Christian Boltanski, Les archives du coeur, Serpentine Gallery, London

10 July – 8 August 2010

I’ve been long been drawn to the work of French conceptual and installation artist Christian Boltanski. I don’t really remember my first encounter with his practice – it may have been an overwrought art theory lecture on trauma? – but his decades-long practice, which might best be described visually as a sort of mournful poetry in its exploration of memory, absence, loss and suffering, continues to resonate.

While much of Boltanski’s work is rooted in an awareness of the Holocaust and its social and historical consequences, universally his work is about reclaiming the individual experience within History and Memory and the ultimately ephemeral nature of both life and ‘little M’ memory.

The opportunity to contribute to Boltanski’s latest work thus proved irresistible.

In Les archives du coeur, or The Heart Archive, Boltanski returns to the fundamental idea of his 2005 work Le Coeur, where a single light bulb flickered on and off to the rhythm of the artist’s recorded heartbeat, a neat visual expression for the connection between darkness and revelation and life and death. In Les archives, Boltanski re-visits this idea of the heartbeat – as both a function of the artwork and as a metaphorical and physiological testimony to the singularity of each life lived. Began in 2005, Les archives, as an encounter, is an unassuming white office space with the equipment to simply record the heartbeat of each visitor. These heartbeats – named and dated – are then added to an ongoing archive now in excess of one million recordings collected from all over the world. As an experience, Les archives is oddly mechanical and while each visitor takes a CD of their recorded heartbeat away with them, it is not heard during the recording process, which is done with a small electronic stethoscope pressed simply to the chest and plugged in to a computer. The magnitude – and the poetry – of the gesture lies in the vision of this simple 30 second soundtrack to the very essence of your being, being held with so many others in a specially designated archive on the uninhabited island of Ejima in the Sea of Japan. A 30 second soundtrack that says I was here and my existence was real. For such a perfunctory encounter it is a profoundly overwhelming concept.

In January this year the archive was broadcast throughout Boltanski’s epic installation Personnes at the Grand Palais in Paris for Monumenta 2010. Not having experienced the work in this context, with the heartbeats echoing throughout the 13,500 square metre space as visitors navigated their way through the carefully arranged piles of abandoned clothes, the imaginative and emotional possibilities are but endless. If Boltanski’s other works are any measure of things, the resounding effect in this environment was undoubtedly an awareness of the human experience as both tangible and fleeting.

Boltanski has said that he is interested in “what I call ‘little memory’, an emotional memory, an everyday knowledge, the contrary of the Memory with a capital M that is preserved in history books. This little memory, which for me is what makes us unique, is extremely fragile and it disappears with death. This loss of identity, this equalisation in forgetting, is very difficult to accept.” Les archives du coeur is both a material and a philosophical counter to this forgetting, and while it is hugely confronting to realise that in recording life you are ultimately acknowledging death, participating in Boltanski’s work is affirming above and beyond anything else – of the preciousness of life and of the value of each of us as individuals.

This is the first time Les archives du coeur has been shown in the United Kingdom and it is should not be missed.

 

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REVIEW: 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces, Victoria & Albert Museum, London

15 June – 30 August 2010

If I wasn’t already falling a little bit in love with the Victoria and Albert Museum after the delight that has been their recent exhibition program, it would be safe to say that the involving, engaging and utterly beautiful 1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces exhibition has stolen my heart completely. So often in looking at art we neglect to acknowledge the space within which we receive it and how this might inform our understanding and appreciation of it. Even ignoring art for a moment, space as a concept can prove elusive when not dealing with the ugly practicalities of wardrobe constraints or peak hour on the Piccadilly line.

1:1 is an exhibition fundamentally about space – how we move in it, how we feel it and how it shapes our material, intellectual, creative and emotional journeys. It sounds intellectually obtuse. It could not be further from it.

With the Victoria and Albert as a geographical landscape, nineteen architects were invited to submit proposals for structures that explored the notion of refuge and of these, seven were built to full-scale in locations throughout the museum. The effect is twofold. In creating these intimate, bespoke spaces the emphasis becomes as much about the design of the space as its texture, construction and proportion. And in exploring these spaces within the space of the museum, the gallery halls, staircases, gardens and libraries all enjoy a renewed appreciation in terms of their own senses of scale, their use of light and their spatial qualities. A double delight if ever there was one.

1:1 succeeds in being both thought-provoking and enormous fun. Visitors must engage with the works to understand their meaning and actively participate in their negotiations of space. And this means climbing into things and climbing up things. It means sitting, leaning, peering and pausing. Because it is only by activating the spaces in these ways that their beauty and their meaning can be fully realised.

Truth be told, the exhibition does get off to a somewhat shaky start, with works by Rural Studio and Vazio S/A in the Porter Gallery. Perhaps they suffer from a lack of contextual engagement – they are the only works that feel like ‘objects in a gallery’ – but largely there is little to grasp on to imaginatively in terms of these small spaces as sites for creativity. Rural Studio is an architectural education program in Alabama that is dedicated to building affordable housing for poor rural communities and there is a great deal of integrity to the social and educational motivations in their work but, within the space of the V&A, a walkthrough woodshed does not offer much. Conversely, Vazio S/A’s Spiral Booths is a claustrophobic, slightly distressing series of heavy curtains, narrow staircases and glass walls looking down onto the ground below. The connection between these small voids or spaces as potential sites for creation and performance and the Brazilian ‘palfittes’ that inspired them – hilly terrain buildings supported by concrete stilts – is difficult to grasp and it is not a space that begs lingering in.

