Monday, December 31, 2012

Last Years News

Here is a list of my favorite exhibits of 2012 in no particular order.

Hirokazu Kosaka, Untitled, performance, 1972
Pomona College Museum of Art, August 30, 2011- May 13, 2012

Part of the Pacific Standard Time initiative, this series of exhibits and performance events highlighted the hotbed of creative activity on the Pomona campus between 1969 and 1973. The three exhibitions revealed the fertile community which grew from fluid exchanges between faculty, students and curators. Artists such as Bas Jan Ader, Michael Asher, Chris Burden, Judy Chicago, Robert Irwin, William Leavitt, John McCracken, Allen Ruppersberg, James Turrell and William Wegman engaged in experimentation that influenced the future of conceptual practices. 

Installation view, Alina Szapocznikow: Sculpture Undone

Hammer Museum, February 5- April 29, 2012

This first American survey of works by little known Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow featured figurative sculptures that resonated with erotic and mortal weight. Fragmented and diseased parts longed for touch and psychological reunion with their lost host. There was a distinct ache in the visceral surfaces rendered through resin, rubber, raw wool, paper, and other tactile materials. Like Eva Hesse, Szapocznikow's oeuvre is haunted by the shadow of cancer that took her life at age 46.

Installation view, Rebel Dabble Babble2012
Courtesy of the artists and The Box, Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

Paul and Damon McCarthy's Rebel Dabble Babble
The Box, May 11- July 7, 2012

This ambitious collaboration between Paul McCarty and his son Damon, took the form of a multi-room installation of video and objects. The project, part of James Franco's Rebel show, was based on rumors about the time Nick Ray, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, James Dean and Dennis Hopper, spent at Chateau Marmont during the filming and rehearsal of Rebel Without a Cause. The videos oscillate between the fantasy of Hollywood and the lurid under belly of violence and power. Natalie Wood was only sixteen years old when she became embroiled with both her 44-year old director and co-star Hopper. The videos often focus on the vulnerable and over-sexulalized Wood character who craves constant attention from the eye of the camera and the grotesque men behind the lens. 

Self-Obliteration (Net Obsession Series), c. 1966. Photocollage on paper,
Collection of the artist. © Yayoi Kusama. Image courtesy Yayoi Kusama Studio Inc.

Whitney Museum, July 12- September 30, 2012

The Yayoi Kusama retrospective spanned the artist's long and on-going career, from the tortured floral forms painted at age 20 to a room of vividly colored paintings from 2009. The show highlights Kusama's multi-disciplined practice that includes painting, installation, performance, film, fashion design and media publication. Vitrines were filled with remnants of the artists infamous free love works from the late 60s and reveal Kusama's happenings as precursors to contemporary works in relational aesthetics. The show also featured, Fireflies on the Water, one of Kusama's stunning light installations. 

Gertrude Abercrombie, The Courtship, Oil on masonite, 1949
 Photo © Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, by Nathan Keay

LACMA, January 29, 2012–May 6, 2012

This exhibit featured well known Surrealist practicioners, such as Louise Bourgeois, Leonora Carrington, Frida Kahlo, Lee Miller, Kay Sage, Dorothea Tanning, and Remedios Varo, but also introduced the work of lesser known artists like Gertrude Abercrombie. The exhibit raised interesting dialogues between the works around issues of female agency and sexual identity. It was also a nice surprise to see Marcel Duchamp menaced by a phantom noose in Maya Deren's Witch's Cradle, which looped on a small monitor.

Alberto Burri, Sacco (Sackcloth), 1953

MoCA, October 6, 2012- January 14, 2013

This show serves as a companion to Paul Schimmel's  seminal 1998 exhibit Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object, 1949-1979. Like Out of Actions, Destroy the Picture favors process and impermanence over the primacy of the precious art object. The show features a global roster of artists including the often overlooked artists of the Gutai movement. Works verge on collapse and reference the dark and formidable vacuum left in the wake of WWII. Artists like Alberto Burri, Robert Rauschenberg, Shozo Shimamoto, Lee Bonticou and Yves Klein, cut, burned, slashed and stitched surfaces fashioned from quotidian materials to produce a dark and poetic realism.

