17 September 2009

footnote to "the course of nature": on decay

When Linda Weintraub was talking about Damien Hirst, she mentioned that she'd been studying the names of heavy metal bands. Very few names mention death though many include decay. She recited several. Jenny Tobias has been regularly posting hypothetical band names as her Facebook status, and some are really wonderful and thought-provoking. And, today, Meghan Musolff had "Peter, Paul, and Mary all day. I always thought we could be like them. Corey, Chad, and Meghan" for her status. Hmm, what's in a name and, as Weintraub said, is Damien Hirst our first heavy metal visual artist? Probably nowhere close.

16 September 2009

the course of nature

I saw a notice about a short video about Thomas Cole and his art on the Thomas Cole Historic Site's webpage. It's pretty good and it's never hard to look at Cole's paintings or at Hudson River Valley landscape views. "The course of empire" plays a sizable role in the Cole video and I've been thinking a lot about the course of empire, or rather the course of life as it plays out for me. The transition from urban life in New York City to small college town life in Alfred is mostly fine. It's been nice to have school in session because there are artist lectures and more folks around. And Monday-Friday New York Times subscriptions available for under $30 for the term. I have to go fetch the paper at the campus store and it doesn't come until mid-afternoon but I'm always a few days behind anyway. I thought I was cruising along OK without the daily paper but I have been enjoying it. I'll never be an online reader (never say never).

Linda Weintraub was today's artist talker. Her topic was artistic beauty and nature with a bend toward the environmentally correct and, yes, the natural course of nature. It was a very interesting talk and I couldn't help mulling over Cole's "Course of empire" as she talked about the life cycle of nature.

She started by saying that in her student days it was not possible to talk about art and beauty. I guess we'd been burned out by the connoisseurship school of art history and criticism. So she is actually having a lot of fun reconsidering it now. She started her lecture by talking about a Sophie Calle triptych series that deals with descriptions of beauty by people who have been blind since birth. The subjects of each of her examples talked about natural things like ocean waves. Nature is, after all, harmonious, full of truth and virtue, and therefore good. Weintraub's real interest is in how we can use the beautiful to help us preserve the planet.

Her case studies were the "poster child" and the "enfant terrible": Andy Goldsworthy and Damien Hirst. Oh, boy, you could just tell this was going to be fun.

Weintraub talked about several Goldsworthy works: how he organizes the leaves or rocks, how nature is manipulated to perfect harmony long enough for the picture to be taken, how the manipulation is sometimes acrobatic. One of my favorite Goldsworthy works is the wet leaves in the bark that burst out and blow away as they dry. This doesn't fit her guiding principle so well but I didn't challenge her.

Moving on to Hirst, Weintraub chose "Thousand years" as the test piece. It was in the "Sensation" show and involves two chambers: one with a fly and maggot hatchery, one with a cow's head and fly zapper light. Voilà, the full natural cycle from birth to adulthood to death. She continued to talk about emblems of decay and how much we generally revile such animals as vultures and plants such as fungi and bacteria, even though we probably all recognize that decay is part of the life cycle. But we don't want to look at it or smell it.

She then presented the work of several artists that follow the Goldsworthy or Hirst route. The controlling artists: Marta de Menezes who pokes pupae so that they grow up into more colorful butterflies, Eduardo Kac who inserts fluorescent green DNA into various animals so that they turn green in certain light, and Verena Kaminiarz who carves up body worms. The worms are able to regenerate so you get, for example, a two-headed worm, both heads with eyes, which must negotiate its petri dish without a single brain and focus.