From here though it is largely one delight after another. Terunobu Fujimori’s Beetle’s House is Japanese teahouse meets English tree house. Scaling a small ladder to enter through the floor of the elevated house, the result is a concentrated appreciation for the new physical surrounds. The interior and low seating around the walls has been perhaps plastered and then whitewashed. It is a very calming environment and the intimacy of the space makes it very easy to envision a communal gathering for tea and talk. The interior, crucially, is also at odds with the exterior, as Fujimori has burnt the pine exterior of the teahouse, giving it a charred and highly textural quality reminiscent of a beetle shell, hence the work’s title. Within the surrounds of the Medieval and Renaissance Room the work’s exterior contributes to its sense of being yet another relic but the blackened wood is dramatised by the natural light that fills the gallery.

In-between Architecture by Studio Mumbai Architects is arguably one of more moving spaces. With its plaster exterior blending harmoniously with the Cast Courts Room and its resident sculptures, In-between Architecture is a boxy structure featuring a series of narrow corridors, ladders, and windows that interrupt two larger dwelling spaces, one of which is an open-air sort of courtyard with the distended trunk of a tree emerging from its middle. Despite the economical use of space there is a sense of purpose to its design and an overwhelming sense of calmness, and indeed refuge, within the larger spaces.

These emotional/spatial intuitions were crystalised after reading that the projects intent was to explore the unauthorised architecture of Mumbai’s settlements and slums. In-between Architecture is in fact faithfully modelled on a dwelling in Mumbai that is home to eight. Rather than a chaotic, literal copy the architects have sought to capture, largely through their use of materials, the poetry, dignity and calm that distils these structures, with their intelligent, compact design. It is a humbling experience.

The Ark at the bottom of the National Art Library stairs by the Norwegian Rintala Eggertsson Architects is a freestanding wooden tower ostensibly constructed from hundreds of bookshelves. Exploring how small spaces can focus energy and thought towards study, meditation and self-reflection, the wooden structure is suggestive again of the archetypal tree house and the imaginative play that goes on in them is neatly expressed in the thousands of books that line the shelves. Everything from Dostoyevsky to Dan Brown is on ad hoc display and the colourful spines animate the interior spaces, making it a sort of treasure trove of colour and narrative possibility. By the same function, the visual exterior of the structure is thus dominated by the white, exposed pages of the same books, their content indiscernible.

The only work to exist outdoors is the 18th century garden folly inspired climbing structure, Ratatosk, by the Norwegian Helen & Hard Architects. Its name is taken from an Old Norse word meaning drill-tooth and refers to an ancient squirrel from Norse mythology that lived in a giant ash tree at the centre of the cosmos. A gnarled, ugly sort of structure from a distance, the architects built the folly by splitting five ash trees lengthways and have arranged them to face inwards, creating an intimate, interior space that can be walked into. The structure’s roof is made from a hand woven willow canopy and its base is a collection of bagged woodchips.

Apparently the structure was created using sophisticated technology and machinery normally reserved for contemporary furniture manufacture. Whatever the case, the overwhelming connection when standing amongst the split trees is not to ideas of digital fabrication but to the mystical squirrel at the centre of the cosmos. The beautifully woven roof offers a surprising amount of shade from the sun and the raw untreated exterior of the trees is offset by their burnished interior and the feeling standing among them is of an embrace and the literalness of being at the centre of the tree does strangely offer a sense of being at the centre of the cosmos. It is peaceful, it is beautiful and the natural hollows of the wood almost seem to offer a cavity in which to press your whole body and be subsumed by the trees both literally and mystically. For an unassuming structure it is surprisingly affective.

There is no linear narrative that directs the order in which these works can be viewed and so it is unfortunate that the last work seen on this particular day was Inside/Outside Tree by the Japanese Sou Fujimoto Architects. Undoubtedly it suffers from being at the top of an out of the way staircase with little to converse with but, after the tactile, immersive quality of so many of the earlier projects, the transparent acrylic sheets of this abstract but impenetrable tree and its exploration of ‘in-between-ness’ feels a little too cerebral. Had the work been placed in a different part of the museum, maybe it would have been more memorable but in the scheme of the wider exhibition it is easily overlooked.

1:1 Architects Build Small Spaces might do what it says on the box but within these spaces are other emotional, intellectual and cultural spaces that afford an enormous amount of enjoyment, engagement and reflection. These reflections are on notions of refuge, on the impact of texture and our understanding of space as something we create it and something we exist within. It’s a wonderful exhibition and a collection of happier places to visualise next time you’re stuck in peak hour.

 

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REVIEW: EXPOSED: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera, Tate Modern, London

28 May – 3 October 2010.

Philip Lorca diCorcia, Head series, 2002.

