August 10, 2010

Silencing the old blunderbuss

If ever the work of a painter needed to be retold and all visual evidence trashcanned, Magritte is the man. It doesn’t even help that he’s aware. “I always try to make sure that painting doesn’t draw attention to itself, that it’s as invisible as possible. I work like a writer who strives for a simple voice, refusing all stylistic effect, so the reader cannot see anything beyond the idea that I want to express. The painting itself remains hidden.”

It also doesn’t help that Magritte painted a pipe which says it isn’t a pipe but a welcome introduction into sort of conceptual art and illusion for gullible abecedarians.

I well remember walking into a room in a Brussels museum and being hit by that thing above. It’s who? Magritte? It’s when? 1948? Is that even possible? How can he, way before pop art, or the affichistes, or most anything else with a feel for the sublime in the low in art, understand the power of comic books so well as to condense their spirit into a single image? This is as good as the reformed Guston would become, but Magritte had it way harder to get there. There is really nothing halfway related, except for the fact that Picabia had painted his magazine nudes by the early 1940s, which are not as worthwhile as images themselves, but a similarly surprising anticipation of much more contemporary tactics in art on canvas.

The painting belongs to a work group called the période vache, which Magritte completed within five weeks for his belated first solo exhibit in Paris. The critical consensus seems to be that he was giving the Paris art world the finger. I can sort of believe that when I look at the work group as a whole, really there’s only one other painting that I like, again historically surprising, since this was painted 30 years before the invention of the Duracell bunny. I’m not into the other paintings any more than into Magritte’s default mode, which he would return to immediately after this exhibition. I’m only into the one painting.

There is too much love there, it cannot mean the finger. It’s called The Ellipsis, but it doesn’t feel as if anything had been left out. There’s that shadow of distrustful amazement where the barrel hits the face. There’s the relaxed tenderness of the disjointed right hand resting on the rather tense left. There’s the interplay of eyes—I sort of wish the one staring out at us from within the hat wasn’t there so very obviously, but it carries so many implications, so much of the artist as he would know himself, checking in on the new-found guy who easily knocks off a painting per day, that it really adds a whole new layer of meta fiction.

I followed a notion and googled the possible German word “Pistolenschnauze” for this post. I hit on this automatically translated excerpt from a novel by one B. M. Bower:

“Casey sah nach unten und sah, dass das, was er danach erklärte, war, das mittlerster sehender Mann auf der Erde, das Richten des Breitesten gerade bei ihm machte Schrotflinte, die er je in seinem Leben gesehen hatte, mundtot. Sein Fänger verlagerte die Pistolenschnauze zum Rücken von Casey Hals und stocherte das Keuchen herum, bärtiger alter Mann mit seiner Zehe.”

Let me translate that back: Casey looked downward and saw that what he would later explain was the middlest man who saw on the earth, silencing the blunderbuss he had ever seen in his life, adjusting it at its broadest. His catcher shifted his muzzle face to the back of the Casey neck and poked around his wheezing, bearded old man with his toe.

Which fits the present context pretty amazingly.

August 9, 2010

The ugliest music I’ve ever heard

I posted something like this elsewhere in July 2007, shortly after my second Ivo Pogorelich concert in two years:

We saw him in 2005. He was my woman’s favorite pianist, she’d caught him live every possibility, so I was prepared that he had developed in strange ways since his pretty idiosyncratic last record in 93 or so. She warned me that the experience probably wouldn’t be overwhelming, since no pianist can really fill the Gewandhaus here in Leipzig with sound, but it should be deep, even if Scriabin and Rachmaninov for the second half didn’t exactly make my mouth water. But, to start with, there would be a mix of Chopin pieces, then a sonata.

A grumpy looking bald guy slouches in boxer style. We’re making ourselves comfy. Then he hits a single ugly note, then something hits me, and I’m struggling to get a grip of what’s happening here.

It feels incredibly slow. And very bleak, cold at heart. The only association I have is Loren Connors, tones emerging from a forlorn center, reaching out, trying to connect but dying before they can, opening up spaces. It sounds nothing like Chopin, though the tune is somewhere beneath the slow chords, played like under the breath, with incredible virtuosity, but more as a background. Pogorelich moves through minimal gestures, staring on the keyboard with intense concentration, and after a while it seems like he’s able to choose which notes to pick out of the text and lift them into those slow chords in real time; there is a improvisatory element to his choices.

As if that weren’t complicated enough, a third layer unfolds, one of ugly treble notes that Pogorelich punches out aggressively, one every couple of measures or so. It takes me a while, but when I start to hear them they fall into very slow melodic lines. Once I notice, listening gets really complicated. Pogorelich might start another part of the composition within the main text of his playing through a break, but then the next high note hits as a logical progression from the one before stuff wound down, and the mind’s ear has to paddle back and hear a transition instead of a break, trying not to lose the thread that keeps proceedings together all the while.

I try closing my eyes to concentrate better, but then I understand nothing—I have to watch his hands to keep a grasp.

