By Jorge Alberto Perez
For Nona Faustine the restitution of her sense of wholeness as an African American woman and artist manifests in the guise of a restoration of the past, emphasis on guise. Although we see her marching up the steps of City Hall in Manhattan with nothing on but her white Sunday shoes and a pair of shackles in her left hand…she is not really trying to restore anything. It took me a while to realize it.
Her on-going photography and installation project Reconstructions is precisely that – reconstructions that attempt to replace something that was lost in the history of Blacks in America. This should not be confused with an attempt to relive the past through reenactment. Faustine’s images are more like markers that indicate a place, an institution, an event or a person so that with her presence on that spot she does not merely remember them for the sake of remembering, she rewrites a new history for them. There on the steps of City Hall’s Renaissance Revival facade that abuts a slave burial ground or standing on her soap box at the intersection of Water and Wall Streets where a market once trafficked in humans, she is the fearless daughter of them all, the new Venus of Willendorf reborn to reconstruct a history, the ultimate act of fecundity.
Faustine easily acknowledges the impossibility of getting at what is essential with this task she has set for herself, because to reconstruct a history is an altogether different action than to restore one. Hers is not an attempt to historicize the present but to re-write the past. She did the research, discovered who bought and sold black slaves in colonial New York, and where, and how they were transported in and out of the city. But there is no Aushwitz or Treblinka for the victims of slavery in America despite the common knowledge that an estimated 10-12 million Africans died in the Middle Passage alone, and countless others succumbed to starvation, physical abuse and disease once on these shores. In a way the images function as memorials that she makes herself, one at a time, with her body, the naked truth of its blackness braced against a cold city, reconstructing a narrative where the enslaved has dignity and is not afraid.
By Jorge Alberto Perez
In Roberto Vietri’s ongoing project, Trabalho, there is a distinctive visual vocabulary in action that is easy to recognize but vague in its message – and I like that. It is not just that individual images are “open-ended” – the project itself is porous. He photographs marks and traces just as fastidiously as places and spaces with the potential to be marked, to have a trace put upon them. Some images are only straight-forwardly documented where in others he has ‘intervened’ with an action to alter the position of the subject – and consequently, how we will see it. In other cases he is the agent of the mark on the surface of the photographic print itself. It becomes difficult to know which is which except with time and very careful looking – which might be precisely the point. Vietri wants us to know and not know what we are seeing, to question what is true and which is, well, less true. He wants to make us aware of the act of looking and how we make meaning – especially when that moment occurs when the image shifts from document to arena for a mark. Like a seamless conversation, each functions as a springboard to the next, and back to a previous one.
By Jorge Alberto Perez
What is your education/training in?
My training is in architecture and product design. As per my training, my professors encouraged my unique language of observations and motivated me to think beyond the parameters of any dialogue. Understanding the materials one chooses to work with is the most important thing but not just their potentiality but their ability to fail. I was challenged by my tutors to solve riddles, to come up with design answers to almost impossible statements (enunciados), to materialize ideas like The House of the South Wind, to be open to interpretation without representation. During my years in architecture school, I discovered that my hands became more useful tools for expressing ideas than words had previously been. Anything I could perform with them was a magical transformation of ideas into objects… free or mechanical drawing, model making, ceramics, watercolor and later painting and illustration.
What role does photography play in your artistic practice?
Photography is the most magical aspect of my work, the convergence point where ideas begin to develop. Taking a picture of something in the world that corresponds to a feeling or notion that is still embryonic is the best way for me to move forward with that idea. It is the first step in what might be a long series of steps of process leading to a finished artwork. The camera was my first creative tool of choice to see the world differently. I established my first creative dialogue with this medium while studying architecture. It became a pivotal way to create new interpretations and points of view and at the same time it helped me to keep records and tell my stories, for the safekeeping of my history and memory as many others had done before me. Photography, by its very nature is an invitation to explore the world beyond the common and make fluid our perceptions. Digital has also made it possible for me to indulge even more with its instantaneity. I freeze time, virtually as time is/was, and yet I continue the exercise of observation and as images accumulate the storytelling begins, a destiny I seem to have chosen, I relate it, I take it, I retrieve it … later I transform those conversations mediated by the camera into objects, another translation.What is your preferred medium?
