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Review: Documenta 14

3 Sep

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by Rhea H. Boyden

I am sitting on my queen-sized bed in my beautiful room at the Best Western Hotel in the centre of Kassel, Germany. My travelling companion is sitting on her bed and we are both leafing through various books and magazines that review the huge array of work that is on display by the more than 160 artists who make up this year’s Documenta which is being held in both Kassel and Athens. The book I am currently perusing is ‘A Documenta Day Book’. It dedicates each day of the exhibit (which runs from April 8th to September 19th) to one of the 160 artists. I am curious, first and foremost, to see which artist is responsible for creating the 16 metre high obelisk that we had just spotted around the corner from our hotel in the centre of Königsplatz. The obelisk is inscribed on its four sides, in four different languages: German, English, Turkish and Arabic with a quote from The Book of Matthew: ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’ The obelisk is the work of Nigerian-American artist and writer Olu Oguibe and the day that is dedicated to him in the Documenta day book is July 11th. I am overcome with emotion. July 11th is the day my mother died and here I am, less than 3 weeks later in the beginning of August at Documenta. I am here to try and find some solace and comfort in art. I am here with a good friend, the same friend who I attended Documenta 13 with 5 years ago. I somehow doubt that this Documenta, which has already received scathing reviews, will provide me with much comfort, but I will strive, nonetheless to find hope and joy where I can in the two days we have allowed to immerse ourselves in this exhibit, which is a tiny slice of time given the immensity of it.


‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ by Olu Oguibe 

Documenta was founded in 1955 by the German architect, painter and curator Arnold Bode and takes place every 5 years. Its original intention was to showcase artwork in the aftermath of the second world war that had been banned by the Nazis. It has since become the most important contemporary political art show in the world and is a highly anticipated event drawing thousands. The home of Documenta is the industrial and provincial town of Kassel in the German state of Hesse which is a couple hours’ train ride north of Frankfurt. The city centre was destroyed by allied bombing raids in 1943 and was rebuilt quickly in the 1950’s and its architecture is grey, functional and austere. The surroundings of Kassel are beautiful, however, featuring the lush Karlsaue Park which runs along the River Fulda as well as the Baroque Orangerie that was built between 1703 and 1711.


The Orangerie in Kassel where many Documenta pieces are exhibited

This year, however, the exhibit is contentiously and confusingly being located in both Kassel and Athens, Greece with most of the commissioned artists exhibiting their work in both cities over the course of the show. It is curated by polish-born art director Adam Szymczyk who has already been criticised by politicians and teased by art reviewers for his strange and unorthodox curatorial ideas. Art Net News writer Ben Davis writes the following in his review entitled ‘Straining for Wisdom, Documenta 14 implodes under the weight of European Guilt’:

‘It’s hard to put into words how perplexing the experience of Documenta in Kassel is’, writes Davis, ‘People who like their art to be entertaining are going to hate it, because it is a strikingly alienating show. This is deliberate. At the Kassel press launch Szymczyk was asked if he thought that art needs to ‘look good.’ His answer: ‘If you think of aesthetics as more akin to cosmetics, as a pretty thing, I suppose this can be useful sometimes, but we are more interested in the texture and the structure.’ Davis then writes: ‘A simple ‘NO’ would have sufficed.’ When I read this I laughed out loud, which felt great and gratifying because I have shed more tears of sorrow than I have laughed in the past weeks. I agree with Davis and I found Documenta perplexing and confusing and I found myself floundering for meaning as I meandered my way through a handful of the main exhibition spaces.

Back to the obelisk at Königsplatz: this statement ‘I was a stranger and you took me in’ is a politically loaded one and refers to the many refugees that Germany has taken in over the past few years. It is a statement and policy that Angela Merkel will also find hotly contested in upcoming elections. This obelisk, its statement and the artist who created it is one of the leading discussion points of Documenta and on a personal level I think of my mother who shares the death date of the artist’s allotted date in the book. I think of her life and how she also arrived in Germany in the autumn of 1990, a single mother with my three younger sisters in tow and was also taken in by new friends and strangers alike, I think of her Bohemian life in nineties East Berlin, and of how, after she was settled in Germany herself, she then opened her door generously to all walks of life and took them in. She was big hearted, passionate, engaged fully in the arts, founding an English language magazine in Berlin and taking the time to support her artist and musician friends in the exciting and uncertain early post Berlin Wall days.

When I attended Documenta 13 five years ago I was in a very bubbly, happy and enthusiastic mood. I had a lot of fun and was really inspired to write by what I saw, including the incredible installation by South African artist William Kentridge entitled ‘The Refusal of Time.’ It was a mesmerising exhibit that had me spellbound. I wandered through Documenta eagerly soaking up everything: the tough political themes that were then being discussed such as Occupy Wall Street as well as lighter artistic themes. This has made me think of myself as a reviewer and of how my own state of mind fully and completely affects how I am able to engage with art and how I am subsequently able to write about it. I am, at present grieving my mother’s recent death so I am finding it difficult to take on board all the really tough political, social and economic issues that Documenta grapples with.


Documenta Halle in Kassel

Documenta 14 opened on April 8th in Athens one day after Greece and E.U. Finance ministers signed an agreement on new austerity measures. Bringing Documenta to Athens has been criticised by many Greeks as being a form of ‘crisis tourism’ and graffiti in the city has abounded with slogans such as ‘Crapumenta’ being spray painted on walls. The head curator’s decision to place Documenta in Athens was to form a North/South solidarity to bring the show away from the heart of industrial power in Europe to the place where the two themes of economic crisis and refugee crisis are felt the strongest. The title of the Kassel leg of this show is ‘Learning from Athens’ but what has been learned from Athens in Kassel? I had a long conversation with an Asian-American art historian who also attended the exhibit in Kassel and he says it has failed. Why? I asked him. ‘Because we are still in the midst of this economic and refugee crisis and there is no perspective yet. Germany is economically strong and can absorb refugees. Greece has reached saturation and exhaustion point. It is two completely different scenarios. We need perspective.’

I feel in my own life I have reached saturation and exhaustion point with my own grief and the confrontation, confusion and turmoil that has followed my mother’s death. I was looking for some escapism and comfort at Documenta. I was looking for colour, beauty, music, poetry, erotica and I found little of it there. The only real sensual comfort I found was in the hot bubble bath of my Best Western Hotel room and the delicious sun ripened tomatoes and fresh strawberries that I dined on in local restaurants. I know fully that I am privileged to be able to enjoy these delights. There are currently 65 million people wandering the world looking for a safe place to land. Syrian filmmaker Charif Kiwan stressed at a Documenta press conference: ‘With news of a chemical strike in Syria followed by Trump’s retaliatory airstrikes why should there be any place for beauty at Documenta with such indignity being imposed on victims?’ He has a point. And despite Documenta’s head curator claiming that enjoying Documenta should begin with a process of unlearning, it is poorly curated (despite its 37.5 million Euro budget) and extremely inaccessible to the under educated and poor with its emphasis on confusing and very challenging artworks, as well as glass vitrine upon glass vitrine of papers, letters and legal documents for you to peruse if you have the time and inclination. I had little interest in stopping to read long excerpts that were displayed under glass of the trial between one Jousset Ante Sara and the Norwegian ministry of food and agriculture. And even if I had been interested in standing there and really taking it all in I would have been in the way of the throngs of people who wanted to walk past me.

And I only went to Kassel which cost enough with the return flight from Dublin to Frankfurt, train to Kassel, two nights in a hotel, food, tickets and so forth. If you really wanted to enjoy all of Documenta you would also have to go to Athens. Doing all of this demands time, money, interest and education. So is this the whole point? For the few of us who are privileged enough to do all of this to be reminded by art that the world really is in a very bad state and that art is in a very confused state? A writer and artist friend of mine did go to Athens as well as Kassel and she said the Athens leg of the show was very inaccessible, spread out and very challenging to navigate.

And this is, of course, the main gripe that I and several other art reviewers have, that despite how bad the world is, one of art’s functions is to be a call to action and collaboration and if it leaves you feeling confused and lacking hope then where is the incentive to act in a positive manner to improve things?


Daniel Knorr ‘Expiration Movement’

One particularly contentious art installation in Kassel was by Romanian artist Daniel Knorr entitled ‘Expiration Movement’. It features smoke emitting consistently from one of the towers of the Friedericianium which is one of the main Documenta museums on Friedrichsplatz. It has caused many calls to be made to the local fire department in Kassel which is costing taxpayers money. The installation itself is also costing a fortune to run. ‘What a waste,’ was my comment to my friend as I lacked any energy to look at any deeper symbolic or metaphorical meaning to it beyond the obvious that it could perhaps remind us in the West of what it might be like to live in a war zone and to wonder in confusion what bomb or explosion may have caused the fire. I was simply pointing out the wasted money and resources: firefighters, etc. ‘But perhaps that is the whole point,’ my friend offered, ‘That we are wasting resources and things are not really being done very efficiently in a time of flux and complicated bureaucracy for many.’ As we wandered through the Friedericanium there was also a loud bang behind us which made me and my friend jump. A bomb? A gun? No, it was just emitting from one of the artworks with no warning whatsoever. I am in too vulnerable a state emotionally to deal with this.