Sharon Lockhart, Five Dances and Nine Wall Carpets by Noa Eshkol, 2011.
LACMA, June 4, 2012–September 9, 2012

In this show, Sharon Lockhart turned her documentarian eye on the visionary work of Israeli choreographer and textile artist Noa Eshkol. Conceived as a two-person show, the exhibit featured Eshkol's carpets, dance scores, and drawings along side Lockhart's five-channel film that captured a selection of Eshkol's dance works derived from the universal notation system she created with architect Avraham Wachman in the 1950s. In Lockhart's film, young and old dancers moved together through a series of simple gestures synchronized to the metrical tick of a metronome. The sparse regulated motions created a mesmerizing display of bodies engaged in the translation of a kind of sacred language. 

We don't lose Anything by being born, still from video document, 2000

Museum of Latin American Art, May 24 – September 30, 2012

This show featured a selection of the powerful and distressing performance works of Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo. Presented through video documents, the works explore issues of power and agency, especially in relation to the role of women in culture. Like body artists of the early 70s, Galindo places her own flesh in harms way to speak of literal and metaphoric violations of the body. Read my full-review from earlier this year here.

She seas dance, 2012, Iridescent, white and gold PVC, Louver styrene, 3 channel projections
Photo credit: Robert Wedemeyer

Wangechi Mutu’s Nitarudi Ninarudi
Susan Vielmetter, Los Angeles November 3- December 22, 2012

Wangechi Mutu’s recent solo exhibit followed threads of her previous bodies of work  portraying the monstrous-feminine rendered through her signature brand of glimmering magic. The new collages showed two-headed creatures encrusted in thick layers of dirt and glitter as meditations on memory and identity. In the front space of the gallery,  a room-sized structure loomed like a shimmering mirage. Made from layers of gold streamers, the interior of the space served as the surface for a three-channel video projection that showed a woman's glamourous disembodied eyes opposite a woman's private and languid dance.

Anne Gauldin, Photo collage for the Woman's Building Newsletter, 1982-83

Don It in PublicFeminism and Art at the Woman’s Building
Ben Maltz Gallery, October 1, 2011 - February 26, 2012

Part of Pacific Standard Time, this show focused on the legacy of feminism and collective practices centered around the Woman's Building, a locus of the feminist art movement from 1973-1991. The exhibition featured objects and ephemera as well as an extensive on-line archive of first-person narratives on art and feminist communities in Los Angeles in the 70s. Founded by Judy Chicago, Sheila Levrant de Bretteville and Arlene Raven, the Woman's Building became a refuge for women who traveled from across the country seeking a community built through sisterhood. I wish such a place still existed today! For more on the history of the Woman's Building, see Terry Wolverton's excellent book Insurgent Muse.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Into the Woods

When I was a graduate student in the mid-90s, I took a performance art class with Gagik Aroutiunian called Experimental Directions. I was drawn to performance through the intense monolouges of Karen Finley and Holly Hughes, but was intimidated by the theatrical focus of their works. I was shy and totally inept in the art of the stage (I had never even been in a school play). Gagik opened an entirely new realm of possibility to me when he introduced the Body-Object-Ritual project. The assignment had a simple premise; interact with an object in an unexpected way.

My body was shaking the day I presented my first performance to our small class. I sat down in a wooden chair and began stitching small black "hairs" onto the palm of a white cloth glove. I pushed the needle through the stiff cotton and brought it to my mouth where I held it between my lips as I cut each thread. I became calmer with each stitch and fell into the pure rhythm of process. That year I made a series of performance works derived from silent, intimate and repetitive gestures.

Through working with Gagik, I came to recognize the deep relationship between my performances and the tactile, process based works I had been exploring in the studio. I knew my art practice related to my Mother and Grandmother's incessant domestic production of garments and toys made through sewing, knitting and crochet. But, it wasn't until I found performance that I started to realize a connection to my Father and his love of hunting.