My preferred medium is objects, so long as they are palpable with my eyes or my skin, perhaps heard or smelled in connection to their visual presentations. To me, they exist to be placed, misplaced, read … or ignored. Taken in account or not, objects simultaneously offer a proposal of possibility and the challenge of three-dimensionalizing them. This challenge has to do with meaning, with reference. Their purpose is changeable, transmutable. There is an unexpected beauty in each of them and in its relationship with its environment, its context. There are an infinite number of possibilities for the untold significance and impressiveness of each of them. We choose one of their possibilities to transform them into storytellers, messengers of some sort … to provoke a reaction, identify a purpose… a catalyst… a trigger, short or long-lived, who knows. At this point, each object has its own destiny. Objects of desire, I call them. 2D, 3D, B & W, color, palpable by one, two or all of your senses; objects in any sense of the word … as per in the goal to be achieved too … where the object, besides of being what it is, has a purpose … In doing so, something that has no movement of its own, no mind, obtains an intention, it has an objective, a mission. It acquires an imperceptible movement to the eyes and transcendence in other levels. It becomes philosophical in some way. In my eyes it separates itself from interpretation, individual feelings and imaginings; it becomes a proposer. I call that OBJECTIVITY and it all begins with ideas nascent in the process of image capture.How many projects are you currently working on?
Do you mean at the actual moment? Time behaves oddly in my studio. Well, besides designing a living space for some friends, there are a few projects I play with constantly and intermittently. Their scale and the time I can dedicate to them are determined by their gravitational pull, my choice, and the emotions seeking for a place in which to be invested. The smaller projects are currently the most visited. They are smaller in scale, but not vastness (cloud project, cows, bodies and constellations, mas allá, after dark, joy and despair, I had it, every thing talks to me, twos & ones). The larger projects, the ones that require more of my full attention, efforts and dedication include: architecture of dreams, canvases, Explorations, grafted graffiti, quilts of guilt, ugly is beautiful, filtered visions, seven, güevonadas and the philosophical component of I had it. Most of my series intersect with one another, or overlap at least, or branches out of each other and back together. I can say all my work is part of a web, a fabric, invisible strings in the middle of which I reside.
What is your relationship to the materials you use?
I will say extreme. There is no one thing I use that I am not in a deep relationship with. I get immersed into perceptual and verbal conversations with each material I use. We become extensions of each other, and in so doing, we both become storytellers, simultaneously both being the witnesses and that which is witnessed. We become timeless and time makers, meaning that we fuse past, present and future in one existence were the first two components have more and stronger identifiable characteristics than its unpredictable companion. No material that I encounter is exempt from being a candidate for use in art. And I mean anything. I have many collections of things: rubber bands of every shape, color and size, used tea bags, tangerine peels carved into figural shapes, all kind of metallic wrappers rolled into balls, the list is endless… I rescue, recycle and reuse a lot in my practice.
How does your home as your studio influence your practice?
My home as my studio… I certainly can say that when I make art I feel at home. Whereas I like austerity, cleanliness and the elegance of minimalism – which currently shows more in my designs and photography, I also love abundance and the generosity of the infinite possibilities of interpretation. I could easily live with both, but the city imposes on me one condition: limited space. I could say, I live within the complexity of my thought process and ideas. Of course, they coexist in harmony and with a structural order inherited from my architectural and design practices and processes … I have my own galaxy, perhaps a complete universe of my own to coexist with.
By Jorge Alberto Perez
Ali Van enters first, slides her shoes off and glides onto the carpet. She sits like a geisha, legs to the side crossed at the ankles, back perfectly erect. There is something utterly feminine in her body language, beguiling in both senses of the word and though she may appear demure, she is in total control. This is her orgasm after all. Hers to do with as she pleases.
Three men appear from different directions and also approach the large square of gray carpet that dominates the 3rd floor space at the Fisher-Landau Center for Art where Van has positioned herself. She holds an i-something in her hand from which a splitter dangles with three bobbing receptors. The men also remove their shoes and sit as if in a dojo, seiza style. Despite the strong sense of ceremony, and the fact that we the spectators are here to experience a performance, nothing feels overt. The lights do not dim, but they feel as though they did, no more or less noise permeates the space as the foursome sit to face each other, but the present silence becomes more distinct. These are the elusive factors that matter to Van, a 2013 MFA candidate at Columbia University, near-invisible markers of time that she, with her subtle curating of objects, and now performance, weaves into highly dispassionate deeply personal work.
