Cow and Violin: Superimposed Opposites

The absurd combination of a cow and a violin portrayed in a realistic manner is characteristic of structural displacements, while the differing scales of the objects portrayed ate inherent in formal displacements. The back of this picture bears an inscription added by Malevich that reads” “the illogical comparison between two forms–‘violin and cow’–as a moment of the struggle against logic, natural order, philistine meaning, and prejudice.”  Malevich’s objects are treated as mere forms devoid of any emotive content to denote that they ate meant to be viewed as concepts instead of being taken at face value.

In Kruchenykh’s opinion, the word korova (cow) is the best rhyme for the word teatr (theatre), their “a” and “o” sounds expressing the beauty of poetry and their threatening consonant “r” closely connecting them and causing them to rhyme. Kruchenykh broke up the utilitarian meanings of these words and found links between their verbal form and sound. His rhyme attacked the Russian theatre, “the bastion of artistic weakness,” in opposition to which, in 1913, the Futurists staged the tragedy Vladimir Mayakovsky, by Mayakovsky himself, together with the Victory over the Sun. In the tragedy, Mayakovsky declared, “I will reveal to you/by words/that are simple, like moo/our new souls, /which hoot, like the arcs of the street lamps.” Kruchenykh compared the Futurist primitive trans-rational “moo-language” to the cultural language of theatre and literature, of, at the social level, peasant values to noble culture, in order to undermine the conventional hierarchy of the concepts of “low” and “high.” Malevich’s picture expresses the same ideas by visually comparing a cow to a violin.

Malevich’s 1907-1908 Symbolist drawing Song for Blue Clouds, which represents a young nude woman playing a violin in a delicate landscape composed of rhythmic lines, displays an affinity between the shape of the nude and that of the violin. This affinity is a traditional artistic motif that has existed since antiquity. Pablo Picasso reinterpreted it in his Cubist paintings, for instance, the 1910 Girl with a Mandolin (New York, Museum of Modern Art). In the Cow and Violin, the nude is substituted by a cow to form a sarcastic analogy between animal and musical instrument. In the previously discussed Perfected Portrait, Malevich manifested, in Kruchenykh’s terms, “today’s virile soul.” In the Cow and Violin, the artist ridiculed the traditional notions of beauty, inspiration, imagination, spirituality, mysticism, and eroticism embodied in female imagery. The Cow and Violin’s anti-feminist connotation probably stemmed from Kruchenykh’s Victory over the Sun. In the opera, the Futurist heroes sing an anti-feminist tune, “We have locked up/The fat beauties in a house” and promise to defeat the sun associated by them with the fatal feminine powers that “give birth to passion.” After the heroes kill the sun, they sing, “We are warmed by the croaked udder of/The red dawn,” meaning that the “croaked udder” has displaced the feminine sun. Kruchenykh recollected that the opera did not use female characters in order “to prepare a masculine epoch that would replace the age of woman-like Apollos.” Kruchenykh’s gibe at the femininity of rationality and the sun god relates to his statement that traditional clear and logical language applies to womanhood. In Malevich’s painting, the feminine violin may hint at Apollo whose ancient Greek kithara was replaced with a violin in Western art tradition, and he is being confronted by the cow, an anti-feminist symbol of transrationalism. Burliuk and Kamensky also utilized the emblematic image of a cow. In 1914, Burliuk painted the animal on his forehead, sporting it during a public speech he made. In the 1914 poem Tango with Cows, Kamensky claimed, “I want to dance, one to one, /Tango with cows, /And to build the bridges/From the bull’s jealousy/To the girl’s tears.”

