Danielle Sommer lives in Los Angeles. Her writing has been featured in Art in America, Textile, Art Practical, and Landfill Quarterly. For three years she blogged for KQED on visual art, as well as edited the column #Hashtags: Viral Thoughts on Art for the arts website DailyServing. Recent curatorial projects include “The Collectors” at Monte Vista Projects and “If we don’t, remember me” at Little Paper Planes. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.
Olga Koumoundouros cites a cremation urn as one of the impetuses for “Notorious Possession,” a social-sculpture-cum-housing-protest that occurred in the Glassell Park neighborhood of Los Angeles last fall and ended up as an exhibition at Susanne Vielmetter Los Angeles Projects in the spring. Koumoundouros was struggling financially, and when the artist discovered that a neighbor had left her house without notice and most likely intended to let the bank foreclose, she decided to occupy the empty house and rent out her own.
Almost immediately, Koumoundouros was uncomfortable living with the remains of her former neighbor’s life, which included an empty parcel that had contained a box of ashes—the neighbor’s partner had recently died. According to Koumoundouros, whose past projects deal largely with social class and the myth of the American dream, she felt compelled to draw people’s attention to the house—to save, protect and preserve what it stood for—by making it into art.
Koumoundouros took “adverse possession” of the house, attempting to acquire property rights by using it in an “open or notorious” fashion (i.e., flagrantly). She put the house’s utility bills in her own name and began to transform it into a site-specific installation. Spray-painting a thick, drippy rainbow at eye level along the interior walls, she also painted the house’s entire exterior and some fixtures a dull gold, including the roof (which she first covered with painter’s tarps to protect its tiles), the satellite dish and a garden hose. Inside, she poured colored resin over some of the objects left behind. Eventually she was evicted but was allowed to return for the art objects, including the roof tarps.
These, then, constituted the display at Susanne Vielmetter. What looked like the roof of a house falling from above were the painter’s tarps, hung upside down from the ceiling, shaped by wooden frames and supported by ropes made of brightly colored bedsheets. The gold hose, titled Tail End, and the satellite dish, titled Sun (with added fluorescent lights that made it look like an unblinking eye), occupied the room nearest the gallery entrance. In the next were a denim-covered sofa, propped up at one end by a marble countertop; a motorized brown recliner that perpetually opened and shut; and several resin-covered coffee-table tops. A row of photos documented other projects within the house, and a thick, drippy, spray-painted rainbow ran along the gallery walls, connecting all the “dots.” Mostly, the exhibition looked like bad art from a 1980s heroin den, and it was just as depressing.
During the weeks of Koumoundouros’s occupation, the art community in Los Angeles kept close tabs. Some claimed her use of the property was exploitative. Others cheered her on. The artist had gone on record saying she wanted to further a discussion about the conflict of interest between a house as shelter and a house as a financial commodity, but had she used her neighbor’s misfortune to her own advantage? The exhibition seemed to offer this answer: the further the project moved from its point of origin, the less it seemed to stoke the foreclosure debate and the more it engendered controversy about art’s “Golden Touch,” or its propensity to create value where none may have previously existed.
Part IV of a series of four posts, written as blogger-in-residence at Art21.org, May 2013.
The truth is this: I am flooded by the past, overrun. Unlike Aby Warburg (whom I wrote about in my last post), I may or may not be convinced that objects from ancient Greece contain a charge of actual energy from that time period, but I have talismans that stay with me—rocks from the Utah desert, a bird’s nest or two, scraps of poems from high school.
I do not believe I am an exception to the rule, but rather, the norm. It might be that society puts such value on mythic forward-thinkers like Prometheus because we find ourselves drowning, daily, in a sea of objects, traces, imprints, and impressions of what came before. I run my eyes over an old friend’s face and see nothing but our current moment; I blink, look again, and pull forth three separate memories involving he and I and a warm, Portland kitchen in a house we used to share.