The men unravel earphones and each in turn inserts the male prong into one of the female receptacles. They close their eyes and she looks intently at each of them, her acolytes who have dutifully come for her today. Van presses play and manipulates the volume on her device and the men are seen to listen, wrinkles between closed eyes. A long and narrow groove in one, a short deeper trench in another, a gentle pulling inward of the eyes in the third. Though we can assume they are listening to the same sounds, each man appears to respond differently to what he hears by his outward expressions. It happens slowly, and builds on itself. They are climbing the same ladder, they help each other, though they don’t seem aware of it. One man is all breath, shallow and superficial. The next is a low moan, a growl that rumbles in the chest. The third is higher pitched ecstatic releases. Together this chorus performs a unique rendition of what can only be the complex aural orchestrations of the female orgasm. But not just any, it is hers, the action, the reaction and the reenactment. Possibly her most personal experience repackaged as a product for consumption.
From one vantage point Van has an open computer on a mid-century desk playing a clearly dated video of a brain surgery. When I first saw the video the week before this performance I thought it was a document of a wartime operating theater. It seemed so improvised and shoddy. Later I learned it was her father’s footage, who, wanting to see the operation for himself was only able to experience it when mediated by the camera. Today it waxed sexual. The wet, bloody sulci of the brain being probed gently by anonymous hands whilst in the room a trio of breathy moans burst like smoke-filled bubbles. As in most of Van’s art, the tidy compartmentalization of individual elements create untidy relationships in her tableau, discordant notes that when experienced together somehow create an unforeseeable 3rd thing.
This reenactment of her onanistic behavior slowly becomes unhinged somewhere between a science experiment and a defiant stance against male domination as the pitch slouches toward release. It is a petit mort syncopated both in duration and stress to better understand what it is not rather than what it is. Likewise, the fragments of other objects mostly in the periphery of the rug speak to the partiality of any experience, whether intentionally mediated or not. What tooth is this? Is it a human incisor or that of a wild animal? It bothers me to not know. The bag of what I think are desiccated figs, might be tangerines. A mound of lint from a dryer with a streak of pink in it begs to reveal something. A framed image of a foggy field is the 25-year-old blotter from her father’s desk. Every object asks a question, a single compulsive question. There are many objects, and if you let them they will haunt you. For a moment, however, they are held at bay, as most mundane matters are when we succumb to corporeal needs.
After reaching a pitch, a height, a precarious angle from which one can only fall, the breaths, growls and moans come together again in silence. The men emerge from behind shutters, looking guilty despite their best efforts; is that a self-congratulatory grin? We all smile, there is relief in the air. Almost in ostensible synchrony the men unplug and wind their now flaccid wires back into tidy little squares. Van stands and proceeds to the edge of the carpet where she puts her shoes back on and walks away. The men follow her example. We are left to our own devices.
By Jorge Alberto Perez
Without the help of a plot but with the rhythmic coaxing of a 12-string guitar, the one hour and one minute film “Street” by James Nares is absolutely hypnotic. Like Christian Marclay’s art-world sensation last year, (“The Clock”) “Street” has an addictive quality about it that makes you question the notion of time at a fundamental experiential level. With the former, one felt the anticipation of moving forward in time while engaged in the present moment’s deciphering of the rapid succession of filmic and cultural references of the past. In the latter, however, currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 27, one is mesmerized by the uncanny qualities of New York City’s street life when suspended somewhere between still and moving images where being and time collide to disrupt the present. In “Street” the minute details of life in the public sphere are able to take center stage as impressive open-ended arias in an epic opera of expressions, movement and vibrations. What normally escapes us unnoticed suddenly acquires magical qualities that seduce us with ease into a world that is at once familiar and alien. The ostensible simplicity of the premise (recording street scenes from a slowly moving car) produces a disproportionate amount of poetic results. It does what language cannot – allowing us a sensation of floating, the suspension of both time and the laws that govern the motion of objects in space, while making us witness to unexpected beauty.
The tradition of documenting street life has a long history in both photography and film and the deployment of a new technology for an artistic endeavor often yields an off-spring of surprising uncanniness. It has long been the task of the artist to reveal what is not known or unknowable in general, but more so when the subject matter is of quotidian life on the streets of the metropolis. Chantal Akerman’s “D’Est” and Dziga Vertov’s “Man with a Moving Camera” especially come to mind. In Nares’ hands, however, the final result of a high-definition slow-motion camera (so slow that at times the only movement appears to be from the apparatus itself) turns the pedestrian world of pedestrians into a meditation on humanity suspended in fragments of time that can only be described as sublime. But the work also speaks to the illusory quality of time itself, for although we might feel freed from its constraints momentarily, it is an invisible vise that tightens around us. With more time to see what might otherwise be missed we have even more information to sort through, most of which can no longer be easily categorized as we are untethered from meaning. Time dutifully slips through our fingers with same same ease as always but with the added effect of revealing some of its secrets. The film, like a mirroring mise-en-abyme, tunnels ever deeper away from the present the longer we look, and thus our own sense of “real time” is displaced. Moments that unfold with such graceful care are layered with multiple meanings and though we may search for their origin or terminus where we think we might understand what we are seeing, it usually eludes us as we are distracted with the rarefied truth of actuality. An expression that starts off like a grimace ends up in a smile, a cigarette flying through the air is less a moment about littering and more a meditation on gravity. The crumpled posture of a woman elicits sympathy until we notice she is trying to take a picture and is merely holding the camera in an awkward position. Rain drops harden into diamonds before bouncing off umbrellas, bejeweling headlights. An ordinary pigeon endowed with the majesty of an eagle maneuvers in order to land. Lights everywhere pulsate with the universal Qi.
