Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Importance of Being Ernesto

Ernesto Neto
Seventh Regiment Armory
Park Avenue and 66th Street, New York
May 13 - June 14, 2009

In Brasil, to call someone or something "ginga" (pronounced ZHEEN-ga ) is to offer a high compliment. Ginga connotes an intuitive, mystical quality of movement and attitude that Brasilians like to think is uniquely theirs, permeating the way they walk, talk and dance, part of everything they do. It is a synthesis of mind and body, a state of corporeal grace informed by intelligence, creativity and rhythm. Most frequently applied to the "beautiful game" evinced by the star players of Brasilian fútbol, ginga is also evident in the Escolas de Samba, and in the other athletes, musicians, actors and artists who are the pride of Brasil.

When Ronaldo fakes out a defender with his splendid footwork and executes a somersault kick into the net, this is ginga. When Caetano Veloso sings and plays guitar on "O leãozinho", this is ginga. And now, Ernesto Neto, a true Carioca, an artist who lives, works and takes inspiration from his hometown of Rio de Janeiro, has successfully exported ginga to New York for his month long playground and sculptural installation in the huge Drill Hall of the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue.

Anthropodino, Neto's biomorphic sculpture of stretched, translucent Lycra, is a purposefully subversive intervention, a curved, sinuous expression of the body in the otherwise foursquare, "regimented" space of the Armory. It is a physical realization of the Jonah and the Whale archetype from the Bible, allowing us to walk within the belly of the leviathan, to mischievously peek out from under its ribcage. A maze of arched tunnels, given their tent-like structure by what the artist facetiously calls "dinosaur bones", lead to a central cupola, an allusion to the Crystal Palaces of the late 19th Century. These imposing architectural wonders enlarged on the basic idea of the greenhouse - glass panes, steel frames and struts - to enclose yawning spaces with cathedral ceilings (much like the Armory itself) that were used for large social functions like train stations, botanical gardens or pavilions for international expositions.

Highly engineered yet voluptuously free, Anthropodino plays with the dualities of nature vs. nurture, of the machine in the garden. This duality continues formally in the very construction of the piece, which is not only built from the ground up but also hangs from the Armory's trussed ceiling. Complementing the leviathan/dinosaur on the distressed plank floor is a vast, suspended, diaphanous membrane punctuated by long "stalactites" of the same stretchy fabric, weighted with sand and various powdered spices to terminate in sac-like nodes and pods. The overall effect is mysterious and primeval, like vestigial life forms discovered in a forgotten Amazonian rain forest.

Both floor and ceiling work are, in fact, familiar aspects of Neto's consummate oeuvre. The hanging element goes back (at least) to 2001, when O Bicho (The Animal) was shown during the 49th Venice Biennale. It continues as a centerpiece of the Margulies Collection in Miami. And a prototype of the floor construction was included in Neto's last show at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York in October 2008. But never before have the two elements been synergistically combined in a tour de force installation. Or rather just once before: curator Tom Eccles indicates that a similar melding was exhibited last year in Rome. Still, the synthesis of floor and ceiling working together helps to fully exploit the scale and complexity of the Drill Hall as a container for art.

I have been able to view Anthropodino three times: once while it was still under construction, then at the press preview, and finally at the evening vernissage. During the morning press event, Neto gave an extended talk, although the word "extended" barely suffices to describe the range of free associations and voluble intellectual concerns displayed by the artist in these impromptu sessions. He is like a jazz musician, riffing on a theme. Once he gets started it is both impossible and counterproductive to try and stop the flow. But his generous curiosity is a great boon to any critical discussion of his work. My reactions to some of the issues he raised during that talk will inform the rest of this review.

1. Is Brasil a "Western" country? During his residency at the Calder Foundation in France, Neto was amused to learn that Brasil is not considered "Western" by many Europeans, due to the African and Native American (non-European) sources of its culture - although similar conflations in the United States, for example, do not interfere with our nation being perceived as "Western". But rather than viewing this as a fundamental tragedy, Neto chooses to interpret the misunderstanding as essentially liberating. He can now be happily non-Western, no longer constrained by a potentially deadening aesthetic tradition.

