Thursday, August 31, 2006

A Pilgrimage Through the Balkans, Looking for Dots to Connect NYTimes

A guard approached a vehicle on the border of Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Something was slightly suspicious. He asked the occupants to get out. A Catalan wearing a multicolored beanie, a Korean-American with longish hair and a camera hanging from his neck, a blonde from Finland and a Serbian girl with a yellow towel wrapped around her waist emerged from the small Volkswagen. The occupants of the three cars behind them — four Americans, a Slovenian, two Serbs, a Dutchwoman, a Spaniard and an Australian — started laughing at the improbable sight. Pretty soon the guard was laughing, too.

“We have here a Chinese, a Tunisian and a Serb,” he said. “And behind us is what, a Palestinian?”

The small caravan — along with a half-dozen other equally eccentric assemblages — was on the last leg of the Lost Highway Expedition through the western Balkans, a collective pilgrimage of local and international artists, architects, sociologists, art historians, curators and Web site producers that ended here on Thursday with a ceremonial finale.

The journey roughly traced the route of the Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, a Yugoslav state-building project begun in 1948 and intended to connect the federation’s capitals. The highway was never completed, and various improvisational pathways are used to travel between the now-independent nations. Taking this discontinuity as its cue, the expedition has plunged into the complex region looking for signs of an emerging common identity in the informal, ad hoc architectural forms that have sprung up in the years since Yugoslavia began breaking up, in 1991.

“So far, Balkanization was always considered as a negative term, and very often was used as metaphor,” said Srdjan Jovanovic Weiss, a New York-based architect who helped organize the expedition. “But our aim is to look for positive aspects of Balkanization. Our journey here is in a way a search for a Balkans that is beyond metaphor.”

The project was conceived by Kyong Park, a founder of the Storefront for Art and Architecture in Manhattan, and Marjetica Potrc, a Slovenian artist-architect who creates installations about illegally built housing.

“The architectural landscape of these cities was quite interesting to us,” Mr. Park said, recalling a trip the two made a year and a half ago. “We felt that there were tremendous changes taking place since the breakup of Yugoslavia, and we also noticed an emerging cultural scene — the beginning of a new kind of a network developing between these cities. We met with very interesting intellectuals from different fields — artists, architects — and somewhere in Skopje, we said, ‘You know, it would be great to do a project together with these people.’ ”

After discussing the idea with colleagues in New York, Rotterdam, Belgrade and Sarajevo, they began establishing a network of artists and architects in the region. They made arrangements to link up with cultural spaces in the various cities: the Skuc Gallery in Ljubljana, Slovenia; Galerija Nova in Zagreb, Croatia; the Rex cultural center in Belgrade, Serbia; the Press to Exit project space in Skopje, Macedonia; and, a group that is converting a handball court in Novi Sad, Serbia, into a new-media center.

Eventually the group set up a Web site,, to attract others. Some 300 participants from across Europe, the United States, the former Yugoslavia and Albania have joined the journey since its beginning in Ljubljana on July 30. They have passed through Zagreb; Novi Sad; Belgrade; Pristina, in Kosovo; Skopje; Tirana, Albania; and Podgorica, Montenegro, on their way to Sarajevo.

The caravan at the Bosnian border had just navigated dangerous, twisting roads through the stunning mountains of Montenegro from Podgorica, where impromptu presentations by local preservationists, architecture students and artists had been organized at the Karver bookstore, a cultural center named after the author Raymond Carver and installed in an Ottoman bathhouse by the Ribnica River.

Two years ago, the municipal government lopped off the top of the bathhouse to build a bridge over the river but preserved the structure beneath, and three Montenegrin artists turned the ground floor into a bookstore. It was a characteristic site for the expedition, a hybrid of modern engineering and historic monument that unexpectedly produced an independent cultural zone.

“In this bookstore we have books from Croatia, Bosnia, Albania, Serbia,” said Varja Djukic Popovic, an actress who is a founder of the bookstore and is one of the main forces behind the bathhouse renovation project. Read the article NYTimes

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art (NYTimes)

The title of the show is “Holocaust International Cartoon Contest,” or “Holocust,” as the show’s organizers spell the word in promotional material. But the content has little to do with the events of World War II and Nazi Germany.
There is instead a drawing of a Jew with a very large nose, a nose so large it obscures his entire head. Across his chest is the word Holocaust. Another drawing shows a vampire wearing a big Star of David drinking the blood of Palestinians. A third shows Ariel Sharon dressed in a Nazi uniform, emblazoned not with swastikas but with the Star of David.

The cartoons are among more than 200 on display in the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum in central Tehran in a show that opened this month and is to run until the middle of September.

The exhibition is intended to expose what some here see as Western hypocrisy for invoking freedom of expression regarding the publication of cartoons that lampooned the Prophet Muhammad while condemning President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran for questioning the Holocaust.

The cartoons of Muhammad, first published in September 2005 in a Danish newspaper, were widely condemned by Muslims as blasphemous. They prompted riots in many countries, which left some people dead and several European embassies burned by demonstrators.

The cartoons in the exhibit draw on images both ancient and contemporary, from the fictional “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” to Israeli tanks running over Palestinian children. Each picture is carefully matted and placed in a soft wood frame, hung with great care and illuminated by gentle lighting.