He mixed all the pieces into each other, no pause for applause or anything, then a quick bow and off he slouched. We picked our jaws from the floor and drunkenly stumbled into intermission. (I should note here that while the above is mostly my own attempt to make sense of musical proceedings and you shouldn’t trust me, my woman is a pianist and knows these pieces inside out, and she was hit just as hard. There were tons of musicians in the audience, many of whom hated it, one mumbling, “That’s the ugliest music I’ve ever heard,” another, “I don’t want to hear music I don’t understand.”)

With us, exhilaration slowly set in. Classical classical concert pianists usually just don’t do this kind of thing. There are of course many who do “eccentric” interpretations. Those who play a more modern repertoire are different animals anyway, but Pogorelich always played only the chestnuts often in these “eccentric” interpretations. This was a completely different experience, though. It was radical, like taking the pure text of the music, taking it completely out of context, and building new sense out of it from the root up. It was the greatest thing that somebody from the so very conservative recital scene (and as indicated above, musicians can’t just challenge themselves by playing contemporary composers when they’re really part of that beat, it’s just not within their mind frame, it’s a different world) felt the need to keep pushing until Chopin was the most challenging music on the planet.

But there was no joy in his interpretation, it was too intense, almost desperate, there were some really bad vibes coming from the stage. Then again, we were sure, he couldn’t do it again after intermission, it was just something that had happened due to mood glitches. He couldn’t do it with Scriabin and Rachmaninov.

He did it again. The Scriabin was even more bleak, but more pure, as more of the text could be put into the slow chords, and as it’s colder stuff to begin with. Again, no break, but straight into the Rachmaninov where sometimes incredibly fast stride passages were clashing into the mood, and the long finale had lost all its virtuosic aspect and was more about punishing the piano with force and precision. We were completely exhausted from trying to listen, from trying not to miss anything Pogorelich was doing. It really seemed like a superhuman effort, like in some 70s flic where a mutant brain can change the course of asteroids or shake down cathedrals by sheer will power—if only the brain cells won’t melt before.

Then it was over, some people freakin’, most just doing the clapping game like they always do—we ourselves were too washed out to really applaud. No encore, what more was there to say? We stumbled out into the night and from then on Pogo was the family patron saint, and we invoked his name whenever we did something half-assed (which of course means he was around a lot).

Yesterday he played the Gewandhaus once more. He couldn’t do it again. Or could he? My woman had a nightmare in which he took things even further, but luckily she didn’t remember the details.

He wouldn’t even try. A Brahms Intermezzo was just that, an endless transition between nowhere and no place special in a mock-romantic gesture that seemed slightly ironic. Then he slept through a Prokovjev, ogling the sheet music (of course he’d played by heart two years ago). Technically wondrous, yes, and some nice unforeseen passages, but he made no sense. It was as if he were trying out possible angles on the piece but too tired to follow things up. Intermission. I was depressed. My woman was relieved as her nightmare hadn’t come true and earth still survived.

The second half started with three dances by Granados. Now the early Benedetti Michelangeli could play something like this and miraculously transform it through impeccable taste and touch. Pogorelich gave it the whole works. My interest actually picked up by the third time he was flying with full flags through an unspeakably banal chorus, my woman was rather more pissed off, still we agreed: guy’s making fun of us, must be. At least he’d woken up and now he gave an ice-cold rendition of Gaspard le Nuit that went deeper than everything he’d played before, but in the end it was depressing, the interpretation following nuance for nuance what he had recorded 20 years ago, only cooled down here to where there’s no feeling. (Actually I found that piece very impressive but I don’t want to know what it implied about the mood of the performer.)

This time an encore, don’t ask me, it did involve lots of notes.

Right now we’re a sad household. You could suspect that Pogorelich just is a somewhat arrogant dude who tries his stuff out in public, so during that he’s lukewarm, but once he’s mastered all the innards of the tunes he’ll slay you. I don’t think so, since he played stuff he’d done before. If you consider his personal tragedy, and the fact that he will usually have received no love for his more extreme and beautiful take on things—somehow it really felt like he had given up, like he no longer knew what he was on stage for but he vaguely remembered the motions. And he probably doesn’t even know what it could have meant to two folks up in the wings—and since the man seems to be the saddest man on earth, that’s what we want to tell him: you sailed around the moon single-handedly, and it fucking matters.

August 8, 2010

Drowsy mind of the creator

Some rooms into Olafur Eliasson’s Inner City Out exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, I’m hit by a very depressing vision. First let me ask, are you aware of the myth of the Studio Eliasson? It’s often portrayed as an experimental laboratory: scientists selected for their degree of madness meet with modelers selected for their degree of geekdom, all donning white overcoats to experimentally verify which of nature’s laws will translate into forms that secretly advance mankind while pretending to do no more than tickle the aesthetic funnybone. But lo and behold, here in front of us is a table littered with tons of small models that look like hesitant little mathematical formulae glued together from parts of plywood, with little filmic projections on their irregular surfaces that relate the model as it lies there to the single moment in its life when it seemed to make some sort of sense to the drowsy mind of its creator, before it had to take on the status of art straight-faced . . . It’s sort of sad—because all that the accumulated brainpower within the Studio Eliasson can come up with appears to be mildly schematic-looking bric-a-brac. When what we really needed from art was the birth of a monster glued together from the rotting remnants of the applied sciences.

