Monday, April 9, 2007

Changing Schools: Improving the Educational Experience at USC’s Roski School of Fine Arts

In the past three years, I have watched the Roski School of Fine Arts at the University of Southern California undergo major changes and improvements. Just as the university boasts of its focus on “increasing academic excellence, on hiring the best and most creative faculty, and on encouraging path-breaking” activity, the School of Fine Arts can now pride itself on upholding the same values. Recent initiatives such as the addition of some of America’s most renowned young artists to the faculty, the building of new structures and facilities, and the acquiring of prominent figures in the world of fine arts as temporary members of the pedagogical team, have made the school one of the most sought after institutions of its kind in the country. Naturally, as such developments are rather recent, many more initiatives must be taken in order to better fulfill USC’s central mission of “developing human beings and society through the cultivation and enrichment of the mind and spirit.” Fortunately, the College Dean’s Prize for the Enrichment of Student Academic Life gives all students a chance to help enhance their educational experience by proposing new and innovative steps to be taken by the institution. This week, I propose one such step in an attempt to encourage collaboration and creativity amongst art students.

Aware that USC has a long-lasting relationship with its neighboring elementary and high schools, I propose that students of the Roski School of Fine Arts use this existing connection to their own advantage, while building and maintaining a sense of community with and responsibility for younger scholars in the environs. My proposal is that we divide ourselves into groups of up to twenty individuals sponsored by a selected faculty member. Each group will consist of both advanced and beginner students at USC, in order to ensure an interaction that is now missing amongst the nearly two hundred young artists in the program. The teams will then travel to local schools, such as John W. Mack Elementary and Foshay Learning Center, in order to secure an exhibition space within the various campuses. These spaces could range from an abandoned classroom, to an empty locker, the janitor’s closet or the gymnasium. Once arrangements are made with the authorities on each campus, every two weeks a team will proceed to collectively put on an art installation that incorporates both the space and each member’s respective interests and aesthetics. The theme of the exhibitions will be determined by members in each group. The presented work can range from drawings to wall paintings, projections, ceramics and sculpture, incorporating skills offered by our various departments. Each event will be treated as an official art opening of the Roski School of Fine Arts, thereby drawing more attention to our creative activities as well as the state of the hosting school.

It is a central goal of this proposal to make art and creativity a regular occurrence at our neighboring educational institutions. At a time when most Los Angeles public schools have nearly abandoned art education due to "inadequate budget and [the lack of] other resources," it is our responsibility to introduce the children to the art world, allowing them the understanding that creative activity is both an option and a reality. After all, as the USC Strategic Plan states, our university is dedicated to "creating new societal opportunities." I believe that exposing young minds to art and culture and the possibility of unregulated self expression is an essential factor in bringing about social improvements. In my proposed plan, while the hosting students will not be physically involved in creating and presenting the various installations, they will serve as close observers and important components of these artistic endeavors.

As a group activity, this will allow our students a chance to undertake more ambitious and large-scale projects, while offering an escape from the regular “space war” that we are all a part of at the Roski School of Fine Arts. A major drawback of the school is a lack of studio and exhibition space at the undergraduate level. When the graduate studios were moved off campus two years ago, it was the assumption of all advanced undergraduates that they would be granted personal studios (Above is an image of one of the communal work spaces on campus) as well as an additional gallery in the space that had once been occupied by others. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. Each semester, students battle for one or two available weeks at the university gallery and most end up increasingly disappointed and disenchanted with the experience. Since we lack personal studios, there is a trend of students working independently at home, without much exchange with their peers. Since we do not have on-campus studios where we can work while generating discussion and cooperation, I propose that we use the spaces allotted us by the various schools as both a studio and an exhibition space. The proximity of these schools to our own facilities will allow us access to the necessary tools and supplies, thereby providing a studio-like experience.