“It is not that we are against a specific religion,” said the show’s curator, Seyed Massoud Shojaei, making a distinction that visitors to the show are certain to question. “We are against repression by the Israelis.” Read the whole article NYTimes.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

A Most Public Artist Polishes a New York Image NYTimes

WALKING around the cluster of warehouses in South London where the sculptor Anish Kapoor works, it’s easy to forget that they are an artist’s studio and not the planning division of a multinational corporation. In one room there’s a maquette for a Naples subway entrance, which resembles a massive mock-turtleneck collar made of Cor-Ten steel. Nearby sit sculptures and models of projects planned for Rio de Janeiro, Milan, Munich, rural New Zealand and a handful of other far-flung locations.

One recent steamy morning, dressed in modified work garb — an old polo shirt, paint-smudged shorts, black socks and black dress shoes — Mr. Kapoor emerged energetically from his office to show off a drawing of yet another ambitious project, a sprawling outdoor sculpture, final destination still undetermined, that he described cheerfully as “two huge holes in a field connected by a kind of colostomy bag.”

At 52, Mr. Kapoor has become such a star on the public art circuit that many nations might compete for the privilege of having him embed a giant intestinal prosthetic somewhere in their countryside. “Cloud Gate,” the 125-ton stainless steel mirrored blob he unveiled last year in Millennium Park in Chicago, has been embraced — despite a cost overrun of more than $10 million — with near-rapture by Chicagoans, who flock to see their skyline in its polished surface and have affectionately nicknamed it the Bean. (“Let’s be frank,” The Chicago Tribune wrote recently, “the Bean is hot.”)

But Mr. Kapoor has never had a public-art presence in New York, despite his following and his longtime representation by the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea. “Over the years,” he said, “there have been many opportunities to do things in the city that, for whatever reason, just haven’t worked out.”

That is about to change. Next month he will join a procession of artists that has included Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois and Nam June Paik, to be enshrined in the city’s center stage for public art, Rockefeller Center. “Sky Mirror,” Mr. Kapoor’s dish of highly reflective stainless steel almost three stories tall, is being welded and polished in Oakland, Calif.; it will make its way by truck across the country and be on view from Sept. 19 to Oct. 27. Its concave side will face 30 Rockefeller Plaza and invert the skyscraper in its reflection.

Sometime next year another work, this one permanent, will be installed at Hanover Square in Lower Manhattan, the site of the British Memorial Garden now being built to honor the 67 Britons who died in the Sept. 11 attacks. The sculpture, which was selected in a juried competition, is a 20-foot-tall funereal block of black granite into which a vertical opening, again highly polished, will be carved. The chamber will reflect light in such a way to create the illusion of a column floating in the void of the stone, with a flamelike apparition hovering inside the column.

Both works are extensions of Mr. Kapoor’s almost career-long interest in sculptural incorporeality. Borrowing ideas from Minimalist and post-Minimalist predecessors like Donald Judd, Bruce Nauman and Eva Hesse but using deep matte colors, reflectiveness and other illusions, he makes boundaries seem to disappear with an effect that is often overtly sensual and spiritual. Mr. Kapoor, who first rose to prominence in the mid-1980’s and won the Turner Prize in Britain in 1991, calls them nonobjects.

HIS obsession with the paradoxes of this kind of work can seem at times almost schoolboyish. In his studio he showed off a model of “Sky Mirror” about the size of a large round conference table that had been made when an earlier, smaller version of the sculpture was installed five years ago in Nottingham, England. The model was dust coated and crammed in a corner of the studio, but Mr. Kapoor threaded his way through scraps of other sculptures and demonstrated how, looking at the concave side of the mirror, it appears as if there is a solid surface plane where there is none, only air and illusion. Read the whole article in the NYTimes.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Hot Spot Berlin Belinda Grace Gardner Artnet

Germany’s capital has become the epicenter of the international art scene.

These days, when passing through Berlin’s vibrantly exciting ‘Mitte’ district, one keeps bumping into well-known artists at every corner, who in the past years have been flocking from all over the place into the vital, refurbished center in the east of the city, literally taking up residence there in crowds. Berlin, particularly the hip vicinities around Oranienburger Straße and Auguststraße (the latter being the site of the prestigious contemporary art institution KW as well as having hosted the main venue of this year’s Berlin Biennale) or Prenzlauer Berg and adjoining Friedrichshain as favored dwelling areas, has unquestionably become a, if not the hot spot of the art world.

Formerly New York-based South African artist Candice Breitz is a good case in point: following the first wave of artists flowing into the German capital in increasing numbers since the late 1990’s, Breitz appeared on the Berlin scene a few years ago, and has settled into a flat she recently purchased, choosing the city as a steady, long-term ramp from which to launch her international projects.

One of the reasons Breitz ventured from New York to Berlin in the first place was the fact that all of her artist friends seemed to either be there already or on the brink of moving there. Other reasons why Berlin has become a haven especially for younger artists include the – compared to other metropolises such as New York or London - relatively moderate living expenses. Studio spaces are generally much cheaper than elsewhere and also easier to come by. You can get an excellent meal in one of the countless bistros and restaurants or frequent the ultra-cool bars sprouting up all over Berlin-Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg for a few euros.