The fact that a small cow covers a larger violin is also popular in paintings sale, it suggests that the new values of trans-rationalism and primitivism eclipse the old values of rationalism and noble art or academism, as the Cubo-Futurists called previous styles. The new, however, does not defeat the old, and both images continue their contradictory coexistence, similar to the state between darkness and light in The Sketch for the Backdrop of the Second Act of the Opera “Victory over the Sun.” The Cow and Violin’s illogical juxtaposition of objects, one of which partially conceals the other, is also the compositional principle of the 1914 Englishman in Moscow that develops further the Perfected Portrait’s theme of a new hero, and formulates the concept of “partial eclipse.”

Englishman in Moscow and the Concept of “Partial Eclipse.” The key to the puzzle presented by Malevich in the Englishman in Moscow is the dominant words zatmenie (“eclipse”) on the upper right and chastichnoe (“partial”) in the lower portion of the painting. Malevich replaced the standard order of the words “partial eclipse” by the less useful “eclipse partial” to stress the word “eclipse,” which he divided into two parts as za-tmenie, depicting the dark za above the brighter tmenie. The prefix za now functions as a preposition that possesses several meanings, specifically “beyond,” “after,” “behind,” “the other side,” and “through”, while tmenie becomes a grammatically incorrect verbal form connected to the word t’ma or temnota (darkness) by the root tm (t’m, tem). Malevich’s morphological displacements produce new meanings, so that za tmenie now signifies “beyond darkness” or “after darkness,” suggesting the unknown that comes after the period of darkness. Though the word tmenie is associated with the dark, it is nevertheless rendered brightly, which produces a paradox of opposites–“light darkness.”

The expression zatemnit’ smysl signifies “to darken meaning,” of to make a concept unclear, incomprehensible, or mysterious. From this standpoint, za tmenie would denote “beyond the incomprehensible,” indicating that the work presents a trans-rational meaning that is unintelligible to the viewer who attempts to decipher it through common sense. The expressions zatmenie uma (“eclipse of the mind” or “madness”), temnyi um (“dark mind” or “unclear thinking”), and temnyi chelovek (“dark man,” “unlearned man,” of “mentally challenged man”) contrast with svetlyi um (“light” or “clear mind”), svet razuma (“light of reason”), and svet znania (“light of knowledge”). Malevich’s “beyond darkness,” therefore, implies a new light of trans-rational reason and knowledge.

The concept of “beyond darkness” corresponds to Kruchenykh’s “beyond mind” or zaum’, a grammatically incorrect noun composed of the prefix za (“beyond”) and the root um (“mind”) that form the standard verbs zaumit’sia (“to become reckless”), zaumnichat’ (“to surpass the limits of reasonable norms”), zaumstvovat’ (“to become entangled with unclear concepts”), as well as zaumnet’ (“to become more clever”). In Russian folklore, the fool always turns out to be the clever man who achieves his goal, and there is a Russian proverb that “for the fool, the law is not written.” Kruchenykh’s concept “beyond mind” is meant to signify the overstepping of intellectual norms, thusly pointing to a trans-rational way of thinking. Both Malevich’s “beyond darkness” and Kruchenykh’s “beyond mind” transform the rational into the trans-rational by the inversion of the signifying components of the binary structures of light and dark and reason and madness.

In the Englishman, Malevich divided the adjective chastichnoe (“partial”) into the syllables chas-tich-noe. This division is a morphological displacement that breaks the root chast to highlight the standard noun chas (“hour”), composing a syntactically incorrect combination with the upper word zatmenie (“eclipse”), i.e. zatmenie chas, the correct form being chas zatmeniia (“the hour of eclipse”). The term “partial eclipse” denotes the world’s state between darkness and light, a further elaboration on the square composed of the black and white triangles in the backdrop sketch for the opera Victory over the Sun. The concepts “beyond darkness,” “after darkness,” and “the hour of eclipse” allude to impending change in the world’s present state.

In the upper right of the Englishman, the yellow electric light coexists with the daylight denoted by the white clouds. The dominant yellow ray on the upper left is the single source of light illuminating the dark sky. The ray that emita from the Englishman’s black top hat characterizes him as a Futurist hero, recalling both the Italian Futurists’ admiration for electric light and Mayakovsky’s assertion in Vladimir Mayakovsky, “Me is the king of the lamps!”

