I do so love a shit-disturber
, whether it’s fearless Middle-East reporter/author Robert Fisk
ripping apart mainstream media last Saturday night downtown or the venerable art critic Jan Verwoert
at UBC Wednesday night, talking about “irreconcilable ape-shittedness.”
An estimated 1,100 people crowded into St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church to hear Fisk call it as he sees it when it comes to how the West views — and intrudes — on Middle East conflict. Reporting what authority spokesthingies are saying is really no reporting at all, he says. The task at hand is to be witness to the atrocities, whether that’s a busload of Israeli children blown up by a suicide bomber, or Palestinians’ entire communities decimated by Israeli missiles.
Fisk gets plenty of heat for bearing witness, for allowing readers to be witness to the unfathomable, without including the other side of the story, without complying with the required format of including official reaction.
Then on Wednesday night at UBC, at another packed lecture hall, the Berlin art critic/writer Verwoert also argued against prevailing constructs but in the case of visual art it’s the great, grinding academic/analytical machine that surrounds art production.
The rational, scientific view has partially failed us, Verwoert told the audience. The real power is not in representation but in the artist’s success in channeling the essence of the work. The artist is at the existential threshold between spaces, wiring some of those energies together, creating an energy circuit that holds an unquantifiable power.
He gives the example of Gustav Corbet’s The Painter's Studio (1855, above), in which the artist is at work on the threshold between the poor population he relates to, and his privileged patrons who provide his livelihood. The scene raises more questions than answers, with the only conclusion being that the discomfort of those two spaces in one painting creates enduring energy.
“Bearing witness goes beyond making meaning,” he says in his essay, You Make Me Feel Mighty Real. “It’s an avowal of that which may be inexpressible or even impossible to share when what one feels is also felt by the other. Beyond meaning lies feeling. And feeling someone feel what you feel makes all the difference.”
It’s a risky business, thumbing one’s nose at the rational or economic power forces that shape the prevailing structures, or refusing to take a side in a binary view of the world. But assuming the position of witness carries the possibility of new understandings, new discourse, whether the witnessing is expressed in the written word or visually.
This power of the irresolvable, the inconclusive non-statement can be seen in this work (left) by graffiti legend Banksy: Why does the graffiti punk appear to be looking for instruction from a banal global giant? Is Bansky with the anarchist or against him? The power in this work comes from the position of the artist, at the counter between spaces that each contain their own energy, acting as a transference agent, neither healer nor romantic transgressor.
That same irresolvable power is there in this image of a contemporary silkscreen artwork from an unknown Havana artist (right), Cuba PostCastro, circa 2008. The energy lies in the fact that it’s unclear whether the work is an assurance or a warning. The power is in both the formal elements — the geometry, colour and media that composes the image — as well as the history of political art posters, and the artist as witness, at the counter between political and art spaces. It is a powerful art object with no conclusion, no punchline.
At the very least, the irresolvable is awkward. At most, mystical or even magical.
Fisk and Verwoert would probably agree that if everyone’s slightly uncomfortable in the unknowing, you’re probably onto something.
VIrtual spin art: Twirl your smartphone and click. Better: Twirl yourself and click.
Art is in the everyday,
even at the Van Dusen Gardens
on another miserable rainy night last week.
There's no narrative in those hundreds of thousands of LED coloured lightbulbs strung through the Shaughnessy woodland gardens, no theatrical arc, nothing to learn – except a lot about perception and spatiality.
There's the miles of electrical wiring, the line of light that creates convoluting volumes that expand and contract as the body moves through the narrow paths and under tree canopies. And there's the absence of any sort of perceptible pattern, pulling viewers into the mystic. The lights are not lashed to the grid-like constructed environment for the annual Festival of Lights, but literally connected to nature, the thickets and groves and clumps. Against the black void of the heavens and earth, this luminous sculptural installation is not unlike the universe.
The visual field is not static but not kinetic. The movement is random, shivering, swaying and trembling in the icy gusts, unaffected by all the wandering visitors (well, except for the giant conifer with the four control buttons. That was fun).
The whole immersive light-sculpture has a whiff of "the alogic of dreams rather than the logic of most art," as Susan Sontag described the '60s Happenings movement.
It was a little psychedelic escape from this Crassmas season.
Thickets thick with neon tulip-like sconces made from plastic water bottles (above) and tunnels of violet lights (right) all contribute to an embodied experience.
During my first day of art school
, one of the instructors told the auditorium packed with other nervous Foundation-year students that this education would be not just about making the art, but making the artist; the art makes the artist. I wrote that one down because I didn't quite get it.
Two years out of art school, I'm starting to see the strong role that the formative years — that critical time that shapes adult sensibilities — plays in artwork. I've always viewed my formative years as being the year-plus I lived in Japan in my early 20s. There was this big sensibility shift, a re-arranged outlook. Living and working in Kyoto helped shape my aesthetic, an appreciation for the spare and the pure, and I've since been hanging onto that, like that one ad slogan that was plastered all over the subway stations in typical Japanglish: "Enjoy your simple life."
But I can't ignore the fact that my work is emerging as anything but simple, pure or meditative. It's more likely chaotic, restless and a little disturbing. At least that's what they tell me; I find that jarring colour and pattern interruption kind of soothing. So where does that come from?
Sometimes you can be too close to the tree to see the forest, or in my case, the amusement park. I had wrapped up a week as on-site coordinator for the PNE'
s Container Art
show last week before I realized my brain was revving up as the tarmac filled with trucked-in rides. I felt the joy-joy-joy at being surrounded by all these circular patterns of chaotic colour, a sort of comforting exhilaration.
Psychedoilia: Nine Patch, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 72" X 72"
My childhood neighbourhood was at the doorstep of Playland. This was where I learned to make tight spins at Rollerland under the dizzying mirrorball patterns, and drink in the screams and neon lights on summer nights, ticketless and behind the chainlink fence. I watched greaseballs brawl on the midway as we churned on the Octopus, and heard the trample of horses racing for their lives. Here is where I had my first kiss, worshiped a red-leathered Freddie Mercury bathed in pyrotechnics at the Coliseum. These were also formative years: a mash-up of danger, risk, overstimulation, desire and a strange sort of nostalgia.
Now I'm seeing it.
There's an old story in our family about my brother who, as a tyke in montessori, pointed out a stain on the dining room wallpaper and said it looked like Chad. Or maybe it was a U.S. state. (It wasn't my story.)
That's what an education can do for you. Sure, maybe he would have made that spatial connection without montessori, but I sort of doubt it. He was maybe 4.
Flash forward almost 20 years ;-) and here I am, making connections that would never have happened if I didn't toss it all in to go to art school.
Take this picture my sister sent today, of my nephew who's about the same age as my precocious brother in the stain story.
I would have just enjoyed the image of this little guy in the pirate getup my sister and I cobbled together by his request — that is, if I hadn't spent countless hours taking notes in art-historical slide lectures.
Now I don't see this as a quick snapshot; it's an image full of unintended reference to Italian surrealist painter Chirico. The bland, looming institutional architecture just enhances the diminuitive child who patiently stands for the photo before the party.
I'm maybe missing the point when I start to view a snappy Halloween pic as a study in the juxtaposition between blissful unawareness and relentlessly banal societal constructs.
Worse, I'm pretty sure I've become a pompous ass.