And, despite the pulsating, fun, and highly charged creative atmosphere characteristic of the new Berlin, artists enjoy the particular laid-back quality they find here as well: the relaxed, cozy, cooperative mood encountered in a city that is notoriously broke (which also applies to a larger part of the population), where people are used to helping one another out, networking in imaginative ways, and coming up with unconventional and innovative ideas in the process.

Moreover, in the meantime, the city is teeming with galleries, which in the wake of the influx of artists have moved their businesses to Berlin completely, or at least have opened a branch here, while major German collectors such as Wilhelm Schürmann or Axel Haubrok have also become residents of the still vehemently up-and-coming metropolis, marking yet another clientèle drawn by Berlin’s development into a pivotal site of artistic presence and production.

The cultural boom that has seized Berlin is still in full swing, recalling the city’s golden age in the second half of the 1920’s, when tout le monde came streaming in, the Potsdamer Platz - today once again a hub of lively activity - was Europe’s busiest traffic junction, and almost 150 daily newspapers were in circulation. It is also reminiscent of the expressively gestural and vividly colorful era of the Young Wilds which culminated in the legendary Zeitgeist show at the Berlin Martin-Gropius-Bau in 1982.

Sharing an affinity to punk rock, a vigorous brush stroke, and figurative style, the Young Wilds, with painter Rainer Fetting as a prominent protagonist, initiated, among other things, the artist-organized space Galerie am Moritzplatz and basically turned the West-Berlin district of Kreuzberg situated in the shadow of the Wall into a subcultural sphere of attraction.

And yet the Young Wilds group was more limited in scope than today’s globally active artist generation in that it was generated by local artists who in their large-format neo-expressionist work concentrated on subject-matter related to the specific Berlin experience, which at that time entailed living in a divided city in a kind of isolated hothouse, where creative energies ran high, albeit with the risk of imploding or at least of revolving around themselves in a vicious circle. Also, in contrast to the present open community with its flow of artists coming from outside, the highest aim for Berlin-based artists then was to land a major success overseas in New York, which Fetting, for one, managed to do in the 1980’s, setting up a studio in Manhattan.

Indeed, the current Berlin art scene is a whole lot more complex, mobile, and more genre- and boundary-transcending than its precursor of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s. Just how energetically heterogeneous and vital it is can now be gleaned from the extensive exhibition ANSTOSS BERLIN – Kunst macht Welt (roughly meaning: ‘Kickoff Berlin – Art Creates World‘) staged at the Haus am Waldsee on the occasion of the renowned Berlin art institution’s 60 th anniversary. The exhibition at the Haus am Waldsee, which incidentally also featured the ground-breaking show of the New Wilds’ Heftige Malerei in early 1980, encompasses works created by 61 leading artists from 21 nations, who have all chosen Berlin as their home base.

With her abundant selection of works ranging from scupture to painting and from video pieces to installations, Katja Blomberg, since 2004 Artistic Director of the Haus am Waldsee, not only wishes to present a “snapshot” of the city’s prolific art scene and of the “global players” who are “enjoying the city as a mental research lab.” Her objective is to create an exhibition space dedicated specifically to international artists operating in Berlin, thus linking onto the exhibition site’s long-standing tradition in showing contemporary art “on the highest artistic level,” and establishing a field of discussion, interaction, and reflection of Berlin’s artist community on a wide scale.

On the one hand, ANSTOSSBERLIN may be viewed as exemplary for future activities at the Haus am Waldsee, which – with an interior exhibition area extending over 400 and a park-like exterior realm extending over 10,000 square meters - yields ample space for group and in-depth solo presentations. Apart from Candice Breitz, among the over sixty protagonists included in the anniversary exhibition we encounter artists as varied as Tacita Dean, Jonathan Monk, Olafur Eliasson, Björn Dahlem, Gerwald Rockenschaub, Mona Hatoum, Angela Bulloch, Ayse Erkmen, Manfred Pernice, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Via Lewandowsky, Takehito Koganezawa, Asta Gröting, and Katharina Grosse, to name just a few - all of these contributing to Berlin’s status as a vivacious stronghold of art, while “acting as entrepreneurs worldwide,” as Blomberg remarks. On the other hand, the show throws a spotlight on the significance of Berlin as an epicenter of international artistic action: unquestionably Europe’s most dynamic and thrilling at this particular point in time, with the promise of further expansion in this direction for quite a stretch into the future. Artnet

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Julio Galán, 46, Mexican Painter of a Personal, Dreamlike World, Dies NYTimes

Julio Galán, a provocative Neo-Expressionist Mexican painter, died on Aug. 4 en route back to his home in Monterrey, Mexico. He was 46.
Mr. Galán suffered a brain hemorrhage while staying in Zacatecas, in central Mexico, and died on the plane that was taking him back to Monterrey, said a spokeswoman for the Galería Ramis Barquet, which worked with the artist over the years in both Monterrey and New York.

A precocious talent with a prickly, flamboyant personality, Mr. Galán began showing in Monterrey at age 20. In the late 1980’s and 90’s, he was Mexico’s best-known young artist.