We moved onto the Documenta Halle at the other side of Friedrichsplatz which was built in 1992 to house the ever expanding Documenta. It was in here that I finally found a bit of solace and it was to be found in music. This suited me well as reviewing music has been my main focus the past year since I have been collaborating with PHEVER:TV-Radio in Dublin. Music as a tool to help humans escape suffering and to bring them together in harmony and collaboration was an idea that cheered me up after I once again became emotional after encountering an exhibit in the Documenta Halle that featured the music of Ali Farka Toure, a favourite musician of my mother’s.


 Guillermo Galindo

In the main hall there was an exhibit by Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo which featured the remains of fibre glass and wooden boats which is clearly alluding to refugee boats. Attached to one of the boats were harpsichord and piano strings. Galindo is a composer who began working on a piece called ‘Border Cantos’ a collaborative project that took him along the the Mexican and U.S. border. He collected items discarded by refugees, migrants and border control agents and began constructing musical instruments out of them. He intended for these instruments to sound out into the world thus giving a voice and hope for the future to migrants.

Another exhibit in the Documenta Halle that finally lifted my spirits was a collection of paintings by Dutch visual artist, composer and painter Sedje Hemon who developed a method of putting her musical scores onto paintings. Various musical parameters such as pitch and timbre would be extracted based on the points along the lines and curves of the paintings. And while I lack the musical training and background to really understand how this works, I found it fascinating and hugely inspiring nonetheless. Hemon is a woman who knew suffering in her lifetime. She was deported to Auschwitz in 1944 for joining resistance groups. While interred in the concentration camp she played violin in the camp orchestra.


Sedje Hemon – Flanquant en Bas

It has been nearly a month since I attended Documenta and it has been a month of emotional turmoil and unhappiness for me. I happily wrote a review of Documenta 13 five years ago but I didn’t think I was going to be able to write anything this time and my motivation levels have been down. I have been depressed, sad and not really captivated by what I saw and experienced there for the most part. So I have been listening to a lot of music and thinking too much, sleeping too much and not reading as much as I would have normally because I lack the energy and emotional stability at the moment. But here I am finally sitting down and writing and it feels good. I have a warm room, food, hot water, a comfortable bed, photos of my mother at my side. I have music and I have memories. And despite the bad and depressing reviews of Documenta that I have read, I want to remain hopeful and this is what I have learned from Documenta: that our stability is fragile. Emotional, economic and environmental stability is extremely fragile. I have also been reflecting on the fact that inspite of this fragility, I have many reasons to be grateful. I am not in the middle of a devastating flood in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Houston. I am in my warm and dry room. I am thinking a lot about the future and I, like many others am afraid. But hope, support and collaboration must come before fear. I know that my mother would want me to be fearless. She certainly led a life devoid of fear and was not afraid to take risks and travel the world. And as I continue to write and regain my energy to get back to my serious reading, I am keeping her spirit alive as I listen to her favourite music and through my tears reflect on the difficult and confusing lessons of Documenta which may take a long time to really sink in.

Featured image is one from the series Flanquant en Bas by Sedje Hemon.



Salon Series at The Liquor Rooms-Dublin

23 Oct


by Rhea H. Boyden

Since June of this year The Liquor Rooms on Wellington Quay has been hosting a monthly Salon Series presented by their arts and culture manager Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan. It has featured panel discusssions, live performances and demonstrations highlighting the work of The Liquor Rooms’ altogether excellent creative community. The topics that have featured so far in this series have ranged from burlesque to coding to comic illustration and publishing.

Two weeks ago I attended the Salon Series’ fascinating and inspiring publishing event. Moderated by Chandrika Narayanan-Mohan, the panel discussion included Irish editors and publishers Susan Tomaselli of Gorse, Marc O’ Connell of The Penny Dreadful, Eimear Ryan of Banshee and Declan Meade of The Stinging Fly. Set in the intimate and inviting vintage lounge of The Liquor Rooms, the talk centred around the challenges and successes they have each experienced with their journals to date. They publish short stories, personal essays and poetry predominantly, and were in agreement regarding their passion for print over online media. They also discussed their own histories and the leap they took from being writers to publishers and editors.


Salon Series Publishing event at The Liquor Rooms

The Liquor Rooms, which recently celebrated its third birthday, describes itself as a ‘subterranean den of delight.’ And this it truly is. I have spent nights there scrutinising their unusual artwork and unique decor which includes an intriquing wall of old fireplaces. As its name would suggest, they also serve excellent cocktails and are multiple award winners at the Irish Craft Cocktail Awards. These can be enjoyed with a variety of gourmet delicacies which are also available.

The final Salon Series event of this year will be held on Wednesday, November 2nd at 7pm and will be a talk on and performance with vinyl, as well as the history of the Liquor Rooms. The panel will include resident DJ Aoife Nic Canna who has been Djing there since shortly after they opened, and also the hosts of the ‘Vinyl and Wine’ series Mark Whelan and Anthony Kelly. ‘Vinyl and Wine’ which is also hosted by The Liquor Rooms, is an intimate album listening party and discussion, encouraging people to really be present with music and share their experience of it with others. They recently featured an evening listening to and discussing David Bowie’s lesser known album ‘The Gouster.’

Aoife and Records.jpg

 Aoife Nic Canna – Photo by Cris Llarena

Aoife Nic Canna, for her part, will be discussing her own history and experience of Djing in the Liquor Rooms and also the history of the building itself. She also held a residency at The Kitchen nightclub which opened in 1994 on the same premises and was owned by Bono and The Edge. Aoife has held multiple residencies at many clubs around Dublin for more than two decades, is an archivist at Near FM Radio, and is the producer of the fascinating six part documentary on Irish Club history ‘Folklore From The Dancefloor’ which aired on Near FM and community radio around Ireland in 2012.

Admission to the event is free and will include a tasting of special Liquor Rooms cocktails. Their beautiful website states that they ‘proudly serve liquors to make your tastebuds sing made by a creative team of cocktail craftsmen.’ Enticing indeed.

The Liquors Rooms is at 5 Wellington Quay in Dublin city centre and is open daily from 5pm til late.

Graphics and Photos courtesy of The Liquor Rooms and Aoife Nic Canna.  

Review: Berlin Biennale 8

3 May

I am looking forward to heading back to Berlin this summer to do a review of the Berlin Biennale 9, which I will hopefully have a better impression of than the Berlin Biennale 8. The Berlin Biennale 9 official blog says, however, that this contemporary art show may or may not be about contemporary art. Ha. I am intrigued….

Rhea Boyden


by Rhea H. Boyden

It is a hot Saturday afternoon and I am standing in the middle of Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes’ exhibit at KW Institute of Contemporary Art entitled ‘A secluded and pleasant land, in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am alone, thankfully, because I am in a bad mood. I have just walked down Auguststrasse in the centre of Berlin Mitte and entered this room of hanging hemp ropes, silk yarns, twirled and hanging bamboo sculptures and what appears to be a giant checkerboard on the floor. The rope makes me think of a noose, the checkerboard a maze. Hmm. I ponder the second half of the title: ‘in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am in the middle of a long goodbye to Berlin and have firmly decided that I no longer want to live in this land, and this exhibit is now irritating…

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Review: ‘What We Call Love-From Surrealism to Now’ at the Irish Museum of Modern Art

20 Dec


by Rhea H. Boyden

As I wandered into the galleries of the Irish Museum of Modern Art that contained photographs by renowned German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans I was reminded of the several times I have seen his wonderful work at various galleries and exhibits in Berlin. I can scarcely visit any gallery or museum outside of Berlin that doesn’t have some reference to Berlin, bringing up memories of my 15 years spent in that wild city. I have now been in Dublin for 15 months and, after settling into a job, I am now, finally in the past months beginning to really discover the culture and art of Dublin.

One institution that I am in love with is The Irish Museum of Modern Art. The IMMA, as it is known, is currently holding a large scale group exhibition entitled ‘What We Call Love- from Surrealism to Now’ and I have been to the fabulous exhibit twice so far. Proposed initially by Christine Macel, head curator of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the exhibit is co-curated by Macel and Rachael Thomas, senior curator and head of exhibitions at the IMMA. The exhibit contains work by a host of international artists including Salvador Dali, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Marina Abramovic, Louise Bourgeois, Damien Hirst, Rebecca Horn and many more.


IMMA Brochure showing a photo of Karl, by Wolfgang Tillmans

On my second visit to this exhibit which has engrossed me the past few weeks, I bought the lovely exhibit guide and I read it from cover to cover. I have wanted to sit down and write a review but I have not been able to until now because well, where do you start which such a large and broad topic such as love? I find it very difficult to keep my feelings, emotions and anecdotes from my own love life out of my review. I have no choice but to bring my experience into it. I gain confidence in myself when I look again at Wolfgang Tillman’s wonderful and intimate photos of his subject, a man, Karl and I read in the brochure what is written about the photos: ‘One of the harbingers of a realistic approach to his subject is that the photos lack pretension or conceit, instead depicting moments of vulnerability, intimacy, honesty and intensity’.