As a kid, I was always mortified when I arrived home from school to find a deer hanging in the garage slowly leaking blood onto the cement floor. I felt sad and I couldn't understand how an avid animal lover could hurt an innocent creature. When I started performing, I began to see hunting as a ritual; as a primitive process between man, nature and death. My Dad was a serious and ethical hunter who knew how to deal a fatal blow with swiftness to spare the animal undue suffering. He spent hours crouched in a tree stand waiting and listening. As is the case with all ritual, the body, space and time are authentic and present. My Father spent his life hunting a small radius of land between his birthplace and the house he had built with his own hands. Those woods were his sanctuary and he held a deep and intimate knowledge of that place.
In some mysterious way woods have never seemed to me to be static things. In physical terms, I move through them; yet in metaphysical ones, they seem to move through me.        --John Fowles                                                                                            
It was in graduate school that I also met Ron Cubbison who was my advisor. He confided that the graduate review committee thought my work was too political. He fought to get me in the program and became a steadfast champion of my work. I often thought of him as my "art Dad" because of his attentive and unconditional support. Like my own Father, Ron spent his life growing and making within nature.

Ron's art practice grew from his traditional training as a painter and he made works that captured beautiful and sensitive views of the natural world. He despised the sentimental and placid vistas found in conventional landscape painting. Ron's landscapes vibrated with the sensual violence of nature and the ever present process of death and decay. After he retired from teaching, Ron returned fully to his work and began making a series of intimate pencil drawings. I remember his eagerness to show me the new work which he felt was a breakthrough in his efforts to capture nature. The drawings were comprised of layers of gyrating marks like a tangled forrest floor breathing on the page. There was a metaphysical resonance and a purity to the gesture as if the image had been channeled directly through his body onto the surface of the paper. 

That series proved to be Ron's last as he fell ill and passed away in the fall of 2008. I was shocked by his death, as I had always imagined him at age 100, walking the woods and climbing foreign mountains. He was an avid traveler and he arranged an exhibition that would award five travel grants to his former students after his death. I admire that Ron wanted his legacy to remain in the realm of teaching and that he gifted his students with the opportunity to experience the world through travel. Ron had a profound impact on my life as a teacher and an artist and I hold his memory close to my heart.

Last week I lost my Father. He had been fighting cancer for two years, but the end still came more quickly than expected. It was difficult to watch him suffer and return to a state of dependance not unlike infancy. We moved him from the hospital to a serene hospice room with doors that opened into the woods. My family took solace that he was in the woods, the place where he felt most at home. My Father was a laborer, a man who worked hard, who took pride in what he could do with his hands. He was outdoors everyday until the past year when he was often too tired to head to the barn to take up some new project. I will remember a man who rescued abandoned opossums and raccoons, who fed strays and wouldn't sleep until all his cats were indoors at night. I will remember a man who in his 70s still chopped wood, climbed trees in need of trimming, and tended his large garden. I will remember a man who understood silence and the solemn poetry of deer prints on a newly fallen snow.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Mouth to Mouth

Athina Rachel Tsangari's film Attenberg opens with an extended scene of two young women awkwardly French kissing in front of a stark exterior. There is no passion, as their bodies barely touch and they aimlessly jab their tongues into each other’s mouths. The session erupts into a spat and it becomes apparent that we are witnessing a kissing lesson between best friends.

Attenberg is a coming of age film centered on Marina, a twenty-three year old virgin who lives with her father Spyros. She is a late-bloomer, who at twenty-three, is finally examining her ambivalence about sex. Marina likes the breast more than the penis, but doesn’t desire men or women. She is perplexed but not desperate about her situation. Her days are filled with the tedium of real life, as she accompanies her father to his cancer treatments or drives the scenic but deserted roads of her small Greek town. Marina is obsessed with David Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries and she often goes wild mimicking animal sounds and movements.

As Spyros’ illness advances, a shift begins in Marina’s psyche and she becomes more open to the possibilities of sexual intimacy. She seeks out a visiting engineer and begins a nearly clinical investigation of lovemaking. Tsangari's sex scenes are injected with a raw awkwardness and the body is tangible and imperfect. Like sex in real life, there are elbows and limp members and too much worrying.