An artistic practice generally involves the claim and negotiation of space, whether it is in a gallery, on canvas, or in the public sphere. It is often times a reconciliation of an extremely personal space with that of the audience and always requires a perfect understanding of the two. I believe that no artistic education is complete without this understanding. It is my hope that the proposed project will allow us, as young artists, a chance at collaboration and a deeper sense of collective ideas and places. Although USC-sponsored programs, such as The Neighborhood Academic Initiative's Summer Art Intersession and USC Fisher Gallery's Art in the Village, currently provide neighboring schools with funding and staff to help promote visual arts activities, they employ no more than a handful of USC students each year. In my plan, we will all have the opportunity to be closely involved in shaping the future of our growing neighboring community.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Art Doctor: Honoring Matthew Coolidge and the Center for Land Use Interpretation

At the University of Southern California and in institutions of higher education in America, there is a long-standing tradition of granting honorary degrees to worthy individuals. According to James Freedman, president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, “In bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most, [celebrating] distinguished and sublime achievement.” At USC, such degrees are awarded to “honor individuals who have distinguished themselves through extraordinary achievements… [and] outstanding contributions to the welfare and development” of their communities. This week, as commencement ceremonies approach I put forth a nominee for an honorary doctoral degree in fine arts at the University of Southern California, my home institution.

The founder and director of the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), Matthew Coolidge is one of the most prominent figures of contemporary art in America. Since 1994, the CLUI has been active in various regions in the country, examining the use and misuse of the landscape, while forming and maintaining a record that speaks to both our society and the changing environment. According to the official website, “the Center employs a variety of methods to pursue its mission, engaging in research, classification, extrapolation, and exhibition.” Past projects and exhibits range from Emergency States, an examination of small-scale towns made to train police and fire fighters for times of disaster, to The Best Dead Mall in America (pictured below), a photographic survey of an abandoned 800,000 square foot mall in Harvey, Illinois, to Antarctic 1 (pictured above), a look at the infrastructure of Antarctica’s first highway, and Proximity Issue, a series of digital photographs of the barricades that encircle the landmarks of the nation’s capitol after September 11, 2001. For more than a decade, the CLUI has been gathering and distributing vital and often overlooked information regarding humanity’s relationship to its environment. “People don't have all the facts, because how you get those facts is very much under the control of a limited number of people,” explains Coolidge in a 1998 interview. “What ‘The Center’ is doing is about information…. And so, in some ways we are trying to address the issue of the amount of information we are given, and the imbalance and control of information.”

In 1991, Coolidge received his bachelor degree in environmental, film, and contemporary art studies at Boston University. His diversified educational background has allowed him an artistic practice that is informed and unique, defying the boundaries between art, science, publishing and curating. This multidisciplinary quality is one that has been highly celebrated by the USC Roski School of Fine Arts in the past years. In fact, according to the USC Strategic Plan, the university as a whole boasts of its "strong reputation for interdisciplinary research and scholarship." The university's Renaissance Scholars Program, for example, has been honoring bright students,"whose majors and minors are from widely separated fields of study," since May 2000, awarding more than $90,000 each year. In the case of the School of Fine Arts, the most recent additions to the fulltime faculty include Adrea Zittel, whose work combines notions of art, architecture, design and sustainable living, as well as Charlie White and Sharon Lockhart, who move across boundaries of production, film and photography. Coolidge fits perfectly amongst them.

Of course, skeptics may argue that Coolidge’s efforts at the CLUI, which include those of a project director, curator, writer and photographer, cannot be defined as an artistic practice, particularly since the Center, in Coolidge's words, “exists within the institutional realm, [and works] to maintain an apparent neutrality and institutional objectivity.” In contemporary art, however, interdisciplinary boundaries undergo such constant and drastic changes that it becomes difficult and somewhat futile to give much thought to what is and is not art. Despite the institutional feel of Matthew Coolidge’s work, he is indeed a recognized figure in the world of fine arts. Under his direction, the Center has received numerous grants including support from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Annenberg Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. Coolidge was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 2004 and a media arts fellowship in 2005 from the Rockefeller Foundation and National Media Resources. In 2006, he was awarded the Lucelia Artist Award by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, an honor that has been shared by only five other artists, which include USC’s own Andrea Zittel. In describing him, Smithsonian director Elizabeth Broun states, “Matthew Coolidge represents the qualities that the Lucelia Artist Award seeks to reward–creative innovation and work that dares to address issues relevant in contemporary society.” In granting an honorary degree, USC, too, looks to pay tribute to these qualities.