Let’s get something clear. EXPOSED is not an easy exhibition. Challenging, confronting, at times horrifically violent and voyeuristic, at others compelling and strangely beautiful. It is all these things. It messes with your head, your sense of propriety and your definitions, however tenuous, of what makes one photo art and another just perverse. Both visually and intellectually, this makes for a compelling, if occasionally uncomfortable, encounter.

There is a certain timeliness to this exhibition and its study of voyeurism, surveillance and the camera. We’re in an age unlike any before where technology rules the day – and wiretaps, live streaming, camera phones and paparazzi chases are the resigned norm. Examining photography as an invasive act immediately confronts the complacency with which we accept these invasions, encourage them even in our curiosity, and though it falters in parts and overwhelms in others (this is a huge exhibition), EXPOSED successfully addresses a number of the social, cultural and psychologically motivating factors behind these kinds of images – why we take them and why we look at them. Critical to this engagement is the wall text at the beginning, which states that most of the hundreds of photographs on display were taken without the subject’s knowledge. It is a distinctly creepy start.

Lee Friedlander, New York City, 1966.

Philip-Lorcia diCorcia’s Head series perhaps best embodies this conundrum. Visually they are not terribly shocking or even necessarily interesting. Theatrical lighting catches the head of someone in a crowd and the effect is of a staged encounter. In fact, these people, denominated variously as Head #23 or Head #4, were photographed without their knowledge by a series of hidden cameras, the flash triggering as they walked by. Famously, one of diCorcia’s unwitting targets tried to take legal action against him but the landmark ruling defended the artist and his right to self-expression over any right the subject might have over their own image. It is difficult to know which is worse – to be censored or to be spied upon.

DiCorcia’s contemporary street photography is contextualised by a wide range of historical precedents with work by Walker Evans, Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander also on show. Friendlander’s New York City, 1966 in particular illustrates the hunt and shoot mentality of the street photographer, the photograph capturing a menacing shadow imprinted on the back of an unaware woman as she walks down the street.

RIchard Avedon, Andy Warhol, 1969.

The leap from documentary or street photography to paparazzi’s chasing celebrities is not a huge one but thankfully the exhibition does not dwell much beyond Alison Jackson’s parodic pap shots of celebrity lookalikes. Princess Diana, perhaps the most famous victim of the long lens is accorded only a glass case with newspaper clippings trumpeting blame for her death at the hands of the paparazzi. Nick Ut’s photograph of Paris Hilton being returned to Prison in 2007 is neatly contextualised by Giuseppe Primoli’s equally tasteless photograph of Impressionist painter Edgar Degas exiting a pissoir in Paris in the early 1880s.

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The ugliness of this celebrity fascination is deftly illustrated by Richard Avedon’s famous photograph of Andy Warhol, or rather, of Warhol’s horrific scars – the result of his near fatal shooting at the hands of Valerie Solanas in 1968. Framing the image in such a way, not capturing the pop artist’s face with his iconic shock of hair and glasses, but photographing him simply with his jumper pulled high has a number of effects. It humanises the very unreal ‘character’ of Warhol, it focuses the attention on the violence inflicted on him and intellectually, as a shooting of a shooting, it crystallises this idea of photography as a form of violation.

From here, the material in EXPOSED only gets darker as rooms dedicated to voyeurism and desire and witnessing violence complicate the viewing experience. The tenuousness of looking at these images under the guise of ‘art’ becomes slippery, particularly in the face of Susan Meiselas’s photographs of 1970s strippers and of Nicaraguan victims of genocide. Koshei Yoshiyuki’s 1979 series of nocturnal voyeurs preying on young couples in Japanese parks at night are particularly confronting. And not in a ‘goodness this is interesting’ sort of way. This idea of looking – and of discerning the voyeur from the witness remains far from resolved and our moral qualifications of historical import (think Abraham Zapruder’s film of JFK’s assassination, now oddly held in the collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art) versus pop cultural curiosity is complicated by the realisation that the Pulitzer Prize-winning image of the young Vietnamese girl burned by napalm in 1972 was taken by the same Nick Ut who photographed Paris Hilton 35 years later.

Nick Ut’s photograph of Paris Hilton being taken to prison, 2007.

With the exception of Sophie Calle’s fabulously creepy 1981 work The Hotel, where the artist worked as a chamber maid in Venice and systematically documented the comings, goings and belongings of the hotel guests, the exhibition falters towards the end, as the focus turns specifically to ideas of surveillance. Perhaps it is simply that after 13 rooms and hundreds of works focus is difficult to maintain, or perhaps it is that after 13 rooms of confronting, voyeuristic images, these large scale works – aerial images of person-less landscapes and buildings et al – feel alternatively dry or oblique. It is an unfortunate end to what is otherwise an overwhelmingly strong exhibition and having thus been implicated, under the guise of art, in a mass act of complicit voyeurism, the lasting sense of EXPOSED is that as individuals and members of our contemporary image-saturated society, we have a responsibility to look critically, ethically and sensitively – and perhaps also to learn when to look away.

 

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