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A Sistine Chapel for Our Time

"Without having seen the Sistine Chapel one can form no appreciable idea of what one man is capable of achieving." — Johann Wolfgang Goethe, 23 August 1787 — I must confess that I felt no such awe when I first saw the Sistine Chapel, sometime in the seventies. By the time I reached it I was furious, having come from the Vatican Art Museum where I saw works of art that had been plundered but were exhibited as trophies to the glory of the Holy See. The Chapel did nothing to restore my capacity for awe. I giggled at Adam in limp-wristed lassitude, reluctant to receive God’s touch; at God swooping toward him in a conveyance that looks like a cutaway section of a body organ. Feeling suffocated by the reverence of the craning … [Read more...]

Without Pieties, With Gravitas

But You Did Not Come Back by Marceline Loridan-Ivens — Believe this book. Read it. Do not believe the newspaper stories that make you think it's all about the rise of Anti-Semitism in France. Those stories are only a specious handle on which to hook a journalistic feature. The book is literature, written by a woman in her mid-eighties as a letter addressed to her father who did not come back from Auschwitz. No, it's not warmed-over stew. Like many others who are reading this commentary, I've read and seen memoirs and fiction and essays and movies and contemporary artworks and . . . and . . . about the Holocaust. I don't believe in the claim for its exceptionalism; Cambodia's killing fields live side by side with the … [Read more...]

HOLD STILL / KEEP MOVING: Women Photographers’ Memoirs

Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann, Little, Brown and Company, 2015 It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario, Penguin Press, 2015 — Early in my reading of photographer Sally Mann’s recently published memoir, Hold Still, I thought I wasn’t going to like her, this woman who is pleased to write of herself that she sometimes doesn’t leave her rural home for five weeks, not even to go to the grocery store, appearing not to realize that her bohemian abstention from ordinary lives is, in fact, privilege. I confess though that I have a low tolerance for privilege, and an even lower one for seemingly willful ignorance of it. As I began to read Hold Still, her book lit little crackly twigs … [Read more...]

Mr. Turner and Time

Mr. Turner, Written and Directed by Mike Leigh, 2014 — A windmill, a silvery river. From the right two women in peaked white Dutch caps walk into the frame, continuing on in a gentle diagonal along the river bank, talking together in intimate good-humored conversation. Is it sunrise or sunset? This is a question that will turn out to matter. They walk lower left out of the frame, revealing Turner behind them, a monolith, a stone of Stonehenge, on a rise. A Monolith Two girls return, a different pair, giggling together in complicit intimacy as they run up a flight of stairs. Turner has arrived! He strides through the rooms of a country estate, a good fellow at ease among his patrons, men who are as willing to debate the nature … [Read more...]

Extrusion Riff

Notes from Out of Hand: Materializing the Postdigital (Museum of Art and Design) Inside 3D Printing (New York Javits Center)  — I can extrude anything. I can make anything out of anything. I can make products out of my images. A duvet out of a photo of my dog. Why? And why not? Last year I wandered excitedly through a show at New York’s Museum of Art and Design, Out of Hand:  Materializing the Postdigital  (Oct 16, 2013 to June 1, 2013). From the website: “Out of Hand will be the first major museum exhibition to examine this interdisciplinary trend” {i.e., digital fabrication – JS}  “through the pioneering works of more than 80 international artists, architects, and designers, including … [Read more...]

Medina to Prada: An Arranged Marriage

This past Sunday morning I was in Morocco, in Fez for the World Sacred Music Festival taking photographs along the way. The next day, Monday morning, I was in New York, a stop-over between flights, walking with my camera. Today, Tuesday, now, I am back home in Los Angeles, joining images together, thinking I'd be writing a framing paragraph of straightforward information about the origins of these jolts of color. I thought that this was going to be a comparison about fashion, maybe even a snarky one: a comparison between the authentic Medina quarter of Fez -- a maze of shops and residences, mosques and fountains, artisans and palaces -- and the Dover Street Market which I came upon on 30th and Lexington, where I pressed 5 and … [Read more...]