Vulnerability, intimacy, honesty and intensity. I think about the weight these words hold. I felt very vulnerable as I wandered through the exhibit. I felt a whole range of emotions. My emotions as I explore the different artists’ work are most definitely intense as I relate their statements to my own love life, or current lack thereof. I am a 40 year old single and childless woman. Despite the fact that more and more people are choosing to live alone, I am someone who a certain sector of our society still eyes with a mix of sympathy and suspicion.


‘Daphne and Apoll’-1943 by Meret Oppenheim – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

When I mentioned to a colleague last week that I was reading a lot about the exhibit and would definitely be bringing anecdotes from my love life into my review he teased me and said ‘You will have twenty blank pages then?’ I laughed. I hope he realises that I was not in the least insulted by his joke about my current lack of love life. As a writer, twenty blank pages signifies hope and possibility. It is exciting and there are many possibilities for ideas and interpretation. I am reminded of what Alicia Knock writes in the exhibit brochure about Surrealist painter Meret Oppenheim’s painting ‘Daphne and Apoll’ (1943) which is on show: ‘Meret Oppenheim’s works escape categorical definitions in favour of open-ended readings. A man, a woman, an androgynous person or the artist herself, the viewer understands that art should be endlessly admired, interpreted and desired, just like love.’ Indeed, there is so much to write about love that the twenty pages would be quickly filled. My real challenge lies in narrowing my focus and writing an essay that readers will read to the end.


‘The Kiss’ 1931 by Pablo Picasso – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

Among the first works one sees upon entering the exhibit is a painting ‘The Kiss’ (1931) by Pablo Picasso and a sculpture ‘The Kiss’ (1923) by Constantin Brancusi. Picasso’s work of this time became filled with pathos as his own love life was an emotional shambles. His depiction of kisses appear painful and he describes love as ‘a nettle that we must mow down at every instant if we want to have a snooze in its shadow.’ I think about the concept of a painful kiss. If a kiss is not good, I will likely end a relationship pretty promptly. No pain, move on. It wasn’t love and there was no chemistry. In my experience it is only the memory of a good kiss that causes pain when you think about it over and over and how you can no longer have that desired kiss. The pain is in the loss and the projection of the sexual fantasy onto the person who bestowed the kiss initially. In his installation in the exhibit ‘Piece Mandala/End War’ (1966) American artist Paul Sharits explores the double meaning of projection. He projects a film of a couple making love onto a wall of the gallery. There are strobe lights and flickering images. High speed splicing of the images leaves an after image on your retina making it even harder to forget. Sharits shows us that film is a good medium to create infinite loops. The full comprehension of his work makes me both embarrassed and sad. The ‘infinite loops’ and the ‘projection’ are a metaphor for the psychological projection of sexual fantasy and obsession, I know only too well what it feels like to have the pleasurable memory of my last lover on infinite loops in my head. The act the lovers are carrying out in the film is also pretty much identical to the one of my own fantasy (a fantasy which is a real memory of a real event, but now rendered a fantasy nonetheless). Do I find any solace in this installation? A little, I guess. My obsession and suffering is pretty much universal. I am not alone in it. I still have very vivid and intense memories of my last lover who I still miss, there is no denying it and this exhibit is undoing any progress I have made in moving on.


‘The Couple’ 2003 by Louise Bourgeois

Another artist whose work is featured is that of French-American artist Louise Bourgeois. She has several works on show all entitled ‘The Couple’ (2003). And although I am still nursing the pain of a lost love I feel empathy for Bourgeois as it seemed she suffered a whole lot more in love. She claims to have been incapable of seducing or gaining another’s affection, which is of course, a sorry state of affairs. And yet, love and obsession play a role in her work. One piece by her that particularly struck me was an embracing couple made of fabric and stainless steel underneath a glass covering. The obvious interpretation would be the idea of a couple isolating themselves from the world and finding their love to be all-fullfilling and all-consuming. I was reminded, however, of Anais Nin’s short story ‘Under a Glass Bell’ and Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel ‘The Bell Jar’. Plath’s bell jar is used to describe her isolation from enjoyment of life’s pleasures and a way of describing the incapacitating depression she suffered: ‘If Mrs Guinea had given me a ticket to Europe or a round-the-world cruise’, writes Plath, ‘It wouldn’t have made one scrap of a difference to me, because wherever I sat, on the deck of ship, or at a street cafe in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.’ I may get a little sad with the pain of loss and have a hard time letting go, but I certainly never suffer the kind of depression and despondency that Plath describes in her story and for that I am grateful.

Anais Nin, in her story ‘Under a Glass Bell’ describes how one with an opulent lifestyle and riches in a big house can be then trapped in a marriage that is a farce with no escape. A glass bell covers the whole house: ‘Every day the silence, the peace, the softness, carved with greater delicacy the glass chandeliers, the furniture, the statuettes and laces… under the giant glass bell the colours looked inaccessible….’ This one piece by Louise Bourgeois says it all to me: how love can be isolating and depresssing and how the lure of riches can trap us into a situation we do not love.


‘I’ll Love You Forever’ 1994 by Damien Hirst – Photo by Claudia Benedettelli

‘How the lure of riches can trap us into a situation we do not love’ is what I thought of English artist Damien Hirst’s piece for the exhibit entitled ‘I’ll Love you Forever'(1994). Hirst is one of Britain’s wealthiest and highest paid artists and ‘I’ll Love you Forever’ is a blue painted steel cage filled with medical waste containers and a gas mask. It was only the second time I went back to the museum did I notice the padlock on the cage. So, there really is no escape from this suffocating love. According to the exhibit brochure Hirst’s cage filled with explosives ‘condemns romantic passion to its inevitable implosion over time.’ This is a fine interpretation but I find the cage with golden bars to be a more suitable analogy. The cage with golden bars keeping one trapped in a relationship that grows ever more toxic. I have my own experience with this too. I was in a relationship with a wealthy man for a few years and he was happy to pay for everything which in hindsight, I realise, was his way of compensating for the lack of passion in the relationship. Fortunately the cage I found myself in did not have a padlock and I escaped from that situation. I may be a little lonely at times but at least I am free.

Or am I free? Part of what this fascinating exhibit explores is that, in fact, we are not free at all when it comes to love. We desire the freedom to love who we want and we cherish sexual freedom, but as soon as we are in love or infatuated with someone, we are anything but free. If it is a love that is unrequited it is torture. If we are still pining over a lost love we are also imprisoned. One of the most disturbing installations of the exhibit is ‘High Moon’ by German artist and film maker Rebecca Horn. It consists of two Winchester guns hanging from the ceiling and rotating both away and towards each other, two funnels filled with fake blood and a steel gutter on the floor below. On the wall there is a poem. All I can say is that the lovers who were in this scenario are finally free from all the harrowing pain that accompanies love, because they are now dead. Death is ultimately the only way to relieve ourselves of all our earthly confusion over love, as much as we like to live in denial of this and balm ourselves in fantasy. The poem by Rebecca Horn accompanying this piece reads:

High Moon

From the deepest part of the ocean

And the brightest light of the sun

Collected in a pair of identical moon funnels

The full-blown energy of two distinct creatures

Dancing about in abandon

Suddenly face to face with each other

Generating up to their maximum voltage

To meet for a second of equal eternity

Opening their pores and unleashing their bloodstreams

Accelerating each other to the point of near-bursting

Screaming like moon dogs in lost icy nights

When the arrow of Venus taps lightly the funnel

Unleashing the tandem explosion of energies

Transforming the creatures into illuminated fusion

Not missing a drop of each other’s volcanic residue

Flowingly forming a river of passion

Burrowing its way back to the limitless ocean

Bathed in the moon

(Rebecca Horn, New York, 1991)


‘High Moon’ 1991 by Rebecca Horn – photo by Claudia Benedettelli

One especially fascinating part of the exhibit is an interview with British neurobiologist Semir Zeki about recent discoveries that have been made in the neuroscience of love. Accompanying this interview is an art installation by Berlin based Canadian artist Jeremy Shaw who has also worked with Zeki in Berlin probing the neuroscience of love. We are now beginning to understand more clearly what areas of the brain are activated and deactivated during romantic attachment and sexual arousal. Shaw’s work uses images of specific people’s brains as they experience romantic love, maternal love as well as the effect of various recreational drugs in a bid to prove that the same areas of the brain are activated in all instances. Most of us know the feeling of dopamine being pumped into our bloodstream while having good sex and Zeki’s work shows that serotonin levels in people freshly in love are at the same levels that are in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The Surrealists ‘Amour Fou’ or crazy love for which they lived in their creative lives, is now all beginning to be understood more from a neuroscientific standpoint. I personally find all of this knowledge very comforting. I like knowing the reason why I pine and obsess. It is interesting to understand it on a deeper level. In the interview Zeki says: ‘The prefrontal cortex, the parieto-temporal junction and the temporal poles constitute a network of areas invariably active with ‘mentalizing’ or ‘theory of mind’, that is the ability to determine other people’s emotions and intentions. It is also a truism to say that most people develop a preference for the kind of person they want to love, and hence a concept of their potential lover(s); their likelihood of falling in love with that kind of person is much greater.’

