art Moderne, too late. It seems that Tacita Dean is profoundly familiar with the sensation of having arrived too late. She gives us the faint residue, fallen moth wings of an event that has passed on, just recently, years before, millennia ago. Following her we apprehend the devastated traces of a passage through time. In his catalogue essay, Nancy names Tacita the divinity of silence and draws circles around her proper name. Tacit Tacita, he murmurs, she who silently gives us the ruins of lost time. Nancy has gone so far as to suggest “art seems past, showing nothing more than its passage.” Tacita turns this lament into a revelation as she places us in intimate proximity with the sensation of time’s irrevocable passage. Do we have sufficient tact not to touch Tacita too much? Can we resist obfuscating her work with our readings and our desire to seek some unifying sense?

One suspects that the central piece in the exhibition is Tacita Dean’s 16mm filmic trilogy Boots. Here we are lent a guide to the traversal of lost time. Her work goes even further, intimating that the past is more often than not invented after the fact and, as such, errs toward the fictive. Boots is composed of three twenty-minute films screening in three rooms. Ostensibly, each film is identical, but for the fact that they are translated into French, English and German, and it would be rash to speculate on which language is the original. We are on a walking tour of a deserted art nouveau villa. Boots, our guide so named for his prosthetically enhanced shoe, laboriously leads us along, telling us in abrupt fragments the tale of his past life. This is a tale inflected with the history of the deserted residence itself, and as the tale unfolds it is as though the villa owns a distinct and autonomous personality. At first there seems nothing more remarkable about our aged guide than a deformed foot and a disfigured nose. With just enough French to get by, I gradually discover that a slightly different story is being told in this version, which leads me to understand that the German, likewise, must tell yet another narrative. The disjointed monologue delivered by Boots in each of the three renditions is not translated directly into the next. Accordingly his character becomes more or less sinister, his occasional laughter more or less mad or vindictive. It is at about the same moment that I realize, and perhaps rather belatedly, that each film in the trilogy shares none of the same footage. Each is taken from a series of quite distinct points of view. In the end, all that they share are the mere superficialities of appearance. We notice the light of day falling away, the sky turning pink, the shadows stretching as we progress through each screening. In each we witness, either by sound or sight, the passing of an airplane. We recognize the same empty house, and are presented with what appears to be the same protagonist, even the sound of his misshapen boot resounds in a similar manner. Nancy calls the rhythm of his footfall the rhythm that attends a contemplation of space. But each time we visit him, we find that, like a senile grandfather the details of his age-old tale shifts, as does the house itself. We become perturbed spectators of three possible worlds. In the English version Boots himself speculates, “…one has the feeling, or I have the feeling, that they are still here but in another dimension…and this whole house is in another dimension.” The erstwhile indelible inscription of the past on objects and places is rendered malleable. Is it that the rhythm of time has gone awry?

We tend to reflect on the past as that which is irretrievable. An impenetrable  threshold divides us off from that which has passed away. Tacita Dean shows us otherwise, she pulls us outside of time, placing us in what might be called a milieu of fascination wherein past, present and future are conflated. Needless to say we are still lost, for the present continues to pass with such celerity, it is enough that we grasp a vestige, a trace here and there. One is tempted to read the entire exhibition as a puzzle of sorts, we gather in each piece, there are many objets trouvés presented in the oeuvre, and feel we could almost make a whole picture. Only the pieces of the puzzle never quite meet, something continues to stir in their midst.

In one of the final rooms Geraldine and I arrange ourselves on two comfortable chairs behind a solid table. We divide and share the contents of two simple boxes between us. They contain 326 photographs taken in Prague. We entertain ourselves by imagining possible taxonomies. Graveyards, train interiors, street images, shop windows, our list continues. It is always the same with collections of photographs, there is both a sense of humour that attends their revisitation, and a sense of inexplicable loss that could bring one to the point of tears. Two other visitors join us, then a third. The first two, a fiery Brooklyn dame and her friend, a diminutive French woman, both some way into their fifties, begin a conversation. Brooklyn says to Frenchie, “Look, it’s a picture of me in Prague. Remember, it’s just like my visit to that Greek island where we discovered a statue of me, my spitting image. I found myself on a Greek island and now I seem to have discovered myself in Prague.” Frenchie responds, “oui, tu es partout, et rien a changé.” You are everywhere and nothing has changed. We join them in their laughter and continue to pass them the photographs we have finished with, regretting that we cannot pause over every detail more leisurely, sad that they will all have to be left behind.