Indeed, the work of this Los Angeles-based artist is not only exceptional, but of special relevance to the current human condition. Coolidge describes his efforts by noting, “we are really just working with the medium of landscape to explore social, societal, and philosophical issues.” The fundamental goal of the Center is to "increase and diffuse knowledge about how the nation's lands are apportioned, utilized, and perceived." It is this unwavering commitment to society and the spread of information across geopolitical barriers that make Matthew Coolidge the perfect candidate to be honored by the University of Southern California. And whom better to pass knowledge and unwavering passion onto than graduating students? I believe that Coolidge's speech will be not only inspiring, but of universal appeal, merging art and science, the unknown and the mundane. It will be an important accomplishment for the University of Southern California to acknowledge Coolidge's distinguished artistic efforts in addressing, saving and honoring our environment. Afterall, a main purpose of the honorary degree is to "elevate the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Art Home and Away: A look at the Past and Present of my Artistic Development

This week, inspired by National Public Radio’s This I Believe program, I will be writing a more personal post, focusing on the core values and beliefs that guide my daily life as well as my chosen profession.

Some years ago, a friend asked me why I was not seeking financial security and going into the family business. “And what business would that be,” I asked laughingly, “that of the Town Sage?” My father was, indeed, the Sage of his town. I remember walking with him in the streets. He had such presence that everyone who passed him could not help but turn around for a second look. We would walk to the baker’s and an old man or a young doctor or a new father would hold his hand and ask him to converse awhile, to hear their troubles. He always did, and always knew what to say, how to ease people’s pain, how to give them hope, how to jolt them out of their paralysis. I remember once he took me to visit a man who had just lost his young son. The grieving father, surrounded by friends and family, wept as though he was determined to weep for as long as he lived. In fact, he had not stopped since the news of his son’s passing. When he looked into my father’s eyes, the pain of the world was in his own two black circles. My father sat before him and began to speak. As the man sobbed, the sage spoke of his own life, of all that he knew, all that he believed. He spoke and spoke until his voice was no longer drowned by the poor man’s sobs. When he finished, there wasn’t a tear amongst us all.

My father believed in the power of self-expression. And this I, too, believe. Though I spent most of my life without him, I was always aware that he was a revolutionary, a man who had sacrificed much of his life for the political well-being of his people. Watching him, I learned that the power to effectively express one’s beliefs and experience is the power to bring about change, to be active in a world marked with passivity. As Pablo Picasso explains, “art is an offensive and defensive weapon against the enemy.”

As a child of immigration, my artistic practice is, for me, the ultimate attempt at taking an active role in a life whose direction throughout my early youth was largely decided by states and politicians. In turning to the visual arts, I was in search of an underlying, common language to relay my own experience, while touching on specific facets of the contemporary human condition. As such, my work expresses a deep interest in the investigation and comprehension of space, both literal and metaphoric. In reality, it deals not only with space, but the spaces in between (created by everything from physical barriers to history and national borders,), thereby examining agents responsible for the formation and maintenance of a modern condition. I am drawn to themes concerning the earth in relation to humanity, and more specifically, humanity’s perceived conquest and division of the earth. In the past, I have explored these themes as a macrocosmic view of individual and state endeavors, often adopting specific political and societal practices as foundations for the creation of a body of work.

Each piece often carries with it a strong sense of local and global history, placing my use of the ephemeral in a larger context of time. In a recent exhibition (pictured here), for example, where 3000 lbs of salt recreate, on the gallery floor, a pseudo-topographical map of the continents inspired by satellite images of the Earth at night, the overwhelming spread of light, as well as its absence in select areas of the planet, are indicators of the patterns of human history. Similarly, the history of salt, while enmeshed with the Earth, is a history of civilizations. In its productive form (salt as currency, food and preservation), it is linked to notions of creation and rising nations, while in its destructive form (“salting the land”), it is a cruel force of destruction.

In my practice, I deal with issues such as migration, division and displacement not only on the level of global power structures (creating photographs that manipulate national borders or draw walls through imaginary landscapes) but also on a personal and sensual level (installations that deal with sense memory, nostalgia and movement). After all, as artist/choreographer Yvonne Rainer exclaims in reaction to the horror of media images of the Vietnam War in 1968, it is “the body that remains the enduring reality.” Politics enter my work in the same way that visual aesthetics do; they do so only when detrimental to the experience. I do not look for them. They are both natural derivatives of a particular personal relationship with the world. My aesthetic choices, I have found, are often fueled by my own cultural experience and draw on forms and images that have become moving to one people while enigmatic to others. I strive to present each specific issue as both an insider and an outsider, while conveying a bridge between the two. Each piece, then, functions, at once, esoterically, subconsciously, and exoterically and self-consciously. In that, my works are places for me both to speak and to search.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Art Taking on the Environment: Politicians Turn to the Efforts of Visual Artists to Help Shape Environmental Policies