Everything is authentic in this state of expanding time. Even when the camera is acknowledged by the subject, the fourth wall does not crumble. On the contrary, it is a revelation of authenticity when a vibration of strength penetrates us with eye-contact. A direct look is all-at-once dangerous, playful, unnerving and spiritual. We are privy to a coded conversation at a level we forget we are capable of understanding. If for no other reason I would sit through the film again to experience those moments of contact with these strangers, not to mention the elegant upward floating sparrows next to a sign that reads “play here” or the seemingly improbable physics of bipedal locomotion or the elegant ripples of the breeze on a young woman’s dress. To sense the joy that can be derived from the smallest expression, the tiniest gesture, the subtlest vibration in a democracy of meaning is a special achievement in a work of art. We are reminded that everything arises in relation to everything else.
In “Street” people stand on corners like a Greek chorus – each face the unique mask of an individual describing a state of universal experience. Sadly I was forced to draw comparisons with the myriad street scenes of Boston we have recently also been exposed to. Whereas the notion of the interconnectedness of humanity was already present in this work, it became inescapable that the sinister and dangerous qualities of the social sphere are also embedded in Nares’ work. And to that I can only say that the revelatory moments feel all the more precious when reminded of the fragility of the fabric that binds it all together.
The only thing I knew about James Nares prior to seeing “Street” was his large-brush paintings, often achieved with a single stroke while he is suspended by a harness above the canvas cirque-du-soleil style. The sense of ease and floating translates directly from his method of marking the canvas to a dynamic suspension of pigment that is both cascading and frozen. The theme of a suspension of movement, and thus time, may or may not be an intentional thread between these disparate works, but it certainly appears so in this 61 minute film – 60 minutes plus one more, spilling over and out of the neat container of time.
By Jorge Alberto Perez
Okay. So we all know by now that images cannot be trusted. Since Plato, the image (mimesis), indeed representation itself, has been associated with deception. It is certainly true that images today cannot be trusted to be accurate versions of what is real or represented – ‘likeness’ opting for the approximation clause inherent in the definition of image-making. And once tampered with and altered, these representations are more than twice removed from what it represents. And though we are generally savvy enough to discern how far from real images are in the spectrum of truth, in the age of photoshop and digital reproducibility, our suspicions are subordinated to the vast volume of images, gifs and videos with which we are confronted daily. Today, whatever might still be considered an emphatic expression of fact re-presented in visual terms floats in our collective willing suspension of disbelief. We grow unaccustomed to believing our eyes – even in the presence of the real, in real time…
On Saturday March 23rd I encountered an art work entitled “The Maybe” at MoMA. What I encountered, actually, was the crowd that had encountered the art work. Second order observation. Immediately past the entrance where the ticket-takers scan you in, in the most transitional space in the building, an unmoving crowd had surrounded an object, a thing, a glass case on a metal stand. It was tall enough for viewers to easily peer into it. it contained a simple pallet, a pillow, a glass water decanter with a drinking glass top, a pair of eyeglasses and a presumably sleeping Tilda Swinton. The wall tag read: “The Maybe, 1995/2013, Living Artist, Glass, Steel, Mattress, Pillow, Linen, Water and Spectacles.”