The title of the show, Anthropodino, is Neto's punning reference to Anthropophagia, a modernist aesthetic theory celebrating Brazil’s history of cultural cannibalism: that by ingesting and assimilating elements of other nations, Brasil is able to reinvigorate itself and assert independence over European colonial hegemony, in much the same way that the rite of cannibalism strengthened the autonomy of certain indigenous tribes. The Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibal Manifesto) was written by concrete poet Oswald de Andrade in 1928, although some of its application came years later in the art and music of 1960s Tropicália: musicians like Gilberto Gil, Jorge Ben and Veloso, and artists such as Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark.

2. Making art should not be such a "serious" endeavor. Neto does not wish to conform to the solemnity of careerism, which he feels is ultimately dependent on guilt. Art should revolve about play, improvisation, intuition. See "ginga" above.

3. There is a certain elegance in compactness and portability, a lesson Neto claims to have learned from the itinerant merchants of Rio, who unpack their wares and assemble impromptu stores right on the street. Similarly, the artist is capable of creating vast installations after unpacking the contents of three shipping crates. All the elements for Anthropodino, the fabric, the "bones", the thread and tools, are contained in a fairly modest package. This strategy recalls musician Robert Fripp's self description as a "small, mobile, intelligent unit". Neto's economy of means is a decidedly "green" assertion of his overall biomorphic gesture.

4. Neto advances two distinct models for making sculpture. Carving marble involves a maximum initial effort. The material is relatively obdurate, hard to fashion. But once you complete a work, it will last forever without much maintenance. It is, as it were, carved in stone. Then there are more pliable materials, like wood, bamboo, even living vegetation. These can be shaped quickly and easily, but will also rapidly devolve. Their intrinsic entropy will require frequent, fundamental maintenance, a sort of micromanaging. Neto apparently favors the latter model in his own work, and is constantly fine tuning, fitting things together, making everything work. He is a tinkerer, a bricoleur, Dionysian rather than Apollonian. His artistic synthesis accepts both creation and decay as touchstones.

5. Children and adults coexist in the "real" world. They should also do so in the art world. They maintain two intersecting dialogs under one social umbrella. At gatherings of family or friends, kids generally run around while the adults sit and talk and drink beer. Like his curator Eccles, Neto is a happy dad, and the two have conspired to make Anthropodino "kid friendly", with autonomous, adjunct, "domestic" constructions that play off the central leviathan. There is a carpeted area, several enclosed padded pavilions for tumbling and cocooning, and a swimming pool where the "water" is connoted by a sea of small blue spheres.

6. Brasil is a culture of the body. Nakedness, or an exceptional degree of bareness on beaches or at Carneval, unites with a visible tradition of outdoor performance. Culture is often experienced in mass and in public. Neto tends to incorporate interactivity in his large installations precisely to activate that sense of communal joy and the poetry of mass participation. This links him to the larger practice of Relational Aesthetics.

7. Neto posits a dialectic between the sexy and the sensual. Buying and selling stocks in periods of economic prosperity, busy commerce, chatter and social glitter - these things are sexy. But the sensual is slower, rooted in a fundamental sadness, in tragedy. The artist contrasts the two, remembering his last visit to New York in October 2008, when the market was crashing and tragedy was in the air. With his brooding animal and vegetable forms, Neto seems to favor the deeper, more pensive approach of sensuality.

Finally, a word on the spices. Neto is an amiable practitioner of gesamtkunstwerk, and his efforts at "total art" extend in Anthropodino to a palpable sense of smell. He used nearly a ton of powdered cumin, clove, coriander, black pepper, ginger, turmeric, chamomile and cayenne to weight, stain and effuse the various Lycra pods and nodules that hang from the ceiling or inside the ribbed leviathan, creating a heady scent within the large confines of the Drill Hall. Beyond a desire to enchant us with the good air, I detect a whiff of Candomblé or Macumba, the Afro-Brasilian versions of Santeria, in the choices and distributions of the spice, something owed to the non-Western part of his Brasilian heritage. As I am not versed in local tribal practices, the best I can cannibalize from my own cultural referents are the chakras of Kundalini Yoga, wherein certain colors and symbols are used to represent the energy centers and spiritual nodes of the body. When I asked Neto about the spice, he indicated there was a system in play, culminating in cayenne, the densest, most redolent spice, at the very heart of the installation, to "raise the emotional temperature".