Opening this month at the Hood Museum of Art in New Hampshire, Subhankar Banerjee’s exhibition, Resource Wars in the American Arctic, features four of his stunning and monumental photographs, captured during five years of travel through largely untouched regions in Northeastern Alaska. In 2002, Banerjee began his nearly four thousand miles journey through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in search of concrete evidence of plant and animal life in the 19.5-million-acre region. What began as an attempt by a Boeing scientist turned amateur photographer to study the ecological and cultural diversity of the ANWR soon “evolved into a visual exploration of the Arctic ’s connection to larger global issues such as resource wars, global warming, toxic migration and human rights struggles of the indigenous northern communities.” As such, Banerjee’s photographs have been the subject of critical and public acclaim, as well as condemnation from many politicians and institutions. According to Regina Hackett of the Seattle Post Intelligencer, in 2003 “the artist was horrified to find himself denounced in Congress and virtually abandoned by the Smithsonian's National Museum of History,” where his photographs were to be exhibited for the first time. Under pressure from Congress, the museum not only removed all captions, for they contained language that advocated no oil drilling in the refuge, but changed the location of the exhibition in an attempt to limit its viewing. Perhaps it was this very reaction that placed Banerjee’s work in the spotlight for which he had been hoping.

As politicians in favor of oil drilling in the region tried to paint a picture of the ANWR as a barren land devoid of life, Banerjee's photographs provided irrefutable evidence of the refuge's fragile and unmatched beauty and rich ecological diversity. A month before his opening at the Smithsonian, “during a Senate debate about drilling for gas and oil in the refuge, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) held up a Banerjee photo of a polar bear crossing a frozen harbor. This was a response to drilling advocates, who claimed there was nothing there but…‘a flat white nothingness,’ [or in the words of Alaska’s former Senator Frank Murkowsky,]…‘a frozen wasteland of snow and ice.’”

This is not the first time that the work of an artist has been brought to the Senate floor in order to help shape policy. Photography, in particular, has historically enjoyed a prominent place in the country’s legislature. In the late 19th century, for example, photographer William Henry Jackson (his work shown on the left) was commissioned to travel west as part of the U.S. Geological Survey. Upon his return, his photographs were presented to the U.S. Congress, and "on March 1, 1872 President Grant signed a bill making the region [that Jackson had been exploring] Yellowstone National Park.” Likewise, the works of photographic giants like Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange were highly celebrated and influential in both houses. Banerjee, however, did not receive what Hackett calls the “warm Welcome” of his predecessors. It seems that there has been a grand shift in the workings of our legislative branch and our perception of photography since the time of William Henry Jackson. While in the past photographers were seen and respected as capturers of irrefutable truths, today, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens openly calls Banerjee and his supporters, such as Jimmy Carter, “liars,” publicly threatening them as well as his colleagues who voted against the ANWR drilling.

Thankfully, what Peter Brown of the Front-page news calls a “climate of intimidation” does not have a hold on all institutions around the world. Indeed, in many cases, artists are still viewed as agents of truth, esteemed by politicians and advocates who utilize their creative abilities as a means to deliver a message to a larger audience. It seems that, in recent years, art and environmental protection have formed a new and significant bond. In June of this year, in celebration of the annual UN World Environment Day, the Natural World Museum, in partnership with the UN Environment Program, the Norwegian Ministry of Environment and the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, will present an exhibition of international contemporary artists, entitled Envisioning Change. According to an official press release by the UNEP website, the exhibit “is designed to generate awareness of global warming and climate change while inspiring positive change in people’s attitudes and actions toward the environment.” What is refreshing about the choice of the forty participating artists is that not all are known for their interest in environmental issues. While artists like Banerjee and David Nash (his Wooden Boulder featured on the right) are, of course, included, it is both surprising and intriguing to see such names as Mona Hatoum and Yoshiaki Kaihatsu on the list.