So when we say we have a dream partner there is a neuroscientic explanation for this. And when we fall in love and can’t stop thinking about the person and we experience feelings of well-being as well as a subsidence of fear, it is the deactivation of the amygdala that we can thank.

It is psychoanalyst Adam Phillips who sums it up most eloquently when he writes the following in his book ‘Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life’: ‘All love stories are frustration stories… To fall in love is to be reminded of a frustration you didn’t know you had (of one’s formative frustrations, and of one’s attempted self-cures for them); you wanted someone, you felt deprived of something, and then it seems to be there. And what is renewed in that experience is an intensity of frustration, and an intensity of satisfaction. It is as if, oddly, you were waiting for someone but you didn’t know who they were until they arrived. Whether or not you were aware that there was something missing in your life, you will when you meet the person you want. What psychoanalysis will add to this love story is that the person you fall in love with really is the man or woman of your dreams; that you have dreamed them up before you met them; not out of nothing- nothing comes of nothing- but out of prior experience, both real and wished for. You recognise them with such certainty, because you already, in a sense know them, and because you have quite literally been expecting them, you feel as though you have known them forever and yet at the same time, they are quite foreign to you. They are familar, foreign bodies.’


Brain image scans by Jeremy Shaw

Therein lies the reason I pine. I experienced exactly what Phillips describes with the man I still miss and there have been times when I truly think I would have been better off never meeting him at all, rather than have him remind me of a frustration I didn’t know I had. He knows how I feel, and yet, there is little he can do to comfort me as he lives far, far away in another country. I still dream of being reunited with him someday, but I am reminded that that could end in disappointment and disenchantment too in the essay in the IMMA brochure that has intrigued me by sociologist Eva Illouz entitled ‘Against Desire’. She says that when our deepest desires are fulfilled we are then left unfillfilled and she uses a couple wonderful Greek myths to illustrate this. One myth is that of Midas and how everything he touches turns to gold, including his food and his daughter whom he tries to hug. Midas’ deepest desire quickly becomes a misery. ‘One could live in a gold palace’ writes Illouz, ‘but it is the ordinary gestures like hugging and eating that turn out to be the only ones that matter, and these ordinary gestures become unattainable precisely because they evade the logic of desire.’ The second myth is that of Tantalus who is punished for killing his son by being put in a garden near fruit and near a river with water but he can never reach either and so is tortured by the object of his desire being continually out of his reach. ‘Desire’, says Illouz, ‘is an insoluble contradiction. Unfullfilled, it makes us miserable, fulfilled it blocks access to what is essential but not determined by desire in our lives.’

I have had a hard time writing this review about love, considering the current status of my own love life which is the pathetic state of continuing to pine over a love that is lost and continuing to feed the fantasy of that lost love. But I am still full of hope that I will fall in love again at some unexpected point. I will meet another dream man, and I will celebrate the chance encounter in the same way the Surrealist artists and writers celebrated these coincidences of crazy love. And I will write more and be inspired and find a new muse. As Georges Sebbag points out in his video installation in the exhibit: ‘For the Surrealist, art, love and freedom took central stage. Ultimately, poetic expression was inconceivable for them independently of love.’ I would suppose this love has to be real or imagined, because some form of fantastical love or imagined muse has inspired me to write this essay even though I am experiencing a prolonged period of singlehood. The exhibit at the IMMA is immense and I have barely scratched the surface of this topic, but that will have to be dealt with in a second essay. Love is, after all, a vast topic with infinite interpretations and variations.

‘What We Call Love – From Surrealism to Now’ runs at the IMMA until February 7th 2016.

Feature image by Claudia Benedettelli

Impressions of John Singer Sargent Exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery-London

28 Mar

by Rhea H. Boyden

019. Portraits de M.E.P. … et de Mlle L.P. (Portraits of Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron)

Édouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron by John Singer Sargent, 1881

© Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa

A month ago I attended the fabulous exhibition: ‘Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends’ at the National Portrait Gallery in London. A friend of mine had recommended I go while in London and I had no idea what was to await me there. I had learned a little about Sargent in my art history class at secondary school in Ireland, but I had not expected such an incredibly breathtaking and awe-inspiring exhibit comprising over 70 portraits by Sargent brought together for the first time from galleries and private collections around the world.

John Singer Sargent, a distinguished painter and muralist, was born in Florence in 1856 to American expatriate parents, the physician Fitzwilliam Sargent and Mary Newbold Singer. He had little formal schooling in his childhood, as his parents were constantly moving around Europe. His mother (who reminds me of my own restless American expatriate mother) believed that the artistic and architectural wonders of Europe were enough of an education for him and his younger sister Emily. Sargent was encouraged by his parents to draw and paint, and in the spring of 1874 the family moved to Paris to find an art instructor for the then 18 year old Sargent.

129. Dr. Pozzi at Home

Dr Pozzi at Home by John Singer Sargent, 1881

© The Armand Hammer Collection, Los Angeles

The chosen instructor was the flamboyant Carolus-Duran who immediately recognised Sargent’s immense talent and took him under his wing. Carolus-Duran had many young American artists in his studio in Paris, and it was here that Sargent made his first connections to the North American art world. The most striking thing about Sargent was how incredibly cosmopolitan he was, moving easily in his lifetime between the art scenes of London, Paris, Florence, Boston and New York. Not only was he a hugely talented painter, he was also fluent in English, French, German and Italian making it very easy for him to speak to all his portrait clients in their native languages.

The collection of paintings at the National Portrait Gallery are not portrait commissions, however, but portraits of his many friends in the world of art, music, literature and theatre. These paintings are not formal works created for clients, but daring and sensual portraits painted mainly as gifts for the sitters. It is a collection of highly-charged and unique portraits in which Sargent was free to experiment. And you can feel this energy when gazing at the portraits. I found myself standing in front of a full length portrait of Madame Edouard Pailleron who was the wife of the bohemian writer Edouard Pailleron, a very influential person and a sponsor of Sargent’s early career. Madame Pailleron is outdoors and is wearing a black dress with white lace. The contrast between the black dress and the green background is stunning. A man was standing next to me gazing at the portrait too and I could feel a triangle of tense energy between me, the man and the painting.We fell into conversation. ‘It is astounding how much he achieved in his life.’ I said to the man. ‘And to think that he confided to the author Henry James when sitting to paint his portrait that he felt he had lost confidence in painting portraits? How could this even be possible, that Sargent lacked confidence when you see this incredible exhibit?’ The man and I conversed briefly before going our separate ways in the museum. Next to the portrait of Madame Pailleron is a portrait of her children: Edouard and Marie-Louise Pailleron. Sargent may have had moments of self-doubt regarding his talent, but he certainly seemed to have had a lot of patience with his sitters. It is reported that it took 83 sittings to complete the portrait of the Pailleron children. Marie-Louise battled with him over hair and costume. It is said that Sargent had a great understanding of child psychology. His patience with the spoilt Marie-Louise is surely testament to this.

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose

Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent, 1885-6 © Tate, London, 2015

Erica Hirshler,the curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston (which is home to Sargent’s marvelous murals) has said that Sargent was a sponge, soaking up a myriad of influences: Japanese design principals and the techniques especially of Velazquez and Degas. Carolus-Duran was also heavily influenced by the Spanish Baroque portraitist Velazquez, and this influence can be seen in the full length portrait of Dr. Pozzi at Home which hangs right next to the portrait of the Pailleron children. Sargent depicts Dr. Pozzi in an ecclesiastical mode, donned in red robes. Dr. Pozzi was not a cardinal or a priest, however, but the father of modern French gynaecology who advanced reproductive and sexual health for women.

After admiring Dr. Pozzi I ventured on to gaze at what is one of Sargent’s Impressionist masterpieces: ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.’ Sargent was close friends with Claude Monet and had learned a lot from him about capturing fleeting outdoor light. One portrait in the exhibit is of Monet sitting outside painting. The past few nights I have been listening to Mozart’s quartets while gazing at my incredible copy of the colourful ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose,’ for it was the feminist and art historian Vernon Lee who said that the painting’s pleasures remined her of the slow movements of a Mozart quartet. I am sure Sargent would have approved of this musical interpretation, as he was a talented musician himself. He was a lover of Wagner and a fine pianist. One composer he greatly admired and supported was Gabriel Faure. When I gazed upon the portrait of him I shed a tear as his facial features reminded me of a musician I once loved who is sadly no longer in my life. And as if I needed a reminder of the pain that accompanies unrequited love, one of the next images my eyes rested on was a brilliant sketch of William Butler Yeats. Yeats proposed marriage to Irish revolutionary feminist Maud Gonne six times and she rejected him outright. They remained ‘friends’ but I have always been skeptical of the nature of that friendship. As I entered the exhibit I was still nursing the pain of rejection by the man who resembles the portrait of Gabriel Faure, but getting lost in the pleasures of art is certainly a good cure.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth by John Singer Sargent, 1889

© Tate, London

My spirits were lifted as I absorbed the details of the full length portraits of both Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth and the wild Spanish dancer La Carmencita. Sargent found both women’s theatrical presence electrifying and persuaded them both to sit for him. One of Sargent’s great talents was in capturing fabric in his painting. Barbara Dayer Gallati, author of the lovely book accompanying the exhibit ‘John Singer Sargent- Painting Friends’ said of the green silk and blue tinsel of Ellen Terry’s dress that it ‘provided Sargent with a field day for Impressionistic fireworks and scintillating brushwork.’