Mr. Galan was in effect a second generation Neo-Expressionist. He came to New York in 1984, in the heyday of this polymorphous painting style, whose freewheeling strategies of collage, fragmentation, cultural borrowing and dreamlike suspension were formulated by David Salle, Julian Schnabel and Francesco Clemente, who were influenced by Sigmar Polke. Mr. Galán, already strongly influenced by the self-scrutiny of Frida Kahlo, filtered Neo-Expressionism’s lessons through a personality and cultural heritage as polymorphous as the style.

Throughout an astoundingly varied, often uneven range of images, he laced references to his childhood and his sexual identity with allusions to Catholicism, the Mexican Baroque, pre-Columbian cultures, retablos and folk art. The result was a kind of postmodern Symbolism: overripe, often perverse, yet mesmerizing.

Mr. Galán’s works often had the heat of colorful circus murals that had been defaced by a very sophisticated vandal. Their torturous dreamlike settings tended to be haunted by a handsome young man or boy-child who strongly resembled the artist. Mr. Galán underscored this preoccupation by frequently having himself photographed in different roles, for example as Jesus wearing the crown of thorns, or as sensitive bohemians, Mexican Indians and women in black gowns or veils. Although he never exhibited these self-portraits as his art, they were invariably used in his exhibition catalogs to inflammatory effect: it was like Salvador Dalí channeling Cindy Sherman.

Mr. Galán was born in 1959 to a wealthy family in Muzquiz, Coahuila, in northern Mexico, and grew up in Monterrey, attending private schools. He began to paint while studying architecture at the University of Monterrey and received encouragement from the Monterrey art dealer Guillermo Sepúlveda. He had his first exhibition at Mr. Sepúlveda’s gallery in 1980.

In 1985, Mr. Galán made his gallery debut at the Art Mart Gallery in the East Village and began to exhibit widely in Europe. In New York, he also exhibited at Anina Nosei, Ramis Barquet and Robert Miller, where he had his last solo show in 2001; he was included in the 1995 Whitney Biennial. A survey of his work was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Monterrey in 1994.

Mr. Galán is survived by two sisters, Elizabeth Galán and Sofía Galán, and two brothers, Alfonso Galán and Gerardo Galán. NYTIMES

Sunday, August 13, 2006

´The body beautiful´ Craig Raine The Guardian

The story so far. In 1997, at the Royal Academy, the sensation of Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection is neither Damien Hirst's increasingly dowdy, dilapidated, dog-eared shark, nor the homeopathically talented Tracey Emin, whose empty appliquéd tent is an exact objective correlative of her camp conceptualism. Nor is it yet Marcus Harvey's cool, ironic but cynically hyped portrait of Myra Hindley, whose compositional method is denounced by the tabloids - because the face is an agglomeration of childish handprints. Nor is the sensation of Sensation the Jake and Dinos Chapman 1995 fibreglass frieze of girls - naked, prepubescent, wearing only trainers, but sporting several penile noses and open, anal mouths.

Among this clamorous, attention-seeking art there is good work - by Jenny Saville, Rachel Whiteread, and the photographer Richard Billingham. And there, on the floor, 3ft long, is one indisputable, obvious masterpiece - a single work, the understated Dead Dad by Ron Mueck, the Australian son-in-law of Paula Rego - a calmly brilliant sculpture which is the contemporary equivalent of, say, Holbein's subtle portrait of Erasmus, with its engaged intelligence and wryly amused thin mouth.

The greatness of Dead Dad is oxymoronic: its very completeness also tells us something is missing. The sculpture dispassionately records every delicate and indelicate bodily detail - detail that is alive with accuracy. Nothing is missing. Tendons, toenails, the direction of dark hair on the calves, the hazy pubes a little stationary mirage, the tidy greying hair, the polished, modest, uncircumcised cosh of the penis at four o'clock, which echoes the thumbs across the open, upturned palms.

And yet this body is unmistakably dead. It is laid out - the opposite of foetal. We are not in the presence of sleep. The eyes have it - significantly pink, fatally, infinitesimally sunken. And the helpless hands have irretrievably lost it.

Everything is there still, but stilled, and something central has gone. The reduction in scale somehow suggests this loss. The body is lesser than life - for some, lighter by 21 grams, the weight of the soul: the alleged difference in body weight before and after death.

I talked to Ron Mueck in October 2000, when he was artist in residence at the National Gallery, and we discussed Dead Dad. He was worried about sentimentality: "I didn't really get on with my father but, as I made the piece, I found myself thinking about him, caring." The carefulness of his creation is cognate with care in the broader sense. In fact, sentimentality is nowhere in sight. Though there is sentiment - a completely other thing - it is inextricably fused with another perfectly proper, strong human emotion: curiosity.

Mueck also said that in creating Dead Dad he had worked from memory and imagination. Imagination. In the Lucian Freud retrospective at Tate Britain in 2002, no 113, The Painter's Mother Dead 1989, was a drawing done from "life", in the immediate aftermath of death. It records unsparingly the palsied skew death inflicts on the mouth. Karl Kraus said that a portrait was a picture in which the mouth was wrong. In death, all the mouths are wrong. The rictus is an oddly painful, unexpected, ugly fact. The undertaker and about 12 hours restore malleability and undo the damage. You have to be at a deathbed to know this. Mueck wasn't - and so couldn't be expected to know and record this expression of fleeting melodrama. Dead Dad isn't harmed by this omission.