As a result of the structural displacements present in the Englishman, the objects depicted lose their standard meaning, but find new ones. The spoon on the hero’s top hat refers to a particular event in Malevich’s life. On 8 February 1914, he and his friend, the artist Aleksei Morgunov, pinned red wooden peasant spoons to their lapels and crossed the Kuznetski Bridge in Moscow. The indignant public called them jesters and good candidates for admittance in a mental asylum. They were not the first to don scandalous Futurist fashions as these were initiated by Larionov and Goncharova who in September 1913 walked with painted faces in the streets of Moscow. Mayakovsky, Kamensky, and Burliuk adorned their costumes with a bunch of radishes. As Kliunkov explained, they parodied the so-called aesthetic artists and poets who wore chrysanthemums on the lapels of their coats in imitation of Oscar Wilde and English dandies. The Futurists consciously played the roles of jesters, fools, and madmen to declare their independence from conventional social and aesthetic norms. In 1914, Kruchenykh wrote, “[Mayakovsky] plays a fool, he scares the public when he represents madness; and in this, there is our (I am speaking about the Futurists, the so-called ‘Cubo-Futurists’) salvation! Madness will not touch us, although, as the imitators of madness, we will outshine both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche!”

Auto Emotion

Auto Emotion: Autobiography, Emotion and Self-Fashioning is the most ambitious and compelling group show seen at the Power Plant in recent memory, a belated showcase of what director Gregory Burke and curator Helena Reckitt–hired in 2005 and 2006, respectively–are capable of doing. The works on display all strike a delicate balance between conceptual rigour and messy affects, impulses and desires. They dramatize the mechanisms by which emotion, rather than simply occurring spontaneously or naturally, is produced, packaged and performed. The show revitalizes autobiographical performance-based practice by thinking through the seemingly transparent, raw and “real” emotional immediacy of much work in this field. With video in generally being the presentation medium of choice for the vast majority of the 14 participating artists, it is also gratifying to see old-fashioned single-channel video given such a place of prominence.

However, with this many artists, it is inevitable that some will not quite fit in. There is something too clean and detached about Rodney Graham and Rafael Lozano-Hammer’s practices to fit in with the hysterics and deconstructions thereof on display here, while Johannes Wohnseifer’s enigmatic, mechanical painting and video seem even more out of place. There are many strong individual pieces, such as the sprawling excerpts from Sophie Calle’s marvellous Exqubsite Pain (2000)–the centrepiece of the show, but discussed far too often elsewhere to comment on here–and Benny Nemerofsky Ramsay’s Lyric (2004), an exhaustive, sung catalogue emphasizing the numbing repetitiveness and redundancy of popular song lyrics. Nikki S. Lee’s photographic series, Parts (2003), meanwhile, succinctly and sweetly downs romantic love’s sentimentality in one fell swoop.

