Thursday, September 30, 2010

Art in America/Roman Signer

Roman Signer: Suspended Moments

"Four Rooms, One Artist," Romans Signer's current solo show at the Swiss Institute New York, gives viewers the experience of a blockbuster museum show in miniature form. In said four rooms, curated by Gianni Jetzer, Signer's decades-long practice reveals the artist's synthesis of comic and romantic effects housed in an economy of motifs and material.

The show begins with a new work, Waiting for Harold Edgerton (2010), comprised of a single apple that levitates in a cordoned-off room, visible through a window. The title references Edgerton's famous still photograph of an apple being pierced by a bullet, and the impetus of the piece is the action, or non-action, of waiting: "It's kind of similar to Edgerton because the image in that photograph is also frozen in time. I like the idea that I could wait in front of an apple tree until the moment that an apple falls down," says Signer. "The idea of waiting for an apple to fall has a similar structure [to Edgerton's work]: waiting until something happens. But I would need a bit budget for Super 8 film to do that. And probably what would happen is that the apple would fall down at night!" As it stands, the piece elicits its own anticipatory emotion, which is of a part with its conceptual premise, according to the artist. "It's very crucial that people not be able to enter the room—it's like a safe room, or a forbidden room. I would be very upset if people started to touch the apple or move it around."


At the age of 72, Swiss artist Roman Signer makes work that seeks to unbind normative space and time. The artist has lived in Switzerland for nearly his entire life, barring a stint in school in Poland, and his focuses are decidedly less urbane than other artists of his generation. His film, video and photographic works deal with their natural settings and give little pause to contemplate the urban rumblings of the world at large. The body of this practice comprises simple, elegant forms, animated and detonated to elucidate the cinematic ideas of suspense, climax and conclusion. His best-known works are Super 8 films and video wherein the artist stages a spectacular event—sending a Piaggio truck over a ski jump (Piaggio on Jump, 2003), for example—or makes a banal moment spectacular in its slapstick simplicity: shown within this exhibition, Shirt, 2010, features a simple, ghostly white button down shirt gliding up and down a hill on a pully. Signer is also perhaps best-known for works involving rockets and combustion, though the works here are newer, and perhaps illustrate the artist's desire for a quieter and more circumspect output.

A second room within the exhibition shows a work that uses the artist's simple, workaday magic to produce a rumination on music. Two large fans blow ping pong balls slowly and chaotically around the strings of an open piano, producing eerie, inconsistent tones. In the last two rooms, four screens showcase Signer's films and video. Office Chair, 2010, exemplifies the artist's ease at effecting visual seduction with an economy of devices: an office chair spins wildly—yet statically—in the flow of a wooded creek. The HD video is a departure from the artist's beloved Super 8. "I want to get back to Super 8, not for questions of nostalgia, but because I think it's a very interesting medium, much more filmic to a certain extent," says Signer. The exhibition also calls into the question the difference between a Signer work created for a film, and the installations he creates specifically for galleries. Parsing this difference, Signer explains: "Film asks for narratives, and you have to think in narrative terms. The installations are more like organisms, that just have a life in themselves. Also, you can enter and exit an installation. Film has fluidity; it's more spontaneous. Before I used film, I would [use still photographs to document] a sequence of different movements."


(2010) combines film and installation, and features a viewing room staged as a schoolhouse, replete with a chair mechanized that rocks back and forth. On the viewing screen, a series of mixed-together outtakes spanning Signer's career presents a quiet, unresolved "greatest hits." While viewers have become used to Signer's devotion to rocket-launch suspense, the montage produces an ambient retelling Signer's career that focuses on the quieter moments in his films, recalling the interstitial events-caught glances, true smiles, guards let down. For all the combustible, narrative energy that drives Signer's work, it is interesting to think of those in-between moments, and how they illuminate a human pathos inherent in each of the artist's little machines.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Art in America/Ryan Gander

Ryan Gander: The Prince and His Public

British artist Ryan Gander's wildly non-signature conceptual undertakings explore order and chaos phenomenologically, and always find a looming kismet in unknown quantities. The artist's inventive, resolutely multi-media works play on the Duchampian interrogation of art as the thing yet to be named, and include the invention of a new word and the exaltation of the artist's lecture.


On Wednesday, Gander unveiled his first public work at Doris C. Freedman Plaza in Central Park. Based on Oscar Wilde's fairy tale, "The Happy Prince," Gander's statue is a sculptural interpretation of the story's climax. The tale sees a dandyish, peripatetic swallow protagonist invited by the story's gem- and gold leaf-encrusted prince statue to pluck off his jewels and distribute them among the city's poor. The prince becoming frailer and less visually appealing in the process. By the end, the swallow learns what it means to love, via the statue's kindness: Then the statue crumbles and the swallow drops dead at his feet.

The story has a personal strand for the artist: "I had an audio book of the story as a child, and every night before bed my mum and dad would play it for me," says Gander. Commissioned to create a piece of public art, "It made sense to me to do this about the story because The Happy Prince is about what public art should be. There's a lot of public art that's much more like public decoration, not really public art. A lot of them seem to be really garish, and they catch your attention, but they don't seem to mean much. So I like the story because it was talking about the value of public art in terms of it looking really bad, but meaning a great deal. The value of it is more than the visual."