The artists in this exhibition are not merely documenting. They are utilizing all forms of expression, from abstraction to extrapolation, to create, to inform, and to claim a right to the preservation of their planet. Their efforts help secure the artistic community as a whole a unique place in the global fight to save our ecosystem. We are now at the threshold of a new era of environmental and political transformation, one in which we must take bold actions to generate international and interdisciplinary solutions to fight off the threats posed by our changing climate. The actions described above, though of great importance, are only tips of the iceberg.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Can’t Buy This: Seeking Economic Independence in both the Art and Craft Spheres.

As this year’s Armory Show in New York, the largest annual art fair in the world, comes to an end this week, the art community has galleries, buyers and the market on the mind. This week, I, once again, venture into the blogosphere, examining ways in which other bloggers comment on the state of the market in general. The two posts that I have found interesting both deal with notions of economically independent objects and practices. The first, posted by David Bollier, points to the newly opened exhibition at the P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens, New York, featuring “not for sale” works by art giants such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jeff Koons (his 8.5 ft. Rabbit shown to the right), Tim Hawkinson and Christo. What Bollier is intrigued by is considering ways in which “commercial markets enhance or degrade the essential work of art.” The second post is an excerpt from Dennis Stevens Speech at the NICHE Awards, held on February 18th, 2007 in Philadelphia. Here, Stevens examines new movements and trends in the field of crafts and a break from the commercialization that is often associated with the practice. My comments on either blog are also posted bellow.

From what I gather, this show is an attempt by curator Alanna Heiss to say, look, it is still possible to make art for art’s sake, without a need to sell, to please the market. And I certainly agree with you that her “idea deserves some serious attention.” But what I simply don’t understand is that everyone who has been asked to participate in the show belongs to a very small and exclusive group of artists, who at this point in their career can actually afford to not sell a work or two or hundred. Perhaps it is Heiss’s intention to somehow illustrate her frustration with the art market strictly through major success stories, but how about pointing out renowned artists, who, unlike the Jeff Koons of the art world haven’t geared their entire careers toward creating big, flashy, glossy, seductive objects for sale? How about celebrating artists such as Henry Darger whose works (shown on the left) were in fact never meant for sale? Collections such as his are indeed products of the economically liberated art making process in which Heiss is interested.

I am very glad to see your comments on the position of new craft movements and their search for “economic freedom.” They are both informed and insightful. While I had always thought of crafts as enjoying a comfortable niche in the market, I can see now that reliance on any conditional financial support can serve as a limiting factor in all creative processes. Today, both arts and crafts (though generally separated) are dependent on the support of institutions and, more notably, the markets. While the general functionality and “sellability” of the ladder practice gives craft makers some ease in terms of economic survival, it is nice to see them move away from their comfort zone in order to re-invent themselves and their position (on the right are images of public guerilla works by the group of 11 Houston-based knitters who call themselves Knitta), blurring the lines between the arts and craft. Having had more of a personal contact with a larger and less hegemonic market than most young artists, I believe that craft makers are better suited and more skilled to approach the art world without falling into its economic traps.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Women Rise Up: Feminist Art Invading Major Institutions Throughout America

This week, as March approaches, women are the hot topic in the world of visual arts. Next month will mark the opening of a number of exhibitions at some of the country’s most prominent art institutions. The Geffen Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art will exhibit WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution, the first international, historical exhibition to examine the foundations and legacy of feminist art produced from 1965-80. The show will feature renowned feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Louise Bourgeois [right]. Exquisite Acts & Everyday Rebellions: 2007 CalArts Feminist Art Symposium and Exhibition March5-10, a curated exhibition of students, faculty and alumni, “seeks to produce discourse around the questions and contexts of contemporary feminist practice in art and society.” Timed to coincide with these exhibitions as well as the opening of The Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art along with Global Feminisms at the Brooklyn Museum, Shared Women @ LACE, featuring a dynamic group of young feminist lesbian artists, is yet another attempt to further the conversation, bringing women, at least for the time being, to the forefront of the contemporary art scene in America.