Throughout Attenberg, there is a focus on the pure physicality of the body. Tsangari’s characters are mortal and they evolve through a kind of haptic knowledge. There are tongues in mouths kissing and fingers in mouths to pull out bones during a fish dinner. Marina feels her body in space, flailing about, dancing to music or imitating animal gestures with Spyros. At one point, Marina cups Bella’s bare breasts, as a test of arousal, illuminating the possibilities of a non-sexual physical intimacy. 

The film is punctuated with scenes of Marina and Bella wearing polka dot spattered dresses moving arm and arm down the sidewalk like Siamese twins joined at the hip. They enact synchronized gestures like marching, kicking their legs out, or grabbing their crotches. They are distinctly unladylike in their gestures and in their conversations about Bella’s dream of a tree strewn with male genital. They are subversive in their play and experience the intimacies and annoyances of sisterhood. 

Marina and Bella are reminiscent of other cinematic girl duos like Celine and Julie and the two Maries from Daisies. All of these girl-women are fearlessly independent as they forge their own identities outside the limits of proper society. They play around and make their own adventures. They are not motivated by the lure of romantic love and they take comfort in the warmth of their sisterly bonds. Men may come and go, but sisters are forever! I can imagine Marina and Bella as old ladies, still arm and arm kicking up their heels and spinning naughty tales.

Attenberg is infected with a sense of loss, one that is existential rather than sentimental. Near the end of his life, Spyros laments that he hasn’t taught his daughter anything. He worries that his own misanthropy has left her with a faithless and isolated future. We know that Marina will be lonely, but we also know that she has found resilience through her body, that she will go on growing into the world through her own ritual and inquiry.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Action Films

Performance art is potent because it is alive. A performance happens with real bodies in real space in real time. A photograph or a video document is not the same as the live event; a performance cannot be mechanically reproduced. Performance is only happening when it’s happening and then the work lives on in the often-unstable memories of both the artist and the audience.

Filmmaker Kurt Kren eschewed the pitfalls of documenting live performance by generating entirely unique cinematic works from the ritualistic enactments of the Viennese ActionistsA selection of these films is currently playing in Mubi’s online film festival. Kren began working with the Actionists in the 1960s and produced experimental films that captured the chaos and debauchery of their performances. Kren’s films are not documentations of the live events as is made clear through the manipulated temporal structures produced through quick cuts and repetition. 

Leda and the Swan, a film produced from Otto Muehl’s 1964 performance, features a reclining nude woman who is doused in various liquids and coated in layers of white feathers that fall upon her body like snow. Muehl describes the performance action as follows:
Leonardo grates a large cucumber over Leda with a grater, squashes 10 tomatoes and cracks 5 eggs on her. He places a bottle containing a rose between her legs. He scatters breadcrumbs and coffee powder over her. Leda sets her upper body upright and draws in one leg. Leonardo places a large, uninflated plastic swan between her legs

Kren captured the messy erotic nature of the work as he developed an odd dreamscape through his editing techniques. He shatters time by freezing the frame for seconds at a time or through rapid-fire flashes of repeated imagery. The result is a flickering, fragmented, surrealistic montage.

The Viennese Actionists are known for creating psychologically disturbing works that express the abject through ritual and symbolism. They simulate body fluids such as blood, piss, semen and excrement through use of food substances, though sometimes they used the real thing. The works are reliant on what I call “visceral substitution”, the act of using a material or substance to stand in for the body. In his novel, Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille interchanges eggs for eyes throughout the sexually explicit narrative. He relies on the tactile and visual similarities of the objects as a source for metaphor and substitution.

Otto Muehl, ACTIONISM Material Action Nr. 14 Cosinus Alpha

I once witnessed visceral substitution in action during a group dinner in a French restaurant. A whole cooked fish was placed in the center of the table and my friend plucked the black olive out of the eye socket and popped it into his mouth. Nearly all the guests gasped in disgust. They weren’t disturbed that he had eaten an olive, but that he had seemingly eaten a fish eye. For a split second, the eye and the olive were indistinguishable.