In fact, on balance, the sculpture perhaps benefits - because Mueck's art is characteristically understated. Not for him the swastikas and hypodermics of, say, Bacon's painterly histrionics. His preferred reference work is Professor R D Lockhart's Living Anatomy ("A Photographic Atlas of Muscles in Action and Surface Contours"). This dislike of emotional grand guignol, of grandstanding exhibitionism, is at once typically Australian and classically modernist. Natural taciturnity meets principled artistic restraint. The modernist enquiry into the emotions is predicated on a shared scepticism about the purity and force of what we feel - Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence, Conrad, Camus, all know that we frequently feel less than we are supposed to feel. Or feel it differently. Or adulterated with "inappropriate" feelings. The modernists know, too, that in literature real but unspectacular emotions - like embarrassment, curiosity - are often ousted by super-sized emotional simplifications.

In the new Edinburgh exhibition, there is a piece called Spooning Couple: two tiny figures, a man in a T-shirt and a woman in a pair of knickers, cuddle up to each other like spoons, both facing in the same direction. They are bigger than a pair of spoons, more like Brobdingnagian salad servers. One's initial assumption is of cosiness and affection. There isn't any obvious antagonism of the kind recorded in Paul Muldoon's poem Asra, where a couple "wake before dawn; back to back: duellists".

And yet ... all is not well. They are not as comfortable, as relaxed, as they seem at first. Both sets of eyes are open - without eye contact. They are thinking. In silence. About what? We can only guess. Her unclothed torso is turned away from his clothed torso. His naked lower half is against her knickers. The T-shirt is unironed, its white muted. The knickers are somehow indeterminate - the faded colour purple that results when whites get washed with items which aren't colourfast. Romantic it isn't.

Vladimir Nabokov once asked his protégé, Alfred Appel, how academe was weathering a period of widespread student unrest in the 1960s. Appel reported that things at his university were quiet: a nun had complained that couples were "spooning" at the back of lectures. Nabokov pounced: "You should have told her to thank God they weren't forking."

Mueck's Spooning Couple are definitely not forking. They seem not to be spooning either, in the erotic sense - they resemble kitchen utensils in close proximity, more than they resemble human beings about to make love. Mueck has given us the habit of affection, the pose of cuddling. In Dead Dad, he gave us the mystery of death - of to be and not to be. In Spooning Couple, he has given us another mystery - the precise moment of sexual evaporation. The emotion here is as miniaturised as the figures - mild worry, "How did we get here, if this is where we are?"

Mueck has now created, by my rough calculation, about 35 pieces in nine years. There are no failures. (He spoke in 2000 about the pressure of success: "You have to keep on doing something better. Reviews stop you working for two years.") Only one piece is actual size - a dog: "The only lifesize thing I've ever done." I saw the photograph, not the sculpture: the dog was prognathous, either naturally, or as a display of aggression. It had a tiny, volcanic, red, pointed semi hard-on. The others, whether scaled up or scaled down, are equally painstaking.

And, in every case, the emotion is as accurate as the physical detail. Ghost, an early piece on show at Edinburgh, is a wonderful, unexaggerated sculpture depicting an emotion rarely noted by artists - self-consciousness. A gigantified girl in an unflattering swimming costume arranges herself awkwardly - as if she were a tripod rather than a biped - caught between two states, at once pathologically ordinary and a freakish refugee from Diane Arbus's lurid, unforgiving, prying lens. Her size, the scale, is how she feels about her body. Technically, this cognitive dissonance is called anosognosia - which means not being aware of your condition. She thinks she is the Incredible Hulk. She is only sick with shyness.

Art historians tend to source Mueck's art in the art of the past - particularly since his residence at the National Gallery - either in dialogue or in debt. The absence of originality is seen in some strange way as a guarantee of worth - and a vindication, therefore, of the art historian's role. Hmm. Mueck's sculptures are meticulously "copied", meticulously imagined and meticulously composed - like all the greatest art of the past. They share these demanding fundamentals. But that is all. Take, for instance, Rogier van der Weyden's Deposition in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Two things immediately strike me. The blood from the wound in Christ's side runs down, disappears under his loincloth, and continues down his leg. Imagination. The man holding Christ under his arms has folded back his fur sleeves, so he isn't hampered, or soiled. Imagination. The right sleeve nearest to the viewer is painted so that we can see the open fur at the fold, which is like a wound. That visual echo is deliberate artistry.

Now consider a piece from 1998, Man with Shaved Head. It frequently provokes in critics a "comparison" with the Kritian Boy from the Acropolis (c.480BC). You might equally summon up The Dying Gaul (c.230BC) from the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Neither is properly pertinent. For a start, they both have hair, and it is crucial to Mueck's sculpture that his young man is bald. Why? Because the compositional axis of his sculpture is a parallel - between the circumcised head and shaft of his penis, and the neck and shaved head. Both bulbous paralleled spheres are themselves between two parallels - the cock is between the ankles (he is squatting), the skin-head is between extended arms.