This second coming of artistic feminism is no doubt due in part to a general economic gender disparity in today’s art market. As Zoe Williams of The Guardian explains, they are not only “staggeringly under-represented in the world's major galleries… [but] women artists working today still earn the most shaming fraction of what men earn.” In 1997, masked artist/activist group The Guerilla Girls ran a campaign against New York’s Museum of Modern Art for organizing the show Objects of Desire: the Modern Still Life, bringing to public attention the fact that out of 71 featured artists only 3 were white women and 1 a woman of color. At the 2005 Venice Biennale, they continued to shed light on the issue of gender inequality in the art world with their mega posters stating statistics such as “38% women artists in the curated group shows? Who cares that so many national pavilions are only showing men. French Pavilion has solo show by a woman? Who cares that it’s the first time in a 100 years?” While some would argue that both the status and power of women in the art market has undergone drastic changes in the last decade, few would deny the inequality highlighted by groups and individuals such as The Guerilla Girls. For as long as the Market is not advantageous to them, women artists are at a disadvantage in the art world at large. As Janet Bloch, former director of Women-Made Gallery in Chicago, points out, cases such as the “May 2004 Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction in New York City…. Where [out of] 360 pieces of art offered for sale only sixty… were by women artists” is a common occurrence in the art market. Clearly, female artists who cannot make a living as such are most often forced to quit their practice. Although, as Bloch explains, we may be “on an uphill battle with the public, and the art world in general,” the end is not exactly in sight.

Surely, the upcoming events highlighting the works of feminist artists in the US and abroad are significant steps in this struggle. It is a chance for women curators to assert their authority, while utilizing the power of major institutions such as MOCA to promote and establish women artists as significant figures in the art world. Since having one’s work exhibited in the context of such institutions is perhaps the most effective way to boost or even renew an artistic career, one cannot help but wonder why only female artists who can be categorized as feminists are included in these exhibitions. Is the promotion of highly talented women who deal with issues outside the realm of gender and identity less significant in this “uphill battle”? While such artists may not directly address feminism, one cannot deny their place in the feminist movement at large. Here, a consideration of the notions of intention versus result in terms of artistic practice is of importance. If the goal of the artist is not to create feminist art, does that mean that the final product cannot be perceived as promoting feminist ideals? California artist Ruby Osorio , for example, insists that her work [Detained En Route by Moments of Human frailty, 2006 included here] carries no feminist agenda whatsoever. Critiques and a significant portion of her audience, on the other hand, would strongly disagree. Today, many artists refuse to be associated with any movement at all, fearing both creative and financial restrictions, escaping labels and pigeonholes. Perhaps it is not the true purpose of feminism to label and divide, but to celebrate and promote the efforts of all women.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Art Power and Censorship: New Global Art Markets and the De-politicization of the Art World

In this week’s post, I venture into the outside world, commenting on recent posts from two other weblogs, which, I find, deal with similar issues as mine. The first is a post entitled “Abu Dhabi Consolidates Place as ME Cultural/Media Avant Garde," examining Abu Dhabi’s plans for a museum island built in collaboration with the Guggenheim and possibly the Louvre, with designs by renowned architects Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Tadao Ando, and Zaha Hadid (as presented in the image below). The second, "Between Shanghai and Manhattan, Wenda Gu, New Breed of Artist” explores the work of New York-based Chinese-born artist Wenda Gu and the role of Chinese artists in a Western art market at large. In both cases, my comments, also published below, focus on new global trends in the art market and their potential effects on inherently politically-charged art scenes.

It is perhaps true that art is "the best vehicle of crossing borders," but what is not mentioned in this post is the effect that this crossing of borders can have on the art that is created (particularly by Middle Eastern artists). There is no doubt that modern and contemporary art production within the Middle East and its diaspora is indeed for the most part revolutionary. I fear that the emergence of Abu Dhabi as a giant in the international art market will give Arab governments new and effective powers of censorship over an otherwise political and revolutionary art scene, all in the name of the Market. In this manner, the new market can work to depoliticize even the works of Western artists, who may be seen as critical of either Middle Eastern governments or their allies. That which does not please Abu Dhabi’s billionaires can easily be labeled undesirable.

Although the article does touch upon issues of censorship on the part of the Chinese government, what I find missing is a discussion of self-censorship by Chinese artists who are looking to be even more desirable to an already intrigued Western art market. While in the past, in communist China, the very practice of art making within the confines of government surveillance and regulations was an act of political significance, today’s Chinese artists seem to be practicing under far stricter censors, for, as Wenda Gu (pictured to the left) explains, “the most successful art is without political ambition.” Clearly, Gu himself has gone from a blacklisted controversial artist to one dealing with far safer subjects such as “ethnicity, minority, globalization, language and communication.” While it is wonderful to see young Chinese artists finally gaining success and recognition, I cannot help but ask how China, or any other country in a similar situation, is fairing without its actively political artists. Is the country no longer in need of revolutionary artistic voices?

