Sunday, 25 September 2011

On The Mad Square @ AGNSW

I think it's fair to say that AGNSW's show of inter-war German art, 'The Mad Square' is not a bundle of laughs. Covering the period from 1910 to 1937 was never going to yield anything bucolic or uplifting but the sheer cumulative claustrophobic effect of jagged asymmetry and post-mortem colours is quite draining. When my other half and I left toward the exit she wondered aloud if we had time for another scene of rape and mutilation before we left. The truth of course is that we know only too well what happens when Germany steps out beyond that closing year of 1937. The work here is a pre-cursor to something clearly terrible. Early on in the show we see 'The Suicide' by George Grosz. In it sharply drawn dogs that seem to have been skinned roam the streets sniffing out life, a scarecrow of a man hangs from a lamppost while another, still holding a revolver, lies dead in the street a cloud that may be his soul departing as a jutting chinned, graze nippled prostitute looks out from an upper storey window. The dominant colour is red, the corpses skull face, the roads and pavements are a differing dark tone soy bloody scarlet. The effect is suffocating, violent, and it might sum up the feeling of the show as a whole.

The waft of Sigmund Freud reaches from Vienna to Berlin, faces morph, murderers and secrets are below or behind. There's something overindulgent here. The exaggerations and contortions, the splenetic angst all remind me of method acting. Much gets lost in the layering on of effects bodies are twisted AND discoloured AND the colours are vivid and queasy. A social, political and inner world is played out with the big capital letters of technique. In 'The Suicide' a symbolic world is played out in a blood red light. One is reminded of nothing so much as Heironymous Bosch, the sinister meeting the opaque. Sometimes the neurosis is disturbing and comical, 'The Sex Murderer' by Heinrich-Maria Davinghausen is a seedy Freudian replay of Henri Rousseau's dreamscapes. The naturalistic body of the would-be victim contrasts with the grotesque mask of a face and the cubist angularity of windows and the folds of a bed sheet make the peach soft flesh seem all the more vulnerable. What's striking about this and so many other of the works here is how intertwined social and sexual anxieties appear to be.

The printmaking in the show is often the most powerful work in any given room. The medium encourages a formal retrain and subsequently maximum affect is caused with minimum effects. The prints here , some of them now iconic images, mix a the stark objectivity of near reportage with a sharp and steely line. The prints here, street scenes, detailed examinations of obscenely disfigured war veterans, the living skulls in the trenches are at once cold and deeply touching. Otto Dix's 'Stormtroopers (Assault Under Gas)' benefits from the level of control that allows the bone white paper of the gas masks shine through and remind us of skulls, whilst the slightest scrape across the surface of the printing plate evokes the seep of gas. Economy of technique yields results as shocking as a Wilfred Owen poem.

It's hard to look at the prints on show and still subscribe to the decadence chic image of Weimar Germany. They represent a more complex picture, one of victims rather than ogres, of organised resistance rather than simple reflex disgust and of people attempting to be objective recorders. The print was the earliest form of mass media, the vehicle for propaganda and persuasion from the Reformation onward, and when it is used here it retains some of that didactic power. The woodcuts of Kåthe Kollwitz combine the simplicity of an icon or a holy medallion with the strong impression that a human hand was involved. The left wing printmakers are not the only artists with a manifesto here, and it's the absence of that visible human hand is what makes the Constructivist parts of the show so arid. Given the frailty of broken human bodies and human greed and hatred it's not a great surprise that there should be a response to the organic writing of expressionism that believed in the utopian power of geometry and machines. Of course that mechanical certainty gave a scientific gloss technocratic murder, but at the time any answer must have looked appealing.

It's difficult not to draw political conclusions in work like this. Between the apocalypse of the First World War and the Holocaust of the second Germany is torn by economic and cultural forces that seem to have an altogether destructive edge. What's interesting here is how the images of resistance, coming in this compass-less world from what we might traditionally think of as the Left, are anguished and violent in form and palette. Much of the work from the left demonstrates a revulsion at the squalor beneath the Weimar jollity, it's a healthy antidote to the romanticised view we have today of cabarets and bohemians in old Berlin but it's a cracked and smeared mirror. The right, or at least the anti-Bolsheviks, are no less dark but they demonstrate the rat cunning of focus in what and who they choose to vilify. Throughout one is left with a feeling of inevitability, that Germany were to descend into a genocidal spiral is no great surprise when so much of the work has such a palpable dehumanizing sense of self-loathing.

Max Beckmann's art seems to find a link between the psychic contortions and the political landscape. Full of uniforms and hierarchies, the vertical compositions are striking. Beckmann creates hermetically sealed worlds where the protagonists seem to obey their own perfectly logic and physics. The figures in their hard outlines seem to occupy real space as they jostle for position on the canvas. The clear stratification and the love of uniform hint point to a militaristic society where only the immediate game is important. Through the circus performers in 'The Trapeze' Beckmann captures a blank eyed madness, the acquiescence and conformity that can doom a society. The figures, in complex twisting motion reflect some of that freikorperkultur that Nazi artists like Leni Reifenstahl would celebrate, but the pale skin and the sickly green of the leotards suggest something rotten beneath the flexing musculature. Beckmann's solid figures capture the power of will but also the precariousness of living in an arbitrary dictatorship, that mix of allure and anxiety is perhaps the most nuanced psychological portrait in the show.