Primal human responses to symbols of the body, sex, and death are central to the works of both Kren and the Viennese Actionists. The film, Mama and Papa captures footage from another Muehl action. This work is more sexually charged with flashes of a female torso being covered in red sauce, milk, and flour, intercut with among other things, images of a hand cutting into boiled eggs, a couple kissing, and what appears to be a man urinating. The images repeat like bad memories moving between recognizable imagery and abstract piles of goo. The speed of the cuts mimics the rhythm of sex and near the end of the film, a couple enacts the movements of intercourse as they violently move to pop a large balloon that is trapped between them. The tension rises until the frenetic gyrations cause the balloon to burst and release a cloud of feathers. 

One can see the legacy of Kren and the Actionists in the performances of the Kipper Kids and Paul McCarthy, as well Cindy Sherman’s untitled “vomit pictures”. McCarthy engages with disgust through Actionist strategies, as he smears his naked body with mayonnaise and ketchup. His flesh becomes the site of perverse ritual and bodily degradation. The body is absent from Sherman’s vomit-scapes, and instead we are left with the disembodied debris of gluttony and excess. 

Cindy Sherman, Untitled #175, 1987

The works of Kren and the Viennese Actionists retain their power to disturb and shock because they tap into our primitive knowledge about the fragile boundaries of the body. In sex and in death, there is always the threat of loosing corporeal integrity through dissolution or consumption.

...Eroticism always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns, I repeat, of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals... The stirrings within us have their own fearful excesses; the excesses show which way these stirrings would take us. They are simply a sign to remind us constantly that death, the rupture of the discontinuous individualities to which we cleave in terror, stands there before us more real than life itself.

Georges Bataille, Death and Sensuality, 1957

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Dancing the News

With News Animations, Simone Forti uses her body and language to relay episodic impressions of the contemporary world; what she calls “dancing the news”.

I can more easily access the raw store of fragmentary thoughts, feelings, and speculations out of which I build my understanding of the world. A News Animation performance involves improvising with movement and spoken language, taking off from the fluid, flickering, dream like image of the world brought to us by the news media. Moving and speaking at once, gives voice to the place between thoughts and muscular or visceral sensations, between verbal syntax and the body's syntax of sudden moves, hesitations, slumps and changes of facing. It reveals a process which is usually very private.

Forti began constructing the News Animations in 1986, through an improvisational process of generating drawn and written responses to the daily news. She is a gleaner, a collector of both transitory events and cultural markers.

Simone Forti, News Animations, Graphite on paper. 
Courtesy the artist. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Forti collaborated with Terrance Luke Johnson and Brennan Gerard to present her most recent iteration of News Animations at Barnsdall Gallery Theater in conjunction with the Made in LA exhibition. Forti entered the space as her two male collaborators sat as observers on either side of the stage. She began speaking about the discovery of the oldest constellation as she extended her arms above and then down to the ground. Forti laid on the ground and spoke about loan bundles and the historic roots of usury, the practice of making loans with abusive interest rates. She moved between language and movement like a woman having an interior dialogue, she was thinking through movement.

Simone Forti, News Animations (solo), LA><ART, June 12, 2012

In the next section of the work, Terrance Luke Johnson unpacks books from a canvas bag as he speaks of the Weimar Republic, Carl Schmidt, and the fragility of American Democracy. He steps upon his books to cross the space, reminding us of the book’s physicality in opposition to the e-reader he holds in his hands. Like a scattered professor, he pronounces disjointed fragments of knowledge while moving books around on the ground. This passage concludes with Johnson carrying an unwieldy stack of books on his forearms as he discusses the embarrassment of carrying one’s book “like a girl”.

Brennan Gerard emerges from his seated position bantering about bundles and loans as he fluidly echoes the gestures Forti made earlier in the work. He talks about the Style section of the paper, and Bloomberg’s daughter and usury. He falls to the floor and says “oops” as he references the falling financial market. At this point Johnson enters the space and the two men move around each other like rotating planets, carrying books upon their forearms and discussing the objecthood of the book.