Perhaps that is too much to ask. The exhibition is a good arrangement of well-timed one-liners, and some of them work very well. When I look into the Mercury Window, a huge bumpy mirror facing me in an early room, the reflections indeed behave like quicksilver due to the irregular surface of the piece. Is that science already? Or a metaphor on whoever steps in front of it? It’s not the only work where the viewer gets to act out a part, but since our reflections or outlines mostly tend to be aestheticized here, I’m not sure if they get us anywhere beyond the constrictions of our silhouette. (At least my colored quintuple shadow up against the wall looks kind of cooler than most of the stages-of-an-ape-developing-into-modern-man-during-mid-gallop schematics, I grant you that.)

Curator Daniel Birnbaum stresses that in works like these you don’t have an art object to look at. You have a very simple arrangement of conditions, with a row of spotlights on the floor, and the work is sort of the meeting that takes place between the viewer and a space carefully prepared by the artist. Which in theory means that the manifestation of the work could be somehow open-ended. In reality each viewer becomes alike.

It’s probably most fruitful to understand the best part of the exhibition as op art extended into space and situation, where you try to decipher the aesthetic rules a work follows, then try to decide if these rules make the work look either good or bad, or if they don’t matter at all except that they help you recognize the artist and tag stuff accordingly. But somehow the looks of these simple arrangements and apparatuses were the only thing that interested me on a deeper level. I became more interested in the machinery that seemed to want to hide behind the image, it seemed the obvious point worth pondering over. Because many of the pieces sit quite uncomfortably between slick high-production values and a careless sketchiness that suggests an idea is more valuable than the finished work. Would the art be better if everything had been pimped up to hectoring perfection? Or more plainly, if there had been more money spent? Maybe so, there was a whole wing drowned in colored fog, titled Your Blind Movement—this could have been a thoroughly emotional walk through psychedelic John Carpenter territory, except for the wood paneling of the floor, which refused to lend itself to out-of-your-mind experiences and patiently told you, dude, you’re still in a museum, just follow the grain and you’ll be fine.

That same question of production values also applies to the centerpiece of the exhibition, Mikroskop, pictured above. You have to enter through its behind-the-scenes, a huge scaffold covered with some sort of plastic sheets, so you’re sort of warned as what to expect, space wrapped in itself cheaply. Still, when you enter the room, it seems vast, the light seems glorious, the space seems vague but connected to something out there, up there . . . until . . . you regain your senses and start to connect all the dots and explain the illusion to yourself. Which happens rather quickly, and the moment you go into these details, the whole thing is no longer that aesthetically pleasing. The visible section of the dome doesn’t seem cut out very well, some of the braces are interrupted rather rudely, some seem left hanging . . .

Anyway, the artist states in interviews that the work is situated right at the central theme of his exhibition: Inner City Out. Through the glass dome the Berlin light shines and is supposed to let in some of the spirit of the city. Of course it sort of does, by power of pure situatedness, but the glass is frosted, which renders the light as anonymous as sunrays can possibly become, and the whole arrangement really doesn’t feel particularly communicative. Forget about circumstance, the title of the piece is much more evocative: Mikroskop, and if it’s a microscope, we’re the little specks caught down there in a drop of liquid on a slate, being watched dispassionately by a giant blind eye from above which refracts its thirst for knowledge into a kaleidoscope of blank screens. This is a reading that translates into pure emotion for a split second before spatial orientation sets in, and we’re back into a dome wrapped by mirror foil (remember that wood paneling on the floor in the other room as a similar distraction?).

If the inner-city-out theory immediately falls flat (imho, obviously), I’m left in a room covered with thin reflective plastic skin drawn tightly over standard scaffolding, reflecting rather good but not knock-down-dead late 19th century architectural engineering, the sky, and unfortunately myself over and over (and how can an army of scientists be not aware that my presence in an artwork destroys all of its deeper meaning. Wait, where was I?). That plastic skin produces wrinkles and crackles that quickly become the aesthetic focus of the room (schooled as we have been in op-art tactics through the warped mirrors etc. earlier in the exhibit). It’s optic glitch in an analogically produced virtual distance. One could use that as a metaphor and label the piece as lo-fi poetry built out of a grand idea executed in carelessly applied mirror foil.

And that’s really the point for me. I do suspect quite a percentage of the work on display is manufactured to elicit spontaneous gasps of aesthetical appreciation. But within the pretty confused mock-scientific invitations to easy ogeling, there’s some rather serious poetry collecting at the fringes. Growing like mildew, one would hope, and rotting the studio myth from the inside out.