The chaotically crushed columns of Gander's sculpture, adorned with the dead sparrow and the prince's lead heart—while far from looking "bad," is also not asking to be thought of as winsome. In doing so, it helps to articulate the contemporary peril of artists whose personal work is challenging, yet who kowtow to a massaudience and produce public artworks that are instant crowd-pleasers. "You're liable to a public when you make a public artwork," says Gander. "Art in a gallery or a museum is something you choose to go and see. You don't approach art in a public domain; it approaches you. It's there whether you want to look at it or not. And so [to make public art] is actually quite scary." LEFT: PORTRAIT BY MAARTEN CORBIJN

Opening in October will be another narrative-driven, chaos-hewn installation that the artist will be creating in the Guggenheim Museum's Reading Room. Within the space, the artist create a scene based on the infamous quarrel between Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg, wherein the two De Stijlists fell out over Mondrian's disavowal of the diagonal line, the piece illuminates the passions and quixotic encounters that define art history. "I liked the idea that there's a lot of examples within art history where people have collaborated, and then falling out and having an argument. And the trajectory of art history changed because of these relationships, the way that they were made, and how they were broken," says Gander. "Van Doesburg and Mondrian's relationship is a really good example of this: the history of art now exists the way it does because of this argument. I really like the trajectories that go off on these funny tangents. It's like Back to the Future, you get these sort of impossible moments occurring that change history."

Adding to the impossibility is the fact that the two artists will fictitiously crash through a stained glass window, into the home of Frank Lloyd Wright. "Mondrian and van Doesburg were having this argument about vertical horizontal and diagonal lines. And the strange thing is, about seven years before, Frank Lloyd Wright was making stained glass windows that had vertical, diagonal and horizontal lines. But they of course didn't know what was going on over the ocean, necessarily." This tapestry of narratives elucidates the parallel lives of great artists, and highlights the intensity in which artists used to collaborate in times less defined by personal agenda.

Asked whether the piece exalts a forgotten time of collaboration, the artist responds, "In Britain, there's a lot of artists in London making works that I call 'leany bits,' because there's always seems to be something leaning against something else. So similar stylist signatures exist, but I think artists now don't want to be seen to be contributing to each other's work. Before when there wasn't so much money involved in art, and when it was more educational, then these ideas would creep in. It was a common voice, not everyone for themselves."

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Art in America/An-My Lê

Battles for War Photography: An-My Le

It's difficult to know where war ends and humanity begins. Perhaps this is why, in recent years, war photography—omnipresent and unresolved (the CIA only recently lifted its ban on the publishing of images of American soldier's coffins)—has been unceasingly re-examined by the contemporary art world. Vietnamese-born artist An-My Lê has consistently produced work that questions the changing face of war documentation, by creating images defined by an almost painterly formalism; clearly distinct from combat photography. "I couldn't do what [combat photographers] do and in the end I am also driven to tell another story," says Lê. "I am interested in an investigation of military culture outside of the sphere of combat."

In her fourth show at Murray Guy, opening Thursday, Lê has produced a body of photographs examining global military themes, including warfare training, sea-based military hospitals and the relief effort in Haiti. The 12 large, emotionally-wrought images in the show articulate the artist's relationship with color and emotion: the sad, blue eyes of an exhausted pilot play against images of lone soldiers and ships hovering over sparkling blue seas; a female monk's saffron robes and beatific features play against the cool blue camouflage uniform and expressionless countenance of an officer seated next to her. The work continues the artist's project of crossing landscape photography and images of war. "For me the language of landscape photography involves using scale to weave narratives; to create tension," says Lê. Where her images differ from traditional landscapes is, obviously, the human element within them, which imbues them with myriad associations and connotations, including that of the history of depictions of war in cinema.

Central to the work of Lê is the changing nature of professional documentation of real-life war events. The War in Iraq and American military combat in Afghanistan has produced a surplus of soldier-produced imagery, almost constantly produced on cell phones and point-and-shoot digital cameras and uploaded to Facebook. It is intriguing that the face of war has been changed by this "amateur" produced imagery, which gives viewers a perspective that both highlights the naivete of many young soldiers, and the psychic dissonance of combat viewed through lo-res, pixelized, postage-stamp-sized images.

Has this changing nature of the "look" of war has influenced her agenda as an artist (and as an individual who was born in Vietnam and lived there as a child through almost all of the Vietnam War)? Lê says, "When Robert Frank's work first appeared, everyone thought it was too grainy and awful looking. Back then, black and white was also the only medium for conveying news, facts and events—reportage, while color was reserved for the glossy advertising world. [Now] there is a great range of image types emerging from webcam testimonials, point and shoot, surveillance images from drones—[and each] has their own kind of authenticity." Now, however, it also seems that the professional black-and-white images of war seem almost too endemic of our collective idea of what combat photography should look, and they cease to adequately depict contemporary war. Although not in Lê's mind: "It's a mistake to think one is more authentic than another," says the artist. "I have chosen the view camera and large format negatives (5x7 inch) [for my work] because I want everything about that place, that space to compete for your attention from the volume and details of trees to the Humvees and the dirt surrounding them. I have chosen high resolution and clarity. All of that speaks of complexity for me. I don't want anything furtive."

In the past decade, many American artists, notably Harrell Fletcher and his "The American War" project—wherein the artist re-photographed all of the images exhibited by The War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City-have reconsidered the aesthetic tropes of war. In the process, they have invited for a shift in the historization of one nationalistic idea of war. Lê's practice is of a piece with this recalibration, and also seeks to present a more rational view of the military writ large. "This work is born out of a frustration by the constant mythologizing of the military as a subject as much as it is born out of desire to see what things really look like," says Lê.