Review: What a Body Can Do

*Matthew Barney: The Cremaster Cycle

10.10.02 – 05.01.03

Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (métro  Iéna)

*Sonic Process, une nouvelle géographie des sons

level 1 until 06.01.03

Musée National d’Art  Moderne, Centre Pompidou (métros Rambuteau and Hôtel de Ville)

Mathew Barney’s body of work, and it is certainly the body that we are asked to address here through various stages of formation and deformation, invites us to venture into an unfamiliar, often disturbing aesthetic universe. We are confronted with a filmic epic of overwhelming proportions supported by sundry sculptural artifacts, intriguing diagrammatic sketches, and photographic portraits that introduce us to some of the main characters and scenes. The Cremaster Cycle is the culmination of over eight years worth of construction. Its apparent object of investigation centres around the sexual differentiation of the genitals of the embryo, and the subsequent ascent and descent of the gonads in response to their environment. The cremaster, we are informed, is the muscle that controls this movement. In its present arrangement at the Musée d’Art Moderne, Barney’s universe requisitions the entire upper level and spreads itself out like a vicious infection. The floors have been recovered in astroturf, like a condensed football stadium (this being the setting of the first cycle), doorways have been padded and wrapped in white vinyl, and the sculptural artifacts, which feature as props in the five cycles that make up the Cremaster, are arranged in loose groupings in the vicinity of flat-screen monitors where Barney’s curious and highly complex filmic narratives flicker endlessly through their circuits. Attempting to capture a glimpse of the action on these screens, visitors sprawl on the floor and bundle like frightened children in awkward groupings. The cinematic images begin to leak into the space of our viewing and threaten to engulf us. Barney himself plays characters in all but the first cycle, which is peopled entirely by women. Slender threads tie one cycle to the next, often through the figural ciphers of grotesque and fascinating corporeal transformations or through Barney’s fixation on such viscous materials as petroleum jelly. It is across the perpetually reinvented body of the artist and in the specific region of the genitalia, often rendered unrecognizable, that we witness much of the action. Beyond this fascination in the genitals and the work of sexual reproduction, and in amidst the innumerable themes and influences that this work explores, there persists the recurrent motif of competition. What seems to be at play is the logic of an ideal game, where rules are invented as one proceeds, where there are neither winners nor losers, and nothing is finally achieved. We are drawn into the agonism of competition, Sisyphean tasks, and elaborate, fruitless games. It is apt then that the first film opens with an aerial view over a football field, claimed from the interior of two Goodyear dirigibles that hover above the action. As it turns out, the field emblem lifted from the American football stadium recurs throughout all the cycles as both a graphic and organisational symbol. But no conventional football game is in play here. Instead, an immaculately costumed chorus line of women with paste-on smiles have taken to the field. Their performance, we discover, is being choreographed from above. In each of the dirigibles, there is to be found a table laden with either white or red grapes, beneath both of these tables there hides the very same gorgeous blond in white satin knickers. With her hairpin she has carefully picked a hole through the tablecloth, so allowing for the surreptitious theft of a number of grapes. It is by arranging and rearranging these grapes, now white, now red, that she controls the action below. And so a kitch ballet unfolds that supposedly tells us the story of sexual reproduction, surely one of the most dangerous games of all. The fourth cycle in the Cremaster series, which was in fact the first that Barney completed, features a racing car event set on the Isle of Man. Here the rules demand that the two so-called competitors set off from the starting line in opposing directions, and proceed at breakneck speed toward a head-on collision. Barney, made over as an impeccably dressed hybrid creature with floppy, rabbit-like ears, and two extra orifices hidden away beneath his thin orange hair, joins the action. By way of a series of athletic antics, beginning with a tap-dancing routine, he makes his way across the island toward the site of the climactic collision. At the close of the third filmic cycle it is amusing to witness Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim museum being requisitioned for a mini hard-rock concert and as a climbing gym for a pink quilted Barney with a blood soaked serviette shoved down his throat. I was drawn three times into the elaborate display of the Cremaster, three times I departed overcome by a profound sense of disorientation and visceral unease. Barney draws us inexorably into his obsessive universe, and the mysterious logic of his vision leaves its mark on the spectator.