Sympathy and the Devil

Tea and Morphine: Women in Paris, 1880-1914, Hammer Museum, January 25, - May 18, 2014 — An inventively curated exhibition of late 19th and early 20th century works on paper by fin de siecle artists, culled from the recent acquisition of the Elisabeth Dean Collection, Tea and Morphine achieves its effects by couplings and contrasts. This is show of ‘ands,’ (the emphasis of the title above is my own interpolation). Public and private are displayed in radical contrast. Public is a woman outside the home, here looking at an exhibition through her lorgnette, contriving her costume so that the ruffles of her hat are echoed by her neckpiece, a woman who is to be seen, and who is also seeing. This is the Belle Epoque teetering on the cusp … [Read more...]

The Shack of Film

On the Occasion of ‘Agnès Varda in Californialand’, LACMA November 3, 2013 – June 22, 2014 — ‘Grand Dame of the French New Wave’ ‘Grandmother of the New Wave’ ‘Mother of the French New Wave movement’ !#&?! This is what happens to the woman artist at a certain age — She no longer is. She represents. Not herself. But what she has supposedly brought into being. Her progeny. I mean. Really! Varda’s no grandmother, she’s no great lady . . . She’s alive and well at Agnès in Californialand, an installation in which she is all ages. In the opening texts displayed on the walls of this first U.S. museum presentation of her artwork, Agnès Varda calls this little building in the center of one’s view, a shack. The museum, … [Read more...]

Automotive

A word broke in two the other day, right in front of my eyes. A familiar word: automotive becoming auto motive, breaking into unfamiliar meanings: auto (self); motive (reason for acting). I had been thinking about a film I adored but didn’t quite understand. Auto motive: a key? The self is the reason, the motor for acting Acting? In the film Holy Motors, a man has a reason for acting, a motive, a motor. He is performing himself. A film in which a man is running, in black and white, first one way, then running back. He is a silent movie. A man who is only automotive. A man as made by Jules Marey, the man who ‘began’ cinema, who began the phases of movement of the moon of cinematography, a man who captured motion as later in … [Read more...]

Holes In The Net Of Time

Part One: Photography and Time in Observatory and Forest Reflections on two recent books of photography and text: ‘From The Observatory’ by Julio Cortazar and ‘December’ by Alexander Kluge and Gerhard Richter — When I was in my twenties and making films, I read Eisenstein’s writings about the dynamic principle of montage -- the ‘third thing’ that can happen if images are juxtaposed such that new meanings emerge, as in the classic example of Potemkin in which a statue of a lion seems to sleep, awaken, roar, the images together becoming  a metaphor for previously somnolent masses roused and rising up against oppression. I thought then -- and still do --  that this principle of tertius (Eisentstein’s term) explains … [Read more...]

Thank You For Looking

Peter Nadas, Victor Erice, Photography, Words, Trees, and the Passages of Time — At the corner of Calles Hernandez Macias and Quadrante in San Miguel de Allende is a craft shop where, on either side of its door, these words scroll across the windows: one side, Thank you for looking; on the other, Gracias Por Mirar. Each time during the fourteen years I have been going to Mexico, I’ve gone back to photograph these words. What is this going back, I have been wondering, this returning to the same site in order to make different images? I have been thinking about Hungarian writer and photographer Peter Nadas (most recently author of the novel Parallel Stories) who each day for a year photographed one wild pear tree in his … [Read more...]

La Vida: Photography and Time at the Center

Thoughts sparked by: RETURN TO CENTRO HISTORICO: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots by Ilan Stavans (Rutgers University Press, 2012) – 'Ilanchik, what do you think?' In his photographic memoir, Return to Centro Historico, Ilan Stavans begins with direct address. His father has unexpectedly e-mailed him a photograph of the Angel de la Independencia, the sculpture that sits at the top of a column at the center of the Paseo de la Reforma roundabout in Mexico City. The height of the statue, placed 118 feet above the column’s base, makes it difficult to discern its details in any way other than through the close-up lens of photography. 'Did you know it was a girl? A bronze girl, half-naked?' The father asks his son for his … [Read more...]