Echoes. Parallels. In Man with Shaved Head, the very idea of parallels is suggested by the man's parallel feet and the parallel arms. Naturally, this is part of Mueck's sculptural stock-in-trade. He spends, he told me, a lot of time staring at his clay models - trying to see them. "If you've been looking at a piece of clay for hours you can't see it." He has invented strategies to counter this blasé blindness: he takes photographs; he looks at the piece in a mirror; he glances over his shoulder. In one case, Big Man (2000), he lost his rag, bashed it on the head, and created a frown from which the sculpture really began. Look for long enough and parallels - natural parallels - will mob the real artist.

For example, the cover of the National Gallery catalogue is a photograph of Mueck's tool board - pliers, pincers, punches, wire-cutters, all suspended from Phillips screws, handles dangling like legs, outlined in crayon on the plywood. There is also an outlined Mueck sculpture of a small baby - its legs an obvious parallel, but an ironic parallel, because its vulnerability also insists on dissimilitude.

Another example, Pregnant Woman (2002), demonstrates lucidly how the face and the body can be mirror images of each other. All portrait painters know - if they are any good - that the face is echoic, a rhyming dictionary. The eyes and the nostrils and the eyebrows are examples of almost competitive mimicry. Raise an eyebrow, arch a nostril - snap. In Matisse's 1914 drawing of Elsa Glaser, the mouth is another eye. In Mueck's Pregnant Woman, this network of parallels is extended to an invisible omnipresence.

First things first. You are overwhelmed by the size of the piece. She is larger than life - 8ft tall. But pregnant women at this stage are larger than life. There is, too, something unbelievable, impossible even, about their anatomy. Mueck reminds us of more familiar truths as well. The woman has monumental legs and feet. We think of women as feminine, delicate, waisted. And they are. But they are also female, sturdy and monumental. Pregnancy reveals the practicality of the pelvis, like the frame of a rucksack.

Then you are overwhelmed by the detail. Amazingly. The danger of scaling things up, of bigging it, is that there isn't enough detail to go round the acres of extra space, of dead space. Her calves and shins are shaved. There are two very inconspicuous spots on her bum - in exactly the right place. The spot on her left buttock is just to the left of her bum crack. The moles are perfect, especially the larger one just above her left armpit.

Then the parallels kick in: the closed rounded eyelids are mini-breasts, the nose a pregnant belly (with a mole placed to echo the bud of the navel). The lips and vagina are an obvious implicit parallel, of course. Her hair parallels her pubic hair - both wonderfully accurate, differentiated textures. Her arms mirror her legs, her hands mirror her feet.

Her look is one of exhausted, weary concentration. Her eyes are closed. The sculpture is a portrait of fatigue. This is typical of these unsentimental sculptures. Mother and Child shows a mother who has just given birth. The baby's colour is deeper, darker, shiny as brawn, say, turned out of a butcher's mould. Its umbilicus vanishes up the vagina. The vagina is echoed by the baby's buttocks and feet, from which the other end of the umbilicus protrudes. The woman's facial expression is neutral, bled of melodrama. Just looking, in Updike's phrase. There is no obvious joy, no tears. She is unsmiling. But the real triumph is the woman's hair - uncombed to exactly the right degree.

I said there were no failures. Perhaps there are - on the studio floor, in the rubbish bins. But I will enter a tiny caveat: some of the larger-than-lifesize masks run the risk of caricature. There are two in the Edinburgh exhibition: one a self-portrait of Mueck sleeping (Mask II, 2001-02), the other a black woman's plump face (Mask III, 2005). Of these two, the self-portrait runs the greatest risk, as did the original frowning self-portrait (Mask, 1997), which Mueck explained away by saying it was how he imagined he appeared to his children. Still, we are dealing with greatness here - no question.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Is the world wide web art's final frontier? Times Online

Some people, I imagine, still hold on to the quaint idea that there is a cutting edge in contemporary art. They think that in some café or college somewhere they will find a bunch of young revolutionaries forging the next chapter in a chronologically neat story of art. If one were to seek out that mythical avant-garde coterie at the moment, a good place to look might be the world wide web. This awesome information technology that we are rapidly taking for granted is an arena that is apparently attracting artists who want to push the boundaries of what art can be. I thought the boundaries in art had all been crossed in the Sixties, or was it a century ago? Maybe I was wrong.

I had a good opportunity to find out more about this virtual world when a friend came to stay at my dacha. He is Charlie Gere, reader in new-media research at the Institute for Cultural Research at Lancaster University, and has recently published a book called Art, Time and Technology (Berg).

I asked him: “Is new-media art, that is art using computers, robotics and the internet, going to be the next big thing?” Answer: “No.”

The web, Charlie says, has the alarming potential of realising the idea of the artist Joseph Beuys, that everyone is an artist. This could spell the end of art as we know it, when everyone becomes a producer and we all drown in a sea of mediocrity made up of billions of minutely-niched microchannels.