Review: Anish Kapoor

*Anish Kapoor: Marsyas, 2002

Tate Modern, London: Unilever Series

Until April 2003


There is a Greek myth that narrates the fall from grace of the satyr Marsyas, whose hubris invites the punishment of the god Apollo. Marsyas is taking a walk along a bucolic wooded path when he happens upon a discarded flute. His curiosity ignited, he lifts the flute to his lips, but before he has gathered breath to play the flute produces music of its own accord. This music is so exquisite that every audience Marsyas entertains proclaims that his sonorous inventions greatly exceed any music arranged by the Gods. Unwisely, Marsyas does not contradict these claims. The god Apollo gets wind of this and challenges him to a musical competition. Apparently Marsyas agrees to this challenge without reading the fine-print, for Apollo demands that he play his flute upside down at once as singing and doing a jig. The magic flute will not comply with all these requirements. The punishment for Marsyas’s display of hubris? He will be flayed alive and his skin will be stretched out and pinned to a tree.

Marsyas is the name with which Anish Kapoor has christened the great beast which has taken up residence in the Turbine hall at the Tate Modern museum in London. This ambitious installation is the rubicund skin of Marsyas rejuvenated and stretched over one hundred and fifty metres long and thirty metres tall. It is also his flute, or at least a marvelous horn-like, seemingly musical instrument. The grandeur of the Turbine hall, often compared to the nave of a cathedral, is silenced by the magnificence of Kapoor’s installation. The biomorphic convolutions of Marsyas express the pulsing blood hue of a vital internal organ. It is difficult to imagine now how the Turbine hall could ever be asked forego the insistence of this visceral augmentation.

Marsyas is a structure that has been much remarked upon, and not only for its monumental scale. At either end of the Turbine hall, and suspended over the bridge that punctures its volume, there are arranged three enormous steel rings. The outer rings are lodged vertically and expected to do most of the heavy work required to keep this magnificent biomorphic or musical organ stabilized. Regardless of their structural importance, they seem to float. The reflective quality of the polished concrete floor of the hall lends itself to this illusion, wherein the very materiality of the existing volume, together with Kapoor’s intervention is brought into question. Relying on the tensile strength of Marsyas’s flayed skin, the central ring is suspended horizontally over the bridge, where we are allowed to peer upwards into the belly of the beast. Between these three structural elements the deep red PVC skin is stretched as a reverberatory membrane.

Images in the exhibition catalogue show Marsyas in the process of being constructed. A team of workers were put to the task for three weeks, day and night. The PVC skin, which was quite literally pulled out of a box proportionally insignificant when compared with the final, overwhelming proportions of the completed sculpture, can be seen draped in a blood red liquid spill across the floor of the gallery during construction. The entire enterprise would have been made impossible without the assistance of the engineers, Arup Europe, and what one begins to see unfold is a truly collaborative venture.

The artist, who had begun to explore the volume of the Turbine hall before the Tate museum had been completed, is said to have wanted to inspire fear, to unnerve his audience. Kapoor and his collaborators have created something too wondrous for this. Certainly one suffers a sense of spatial consternation, much as one might when tracing the infinite path of a möbius strip. But it is not a sense of unease that is aroused by Marsyas so much as awe, as though one has arrived at an apprehension of the sublime. The shifting translucency of the skin in response to the light, the red that likewise flares across different shades of coagulation, produce the strong feeling that the entire form is breathing, even humming gently. There is also the persistent sensation of being swallowed or engulfed by Marsyas’s three orifices. Oral, aural, olfactory, anal, or sexual, take your pick, Marsyas is arranged as that vital organ which collects, digests, as it produces in turn its many effects.

The curator, Donna de Salvo, has been cited proclaiming “it will undoubtably come to be seen as one of the most significant sculptures of this century.” It is tempting to read into such remarks evidence of the hubris that brought the satyr Marsyas to his unhappy end. But with the disappearance of the gods, who might it be that Kapoor wishes to challenge? Just recently a friend told of his belated visit to see Marsyas, but the skin had already been folded away, leaving behind only two ineffable and huge dark steel rings, those to be found at either end of the now emptied out hall. What lair has the beast gone in search of next and is it possible to imagine another home that would be so well suited to its form?