The most forceful work in the exhibition is Christian Jankowski’s Angels of Revenge (2006). Attending a horror convention’s costume competition in Chicago, Jankowski asked people how they were most wronged in life and how they would wish to avenge themselves against the person responsible. Jankowski shows that the desire for unvarnished (and uncensored) emotional truth and authenticity is still alive and well, especially because describing one’s brutal, homicidal desires continues to be considered in bad taste and taboo. I first viewed this work exactly one month after the Virginia Tech massacre, and Seung-hui Cho’s ridiculous Web-posted rantings and ravings were an inescapable touchstone for my experience of Jankowski’s work. (It is tempting to suggest that YouTube and its ilk are responsible for the resurgence in art of technically rudimentary, confessional and straight-to-camera videos that are–usually unintentionally-reminiscent of 70s video art.) Cho incoherently expressed an extreme mutation of the class envy that the American dream depends upon, while Jankowski parades the perversely capitalist eye-for-an-eye credo of an American culture trapped in a vortex of violence. In Jankowski’s video, empathy for his wronged subjects is all but eviscerated thanks to their excessive, identity-obscuring outfits; also, their descriptions of the offences against them tend to pale in comparison to their much more visceral and titillating (if inarticulate) revenge fantasies. Detached, we feel only the unease of watching someone sincerely describe their feelings without irony or self-consciousness. Men and women of various ages march out of the darkness and towards the camera as they narrate what happened to them and what they will do to “you.” The “you” is very important here, because we behind the camera are the perpetrators; the angels approach us, and at the moment when they reach the camera, a flash and a slashing sound inform us that “we” have been annihilated. Mixing insult and injury to chilling effect, whether detailing belt-sander castrations or obscene torture-rape, the confessions are giddily sadistic. Jankowski’s socially collaborative nihilism crystallizes one of the show’s strongest themes: the persistent complexities of performing social deviance.
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In Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s The Present (2001), a series of short public-service announcements urge viewers to “give yourself a present–forgive yourself.” Each is an impeccably shot and structured confession of sorts, wherein a woman performs a deviant compulsion while simultaneously analyzing her actions–“this is what I do”–and herself. For example, in The Bridge, a phobic woman must cross a bridge on hands and knees; she expounds on her good genes and testifies, “I can’t look in the mirror because who would I see? I realized that I looked mad. That that’s where the madness is” Swinging Curtains features a hospitalized woman confusing her caregivers for bloodthirsty intruders as she explains her elaborately designed emergency system for hiding under the bed when they come to murder her. Ahtila’s films essentially blow up women’s psychoses to epic proportions, forging a highly “professional” 35mm cinematic take on neuroses that are usually swept under the rug, making female deviance spectacular and formidable.

A couple of the more comic pieces in the show have the bare-bones single-channel video form most common for performance documentation; both are, interestingly enough, about the art world. Marina Abramovic ironizes the tropes of the endurance body art that she herself pioneered with The Onion (1996), wherein she voraciously devours an entire softball-sized bulb–skin and all–gazing heavenwards and glowing with an artificial light befitting a Fassbinder heroine. As she excretes more and more tears, moaning in agony with her chin covered in drool and chunks, a looping soundtrack of her voice drones on and on about her romantic and self-image woes, and her rough life as an icon. “I’m tired of being ashamed of my nose being too big, my ass being too large … I’m tired of changing planes so often.” Her instinctual onion-tears mock the pretense of self-pitying emotional tears.

While Ahtila and Abramovic both perform deviance, Andrea Fraser cuttingly critiques how such deviance is bought and sold in the art market in Official Welcome (2001). As Fraser gradually strips off her clothes while addressing an audience from her podium, her identity constantly shifts–in voice, in gesture, in rhetoric–between different (unnamed) art-world figures whom she quotes verbatim, alternating between toadying professionals (the introducers) and the artists eager to be “so right, so now” (the speakers). She presents an art market where grotesque and difficult have become marketing buzzwords, where “sex and excrement” are shorthand for honesty, and boundary-challenging experiences are bought and sold. She ruthlessly debunks how artists are positioned as “better than us,” ubermenschen permitted to “live our fantasies” on our behalf, whether of the victimized, abject woman or the foul-mouthed male genius who can’t suppress a disdainful laugh when he declares, “I used to think I could change the world” Fraser’s project embodies Auto Emotion’s renewal of the genre precisely by putting these affective aesthetic strategies under the gaze of a piercing intellect.

Fahnemann Projects, Berlin

Due to the strange scale of his installations, Kai Schiemenz’s work occupies an ambiguous space between traditional media categories. Their playful and unlikely compositions within the gallery context make them appear to be architectural working models that have spontaneously expanded to enable human use. In fact, they are planned and composed in miniature form, and are built directly from test models through trial and error. This unpredictable quality gives Schiemenz’s work an improvised, experimental aura and a raw energy. And while in size and placement they maintain their autonomy as sculptural objects, these spaces are built for public interaction.