Some people may think it is being creative to use a wacky font in a funny colour on their page on MySpace but the most interesting artists are using computers for more than just mastering Photoshop or writing a blog. Charlie thinks a good example of this is Short Films about Flying, by Jon Thomson and Alison Craighead (www.thomson-

Shown as a gallery video installation, it appears to be a series of short videos. They begin and end with a countdown and titles and we assume that they are conventionally recorded and edited. But the content is actually live and random. Our preconceptions about time are being played with. The shots of aircraft landing and taking off are live from a webcam at Boston airport, remotely controlled by random visitors to a website. The text is plucked at random by the computer from a chatroom and the music is sampled live from a radio station. We so want to believe that there is a controlling consciousness that we read significance into chance encounters of text, music and CCTV.

Charlie thinks new-media art is at a similar stage to video when it was in its infancy. In the early days the equipment was crude and video art was ignored by the establishment. In the Sixties the technology was the headline; now we find nothing remarkable in a black cube containing yet another beautifully displayed video projection. We have to remember that when Nam June Paik and others started, the very fact that they used video was seen as radical, as well as a critique of television itself. Now flat screens and projections have made the technology so discreet and tasteful that even the National Gallery stages a show of Bill Viola.

New-media art has similar traits of technological fetishism and also what Charlie calls “heroic marginality”. Software artists such as Alex McLean ( are such hardcore outsiders that their art is in the computer code they write, which is appreciable only by others who can understand that code. Net.artists such as Vuk Cosic ( can be so anti-commodification that they will go to the lengths of sabotaging attempts by organisers of festivals such as Documenta to archive their work by pre-emptively publishing it on the net.

This rebellious stance is understandable when we remember that the whole personal-computer ethos comes out of the West Coast hippie counter-culture. This is still evident in the bohemianism that is allowed to cling to the Apple brand.

What is different from the Sixties is that artists no longer believe in utopian technological progress. Unlike artists such as John Cage and Alan Kaprow who thought they were the future, today’s new-media creatives are questioning and ironic about it.

So are artists at the cutting edge of new-media technology? No, says Charlie. One of the problems is that other stuff on the net is so much more mind-blowing. A site such as Google Earth is so much more awesome and thought-provoking than something an arty hacktivist can knock up on her PC.

Artists such as Susan Collins are trying to find modest meditative ways of humanising the cold stream of zeros and ones. Her piece shows us a webcam view of East Anglia that slowly refreshes the frame over 44 hours. She is using the technology set up to send us a real-time image to give us something very old-fashioned — the experience of contemplating a painting. (

So if art is not at the cutting edge of new-media technology what is? In terms of innovative delivery systems and use of the web, says Charlie, it’s porn.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

In Beirut, Cultural Life Is Another War Casualty NYTimes

The invitations had been sent long ago and the ads paid for and printed. Despite the shells shattering a few miles away, Ghazi Abdel Baki, a Lebanese music producer, was determined not to cancel the release of his label’s latest album at the Virgin Megastore in this city’s former opera house. For him it was also a small act of resistance on the second day of the war.

In the end he didn’t have much choice: the store was shut down after Israeli warships were spotted in the Bay of Beirut. Since then the Internet site of Mr. Abdel Baki’s production company has carried this small notice: “We are not updating our Web site because we are under siege!”

The war in Lebanon is now in its third week, freezing life in mid-flow. A summer season that looked as if it would be highly successful for tourism was suddenly interrupted, as were numerous music festivals, theatrical and movie openings and, because this is Beirut, wild parties. For Lebanon’s burgeoning cultural scene, the conflict has put a stop, at least for the moment, to the patient work begun after the civil war ended in 1990.

Now some movie theaters are opening their doors to refugees, artists are signing manifestoes against the war, commercial stations have turned into 24-hour news channels, and most restaurants and bars are closed. What was supposed to be Beirut’s first break after last year’s traumas — including the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister — has been shattered.

“This was to be a turning point for us after years of hard work,” said Mr. Abdel Baki, 36, whose label produces both 10th-century Andalusian music and modern fusions of bossa nova and Arab rhythms. “But in 24 hours your life is suddenly turned upside down. Even if this stops now, who is going to have the energy and the stamina to produce music, organize a concert or even attend a show?”

Much of what has made Beirut appealing in recent years, at least to adventurous travelers, are the handful of Phoenician, Roman and Crusader ruins in Baalbeck, Sidon and Tyre, a boisterous night life and a naughty reputation. But beyond the ruins and the rowdy image, Lebanon’s artistic expression, after years of neglect, was also blooming.

“The city was thriving,” said Ramsey Short, the British editor in chief of Time Out Beirut, a four-month-old publication that had become an indispensable tool to navigate Beirut’s busy cultural and entertainment scene.

The July issue, with its cover story on Lebanon’s summer festivals and its 114 pages, has become a memento of a time that never happened: all the events and shows have been canceled. The next issue has been postponed until further notice.

“Just like that, it’s all gone,” Mr. Short said. “And I don’t think we’ll return to that world any time soon.”

The war caught most people by surprise. Dozens of festivals, concerts and shows have been canceled, including elaborate months-long programs in Baalbeck; in Beiteddine, south of the capital, where open-air concerts are held in a 19th-century palace in the Chouf mountains; and in Byblos, a coastal town north of Beirut. Ticketholders are being reimbursed. Organizers of Liban Jazz, scheduled for September, are trying to keep that festival alive, perhaps as a charity event in Paris. Along the bombed-out coastal highway in the south between Beirut and Tyre, dozens of fancy resorts are deserted, their once-pristine beaches polluted by an oil slick.