The final section of the performance begins with a tender and playful duet between Forti and Gerard as she wrestle-holds him to the ground before pushing him forward in an act of birthing. All three performers began to move about the stage at a frenetic pace, as they vocalize references to Occupy Wall Street through personal narrative and exclamations like “bang” and “wack”. The performers turn around one another waving sheets of newspaper like fluttering birds. A body is covered in the paper, reminiscent of a child's fort or a made-shift homeless shelter. Forti rips the newspaper into strips as she tells a story about her Italian grandmother using newspaper as toilet paper back in the old days.

There is a kind of democracy in Forti’s work that deemphasizes the age and gender of the performers; they are all equal citizens sharing a communal space. However, her final narrative reminds us of the temporal nature of the News Animations and of the generational diversity of the group. Forti and Johnson, both in their seventies, have different histories than the young Gerard and it refreshing to witness a movement dialogue between bodies at various points in their lives. Forti has been performing the work for over twenty years, so it is interesting to consider how the work shifts in response to both current events, and her growing personal history.

Ephemera from Forti’s work, including writing and drawing, is on view at the Los Angeles Municipal Gallery, Barnsdall Park as part of the Made in LA exhibition through September 2. She will perform News Animations at the Hammer Museum on August 16 and again at the Barnsdall Gallery Theater on August 30.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Regina José Galindo: Vulnerable

An imposing man violently grasps a petite woman. He holds her by the back of her hair and unleashes a series of threats. He tells her she is helpless, powerless, that he could take off her clothes and attack her, torture her if he wanted. She remains mute and immobile, as the man takes a needle and pushes into the delicate skin of her face.

While the above may sound like the recollection of an assault, it is a description of the video documentation of Guatemalan artist Regina José Galindo’s 2009 performance Games of Power currently on view at the Museum of Latin American Art. In this performance, Galindo is hypnotized by an overbearing man who repeatedly humiliates and threatens her. At one point he pushes her to the ground and makes her drag her body along the floor in pursuit of the water he keeps just out of reach. It is painful to watch the the obvious imbalance of power and the heedless exploitation of Galindo’s vulnerable state. 

The manipulation of women under the influence of hypnotism is nothing new and was a frequent folly among the doctors who treated hysteric patients in the late nineteenth century. In her book Medical Muses Asti Hustvedt describes multiple instances of physicians who instructed their anesthetized patients to enact humiliating, erotic, and sometimes criminal actions. These women’s bodies became the site of violence at the hands of the men who were entrusted with their care.

Himenoplastia, still from video document, 2004

The distressing notion that the doctor may harm instead of heal is present in Galindo’s horrific video Himenoplastia (this work is not included in the MOLAA show). The work presents graphic up-close documentation of the artist’s botched hymen reconstruction surgery. In a 2006 interview with BOMB, Galindo discusses the cultural and political significance of the operation:
The majority of the patients want to regain their intactness for their wedding. They do it to gain a certain social status. In other cases, children and adolescent victims of sex trafficking are operated on so that they will fetch a better price. It is preferable to buy a virgin girl not only because of her virginity but also because it is considered better protection against STDs.
Galindo places her own flesh under the surgeon’s knife to suffer a literal and metaphoric violation of the body, not unlike the invasive performances of Orlan.

The endangerment of Galindo’s body is a constant theme through out the exhibit currently on view in MOLAA’s Project Room. The centerpiece of the show is the new work Third World. Galindo performed the work for the exhibition opening and a video remains along side the plywood platform where the work was enacted. In this performance, Galindo stood still, facing forward on the stage as a workman hand-sawed through the floor around her. Like witnesses to a perverse disappearing act, the audience waits and watches until the floor releases and Galindo drops beneath the stage.

Images from performance Third World, 2012

The audience is even more directly implicated in Breaking the Iceperformed in Norway in 2009. In a reversal of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Galindo sits naked in an extremely cold room with clothes laid out on the floor in front of her. She waits in the frigid space, surrounded by viewers who are bundled up in heavy parkas and woolen layers. At least fifteen minutes go by before a woman steps up to wrap Galindo’s neck and body in a long knitted scarf. Viewers slowly move forward to dress the artist in socks, a hat, panties, a bra, and gloves. Next, a man emerges from the audience and strips Galindo down to socks and panties, leaving her like a model in one of those salacious American Apparel ads. At this point two women come forward and purposefully clothe Galindo, like mothers dressing a helpless child.