In Shrunken Theatre (2007), a torqued drum shape seems barely controlled by its exterior skeleton. Built precisely to the scale of the gallery, right up to the ceiling, it seems about to burst from the room. A series of elliptical sections overlap to comprise an irregular volume. The sliced and shifted sections result in horizontal ledges on the interior that act like benches. This is characteristic of a number of Schiemenz’s installations: concentric forms are dynamically manipulated in a way that creates precarious seating around a void, and a kind of constricted communal forum results. His constructions over the past three years have centred on variations of stages, theatres, planetariums, arenas and stadiums. In this respect, his work shares similar concerns and methods to the installations of Toronto artist Adrian Blackwell. But in Schiemenz’s work, there is conscious resizing of the typologies of mass public space to more intimate terms, and therefore from the scale of the crowd to that of the individual.

The modulation of scale is central to the odd psychological and behavioural effects provoked by the artist’s constructions. In Shrunken Theatre, a small entranceway allows access into a small viewing space. If there are already people inside, one is immediately self-conscious, and searches for a place to sit on one of the protruding shelves while trying not to block the video projection. Projected onto a wall area is a double-frame image of a heavy-set man in a white tutu, dancing with awkward flourishes in what looks like a school gym. The scene is filmed from two separate corners of the performance space and the two films are projected at once, so we see the man repeat the same absurd actions from two simultaneous points of view. The emphasis on spatial choreography and the distinction between viewpoints finds an echo in the way the viewer finds him- or herself interacting with the installation.

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Schiemenz’s contorted architecture fosters exploration by the viewer/participant, but it does so in order to destabilize traditional concepts of democratic space. In contrast to the notion that public space can be conceived as a harmonious and homogenous whole, as discussed, for example, by the philosopher Jurgen Habermas, these installations can be better understood in relation to a democratic space of diversity, where parallel yet conflicting relationships are enacted. This idea of plurality in relation to public space is articulated by Chantal Mouffe as an “agonistic public sphere.” The unstable and shifting forms of Schiemenz’ installations do not intend or pretend to facilitate “open” debate, but allow spatial hierarchy, separation and clear articulations of outside and inside.

The installation Untitled (Stadium) (2005) at the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe consisted of a number of non-aligned elliptical rings that formed a series of ledges for seating inside and outside the towering structure. A marathon night of lectures, talks and screenings took place in and around this installation, and audience members were free to sit wherever they liked. This vision of public space is in contrast to mere representational transparency, such as that imagined by Norman Foster in his glass cupola for the Reichstag (the German parliament). The theme for the event at Untitled (Stadium) was “the production of world-models,” and a related publication further developed these ideas. The concept of the model is fundamental to Schiemenz’s method: for him, it enacts a notion of shared consciousness as a process of perennial reconstruction.

Schiemenz work continually considers the position of the viewer in order to frame the process of observation and awareness. In Communal Cinema within the Rings of Splendour (2006), a circular viewing screen is tilted at an oblique angle to reveal seating rings, in effect displaying the audience to the gallery visitor approaching the work. A further series of canted, circular space-frames helps to animate the work’s multidimensional displacement of space.

For the group exhibition Ideal City–Invisible Cities (2006) in Zamosc, Poland, Schiemenz built a tower construction that allowed visitors to see both the historically protected and obsolete old centre, planned and built as an ideal city in the 16th–century, and the surrounding suburban area, where the day-to-day functioning of urban life takes place. The title of this work, Endeavour’s Watchtower for the Fourth International indicates Schiemenz’ concern with ideas of ideological failure. Endeavour was one of the ships with which James Cook sailed to the Hawaiian Islands, where he was slain by the natives. Referring to this story of cultural conflict, the installation addresses the problems inherent in cultural projection. In homage to Vladimir Tatlin’s proposed Monument to the Third International (1919-20), the structure employs a twisted, tilting stair construction. The overt reference to Russian Constructivism evokes failed idealism, exposing a lost moment of history when art and technology were integrated with social purpose.