Monday, February 5, 2007

Working with the Boundaries of Censure: The First Slideshow Photography Exhibition in Iran

The first gallery exhibition of slideshows by Iranian photographers to be held in Iran was a very recent initiative of Fanoos Photo, a website dedicated to the online showcasing of work by Iranian artists. The exhibition, which closed several days ago, commenced and continued, as with any other public event in Iran, with the blessings of the central government and its notorious Ministry of Culture. Those familiar with the Iranian art scene would know the complexities and difficulties an organization must face to hold a presentation of any work within the country. The red ribbon across movie posters reading “Banned in Iran” has become a marketing ploy for distribution companies in Europe and America. Internationally recognized filmmakers, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose screenplays have been meticulously inspected by the Ministry of Culture and have received its approval, discover upon the completion of their projects that their films cannot be displayed in local theaters. It is no wonder then that the success of the slideshow exhibition sponsored by Fanoos website would immediately become the subject of political discussion.

It definitely bears mentioning that Iran is the country with the largest number of weblogs per capita in the world. The phenomenon is even more impressive when we consider that a large portion of the country is yet to have access to broadband internet, and in provincial cities personal computer is yet to become a common household item. As expected, the internet is yet another battleground between the hardliner government and its overwhelmingly young and dissatisfied constituency. ISPs operate under strict governmental supervision, and the web is subject to some of the fiercest filtering programs. Every week hundreds of new websites are added to the blacklist that attempts to block all subversive or sacrilegious content from the nation’s eyes. Everyday new ways of circumventing the barricades are offered. That Fanoos, dealing in the inevitably controversial realm of photography, has managed to thrive as an open organization is an oddity worth considering.

Though it is a simple site, offering only a few photos from each artist, its juxtaposition of well-recognized and obscure names in Iran’s photography have made Fanoos a famous place among Iranian intellectuals. Once one’s initial delight at finding such a neat little treasure in the web of webs subsides, one is confronted with the absence of many factors that would seem essential to such a collection. There is no mention of some obvious choices for any list of Iranian photographers. Abbas, one of the most accomplished Iranian photographers and a prominent member of Magnum Photo, who fell out of favor with the Islamic government from the early years of the revolution, is one such name. Visiting Fanoos, it is possible for one to assume that the new generation of Iranian photographers are increasingly leaning away from politics toward lighter subjects. The illusion, however, is the result of the particular selection of works which has pragmatically excluded most political pieces. There is no biographical information offered on any of the artists, which may be due to the unorthodox backgrounds of quite a few of them, who, like Shirin Neshat (her work is well-represented in the image to the right), walk the thin line between disapproval and total ban by the government.

The most immediately felt absence, however, is that of works portraying modern women in intimate settings, where they would normally not appear in traditional Islamic clothing. The selection, in other words, has excluded all photography that cannot be openly displayed in Iran. Keeping in mind the vast culture of underground and expatriate Iranian art and the prominence of many dissident artists, the handicap can be considered a serious one. As political parties ban unfair elections, so would many Iranian artists and intellectuals rather forgo participation in an artistic environment that excludes some of its best based on a political agenda.

The Fanoos sponsored slide-show exhibition in Tehran represents a sort of triumph for a more pragmatic, participatory approach. It is no small feat to reach both the unlimited world of the web and the tightly controlled canvas of artistic exhibition in Iran. After years of extremely successful activity outside of Iran, Mitra Tabrizian had a chance to display her photographs in her own country. Her theme of desperation and depression among middle-aged professionals in Europe who are losing their jobs to the younger generation (as in the image to the left) must have struck a subtle chord with the Iranian viewers. Reza Paydari in his collection explored the destruction of green space in Tehran, one of the world's most polluted metropolis. Oshin Zakarian and Amir Yegane presented their visually astounding take on Iranian landscapes and ancient architecture. And having passed through the cracks, the restrained, political photography of Mohammad Kheyr-khah, such as the photograph of Iranian women in uniform featured at the top of the post, attracted the most attention from the visitors. Uncaptioned, Kheyr-khah’s photographs depict the seemingly commonplace process of military parades and daily marching of the soldiers.