068. La Carmencita

La Carmencita by John Singer Sargent, 1890 © Musée d’Orsay,

Paris (R.F. 746)

I then fell into conversation with an elderly American woman as I wandered through the room containing Sargent’s outdoor paintings featuring Wilfried and Jane de Glehn painting at a fountain, another entitled ‘Group with Parasols’ and the underrated but stunning ‘Paul Helleu Sketching with his Wife’. Sargent also painted portraits of August Rodin, Robert Louis Stevenson and the actor Edwin Booth, whose younger brother John Wilkes Booth had murdered Abraham Lincoln. Gallati says in her book on the exhibit that Booth ‘wears a tragic, haunted look alongside a masterful self-confidence.’ I believe it is Sargent’s incredible talent for appealing to a variety of moods and emotions that make his work so astounding, and while looking at the portrait of Edwin Booth it struck me as to why I felt a whole range of emotions while wandering through the exhibit. The joy I felt while gazing at the uplifting and colourful palette of ‘Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose’, was then starkly contrasted by the romantic yearning that hit me while looking at the portrait of Gabriel Faure. Indeed, the whole exhibit made me feel both connected to the world and completely lost and lonely in it at the same time. The fact that Sargent had so many friends and acquaintances in the world of art, music, literature and theatre on both sides of the Atlantic is cause for both admiration and envy. But then, how could one not be well-connected and accepted when one has the unbelievable talent that Sargent possessed in many fields. I left the exhibit feeling deeply inspired to achieve more, learn more and keep on reading and writing and reaching out to and connecting with other writers, musicians and artists, for only by doing this do I escape the pain of loneliness and unrequited love. Barbara Dayer Gallati’s exhibition book has been my close friend this past month and Sargent’s art has filled my soul with hope and inspiration.

‘Sargent-Portraits of Artists and Friends’ runs until May 25th 2015 at the National Portrait Gallery in London. In June 2015 it then moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

All images courtesy of Sylvia Ross at the National Portrait Gallery Press Office.

Berlin Biennale 8 Review on Ahorn TV Website

9 Aug

Biennale yellow photo

My Berlin Biennale 8 Review is now being featured on the Ahorn TV Website: a German-Canadian TV show on a multicultural channel in Canada:

Review: Berlin Biennale 8

26 Jul


by Rhea H. Boyden

It is a hot Saturday afternoon and I am standing in the middle of Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes’ exhibit at KW Institute of Contemporary Art entitled ‘A secluded and pleasant land, in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am alone, thankfully, because I am in a bad mood. I have just walked down Auguststrasse in the centre of Berlin Mitte and entered this room of hanging hemp ropes, silk yarns, twirled and hanging bamboo sculptures and what appears to be a giant checkerboard on the floor. The rope makes me think of a noose, the checkerboard a maze. Hmm. I ponder the second half of the title: ‘in this land I wish to dwell.’ I am in the middle of a long goodbye to Berlin and have firmly decided that I no longer want to live in this land, and this exhibit is now irritating and depressing me. Gentrified Auguststrasse in 2014 depresses me too and makes me very nostalgic for the good old days of Berlin. I have many reasons for leaving now.


‘A Secluded and Pleasant Land…’ Leonor Antunes. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The curator of this year’s Berlin Biennale, Canadian/Columbian Juan Gaitan at least got something right with his curatorial aim when he stated his intention to hold the exhibition in already existing cultural venues because he says ‘continuing to seek out seemingly abandoned or derelict spaces for exhibitions no longer reflects the reality of Berlin.’ Indeed. Aside from the venue I am now in – KW Institute for Contemporary Art, the Biennale (which is the exhibit for contemporary art in Berlin) is also being held at Crash Pad on Auguststrasse, Haus am Waldsee and Staatliche Museen zu Berlin-Dahlem. It seems a rather large stretch of the city to traverse to see a relatively small number of exhibits. It takes at least forty-five minutes to get from Haus am Waldsee to KW Institute and who feels like commuting in this heat? Work from only a little over 50 artists has been commissioned and some critics are not too impressed with what they are finding. Art Slant Magazine, for one, says that the pieces on display in Haus am Waldsee are merely a ‘copy and paste curatorial approach’ to the work on display in Dahlem and do not really fit into the venue.

There is also no coherent or central theme for this year’s Biennale which the curator says is intentional. He wants the connections between the exhibits to remain tentative and for the pieces to be fully open to interpretation in order to ‘enable the development of the viewer’s autonomy in her or his own encounter with art.’ Ok, well, I suppose that can be liberating. I can think what I want and I can take what I want from it, which is lovely, in a way. Is he perhaps suggesting or requesting us to get whatever we want out of it because most of us can no longer just get whatever we want out of Berlin as it becomes more gentrified?


‘Stealing one’s own corpse…’ Julieta Aranda. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

I move onto the next exhibit: ‘Stealing one’s own corpse’-(an alternative set of footholds for an ascent into the dark) by Mexican artist Julieta Aranda. I sit on the blue-carpeted floor next to what looks like a piece of a meteor. A few feet in front of me there is a white bear trap. It is set and ready to snare its prey. On the screen in front of me there is an image of a rat being mutilated with a knife. On the screen I read snippets about rats. ‘The rat as currency. That would be interesting. Stockpiling of dead rats causes inflation. Britain converts to the rat.’ The screen then shows an image of outer space. To the left of me, hanging on the wall there is a space suit. I glance at it. I glance back at the screen and continue to read the text: ‘Space being carved up and owned because capitalists and bureaucrats have failed to solve their antagonisms on Earth.’ I am starting to feel a little sick to my stomach. Is it the result of the infernal heatwave we are experiencing in Berlin? When I think of space being carved up all I can really think about right now is the Malaysian Airlines plane that has supposedly just been shot down by a Russian missile. Who owns that airspace? It also makes me think of the astronaut who took a photo from the International Space Station of Gaza Strip at night, aflame with bombs and missiles. He tweeted it and called it his ‘saddest photo yet.’ It is time to go and get a cold drink.

bb8_angelidakis_installation view III_foto uwe walter_300dpi

Andreas Angelidakis ‘Crash Pad’ photo by Uwe Walter Courtesy of Angelidakis and The Breeder

After downing an expensive lemonade at the sweltering courtyard cafe I wander over to the Crash Pad which cheers me up a bit. It is the design of Greek/Norwegian artist Andreas Angelidakis and was the first commissioned work for the Berlin Biennale 8. It is an inviting carpeted room with a library. The first book that catches my eye is ‘A History of Philosophy’. I am happy to sit down and relax. Angelidakis designed this lovely room in the style of a Greek salon to serve as a meeting point for visiting artists to exchange ideas. Right now, I am happy to just sit here in silent contemplation and try and shake the dark mood I am in. This is day two of my Biennale experience and I was hoping to get more positive inspiration than this but my hope is fading. It is nearly time to go home and have a siesta. 

Haus am Waldsee

Haus am Waldsee

The day before it was not quite as hot, however, and I was in a better mood. The suggested route of this year’s Biennale is to first go to Haus am Waldsee, then to Dahlem and then to KW Institute of Contemporary Art and the Crash Pad. So that is the route I followed. There is little point in trying to do it all in one day so I divided it into two days. The one ticket gets you access to all venues. And so I set out on Friday morning with my new neighbours, artists in residence, Charla Wood who is a photographer and sculptor from Austin, Texas and Joseph Amodei an artist and lighting designer from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I am very happy to have such lovely new neighbours to do nice things with in my last few weeks in Berlin, and considering that it takes an hour to get to Haus am Waldsee from our building in Prenzlauer Berg I am happy for the company. They are both new to Berlin and I tell them that Haus am Waldsee is one of my favourite venues for contemporary art and I have written reviews of the art on display there before. Haus am Waldsee is in a leafy and idyllic suburb of Berlin- Zehlendorf and it was originally built as a private villa. It exhibited the work of Käthe Kollwitz in the late 1940’s- the first woman to be admitted to the Prussian Academy of Art.

Charla and Joseph

Artists in Residence Joseph Amodei and Charla Wood in the garden at Haus am Waldsee

When we arrive, the first exhibit that catches my attention is one by Cypriot artist Christodoulos Panayiotou: ‘3 pairs of handmade shoes, shoe boxes’ He has made the shoes into shoes from leather purses and they occupy the floor on the left hand side as you enter the room. Ah, transformation. Purses made into shoes. This makes me think of all the things I have at home that I still need to get rid of or ship back to Ireland. Just the night before, in fact, I had stumbled upon an article in the Huffington Post that showed a photo of a walk-in wardrobe with dozens of pairs of shoes. The article suggested the best way to approach purging extraneous things and living a minimalist lifestyle. This is one reason I have come to this exhibit today: because it is too hot to sit at home panicking about what to do with all the things I have collected. I would much rather be in an air-conditioned museum contemplating contemporary art and transformation. 