On Her Own: Photography and Time in Maine

A Meditation on ‘Chansonetta: The Life and Photographs of Chansonetta Stanley Emmons, 1858 - 1937 ’ by Marius B. Peladeau,  with an introduction by Berenice Abbott, published in Maine Antique Digest, Waldoboro, Maine, December, 1977 – Chansonetta with camera at the beginning of her life as a photographer Chansonetta Stanley Emmons (1858 -1957) packs her camera, a 1904 5 x 7 inch Century capable of speeds from 3 to 1/100th of a second—along with her tripod, carrying case and glass plates, it is a bulky load but she is setting off with a helper, her daughter Dorothy, sometime model as well. They load the equipment into a Ford motorcar given to Chansonetta by her two brothers, both inventors, one of the Stanley Steamer, the other of the … [Read more...]

Three Suitcases: Walter Benjamin; Agusti Centelles; and the Hypothetical Suitcase of Baltasar Garzon -Part Two

“Photography and Time at the Border,” by Janet Sternburg, is a multi-part series of essays that explores issues surrounding history, memory, exile and home. The Museum of Exile is the opening essay that focuses on the Museu Memorial d’Exili, in La Jonquera, Spain, juxtaposed with the music of Paco Ibanez. Three Suitcases, a two part commentary, continues this exploration by linking the lives and work of three pivotal figures: Walter Benjamin, Agusti Centelles and Baltasar Garzon, juxtaposed with the music of Lluis Llach and Joan Manuel Serrat. 3. UNCOVERED Metaphors don’t always line up: a suitcase can be an emblem of belonging to a place, and of ensuring the safety of one’s belongings; it can also signify something less benign -- a … [Read more...]

Three Suitcases: Walter Benjamin; Agusti Centelles; and the Hypothetical Suitcase of Baltasar Garzon – Part One

“Photography and Time at the Border,” by Janet Sternburg, is a multi-part series of essays that explores issues surrounding history, memory, exile and home. The Museum of Exile is the opening essay that focuses on the Museu Memorial d’Exili, in La Jonquera, Spain, juxtaposed with the music of Paco Ibanez. Three Suitcases, a two part commentary, continues this exploration by linking the lives and work of three pivotal figures: Walter Benjamin, Agusti Centelles and Baltasar Garzon, juxtaposed with the music of Lluis Llach and Joan Manuel Serrat. This is a tale of three suitcases, two real, and one hypothetical, each journeying at different times and in different directions, but bound together by a shared history and place. Two of … [Read more...]

The Museum of Exile

“Photography and Time at the Border,” by Janet Sternburg, is a multi-part series of essays that explores issues surrounding history, memory, exile and home. The Museum of Exile is the opening essay that focuses on the Museu Memorial d’Exili, in La Jonquera, Spain, juxtaposed with the music of Paco Ibanez. Three Suitcases, a two part commentary, continues this exploration by linking the lives and work of three pivotal figures: Walter Benjamin, Agusti Centelles and Baltasar Garzon, juxtaposed with the music of Lluis Llach and Joan Manuel Serrat. ***************************** On January 26th,1939, Barcelona fell to Franco’s troops. With the defeat of the Republicans in Catalonia, the Spanish Civil War was in effect over. When the French … [Read more...]

Salvage and Sabotage

Maya Zack, W.G. Sebald, Walter Benjamin and Chris Marker, A Further Inquiry on Image and Text – With Living Room, an installation I sought out at The Jewish Museum in New York, Israeli artist Maya Zack is salvaging the past of a particular man, Manfred Nomburg, and through his memories of the pre-Holocaust past, the Jewish experience in Germany. Zack is honoring what once was, what was lost and now remembered. But something else is at work, subtly undermining that formulation. Living Room combines the immemorial impulse to salvage with a more contemporary impulse to sabotage, and suggests ways that artists and writers are bringing these impulses together, not as separate and opposite, but rather in generative conjunction. On each wall … [Read more...]

The Ambidextrous Artist

The Photograph and Text, An Inquiry My fascination with words and images began when I was a teenager and encountered I Am A Lover, a book of photographs by Jerry Stoll with accompanying quotations selected from various sources by writer Evan S Connell, Jr.. For me, living a provincial life on the East Coast, I was enchanted by these black and white photographs of bohemian life in the San Francisco of the fifties -- poets reading their work, jazz musicians in clubs, artists’ studios, street life, photographed not as documentation but as smoky evocation. And then to read, next to, above, under, on the opposite page, words that were sometimes humorous, sometimes lyrical, always apposite and oblique to the image —this was revelation. … [Read more...]