John Heartfield's work looks like what can happen when nihilistic DaDa grows up. Here the appropriated imagery cut into photomontage has a purpose, the cheap newspaper images cheapen their nazi subject, Heartfield finds a way to demystify the Nazis by refusing to memorialise them with something more artful. What Heartfield did brilliantly was to allow leave his images cool and objective, thus in 'Adolf The Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Junk' he adopts the clinical mode of the X-Ray, in juxtaposition to the overheated rhetoric and twisted face of Hitler. The critique is scalpel sharp and makes both his contemporary avant-gardistes and modern satirists look like indulgent dilettantes by comparison. I find Heartfield's work the most hopeful here, and I don't usually look tab history through a Panglossian lens, as it has a precise and brilliantly sharp response to evil. By comparison so much of the earlier work in the show feels like a pre-conscious reflex, an unformed and garish loathing.

I would be lying if I said I liked much of the work in 'The Mad Square'. All of this jarring, often repulsive, imagery makes for a curious experience. Through any regular lens much of the work is ugly and alienating, the paint often seems to crawl and slither with revulsion. However it is undeniably interesting historically (the AGNSW has specialised in 'interesting' in recent years with many shows feeling like extended lectures) and many of the impulses of DaDa and expressionism are at the heart of the established notion of the institutionalised avant-garde today. It feels like the gallery has missed a trick though, the hang is based around art school movements so we shift through Expressionism and DaDa and Constructivism and the Bauhaus. As a result the work looks highly formal in a way that a more thematic or a chronological organisation might have avoided. I'm not sure what lessons you draw from art like this and whether they seem flippant in the light of genocide, however I can't help but think that when societies are so able to imagine themselves and others as monsters or machines the imperative we have to treat one another as human beings is easier to forget.

Friday, 16 September 2011

On Life and Art

I can trace it all back to a moment, when writing ArtKritique became too heavy and so vapid as not to matter. We were at the Australian Centre for Photography, which was decked as an Alice-like warren for a retrospective of Polixeni Papapetrou photographs. I reviewed the show, moved by the way it vibrated deep through culture and psyche, but I couldn't bring myself to write about the most recent sequence of work 'The Dreamkeepers'. These were vivid dislocations, fragile human figures with oversized papier maché heads redolent of grotesque Punch and Judys, placed on rocks, beaches and hilltops where nature's power hides itself least. These people's bodies seem all the more frail for the size of the masks, they wear charity shop clothes that are a register too bright and age has made them caricatures. It was as if we were looking at age, at human frailty, through the eyes of a youth obsessed media (the large scale prints have the production values of advertising or an editorial fashion shoot, and that callous dismissal makes the characters figures of immense sadness and sympathy). It wasn't that I didn't like the work it was that I couldn't find words or even feelings for it or for that matter for anything since. Two days prior to posting that review I had learnt that I was going to be a father for the first time.

Now it's been over six months since I last wrote (the only other piece I've posted since then was written much earlier as a catalogue essay) and I feel I owe myself an explanation. Those early days feel strange now, a jumble of thoughts and feelings that I didn't imagine I'd have to call upon. Images and positions that seem so clean and clear in the abstract took on a new blur, choices became seismic and irrevocable and a rock had been thrown into the mirror pool of our future. The biography and psychology around all that doesn't matter here. Now we're four weeks away from being parents and live in a state of nervous excitement. The mental space that isn't taken up with the preparations for a new life has been flooded with thoughts about care, love and values, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about how to live in the world. At the time of that exhibition I looked at that those photographs, how they dealt with the subjectivity of age, the reduction of a life and a person, and felt that art about living was too hard to write about, scraping too close to the bones of my present anxieties. Since then, as this child has become a presence in our lives, I've come to feel that art, the art I respond to, will help us and remind us of what matters. And that's why I need to start writing again.

In the time being I haven't stopped looking or talking or even laughing at art. One attempt to write about the AGNSW's Anne Landa Award show was a real low point, it made me question whether I wanted to write about things I didn't like at all. I've written about work in this biennial prize show before and enjoyed it but this time it wasn't going to happen. The title 'Unguided Tours' is probably enough to warn off anyone less optimistic than myself. There's something painful in that oxymoron, a student cliche with a ring of radical chic situationism. It's meaningless although, if that was the point, that's not a bad summary of the show. Someone called Charlie Sofo had shot deliberately banal and artless video footage of walks around Melbourne and collected, and at this point I actually roared with laughter and blurted "you are shitting me?", the pebbles that were caught between the grooves in the soles of his shoes as he walked round. It's all comically weak. There are more poe-faced practical jokes, junk art that claims to question surf and muscle car cliches, but misses the point that these cliches are regularly deconstructed and reappropriated in popular culture as they have been for forty years or more. I went to the Anne Landa award hoping to find something magical or charming or challenging and instead all I found was a series of rusty old avant garde poses recycled through a different medium. I would say a 'new' medium but that's not really true since, unlike the 'contemporary' art world, I've using video since I first saw 'The Shining' on a neighbour's betamax in the early eighties. The problem is that I had all of my buttons pushed at once and I really hate giving people with such limited ideas or ambition the pleasure of doing that. For art that hopes to be seen as modern I see an awful lot of old ideas, I see a belief that opacity, juxtaposition and irony are indicators of artistic worth. What really annoys me is that, and I grant you that this might be a moment of paranoid projection but I'm relaxed about that, someone somewhere thinks that because I think this is risible rubbish that they have achieved a moment of avant garde confrontation. They haven't. I think its crap on any terms, not just mine.