The Baalbeck International Festival, set inside stunning Roman ruins in the middle of the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, was to celebrate its 50th anniversary this year. Organizers had scheduled performances by Lebanon’s national diva, Fairuz; the Ballet Theater of St. Petersburg; and the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Opera of Nice in a joint production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

Thousands of well-to-do Beirutis had bought tickets and were prepared to drive two hours to attend these open-air productions between the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus. Instead, in the town of Baalbeck itself, away from the historic ruins, Israeli Air Force planes have leveled dozens of buildings in recent days. Baalbeck is a stronghold of the militant Shiite group Hezbollah; the Israeli military campaign in Lebanon began after a Hezbollah raid into Israel on July 12.

“I feel stupid because I was so optimistic,” said Carole Ammoun, a 27-year-old actress who had been performing in a local version of Eve Ensler’s “Vagina Monologues,” called here “Hakeh Nesswan,” or “Women’s Talk.” The play, which was originally scheduled for five nights, had been extended for three months straight.

“It was such a compliment to perform in something that was successful and that people enjoyed,” said Ms. Ammoun, a bubbly woman with a large flashing smile. “We broke so many taboos talking about sexuality in an Arab country. There was a real sense that we were opening new doors.”

The performances have been suspended, and Ms. Ammoun said she can’t decide what her real role is today. “I feel frustrated, I feel angry, I feel castrated,” she said. Read the full story.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Artwork on the edge, Mercury News

Silicon Valley will flip the switch on its newest start-up Monday -- a seven-day festival of art and technology. More than 150 artists will use everything from Internet chat rooms to GPS technology in works of art displayed throughout downtown, most of which can be viewed for free as part of ``ZeroOne San Jose: A Global Festival of Art on the Edge.''
Simply put, ZeroOne intends to show how the marriage of technology and art is redefining what we call art. In other words, don't expect ``Whistler's Mother.''
Artwork that integrates cell phone technology or a PDA might strike some as a tad wacky, but innovation has always been a part of the creative practice, festival director Steve Dietz said. For example, a specific shade of blue used by impressionists was invented only 40 years before their movement's heyday. `Branding' San Jose .There's hope that the festival can ``brand'' San Jose as a destination for purveyors and practitioners of art that uses technological innovations as tools. Similar festivals in Europe, such as Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, Austria, have showcased such artwork, but ZeroOne is the only festival of its kind in the United States.`This will transform San Jose into the North American epicenter for the intersection of art and digital culture,'' said Dietz, former curator of new media at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Everyone from artists to members of the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau are fantasizing about ZeroOne's potential to become another summer celebration that brings crowds downtown.
The plan is to turn ZeroOne into a biennial event that showcases the artistic side of technological innovation, said Dan Keegan, executive director of the San Jose Museum of Art.
``What great communities do is they make these sorts of things happen because they add to the full, rich mix of the city experience,'' said Keegan, who was among those who spearheaded the movement to bring ZeroOne to San Jose. Like any start-up, the results of the festival are highly speculative. No one can predict how many people will flock downtown to experience the ``Pigeon Blog,'' which has homing pigeons with GPS-enabled, air-pollution-sensing devices that text-message real-time data to
Other ZeroOne attractions include ``Karaoke Ice,'' where an ice cream truck piloted by a driver in a squirrel suit enlists passersby to make a karaoke recording for future broadcast. Many of the exhibits and activities have online components that also allow spectators to interact with the pieces.
The potential for such a festival is not lost on the corporations and foundations that are covering more than two-thirds of the festival's $2 million cost. San Jose State University contributed $250,000 and the city of San Jose has contributed $190,000 in grants and another $60,000 for artwork tailored for the Mineta San Jose International Airport. `A part of the success of this festival is to draw people downtown and have them perceive it as a creative cultural center,'' said Steven Brewster, economic development officer for the city's office of economic development. ``This is an inaugural event, so it's untested. Based on the numbers of people who have attended other events of this caliber around the world, the city is committed to doing this every two years.''
Adobe Systems, which made one of the largest corporate donations at $250,000, has backed the festival in large part because of ZeroOne's educational elements, said Michelle Mann, senior group manager for corporate affairs and community relations.
``We're also involved because the people that work at Adobe are very creative and, in many ways, involved with this art,'' she said. ``And ZeroOne's so unique and different, and so many community organizations were involved in the planning, so we had confidence that it was really something.''
Cisco Systems also contributed $250,000 in cash and equipment.
The artistic gathering is paired with the International Symposium of Electronic Art, a biennial summit of academics and artists who present papers on art, science and emerging technologies. More than 500 people have registered for the conference that brings together scholars and artists.
Though organizers have said the festival is expected to draw as many as 50,000 people downtown -- the festival Web site generously puts the number at 70,000 -- Dan Fenton, president and CEO of the San Jose Convention and Visitors Bureau, said winning over those who attend ZeroOne is as important as bringing in the masses.
``Our real goal this year is for people to walk away from it saying, `OK, now we get it and we're really supportive of this being part of the future,' '' Fenton said. ``Are we going to see a half a million people? Probably not. But this is something that's going to be special.''