Review: The Erasure of the Museum

“…and what if everything I saw was a sign, a clue?”

Witold Gombrowitz, Kosmos.

*Boris Achour, Cosmos, 2002. 10.09 – 13.10

*Meschac Gaba, Le Salon, 2002. 29.01 – 08.09

*Le Festival Art et Squats 10.09 – 2.10

*One Star Press: Le Stand 10.09 – 07.10

*forthcoming Tobius Bernstrup, Nekropolis, 2002. 03.10 – 12.01 et al.

Palais de Tokyo: site de création contemporaine (métros Iéna and Alma-Marceau)

*Max Beckman, Un Peintre dans Histoire [A Painter in History]. – 06.01.03 (level six)

*Daniel Buren, Le Musée qui n’existant pas [The Museum that Did Not Exist].

26.05 – 23.09 (level six and otherwise dispersed throughout the complex)

*Carrefour de la Création: Du Design au Jardin [Crossroads of Creation: From Design to the Garden].

10.07 – 21.10 (forum and mezzanine levels)

Musée National d’Art  Moderne, Centre Pompidou (métros Rambuteau and Hôtel de Ville)

Paris, late summer, exhibits itself alongside its famous musées. Arranged according to gradually accrued curatorial gestures, the city is like an exhibition hall writ large. You wander the streets and cannot help but read every passing gesture, every flippant remark, as a sign. But what are we to make of that surfeit of signs that offer clues of a lost time? And what are we in search of when arriving in such a city as this, crowded with its history and celebratory monuments to greatness? Should you choose to explore such venues as the Centre Pompidou or the Palais de Tokyo, what you will discover is that the once sacred ground of the museum has undergone an act of erasure. Daniel Buren, who has spread signs of his activity over all eight levels of the Centre Pompidou, speaks with his title of a nonexistent museum. The intent of his work is to pull at the seams of the museum as enclosure for precious artifacts, to transform the space itself so that it “becomes what it was not before.” (Daniel Buren, “To Exhibit in a Museum is to Exhibit the Museum”, 04.2002). His centre-piece, “the device”, is composed of a grey and white checkerboard of sixty-one cells. Each cell measures approximately three by three metres, with ceiling heights that occasionally hover not much over two metres. We are assailed by mirrors, leaning walls, violently lit enclosures. The installation is directed toward the perturbation of the traditional museological relationship between container and content. While the unwitting spectator, circulating endlessly and aimlessly, is transformed into an occupant without a place, the cells, empty squares wherein inhabitation is forever deferred, obliterate the greater enclosure that is the museum. It is a game, but one within which there is neither winner nor loser, only transient and mute witnesses to the non-place the museum seems to have become.

As for the once monumental, marble-clad edifice of that quasi-Soviet edifice, the Palais de Tokyo, its erasure has been carried out by quite other means. The museum has been stripped bare by its bachelors, gutted, defaced and hauled out on display before a fascinated public. The ticket booth is a makeshift caravan, the gallery bookstore is enclosed with cyclone fencing. The interior walls are so scarified, it is impossible to tell whether demolition or construction is underway. Clarifying matters, Tokyo Idem, the gallery café, accommodates a modish crowd squatting on low stools that are littered across one of the museum’s permanent installations, Michael Lin’s floral floor painting, reminiscent of a Taiwanese child’s gaudy handkerchief rendered unexpectedly oversized. As for further signs of activity, Boris Achour invites us into his demented video club, where we discover, despite the innumerable genres on offer as indicated by the diverse covers, all the video cassettes own the same title: Cosmos. Meschac Gaba, in turn, encourages us to relax in his Salon, the eleventh of a series of twelve planned domestic scenes he has distributed across a number of museums. So make yourself at home in what calls to mind a white-elephant stall. Rest a while, resuscitate one of those childhood games that have been gathering dust in the recesses of a cupboard for the last twenty years. Forget where you are, most importantly, forget the museum. (It is also worthwhile mentioning the rather fashionable opening hours of this institution: midday to midnight.) Meanwhile, flickering flat-screen monitors display incomprehensible signs of exhibitions past and yet to come. We have missed Tatania Trouvé’s investigation of the useless and the life of little failures, but, next month, Tobius Bernstrup has promised us a visit to a Necropolis that looks suspiciously like a post-apocalyptic Paris.