Breaking the Ice, still from video document, 2008

While Galindo’s work is a reaction to conditions in her homeland, the work speaks to the universal dangers of the abuse of power, especially in concern to women. A single wall of the exhibit lines up three performances which all suggest a distinct threat to female agency. The first, We don't lose Anything by being born (2000) shows Galindo’s naked body encased in a plastic bag lying in a field of trash at the city dump like a discarded fetus. On the next monitor she sits silently in the cold room, waiting for someone to offer her warmth and comfort. In the final image Galindo’s aggressor throws her to the ground and leaves her face down, abandoned like a sullied victim after a sexual assault. Galindo is a fearless artist who uses her own flesh to paint disturbing images of the violence that threaten women in Guatemala and all over the globe.

We don't lose Anything by being born, still from video document, 2000

Again from the 2006 BOMB interview:
There are many theories for why so many women are killed in Guatemala. Not all deaths originate from the same direct causes, but all murders are committed under the same premise: that it is done, it is cleaned up, and nothing happens, nothing occurs, nobody says a thing. A dead woman means nothing, a hundred dead women mean nothing, three hundred dead women mean nothing. The difference between Ciudad Juárez and Guatemala is that in Guatemala women are not only killed, but first they are subjected to horrible forms of torture, cut into little pieces and decapitated. I saw the hacked-up legs of a woman near my home one day, and nobody paid any attention to them at all.
 I cannot separate myself from what happens. It scares me, it enrages me, it hurts me, it depresses me. When I do what I do, I don’t try to approach my own pain as a means of seeing myself and curing myself from that vantage; in every action I try to channel my own pain, my own energy, to transform it into something more collective.
Regina José Galindo: Vulnerable is on view at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach until September 30, 2012

Friday, July 13, 2012

Yayoi in Wonderland

One day after gazing at a pattern of red flowers on the tablecloth, I looked up to see that the ceiling, the windows, and the columns seemed to be plastered with the same red floral pattern. I saw the entire room, my entire body, and the entire universe covered with red flowers, and in that instant my soul was obliterated and I was restored, returned to infinity, to eternal time and absolute space.

Yayoi Kusama,The Anatomic Explosion Happening, Central Park, NY,1969

In the manifesto for a 1960s Central Park Happening, Yayoi Kusama called herself “the Modern Alice in Wonderland.” Like Alice, she possesses a vivid and unruly imagination, and at age eighty-three continues to make bold and compelling works in a wide range of media. Even through the shifting cycles of the art world, she has never strayed from the purity of her own vision. For Kusama, art is a creed and in Infinity Net, the Autobiography of Yayoi Kusama, she discusses her life and undying commitment to her art practice.

Kusama is best known for her polka dot and netted surfaces inspired by the hallucinations that began in her childhood. Kusama sees her work as a kind of therapy, a process through which to face and conquer her phobias. She enacts a gesture she calls self-obliteration as a form of liberation:

White nets enveloping the black dots of silent death against a pitch-dark background of nothingness. By the time the canvas reached 33ft it had transcended its nature as canvas to fill up the entire room. This was my ‘epic’ summing up all that I was. And the spell of the dots and the mesh enfolded me in a magical curtain of mysterious invisible power.

Kusama grew up in a well-to-do Japanese family with a cruel, oppressive mother and a philandering father. She attributes her mental disturbances in part to the stresses of her dysfunctional family. Kusama’s mother discouraged her daughter’s art making so vehemently that she even destroyed all of Yayoi’s materials. She wanted her daughter to be a proper Japanese girl with the simple goal of marriage. Kusama did not bow to her mother’s wishes and instead threw herself fully into her creative pursuits.