The Hirstians: Gelitin whose "Hare" is a big, pink, knitted, straw-stuffed rabbit on an Austrian mountain that is serving as fodder for cows, base for mushrooms and other plants, moisture in the shade between the legs. Gelitin group members got the knitting, etc. assistance of the local townspeople and also an agreement that they wouldn't try to repair the rabbit for 25 years when it will, naturally, have been reabsorbed into the ecosystem. George Gessert does reverse hybridization by "re-wilding" over-cultivated plants. Jae Rhim Lee alters her diet so that her urine produces the exactly appropriate formula for plant growth; she makes kimchee with the resulting plants and serves folks. Life cycle, get it? Michel Blazy does work in which microbes eat up the work in the course of the display, and he lets the alteration happen as it will. Pawel Wojtasik does beautiful shots of strands of waste, fooling the eye (and brain) with glittering beauty until you discover it's feces. Gregor Schneider's "Death: be not proud" is a room he's constructed in his studio but he hasn't yet found a terminally ill person who is willing to die in his room. (This, naturally, resonates this year as we have had news about "death panels" and are thinking about health care costs and doctor-assisted death.) As I left the talk with Elizabeth Gulacsy and Tom Peterson, we talked about suicide and graceful life termination. Tom lived in a commune many years ago and a suicidal co-inhabitant was "saved" by a psychologist who asked her to get things in order before she committed suicide and the ordering gave her enough strength to go on. Well, I don't know about the "saved" and "enough strength to go on" but the thinking about life value apparently was restorative. More life cycle, I guess.

Weintraub ended with a fairly long description of "Cloaca" by Wim Delvoye. He built a beautiful spotless machine which replicates the human food stream. It must be fed and then its mouth, throat, liver, pancreas, intestines and whatnot produce, ta da, of course, some beautiful feces. This naturally invites discussion of whether machine shit is better or cleaner or more edible than human shit.

In the question and answer period, Weintraub talked about humanure, green cemeteries, and other activities that are trying to help us humans work with the ecosystem rather than accumulating waste and wasting it. She mentioned an artist who has put lists of the toxic elements in common medicines and foods on the back door of bathroom stalls at the Whitney. Are we just toxic corpses who should be delivered to toxic waste dumps?

Since the Thomas Cole paintings had been drifting around in my mind through Weintraub's talk, I asked her if she thought 18th- and 19th-century works such as "Course of empire" and ruins were precedent for some of the Hirstians. She replied that she thought we were now out of frontier and that made it very different. I guess it's appropriate that we sometimes describe the ruined structures in a neoclassical park as follies.

By the time this is all done swirling in my brain, I'll probably be ready to bury. No impervious box, please.

(N.B. The pictures are step 1 and step 5 from "The course of empire": "The savage state" and "Desolation", pictures from the Wikipedia article on the painting series.)

13 September 2009

dance and clay

Marcela Giesche, Amsterdam-based dancer, is a guest artist at Alfred University and she presented her work on Friday and Saturday night. The Saturday evening concert began with a work on the stairs leading to C.D. Smith Auditorium by the student dancers. It involved their doing movements that were apparently being instructed via iPod: a few steps down, a couple back up, a few paces to the left, lean over the rail. It was interesting as they got tangled with audience members waiting for the doors to open. The program acknowledged John Gill for his advice about the clay. It wasn't until she was a ways into the clay part that I realized that Giesche was being contextual in using clay to mark her residency here at Alfred, home of the New York State College of Ceramics.

"Wanderers and Wonderers" started out with Giesche "hidden" under leaves of newspaper, along with a light layer of newspaper spread about the whole dance floor. They asked us to leave the auditorium, if we were able, during the intermission. We returned to the single layer of newspaper covering the floor and the mound of Giesche in the upper center of the floor. In the first half of the piece, Giesche moved about, mostly horizontal, and pushed the newspaper around, ending with her sweeping the rest to the edges. For the second half of the piece, she, nearly naked, covered her body with clay slip and "drew" on the floor as she moved about it with her slipp(er)y body. She ended by brushing some of the drying slip back into the basin from which it came. Going full circle, I guess. Parts of it were very lovely, including the shadows. Her partner, Bruno Caverna, was not able to leave Norway to join her and I wondered how the piece would have been different as a two-person work rather than solo.

The program notes said "How much of our identity is constructed by the opinions and beliefs of others? What does it take to strip these layers away and find ourselves floating in the unknown again? The body becomes our only reference point, timelessly recovering itself through the senses -- in a state of perpetual wonder --" I wasn't sure that any of this really played out in the work for me but it was interesting to see the use of clay for an Alfred dance.