Perhaps what Plato wrote is correct, and figures who live in this collapsed present (like Epimetheus) bring only mischief, but I prefer to allow for it—for the flood, the disintegration of firm boundaries, the conflation of present and past. I come back again to the idea of hindsight as a place, a viewing point atop a rifle. An art museum can be this kind of place, a controlled vantage point from which to view versions of the past. But art is best when it gives away this control; when it keeps the floodgates open.
Six years ago this summer, I had the opportunity to visit Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty. My approach via the long dirt road was almost exactly the same as what Smithson depicts in his film: the loud noise of a metal carriage on a washboard road, the horizon line of the Wasatch Range, the dust pouring out from behind me. The actual size of the Jetty was smaller than I’d anticipated, but the shock value of the colors more than made up for this: the sky was blue, the lake was pink, the Jetty was…bright, bright white, encrusted by salt after being submerged for thirty-plus years.
I walked into the center of the Jetty feeling calmed by the vibrant colors and the quiet of the desert. Smithson wrote that “to be in the scale of the Jetty is to be out of it,” meaning that if you are walking on the Jetty, you fail to be able to see it. This is not actually the case; it’s a fairly small sculpture, and you can see each of the concentric rings from the center. But read another way, Smithson could easily be talking about time, and to stand in the center of the Jetty, on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, is to experience its weight. I can still feel the water lapping at my toes.
Part III of a series of four posts, written as blogger-in-residence at Art21.org, May 2013.
If it’s true that hindsight is more than an action we take from the present, but a conflation of present and past, a moment when time’s fabric bunches and we reach out and touch the object of our sights (pulling it forward), then, following in the vein of philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty, does this object touch us back?
The pathos of the belief in this possibility can be found in the practice of German art historian Aby Warburg (1866–1929), particularly with his library and his final project, Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne. As an eldest son, Warburg should have taken over the family banking business from his father, but on his thirteenth birthday, he allegedly offered this position to his youngest brother, Max, in exchange for the promise that Max would buy him all the books he ever wanted. Max kept his word.
By 1914, Warburg had amassed somewhere in the vicinity of 15,000 volumes, most of which were related to history, art, psychology, and religion. These volumes became the Kunstwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg—a research institute located in Hamburg that attracted scholars from all over Europe and America—and, eventually, the Warburg Institute, one of the more important art-historical think tanks of the century.
Warburg’s original cataloguing system, however, left many of the visitors to his library overwhelmed. He ordered everything according to what he called “the law of the good neighbor,” physically arranging (and rearranging) the books to critique, refute, or support each other. As a later scholar wrote, “A line of speculation opening in one volume was attested to or attacked, continued or contradicted, refined or refuted in its neighbor.”
It was an extremely physical process; one that he repeated with the Mnemosyne picture atlas, which he worked on for the five-year period up until his death, juxtaposing images from different time periods against each other, hoping to understand why a particular style of representation or type of image would surface and resurface at different points in history, or in different cultures.
Der Bilderatlas Mnemosyne (named for the Greek goddess of memory) has enjoyed a second life over the last decade due to a renewed interest in archival projects, but what is fascinating about Der Bilderatlas is that, just like the library, it was frequently in motion. Warburg would order and reorder the images, as though to truly understand the links between past and present, he needed the physical experience, not just the intellectual.
Warburg manifested animist tendencies, and believed that the objects in his collections were charged with energy from a particular period. The photos included in Der Bilderatlas floated on large, black, rectangular panels that Warburg considered conductive. In the words of art historian Kurt Forster, for Warburg “to tap these batteries [artifacts] was to obtain a living current of life from the past.” He both touched and was touched.