But lights in tunnels needn't be trains. During a visit to South Australia we (that 'we' isn't royal, it's two, almost three, of us) we saw a Patricia Piccinini retrospective. All it's naked fleshy vulnerability reminded me that the challenge of art was the reason I loved it. I've written about Piccinini before (and much of the work in Adelaide was tyne same) so won't go into detail here but what makes her extraordinary is this restless going over of flesh and otherness. The strangeness of her mutant creations is belied by their familiar pink vulnerability, there is a corporeality that make sit impossible to dismiss them as monsters. Piccinini explores what it is to be human and is significant because she does' t present reductive answer, it is as if she can't answer but the act of trying is an answer in itself. That's confusing perhaps but it rings true to my life now. Art and life are about uncertainty, it’s why corporate power architecture or Tea Party fundamentalism are so scary, that level of certainty, of impervious finite certainty is unnatural. From Picasso I get a sense of someone looking and tellingly restlessly re-looking, painting to try to understand. This might be why Michelangelo leaves me cold, those crystalline forms and icy contraposto seem to be too programmatic and ideological. I'm not sure I need that much more certainty in the world.

I felt robbed when I heard Cy Twombly had died. Twombly’s work was like an obsessive scratching through the accreted surfaces of Western culture. I've not seen enough of Twombly's work in the flesh, I love the references but it's the paint that sings. There's something graceful in his work a balance between the density of the marks he made and the white fields they exist in, but that balance is hard won and restless, that's what makes the abstract feel so human. Mark making is evidence of life and as such it carries a human stain. The aura of the producer is not the same as the status bestowed on saints relics. The marks we make are the signs of us trying to break through the walls of otherness between us, the curtains of individual consciousness being pulled back.

Lucian Freud might make people feel uncomfortable. A profound lack of irony, an exposed candor in the paint. There's a care there, something that states it's intention, makes it's presence clear. Freud might fail on occasion but you know he's attempting using paint to find the person through their flesh. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. There's a tension in Freud's work between the cold clinical light of the autopsy and the warmth of blood beneath skin. It's not a sentimental art but it does seek affect, it seems to strive for an empathy that doesn't come automatically. When it comes to Freud's I'm more Lucian than Sigmund can't help feel that art that claims a therapeutic value is pretty limited if not dishonest. That said art that tries to show us what it might be like to be inside another individuals head or skin seems to me to have a major claim on our attention, no matter hope successful that wrestling is. If we think art is satisfying if it can raise an eyebrow or provoke a snigger then we don't have very high expectations of it at all. One doesn't have to ascribe art with any transcendent or spiritual quality if one is to believe that it should move us.

Since then I've been into the AGNSW at times to look at the Bonnard and Rubens self-portraits. The rheumy film in Ruben's eye is one of the most beautiful things I know in art. This knight diplomat, at the peak of his artistic powers, defining an age and shaping the image of kings and queens, is an ageing human being. Something similar happens with Bonnard, he's not a young man and the gradual entropy of molecules of colour of remind you of that. The striking domesticity of the scene in front of that mirror, the smallness of a man in a blaze of yellow light are immensely moving. Art needn't be a mirror, and in a narcissistic age we don't need any more of those, but self contemplation is different than vanity. Scorates' notion that 'the unexamined life is not worth living' might be an invitation to navel gazing but great art reveals itself in the honesty of that examination. Great art is us wrestling with what is is to be ourselves.

I'm not a catastrophist and whilst there's much that worries me in the world, the cynical grip of finance on politics, the vicious dogma of religious and ideological fundamentalism and the ease with which civil society discards the concerns of the poor and frail, there's too much in this world that's hyper ideological whilst hiding behind a fallacious veneer of rationalism. Humanity and the humane demand more than glib punchlines and theories, theory isn't going to love you when you're cold and hungry.

Now I feel differently. I do believe in something more profound than art as an hermetic critique of other art or an ironic counterpoint to mass media. I believe in love and flesh and death and care and beauty. Frustration without a response doesn't seem like a healthy or positive place for prospective and opinionated parents. I look to Auden's observation that 'we must love one another or else we die' and think life does matter and art that's committed to that idea is worth fighting for.