(A slideshow of Anthropodino is now online. See Comments.)

Friday, May 08, 2009

Le Petit Versailles: An Homage, a New Season, a New Exhibition

Le Petit Versailles
346 East Houston Street, NY

(between Avenues B & C, additional entrance at 247 East Second Street)
Aurelio del Muro, 7th Avenue, through May 31, 2009

Aurelio del Muro, Twins, 2009

A sure sign that Spring has arrived in the East Village is the opening of the regular season of outdoor events at Le Petit Versailles, which generally runs from early May through October. A community garden and public art space, LPV is the brainchild of a pair of artists, filmmakers, performers, gay/queer/trans activists, green guerrillas and co-conspirators, Peter Cramer and Jack Waters, who are also amalgamated as Allied Productions, Inc., a non profit arts organization established in 1981.

East Second Street gate

Allied Productions continues its independent work in film, performance and public art, but LPV is their ongoing signature project, sunk into the bedrock and topsoil of a neighborhood where they have lived and worked for decades. Like Candide, they must cultivate their garden, still viable in a rapidly changing city where many other squats, gardens and grass roots initiatives have fallen under the bulldozers of real estate development.

LPV has the singular virtue of compactness. It was founded in 1996 as part of Operation GreenThumb, whereby empty lots that once housed tenement buildings (since condemned and razed) were to be used as green spaces for the community. In an imprint no larger than twenty four by sixty feet, Cramer and Waters have engineered a small miracle of DIY ingenuity, sweat equity, recycled materials, volunteer labor, regular composting, raking and landscaping. Their support comes from New York State Council for the Arts, the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, and contributions from friends and neighbors like you.

Cramer with ladder

Tiny and tidy, LPV is replanted every year and contains a dense infrastructure of flora and facilities, including a raised octagonal platform/stage; a trellised bower with picnic table and bench seating; a utility shed and compost heap; various paved paths, railings, and all weather seating; a red brick barbecue pit; and a "great lawn", which this season has been morphed into a marbled mini terrace. It has electrical power and lighting. Unlike some indoor venues which shut their doors at the hint of a storm, the show must go on at LPV. Like the proverbial postman, they are undaunted by rain, wind and dark of night, and have jerry-rigged a system of tarps and scaffolding to keep things relatively dry, assuming you don't mind the occasional errant drop during a downpour.

My point: these guys are troopers. Over the years, they have hosted art exhibitions, live music, film and video screenings, dance, theater, spoken word performance, workshops and community projects. They have brought in artists from around the world and around the corner, a fundamental application of the dictum to "think globally, act locally".

The tone and subject of the events has varied from the scholarly semiotic to the balls-out homoerotic, from organic urban farming initiatives to Weimar Republic-ish "decadent" naughtiness, from Indian ragas with extended electronic drones to guitar based singer/songwriters, from art films to film camp, from sound compilations to holistic advice on diet, cleansing and fasting, from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again. The word "eclectic" might have been coined to define their wide ranging interests. Some memorable projects are captured in this short sampling of announcement cards:

This year kicked off with an exhibition of carved stone sculptures by Aurelio del Muro, an artist from San Luis Potosi, Mexico who has been working in New York for thirty years. It opened on a thematically appropriate day - May 5, 2009, Cinco de Mayo - and received support from the Mexican Cultural Institute of New York.

Del Muro began carving stone in 1983. His work has obvious pre-Columbian, Aztecan influences, as well as a contemporary, post-modern playfulness. The current show is based on an ancient ceramic figure from Tlatilco called the acrobat. In many ways, the particular combination of folk elements, craft and figuration, the singular appropriateness of carved stone in a garden setting, and the informal, "outsider" status of both venue and artist, is illustrative of the idiosyncratic relationship that LPV maintains with the gallery-bound art world of Chelsea and 57th Street.

Those who wish more information on Le Petit Versailles, its 2009 schedule of events, and the possibility of exhibiting work or volunteering there, should consult its website or use the following contact information:

Allied Productions, Inc.
P.O.Box 20260
New York, NY 10009
Tel: 212.529.8815
Fax: 212.353.0250

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Adel Abdessemed's "Usine": Inhumane?