Christodoulos Panayiotou installation, courtesy of Dieresis Collection, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

The day before, I had had a discussion with Joseph Amodei about his work and how sculpture occupies public spaces and how to use public spaces well for art. He showed me one of his works ‘Worked Space: ft. Glue Chains’ and our discussion also revolved around looking closer at something and seeing more. That is the core of his philosophy in his piece ‘Glue Chains’ and I found this fascinating and spoke to him about Christopher Isherwood’s book Goodbye to Berlin and the quote from it that has formed the core of my philosophy of living with my eyes open in my last few weeks in Berlin. The Isherwood quote being the theme of my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’: ‘I am a camera with its shutter open.’ Joseph and Charla and I observed what seemed to be a stack of logs in the corner of the garden at Haus am Waldsee: upon closer inspection, however, we discovered that it was not a stack of logs, but in fact, hollow on the inside. The joy of looking closer, the joy of being ‘a camera with its shutter open’.


Patrick Alan Banfield 2 Channel Installation, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

One exhibit that spoke to me at Haus am Waldsee was a two-channel colour film and sound installation by German-born artist Patrick Alan Banfield. The pieces in each venue, according to the curator, are meant to reflect their surroundings. One screen showed enticing upclose shots of nature and woods and the other screen low-rent apartment blocks in Germany. This made me think of leaving my German apartment and moving back to Ireland. A return to nature and my rural roots. The piece was accompanied by very soothing music which made me relax and forget the hot day outside.

screen patrick

Patrick Alan Banfield 2 Channel Installation, Photo by Anders Sune Berg

By and by we continued on our way to the Dahlem Ethnological Museum. When we entered the museum we had to ask where the exhibit was because it was hard to find, hidden as it was between the permanent exhibits of Polynesian house boats and Inuit Kayaks. This is intentional. One is supposed to compare the permanent exhibit to the Biennale pieces and see what that provokes. It pushes home Gaitan’s curatorial message of the exhibit: to place it in already existing cultural venues. To compare Berlin collections of the past and Berlin contemporary art. What has disappeared? What remains? What is still to be discovered? How to come to terms with an ever changing Berlin? I know and feel very strongly as I prepare to leave Berlin, that the Berlin of my memory, the one of the past, its best and most interesting days are the ones that I wish to hold in my imagination. On this note, the first exhibit we came across by Egyptian artist Iman Issa, demands use of your imagination. There were various sculptures by her spread along the side of the gallery wall. The descriptions on the wall next to each piece describe something completely different and not the pieces. They are descriptions of paintings which are not there. The one I found most enticing was entitled ‘Seduction’:

‘A 1982 oil on wood painting depicts a man and a woman against an off-white background. The figures are sparsely dressed and are facing opposite directions. The man reaches his arm forward to grab a bird flying towards the edge of the picture plane. The woman is seated below him with her eyes fixed straight ahead. She is playing with her hair with one hand. Aside from a perfectly round sun at the top, and the distant figure of a bird at the bottom, the background is free of illustration. Overall, figures are grotesquely disproportionate, features are abstract and style is childlike. The width of the painting is 37 cm. Its height is 55cm.’

So what do I get out of this? Plain and simple: Berlin has lost its allure for me. What used to seduce no longer does. Maybe it is just because I am getting older? The seductive Berlin of my past remains a description and a memory. I think one of my biggest regrets is that I did not own a camera when I first lived in Prenzlauer Berg in 1993. But I can’t change that now and it is not so bad, really. The memories of my love for Berlin are burned into my brain, just as the memories of an enjoyable seduction get burned into ones’ brain and that is satisfying enough.

Fusion x64 TIFF File

Rosa Barba ‘Subconcious Society’ Photo by Anders Sune Berg

As I wandered into another room of the exhibit I saw these words on a screen: ‘It was the time of the objects crisis.’ This was an installation called ‘Subconscious Society’ by Italian artist Rosa Barba. Well there is only so long I can hang out in air-conditioned museums when I am having my own ‘objects crisis’ at home. It is time to go home and continue sorting through and getting rid of all the objects of my 14 years in Berlin to enable me to move on and move to Dublin at the end of August. I will carry my Berlin memories with me and hope to be in a better mood with renewed energy when I next get a chance to visit a large art exhibit. The Berlin Biennale has, all told, not really given me a huge amount of joy as I prepare to depart. Maybe it is just me and the headspace I am in, but I get the impression that others are also a little underenthused by the disparate nature of the exhibition.

Featured image is of Leonor Antunes piece by Anders Sune Berg

 Images courtesy of Biennale Press Office


Apartment Gallery

5 Jul

As I prepare to say goodbye to Berlin and about eighty percent of my belongings, I have taken my camera in hand and photographed all the artwork, posters and maps that are hanging in my apartment. I thought putting them all in a little gallery here would be the best way to preserve them. Some of the artwork is by two old friends of my mother’s, Shirin Begum and Ayse Domeniconi. I also have work by my friend Michaela Faber, plus a Tara Brooch that was given to me by one of my ‘angel people’ (angel people, according to writer Natalie Goldberg are people who come into your life when you need them most). There is a photograph of the waterfall near my family’s house in Ireland and a poster for an exhibition that was ripped from a lamppost by a visiting artist friend- ‘Reclaim Your City’. She ended up putting it on my bedroom door. These images tell some of the story of my life and my family’s life in Berlin and elsewhere. The first image is of the good old map of Berlin that hangs in my hallway:

Berlin map

shirin beach

‘Arid Hills’ by Shirin Begum. This painting is based on the beach at Gumusluk, Turkey where our family spent many summers.

Reclaim your city  Haight Ashbury

 ‘Reclaim Your City’ claimed aptly, from a city lamppost and put on my bedroom door. And a poster I bought at the Haight Ashbury street fair in San Francisco.

 shirin naked girl

 ‘Waiting for You’  by Shirin Begum. This painting has hung over my bed for the past decade!

Tara brooch

Glass Engraved Image of Tara Brooch given to me by a very special angel guide

Ayse pastel      Donkey bridge Ayse

Pastel flowers by Ayse Domeniconi and acrylic on canvas ‘Die Brücke’ (The Bridge) This painting holds special significance for me and is described in my essay ‘Goodbye to Berlin’.

shirin horse

Shirin Begum

Waterfall Coomhola

Photo of Coomhola Waterfall near my home in Ireland by Marc Holden.

ayse woodcutting Ayse lamp

More beautiful artwork by Ayse Domeniconi: ‘Bathers’ and an Egyptian couple in a lamp

shirin boat

‘Tropical Hideaway’ by Shirin Begum (based on Gumusluk, Turkey)

Anna Remann

Painting of Gallery on Kopenhagenerstrasse by Anna Zur Nieden

shirin twins

‘Only to See You’ by Shirin Begum

Slow Travel Poster   Soren Kierkegaard Poster

Slow Travel Berlin Guidebook Launch Poster and Soren Kierkegaard Exhibit poster at Haus Am Waldsee

Shirin flowers

 ‘Red Blossoms with Aloe’ by Shirin Begum

michaela faber lighter

‘Lighter in Red’ by Michaela Faber

Essay about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’

22 Apr

by Rhea H.Boyden


Exactly half a century ago, in the spring of 1964, Hans Helmut Kornhuber, the chief physician at the department of neurology at Freiburg University, and Lüder Deecke, his doctoral student went for lunch in the beautiful and serene garden of the ‘Gasthaus zum Schwanen’ at the foot of the Schlossberg hill in Freiburg. Their discussion over lunch was about their frustration at worldwide attempts thus far to investigate self-initiated action of the brain and the will. They were inspired, no doubt in part, by the fresh mountain air of the Black Forest to push ahead in their research using the primitive (but most advanced for the time) brain imaging tools at the university. After many test cases and a lot of research, the EEG (electroencephalogram) readings showed that there is an electrical signal in the brain that proves we are going to move a body part even before we want to move it. They had discovered the ‘Readiness potential’ or ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and debates on whether or not we have free will continue to today in all disciplines from neuroscience to psychology and philosophy.

Now I am no scientist and my knowledge of neuroscience is limited. I have read articles about Alzheimer’s in an attempt to grasp a basic understanding of the disease which is rapidly stripping my dear mother of all sense and vitality, and I have read some articles in the past week or so to understand the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ the latest release by Automating which is the solo project of soundscape artist Sasha Margolis from Melbourne, Australia.


                                                Lüder Deecke- Bereitschaftspotential Brain Image Scan

I have listened to the piece several times through with my good headphones relishing in Sasha’s sounds once again, with my eyes closed in meditation dozing into a dream world and seeing where it takes me thereafter in my writing. I have thought long and hard about why he has titled this piece ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and what he intends with this title. I have come to the conclusion that it is a heavy and loaded title that has led my thinking and reading to some dead ends and frustration about what to do with all my notes that I have been frantically scribbling trying to make sense of it all from a neuroscientific perspective.