Like most of those who had gathered to see the contents of the glass box, I did not expect to find a living person, much less the enigmatic, androgynous beauty that is Swinton. In fact, at first my brain did this thing, a kind of processing hiccup, a glitch between the eyes and the brain. I saw the form of a person to be sure, from the back at first, so still that I was convinced it was a very realistically rendered figure. From the front, however, where most people chose to stand, what I thought I was seeing and what I was in fact seeing were separated by a gap wide enough to make me feel light-headed. Why on earth would a sleeping person be inside a glass box that has no clear way to get in or out, and be on display in the most awkward location thinkable? I stood still, as one does at the scene of an accident, to see something horrible, the confirmation that your senses are in revolt. The murmurings of the crowd faded away as my reptilian brain scanned the body for signs of life. She was dressed gender-neutral, neither too cool, or dated or brand-specific – in a loose summer linen shirt of faded baby blue, sensible sneakers, and modestly proportioned jeans. From most angles you could not tell if it was a man or woman. I looked to her abdomen, shying away from her face which was so close (and too real?) that it made me feel uncomfortable, like a voyeur, or worse. Her breathing was so shallow, that I had to look elsewhere for proof, because I was still doubting what I was seeing, mistrusting my eyes to tell me some truth. Swinton was asking me to be present. To watch her ‘perform’ sleeping. To be accountable for my presence. To take stock of nuance despite the fog of doubt, despite the carnivalesque din. Finally with patience I saw her eyes move inside their hiding place. She was dreaming. Now I push the maybe aside and I see she is alive, not a waxen figure or an image of deceptive realness. Now I see something that is true and must take in the consequences of what I know. Contrived or not, this is a kind of intimacy.
A torrent of unanswerable questions inundates me. How, and why, but also really how? Seriously, and the glass, no way in or out… Why should I ever need to be so close to her luminescent pale face, lightly reflective with the oiliness of the unadorned, unattended visage of sleep? From the crowd I hear, “I saw her fingers move.” Indeed they did twitch. It was such a tiny gesture, so small and concise, easy to miss, and yet there we were, about fifty of us, slowing ourselves down long enough to notice it, to see it and to know what it means, but not to know what it means to see it.
I am the voyeur. I am a man and I am watching her sleep, at her most vulnerable. I feel implicated in the male gaze. She has deferred her power and it unsettles me, dislodging violent thoughts. The metal stand feels too tall to be stable, the glass too transparent to be unbreakable. I want to beat on the glass and break her out. There is an implied panic at looking at a constrained person, because despite the ostensible serenity I suddenly realize her tranquil expression is portentous of a disturbance. So much can go wrong. The sleeping beauty box becomes a prison cell. I notice she has no belt. I feel the crowd inching forward, muttering, sniggering, disdainful. I smell someone’s sour breath and awaken as if from the hypnosis of the maybe-maybe-not-pendulum that momentarily dispossessed me of myself. I am suddenly afraid of the crowd, afraid for her safety. I don’t want her to awaken afraid, confused, her own consciousness hiccuping its way into focus. I want her to open her eyes, look right at me to acknowledge that I am her hero and close them so quickly we may all doubt what we saw.
I am also thinking… I have trouble sleeping, falling asleep, staying asleep. Too much light, not enough air circulating, too hot too cold, too restrained, not cozy enough – all these things awaken me. So it is no wonder that I marvel at Swinton’s uninterrupted REM and wonder if ‘maybe’ she took a little something. Maybe not, but c’mon – MAYBE.
This change of tone reminds me of what most of the reactions to Swinton at MoMA were like out in the twittering, texting, internetting world. Jerry Saltz seemed to have a meltdown on vulture.com and joked that celebrity art is like a crystal meth addiction to the museum, and that when it is not too busy perpetuating the guru status of some (read Marina Abromovich) it was turning itself into a circus. Why “The Maybe” was the tipping point for his disdain, only Malcom Gladwell may know. Snoozefest-cum-spectacle pretty much sums up his response. But it is unfair to gloss over it with such nonchalance even from a self-described sourpuss. At least the work was an opportunity for him to frame his contempt for the direction museums are moving in; and so the performance suddenly became institutional critique, among other things. Most other reports used puns to summarize Swinton. Sleeping on the Job. The Art of Napping. Strangest Celeb Hobby. Etc. And a few mentions of Sleeping Beauty.
Interestingly, one of constraints for this performance is that it is not scheduled into MOMA’s ever-growing dance card. The element of surprise is inherent to the piece. If she is Sleeping Beauty, she is not waiting for the prince to appear unannounced. Like in Anne Sexton’s “Transformations” the fairytale is upended. This is no ordinary Briar Rose. And not only can one not plan to see the work, as one could for “The Artist is Present” – it migrates within the museum interacting with other artworks. These “rules” literally unplug the work from any predictability, even of meaning. Maybe the work is a reminder to look to see, to know, to think, to trust yourself to be the author of meaning in the present as you experience it. Maybe the work is not even about Tilda Swinton at all, it just happens to be by her. Barthes would be pleased.