Ultimately, Warburg’s system was too confusing for others. The library only really began to thrive after his family hired Fritz Saxl as an assistant, who created a workable catalog and began to manage its daily affairs. Warburg himself is rumored to have been schizophrenic, which would explain some of his behavior patterns, but for the sake of argument, it’s just as tempting to read the figure of Saxl as Prometheus and Warburg as a modern-day Epimetheus, “acting on the wisdom of a conflated instant.” In this version of the narrative, unfortunately, it is Epimetheus who is sacrificed, as though by opening himself up to the experience of being touched by the past, he is overrun.
Part II of a series of four posts, written as blogger-in-residence at Art21.org, May 2013.
In the fall of 2011, the Los Angeles gallery Cherry and Martin offered its visitors the chance to relive a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As part of Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980, gallerists Philip Martin and Mary Leigh Cherry presented selected works from curator Peter Bunnell’s 1970 exhibition, Photography into Sculpture, including some of the first examples of artists working with photographs in a “fully dimensional” manner.
The original exhibition, whichdebuted at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with a roster of primarily West Coast- and L.A.-based artists, shocked and appalled its audience, winning scorn from many critics. Hilton Kramer, for instance, insisted that the integrity of the photographic process had been compromised. Forty years later, however, most of the show’s reviewers comment instead on the exhibition’s continued relevance and surprising freshness. Carl Cheng’s dioramas of molded plastic photographic figures and Michael de Courcy’s tower of photo boxes seemed as intriguing in 2011 as they did in 1970. What critics seem to disagree on was what word to use to describe the show. Was it a “re-staging,” a “revision,” or simply a “reprise?”
In an interview, gallerist Philip Martin made it clear that the goal was never to simply reach back into the past and recreate the minutiae of the original exhibition. “You want the work to live and to be present as current objects,” Martin stated. “It doesn’t feel like historical material to me.” At the same time, the effect of Cherry and Martin’s decisions to pull the exhibition forward—to apply the lens of hindsight—can’t be ignored. “Art history is a narrative. It’s a story that we’re clearly always retelling ourselves. As a gallerist, as a curator, you’re trying to create a narrative that sparks people’s interest so they can see things afresh.”
When asked if the recent version of Photography into Sculpture revised history, Martin replied, “I’m not really sure what that means. I would assume that means you’re saying to people that history is not what they thought it was. I suppose to some degree that’s true, but at the same time, I think that to reach back and say ‘Hey, we couldn’t read this object, or we were reading it in a different way…’ That’s a statement of the present.”
There’s a famous photograph from 1913 called The Smoker. The smoker sits in profile, his face double-exposed with his hairline lost against the black background. His left hand is raised toward the camera, grasping an indistinguishable object. His right hand—actually, both hands—seem to be in multiple places at once, leaving blurry motion trails across the photograph, an effect the photographer, Italian Futurist Anton Bragaglia (1890–1960), carefully cultivated by leaving the shutter open for long periods. The same technique transforms the sitter’s cigarette and cigarette smoke into solid, white cords that snake from lap to mouth.
The image is an example of what Bragaglia called photodynamism, a process developed by Anton and his brother, Arturo, in reaction to the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey. Chronophotography, according to Bragaglia, only interested itself in “the precise reconstruction of movement,” while photodynamism’s concern was with “the area of movement which produces sensation, the memory of which still palpitates in our awareness.”
It occurs to me again that there are competing versions of hindsight. One presumes distance from what came before, along with a more precise, Marey-esque catalogue of movement (of causes and effects). The second—the sight on a gun as it links my eye and my target—involves the messiness of Benjamin’s flash and the conflated instant, of multiple layers of time pierced by the same arrow. In this version, the second we loose our arrow, we enter Bragaglia’s landscape, where the legibility of individual objects and trajectories is compromised and nothing is as important as the connective tissue that vibrates between and around things.
There is no prescription for the results of such an encounter, but perhaps this is a way we can have our cake and eat it too—to steal fire and bring our past along. After all, the clumsiest narratives are often the narratives that assume prescribed movement from A to B. Perhaps what makes shows like Cherry and Martin’s stand above the rest is that they don’t.