I have decided, therefore to not dwell too much more on the title and have a look at it from a more poetic and philosophical angle, for therein lies my ability to make sense of it. Here I quote Friedrich Nietzsche to send me in a better direction: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’

Nietzsche spent much of his time in the same stretch of mountains and woods not far from where Kornhuber and Deecke carried out their work, (more than half a century earlier)  and he found the fresh mountain air and peace most conducive to working in. He would take long walks in the woods stopping to take notes before returning to his room to continue working. Quite apart from his many groundbreaking philosophical ideas and writings, Nietzsche took a great interest in the human body.

I believe one reason I have become so frustrated in trying to write this review is because the title ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ forces me to think I should be writing about the mind, brain and consciousness when what I really want to write about here is the body. Nietzsche believed that what living things sought above all, was to discharge their physical strength. He also believed that knowledge was rooted in the body and that the whole of Western philosophy had a deep misunderstanding of the human body. It is little wonder that Nietzsche took such an interest in the body; he suffered immensely thoughout his life from various ailments, many of which were symptoms of the syphilis he supposedly picked up in a brothel during his student days. It is no coincidence that a large part of his philosophy contends that human suffering is inevitable and indeed, necessary to go though in order to achieve greater goals.


 Photo of Statue of John Henry by Ken Thomas

This idea of Nietzsche’s that living things seek to dispel their energy makes me think of the core of Sasha’s philosophy behind his work and I quote from his website: ‘Sifting through the sonic waste and discarded technology left by the roadside of a world speeding too fast into the future.’ It makes me think of the men who have been replaced time and time again by machines, rendering their bodies and ability to dispel their physical energy useless, in essence, emasculating them. We do have a lot of waste out there, both physical and sonic and I believe it is the duty of everyone to reuse it all in some useful way. If machines have all but replaced our physical work, then what to do with all the machines once they turn to waste but to turn them into art to provide us consolation as we gaze at these post-industrial wastelands. Sasha deals with found sound in his work, but many others work with found objects; turning industrial artifacts that were not intended for artistic purposes into art to make a point, among other things, about waste.

‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions, runs for a little over 20 minutes and it is serious food for thought. To me the opening sounds are entirely industrial and repetitive. It is evocative of a machine turning or a small animal digging, trying desperately to get some job done and then in frustration giving up. I hear an electrical generator trying to start and then failing. This failing is frustrating to the humans who are trying to use this generator perhaps, but the peace they can then enjoy is then ever more appreciated; an appreciation which is then heard in birdsong. Quiet contemplation is to be found in nature and not to the sound of a generator.

The idea of this sound being either an animal or a machine is very exciting to me because there are so many examples in which we can compare an animal or a human to its machine counterpart. One example that immediately springs to mind is the horse. It was largely replaced by the train in the United States as the great railway building projects began there. And as exciting as it was to have all these new railways going across the country, they were built at a great cost in men’s lives.

Construction of Big Bend tunnel in West Virginia commenced in 1870 and the work was treacherous for the many men working on this project. They would have welcomed today’s tunnel drilling equipment (and dynamite). At least one hundred men died digging the tunnel, many of them black men. There is a legend about a certain John Henry who has been immortalised in a ballad performed by many singers including Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen. He worked on the railroad and was a ‘steel driving man’ and proud of it. One day however, a salesman came to town boasting that a steam-powered drill could outdrill any of the men. A race began, machine against man and John Henry won, beating the steam drill, but he eventually collapses when his body can take it no longer and dies leaving behind his wife Polly Ann and a baby. There is a constant beating of a drum in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which to me is the steady march of the working man before he collapses. To repeat Nietzsche’s quote: ‘Free will without fate is no more conceivable than spirit without matter, good without evil.’ Is this the battle of good and evil between man’s body and the uses and abuses of the machine?


 Photo of Thomas Bayrle Exhibit at Documenta 13 by Erin Reilly

A couple years ago at the Documenta Contemporary art show I was standing with a friend observing an exhibit by German artist Thomas Bayrle. It was a pumping piston, and as we both stared at it she suddenly said: ‘It’s so sexual’. I had to agree with her. Bayrle says that he believes machines are a reflection of the body and he draws inspiration for his artwork from the precision of machines and engineering. Indeed, what can we do but work artistically with all these wasteful things we have created? Bayrle’s was only one of many exhibits at Documenta that provoked commentary on the effect of machines and waste on our bodies and the environment. In our post-industrial society many men have been left unemployed by the subsequent collapse of many of the machines that once sought to replace them. For the first time in history women hold more jobs and more college degrees in the United States than men and the implications of this are serious indeed for those who still believe in and strive for traditional family structure. A whole reshuffling of gender roles continues to happen and many men and women suffer from confusion and anxiety at what role they should play and a general frustration at modern dating rituals and body image. I know that one of my biggest sources of solace is to get lost in reading and writing and collaborating on meaningful projects with others. In doing so I can escape from the fact that I am nearly 39 years old and single, and have not necessarily fullfilled a certain role that a large part of society expects of me by this age. Thankfully I have an open-minded family who let me do whatever I want and are supportive and don’t judge me, but many women, and men too, suffer from not fullfilling certain expectations; especially when it comes to getting married and having children.

Most of the time I enjoy my solitude and only rarely do I get lonely. The constant barrage of city noise, human noise and industrial noise is hard to escape, and I relish it when I can get away from it. There is a lovely part in ‘Bereitschaftpotential’ that seems to me to be the sound of engines being swallowed by birdsong which again says that nature is triumphant over industrial noise. It signals a retreat into nature where we can again listen to our bodies and give them the peace and rejuvenation that they need. For without a healthy body it is very hard to have a healthy and clear mind to produce new poetry, songs and stories. Indeed, there is a burst of birdsong in ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ which is evidence to me that the willful person or animal has happily found peace again amongst the elements. The piece ends very abruptly leaving you suddenly staring into an abyss of silence which is quite uncomfortable. As much as we humans seek silence, its suddenness and completeness can be disconcerting. Nietzsche also said: ‘if you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.’


Portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche by Walter Kaufman 1882 (Princeton Archive)

I have spent considerable time gazing into an abyss and thinking about ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ and in the final analysis I can say that it has inspired me to think of our bodies, machines, animals, birds, walking in the woods, new creativity and then I think repeatedly about the horse. 2014 is the year of the horse in the Chinese calendar and it is a great year to gallop ahead into new adventure and take some risk. As I mentioned earlier, it was the horse’s body that was replaced by machines. 2014 is also exactly one hundred years since the outbreak of World War One which showed the disasterous consequences of cavalry warfare mixed with modern machine guns. Again: Bodies against machines! And to conclude it must be pointed out that Nietzsche, in his madness, finally broke down and embraced a horse that had collapsed on the streets of Turin in January 1889 before he then went completely mad and was commited to a sanitorium. There have been various speculations as to what was going through Nietzsche’s mind at the time, but I like to believe the assumption that it was the philosopher who was most skeptical of showing compassion for human suffering finally showing it for himself (he loathed self-pity) and for one of the most beautiful of animals, in a vain hope that both their bodies can have the will to survive against the machines and noise that drive them both mad.

Featured image is artwork by Ieva Arcadia accompanying  ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ released by Iceage Productions (courtesy of Sasha Margolis).

Link to listen to and purchase ‘Bereitschaftspotential’ by Automating on Bandcamp:

Miss Shine and Mister Black – Part Two

8 Dec

Ruby Mccoy image Juliet

By Rhea H. Boyden

Miss Shine hits the snooze button for the third time. It is a dark, cold morning in late November and she really does not feel like getting up for work. She stands in front of her wardrobe unsure of what to wear. She rummages through her many clothes and eventually pulls out her green mini skirt. ‘I should either throw some of these clothes away or wear them more often!’ she grumbles to herself. She puts on the skirt and admires it in the mirror. It is the skirt she was wearing the first time she met Mister Black five years previously at the Christmas market when the fat snowflakes were falling. ‘I like this skirt. I don’t think I have worn it in two years.’ She thinks, ‘and this is precisely the reason I do not throw clothes away, because suddenly they have new life and I feel like wearing them again.’ This is the only way she can justify having an overflowing wardrobe. She likes her clothes. Wearing the skirt brings back memories of Mister Black. He liked the skirt too.

She has not seen Mister Black in over two years and is finally putting the whole drama behind her. All the vodka she drank, all the misery. The endless phone calls and emails with Mister Black trying to show him and convince him that she loved him and could not live without him. But nothing helped. Nothing moved him. He would date her, he said, but he would not engage emotionally. She was a mess and he would do nothing to console her. Eventually she had to try and move on and make a life without him. Was her life good without him? Eventually it was becoming better and she was beginning to forget him despite not having met another man. She was sober and throwing herself into her career and was doing very well with it. As much as she would like a new boyfriend, her work was very fulfilling and she supposed at some point another man would come along and love her in ways Mister Black refused to.