Adel Abdessemed, RIO
David Zwirner Gallery, NY
April 3 - May 9, 2009

Adel Abdessemed, the 38-year-old Algerian born, French educated artist who now lives in New York, has been a curatorial darling for the past several years. He was included in Rob Storr's 2007 Venice Biennale, and given solo exhibitions at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin, the List Visual Arts Center at MIT, and at P.S. 1 in Queens. His current gallery show in New York, spread over all three of David Zwirner's expansive Chelsea galleries, reveals a shape shifting, confrontational artist who works in all media and all scales.

There is a room filling installation of several airplane cockpits and tailfins twisted together like a huge pretzel. There are small drawings of proposed projects. There is a steel oil drum that has been morphed into a music box which plays a bit of Wagner when it rotates around a motorized axle.

But the one piece that has achieved the greatest notoriety is Usine, (2009) a minute-and-a-half color video loop that records the interactions among a group of predatory animals - scorpions, iguanas, tarantulas, snakes, pit bulldogs, fighting cocks etc. - who seem grouped together in a concrete pen for the express purpose of fighting and killing each other. And just in case they cannot be roused to combat, some "victim" species - white mice, frogs - are thrown into the mix as food. The fact that the action loops in continual replay emphasizes the "no exit" aspect of the artist's bleak worldview.

The video has many in the New York art world up in arms, accusing Abdessemed of exploitation and brutality, as noted in a recent column by Jerry Saltz in New York Magazine.

When I saw Usine several weeks ago (a few days after the opening), I was so aghast I called one of the co-directors (Zwirner has ranks and ranks of them) out onto the gallery floor to justify the exploitative nature of the work. Of course he trotted out the usual, expected rationalizations: that cruelty to animals, however we view it, is an established part of the world; that the pen of predatory species already existed in Mexico; that action movies typically mine violence and sadism in much more sensationalist and commercial ways; that the "factory" of brutality ("usine" means "factory" in French) advanced by Abdessemed in his video is an examination of society's larger hypocrisy regarding violence, its titillations and victims. Blah blah. All the rationalizations in the world do not change the simple fact that the artist is presenting an arena of cruelty to shock and dumbfound us; he is using the suffering of beasts to promote his vaunted rebellion, to advance his career and reputation.

Usine is one of several pieces in the show that suffer from a similar ailment: a self conscious, casual violence in the service of the artist's pervasive, nihilistic, essentially kneejerk gesture of rebellion. There is a soccer ball constructed from razor wire (regard the fruits of nationalism and hooliganism!); three shelves of notebooks containing transcriptions of the Bible, Torah and Koran penned by prostitutes (the sex trade and organized religion, mixing like oil and water?); men without arms or legs trying to draw a circle on the ground while suspended over it by a hovering helicopter. Abdessemed's extremism comes too easily. He is a rebel without a point. Like the Brando character in The Wild One: when asked what he was rebelling against, he sneers: Whaddya got?

Most critics seem to agree that the work in the current Abdessemed show is not particularly strong. Its scattershot gestures of rebellion are too facile and showy, its casual cruelty too self aggrandizing. But the real moral point is not just that the torture of animals is bad, but that the torture of animals to advance a careerist agenda is reprehensible. Which is an issue any critic must also face when he chooses this particular artwork as his ambitious subject. Saltz has recently parlayed the video sidebars of New York Magazine online in an effort to project himself as the art world's new action hero. Now he seems to be using Abdessemed's video as a catapult, to become our new Facebook hero.

Addenda on Abdessemed:

1. The artist's turbulent biography - he fled Algeria for France to escape persecution by Islamic fundamentalists during a period of civil unrest - is often cited as a "cause" for the unrelenting brutality often found in his work. He has stated in interview: “Birth is violent. Death is violent. Violence is everywhere."

2. Despite this, the current show is named after his daughter, Rio - a sweet but incongruous moment of sentimentality. Or not. "The show is called Rio, meaning river. I observe the world with the same fascination that my daughter, Rio, contemplates the big animals in the zoo that are thirsty and hungry."

3. Abdessemed is no stranger to controversy. His February 2008 exhibition in San Francisco, ironically titled Don't Trust Me, was shut down by animal rights activists who protested the inclusion of videos showing farm animals killed by blows to the head with a sledgehammer. During an extended period of public debate, the artist received several death threats. Seemingly, the current New York gallery show has passed without prompting such reactions.