In my latest visit to Iran, I was surprised by a new tendency in young filmmakers, some of whom are close friends and acquaintances, to seriously consider positions in the state-run television. A few years ago even the thought of such an occupation would have been considered heresy among intellectuals. It is certain that the country is undergoing quiet, yet drastic changes. In a country that in the last decade has lost an entire generation of its most influential artists, the younger generation may choose to test its creativity within the oppressive boundaries inside the country, rather than to maintain a rebellious silence.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Battle Fields Revisited: Vietnam War in Los Angeles

What a difference an extra memory card can make on the last day of a month-long stay in Vietnam! Touched by his multiple visits to the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City, Portland artist Harrell Fletcher returned to the museum one last time in June of 2005. Thanks to his digital camera and a surprisingly lenient museum security, he was able to re-photograph all of the one hundred documentary photos of the main museum (two of Fletcher's images featured below), covering the devastation of a ten-year war, what the Vietnamese call the American War, along with more recent images of individuals affected by birth defects and war wounds. The result has been a number of exhibitions in galleries throughout America, including the current show entitled The American War at LAX Art on La Cienega, “re-presenting” the contents of the museum in Ho Chi Min City.

Confronted with flash glares, slanted camera angles and, what Fletcher calls, “ the oddly casual” quality of the photographs of photographs that have already been created and curated by other unnamed individuals, at first, one cannot help but question the artistic merit of Fletcher’s “re-presentation” as a work of art. Fortunately, however, once absorbed into the imagery, the question of artistic merit quickly dissipates. Thus the question becomes the work’s merit as an action. Standing before images of the utter cruelty and destruction of a war fueled here at home, one cannot help but agree that indeed the action is of merit. Perhaps, Chas Bowie of The Portland Mercury is right in simply stating that “it helps if you don’t take Fletcher as an artist.” However, at the risk of falling into a Duchampian discussion, I had to wonder whether Fletcher’s decision of "re-presentation" within a fine arts context best serves his purpose.

With all the critical praise that the exhibitions have received within the past few months, even I, as a skeptic, must agree that the gallery setting does in fact have its benefits. What I was personally most struck by was my own ability to examine. Images that would normally have me switching channels were suddenly objects demanding scrutiny. What is it that the artist has done? Why these captions? Why these photographs? Why this war? Programmed to dissect the contents of a gallery, I not only spent time with the images, but also caught details that would otherwise not have survived my general sense of panic. I found that the captions were familiar (“victim of Orange Bomb,” “her father was a soldier. She has many skin diseases.”), whereas the images were not. Looking around the gallery at other quietly observing viewers I knew that Fletcher’s "re-presentation" invites a particular kind of examination that allows for his project to function in the first place.

The examination that a gallery space promotes, however, is not only of the object, but of the artist’s intentions as well. The earlier question of “why this war?” arises once again. There is no doubt that Fletcher’s work is meant to function as a commentary on the war in Iraq. In his statement, he writes “I encourage everyone to do their own research and find out more about The American War in Vietnam and… the current situation in the Middle East.” However, while in the space, I could not help but fear that the kind of parallel Fletcher hopes and critics such as D.K. Row assume the American viewer will draw between the two wars, simply is not brought about by this form of “re-presentation.”

Most notable is the fact that the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Min City was not created in order to draw parallels with the Iraq War. Furthermore, it does not anticipate the American mentality, as it was not established for an American audience. The collection of photographs in this museum, or at least what Fletcher has chosen to present in his exhibition, focuses largely on the effects of Agent Orange and Napalm, spraying of pesticides, and other methods of environmental destruction. In this sense, the horrifying images do not recall Iraq. They specifically recall Vietnam. In fact, when confronted with them, the American audience is somewhat relieved that Agent Orange is no longer utilized and that chemical warfare is perhaps something of the past. Unfortunately, Fletcher’s re-photographs, though powerful, in a sense, further remove us from Vietnam’s American War, placing it in the realm of ancient history, so distant and from a land so far away that only terrible digital reproductions can bring us somewhat closer to its reality. The truth is that the Vietnam War does not belong in the ancient past, and to treat it as such is a betrayal of Fletcher’s very purpose in bringing the exhibition to America.