Perhaps the collision of systems and viewpoints and the contemplation of ideological collapse became important to Schiemenz when he was a student in East Berlin during the fall of the Wall and the subsequent abrupt transition between political regimes. His work emerges out of a particular scene in Berlin, prominent since the late 90s, which focuses specifically on spatial politics. This concentrated energy has produced many sophisticated publications, lecture series, film cycles, even fashion shows and concerts, as well as installations and exhibitions. In some ways, Schiemenz’s work is a critique of and reaction to the abundance of forums for “democratic debate” that fail to reveal structural hierarchies. This locates it in a continuum of art that looks at social structures, including, especially in the German context, the Social Sculptures of Joseph Beuys, who considered art a revolutionary “stimulant” to transform everyday life. Schiemenz’s installations combine sculptural delight with a realistic view of collective engagement that emphasizes individual responsibility and personal diversity, not an idealized and inhuman fake-flattening of hierarchies.

David Askevold was in Los Angeles

David Askevold was in Los Angeles during January and February for an artist residency and exhibition hosted by Mandarin, Alexis Hall’s storefront gallery on the second floor of a desolate but beautiful two-storey Chinatown mini-mall and plaza off Chung King Road.

After a supernatural experience comes the question of what happened, and whether it happened at all. Was it more than an incident of significant coincidence? Was it, for example, a ghost, or the intersection of a cold draft and a shadow?

The show’s title, The Burning Bush, The Burned Bush, The Bush Trap refers to a 12-photo series that includes The Pit #1 and #2, Interrupted Landscape #1 and #2 and Shot in the Dark #1 through #5. All the photographs were taken in January and February 2005 in Los Angeles, except Pit #1 and #2, which were taken at a barbecue in Nova Scotia in 1996. Mandarin also published a catalogue based solely on The Pit, which includes a 150-word text of the same name written by Askevold in 1996.

A primary supposition for the photographs is difficult to name. The titles alone reveal coils of meaning and possible interpretation. The ambiguous Shot in the Dark #1 through #5, for instance, refers to a murder, a suicide, a veiled threat on the president’s life? The photos deepen the sea of possibility combining spectacular silhouettes; silver, red, yellow and gold streaks of light; California landscape: palms, creosote and desert; atomic scorched earth; stills from the Vietnam war; posters for exotic travel locations; speculation on what heaven and hell might be like? Fuck knows.

It is characteristic of David’s work that the scope of its inquiry demands a complex vocabulary to theorize it; its succinct material economy and imagery create tension between complicated theory and a phantasm, between a good imagination and phenomenological transgression. Things that have the effect of expanding consciousness are never how you imagine; they never feel or occur as you think they will. That is by definition their purpose.

Predicated on altered or supplemental perception and knowledge of signs and rituals (the gift of sixth sense), belief in the occult is the hopeful assertion that there is an unseen influence which can make the insignificant significant; small gestures result in grandiose outcomes. The draft is so intensely cold, and its intersection with the red shadow so frequent, that you question whether it is only a coincidence, and you require a seance to determine if it is a broken air conditioner with a flashing light, or if it is the return of your dead brother.

The technique of image superimposition builds associative compositions to facilitate perception, or to suggest time lapses, simultaneous action, intersecting events and the correspondence between subjective and objective reality, between the spiritual and the material. Combining images that are incompatible or contradictory forces the viewer to attempt to reconcile or unify them. The impulse to unify intimates predetermination; it assumes that the images were previously dispersed, and must now be reunited. It is a quality that looms in David’s work, disorienting and obtuse. It suggests a kind of rhythm or universal dynamic typical to the occult.

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