In 1957, at age twenty-seven, Kusama left her home in Matsumoto and made her way to New York after a stop to exhibit her work in Seattle. Even though her time in Japan offered little exposure to the art world, she was savvy enough to know she needed to get to New York to be taken seriously as an artist. She describes years of living hand-to-mouth, sustained only by her nearly uninterrupted studio sessions. In the fall of 1959, her hard work paid off with her first solo New York exhibit.

Kusama in her New York studio, c.1961 Image courtesy:Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo / © Yayoi Kusama

Kusama became a player in the NY art scene and crossed paths with many art stars of the sixties, including Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenberg, and Donald Judd who became a champion of her work. She had a ten-year relationship with Joseph Cornell who showered her with love letters and incessant phone calls. Kusama describes Cornell as a devout, poorly dressed misanthrope who lived with his eccentric and overbearing mother. Kusama and Cornell shared many nude-drawing sessions, but never consummated their relationship. Evidently, Cornell had sexual issues stemming from his mother’s frequent lectures about the dangers of “filthy women”.

Kusama had her own problems about sex. She was terrified of penetration and horrified by even the thought of a penis. Her phobia inspired the obsessive creation of phallic soft sculptures that grew to room-sized accumulations.
I began making penises in order to heal my feelings of disgust towards sex. Reproducing the objects again and again, was my way of conquering the fear. It was a kind of self-therapy, to which I gave the name ‘Psychosomatic art’.

Yayoi Kusama, Compulsion-Furniture, Accumulation, 1964

Later, Kusama became well known for her provocative nude Happenings that promoted sexual liberation. The media often blurred the line between Kusama and her work to portray her as a mysterious free-spirited personality. Kusama had no interest in sex and said her band of performers called her ‘Sister’ because to them “I was like a nun – but neither male or female. I am a person who has no sex.”

Kusama managed to pursue her work with an entrepreneurial zest despite her bouts of mental illness. In the mid to late 60s, she managed and produced a series Happenings around the globe. She used her studio to present the participatory body-painting project, the Nude Studio, the KOK social club and the Orgy Company also known as the Kusama Sex Company. All of these ventures aimed at sexual liberation through communal experience.

Kusama designed clothes for her Nude Fashion Company with the aim of bringing people together, literally with the Couple’s Dress, a sleeping-bag-like garb to be worn by two people at once. She also designed the Party Dress that featured cut out holes at the breasts and genitals to facilitate easy access for love-making. Kusama also made films, wrote poetry and fiction, and for a time published a newspaper called Kusama Orgy.

Kusama Presents an Orgy of Nudity, Love, Sex & Beauty Vol. 1, #2

While Kusama enjoyed noteriety though out the international art scene, Japan was not always wiling to embrace her wayward daughter. The Japanese media portrayed her as shameful exhibitionist and her family was mortified by all the bad press. In a letter, her mother wrote:
The fact that you have become a national disgrace is an insult to our ancestors, Yayoi, and I’ve just returned from the cemetery, where I went once again today to ask for their forgiveness. If only you had died of that bad throat infection you came down with as a child…
Even without the support and encouragement of her family, Kusama spent sixteen incredibly productive years working in New York. In the early 70s, her struggles with health issues became overwhelming and in 1973 she returned to the quieter life of Japan. In 1977 she voluntarily admitted herself to a psychiatric hospital where she still lives today. She constructed a studio across the street from the hospital where she works daily. In the years since her return to Japan she has mounted exhibitions around the world including the Venice Biennale in 1993, countless museum exhibits and her recent retrospective at the Tate that moves to the Whitney this week. As always, Kusama continues to grow her enterprise into new realms. Penguin recently published her illustrated edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and just this week, Louis Vuitton unveiled a fashion collaboration with the artist.

For Kusuma, the highest goal is total freedom in art and life and we can be assured that she will continue to tread steadily upon her innovative path.
I have been painting, sculpting, and writing for as long as I can remember. But to tell the truth, to this day I do not feel that I have ‘made it’ as an artist. All of my works are steps on my journey, a struggle for truth that I have waged with pen, canvas, and materials. Overhead is a distant, radiant star, and the more I stretch to reach it, the further it recedes.