She wishes she had gotten up a little earlier so she could do her hair and make up and look a little nicer to complement the skirt that she so loves, but her bed was so comfortable this morning. She has one glance in the mirror and notices that she has a bit of facial hair sprouting on her chin and the faint shade of a moustache growing. She really does not like being a hairy woman but what can she do. Is she full of testosterone? She is constantly using tweezers and hair removal cream to keep these annoying hairs at bay. They are not a big deal, loads of women get them, but they are so unfeminine, and just another vexing task one has to keep up with: hair removal. No one else really notices these faint hairs, but she does, and she doesn’t like them. She pulls on her purple hat, puts her headphones over them and skips out the door to work. The hat is not really flattering either but it is cold. No need to be vain.

Miss Shine is sitting on the train and suddenly she looks up sees Mister Black standing there playing with his iphone. He looks up and stares right at her, but does not see her and then stares back at the iphone. She sits there, stunned. ‘Is that really Mister Black standing right there or am I imagining things?’ She composes herself and then gets up and walks right over to him and says ‘Hello’. He just stares at her in amazement and eventually composes himself enough to say ‘I didn’t recognize you with the hat on!’ ‘How are you?’ she stammers. ‘I am fine’, he says. ‘I haven’t shaved!’ he announces uncomfortably. Miss Shine thinks again about her facial her and feels uncomfortable about that. All she can think is that at least he is a man and has a good excuse for facial hair, but she is feeling mortified about hers, which no one else really notices but herself. It’s not like she is Frida Kahlo, for God’s sake. Why are they both so concerned with hair right now? Is this all one can think about after not seeing each other for over two years. ‘Yeah, I just crawled out of bed too.’ This statement is presumably to put them both at ease at being caught unaware and unkempt. ‘I am working seven days a week at the moment.’ She says, ‘Work is full on and I don’t really have time every morning for hair and make up.’

When they were dating they always looked good for each other. Always dolled up and ready for their exciting dates. Now they are forced to look at each other in the morning, on the train, both disheveled and not as they would wish to be seen by the other. The air is tense between them. The chemistry is still there. It never dies. William Faulkner once said that the past was not dead and that it was not even the past. Miss Shine agrees with Faulkner because she is not good at letting the past go.  People are always telling her to forget the past and move on, but this is impossible for a writer. She also agrees with Noam Chomsky who said the following: ‘the highest goal in life is to inquire and to create; to search the riches of the past and try to internalize the parts of them that are significant to you and carry that quest for understanding further in your own way.’ But she really has spent the past two years trying to banish Mister Black from her mind and now here he is standing right in front of her again and he looks even better than he ever did. She likes his facial hair. And they are actually really happy to see each other. She knows very well that she would run the other direction if she encountered certain other exes, but despite how badly it ended between her and Mister Black they are truly happy to talk to each other now. She proudly shows him the flyer to her book launch party. ‘What about the marketing?’ Mister Black quizzes her. ‘Have you got that covered?’ He was always questioning everything and provoking her and he has not changed, she can see that. ‘He is dealing with the marketing’ she responds. ‘Who is he?’ Mister Black demands of with her with great curiosity, staring searchingly into her eyes. ‘My boss at the magazine.’ Miss Shine responds, nervously. Eventually they reach Mister Black’s stop and he gives her a big meaningful hug and then he exits the train. He stands on the platform and they just stare at each other as the doors close. Miss Shine thinks of Emily Dickinson’s quote ‘Parting is all we need to know of hell.’

Miss Shine is happy, stunned, confused and of course, in hell. She is still in love with Mister Black, of that she is sure. Parting with him was always hell. And she can tell by the way he was acting towards her that he still has feelings for her, but she also knows that this is dangerous territory to be revisiting. She must also remember how cold he was at times and how he vexed her no end and how she drank and drank and was miserable with him despite their intense sexual relationship. How he rarely wanted to see her, how she pined for him and missed him and how she drove both him and herself mad with her over analyzing of the whole relationship. Her life has truly improved since she quit drinking and Mister Black is gone. This is the rational side of Miss Shine’s brain thinking. But then there is her heart and the fantastical and obsessive side of her brain that makes it impossible for her to forget this little encounter on the train. Mister Black is once again the leading man in her thoughts. What can she do about it? Everywhere she turns she thinks of him and sees some relevance to him. Once again she pines for him. The writer in Miss Shine is always searching for connections where they did not lie before. Connecting the seemingly unconnected and using her imagination to create stories and articles is what she does, day in day out. She writes down her obsessions and she follows her heart. It is what she is good at. Stories, articles, poetry and diary entries. She constantly writes. She is a big fan of Hungarian- British Journalist Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation that posits that the creative act is being able to link the unlinkable and create new ideas out of disparate ones that previously had nothing to do with each other. She lives and breathes this idea every day in her work, ever searching for connections. Most of the time this is a blessing for Miss Shine. Suddenly, however, it has become a curse.

She thinks again of the skirt. How strange it is that she should put on the skirt again that she wore the first time she met Mister Black and suddenly while wearing it for the first time in two years she runs into him. This is a crazy coincidence and for her. She writes Mister Black an email and tells him how happy she was to see him and how she still cares for him and that it was always her wish to keep dating him and that she is successful and happy in her job now and that she does not drink anymore and that her life is drama free. He writes back and tells her that he is happy that she has found something that makes her happy and wishes her the best with her book launch. He says no more. Miss Shine is disappointed and hurt. She knows he still feels something for her. It was so obvious after their encounter on the train. She has admitted her faults and said sorry for past drama and she has accused him of nothing. But he has not changed. Now was his chance to say he was sorry for treating her badly and he is not doing it. This drives Miss Shine completely crazy. She sits down and writes him a ten page letter telling him that she loves him and wants him to love her and why can they not start again and she forgives him. The letter is written from the heart and it is a good letter. She spends hours composing it. She then deletes the letter and is relieved that she did not send it to him. He doesn’t deserve the letter. She has already told him she misses him and she was happy to see him, there is little point in saying more. She puts the green skirt away and goes to bed and tries not to think about him. Tries not to see connections in everything. She is determined to not write to him again, banish him from her mind and go back to her happy, drama free life.

‘In the dark the mind runs on like a devouring machine, the only thing awake in the universe.’ Miss Shine reads this line from ‘White Noise’ by Don de Lillo and she relates to it completely. Her mind is like a devouring machine once again. Who was it, she wonders who said ‘The mind repeats what the heart can’t delete?’ The conversation with Mister Black on the train is on repeat in her head. The very tension of how she greeted him with a simple ‘Hello’. She repeats the word ‘hello’ over and over, remembering how it sounded and how he reacted to it. She could have pulled her hat down over her facial hair and ignored him and hidden from him but now the word ‘hello’ has come to bear so much weight and meaning. ‘It was the same weighty and meaningful ‘hello’ that he had greeted her with on their first date. She remembers the details. She remembers practically every detail of every word spoken between them on every date. Why does she remember this? Because their dates were so precious and so rare that every act and every word carries its own special weight and meaning.

She goes to an art exhibition to try and get her mind off of Mister Black. While sitting at a table with the curator of the show and some of the exhibiting artists the curator offers her a cookie. ‘The cookies are letters’ he says. ‘Each one will have a special meaning.’ Miss Shine takes a letter cookie from the box. It is an X. She says nothing. The curator then says ‘Oh you have an X! What could that mean? Anything to do with ex boyfriends?’ Miss Shine says nothing. She munches silently on her X cookie. She looks at the artwork in the exhibit and tries not to think of Mister Black. She sees a painting by an artist named Jade MacEwan. The painting shows a distraught woman with a knife stuck in her breast. ‘So can you tell me what you intended to portray with this painting?’ Miss Shine asks the artist with a smile. ‘Yes’ she says ‘It is based on Romeo and Juliet… It is Juliet’s despair at finding Romeo has poisoned himself, so she kills herself with the dagger. And it actually has another meaning behind it’ she says ‘about the general despair women find themselves in over men at times. That is why she is sitting in the poison. It’s symbolic. Pretty much all my paintings rely on symbolism.’ Miss Shine stares at the painting. She can see that the ‘poison’ is a bottle of spilled wine. She thinks of Mister Black again. She remembers how she drank a lot of wine to help her deal with her despair over Mister Black. ‘Arthur Koestler be damned!’ thinks Miss Shine to herself. The Theory of Bisociation is far more subtle than this. It talks about relating the unrelated in creativity. There is nothing subtle here. Everything she sees reminds her of Mister Black in a glaring and loud manner. She moves on to the next painting in the hopes it will reveal something different to her. ‘These paintings are by British artist Kyli John and they are named ‘Collision Series’’ the curator announces. These brightly coloured acrylic paintings portray the mash of feelings that are created when a couple collide. They portray energy and tension between men and women.’ Miss Shine can hear no more of this. She excuses herself and goes home through the wind and rain. She will go home and put on a cheesy movie, think no more about art and journalism. She will eat chocolates and try and forget about Mister Black. She arrives home and does just that only to discover within five minutes that the film is set in Mister Black’s hometown which is a tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Her heart sinks and she is lonely. The next night she goes on a press pass to the grand opera house to see ‘West Side Story’ which is another Romeo and Juliet themed story. It makes her think of the painting at the gallery and of the long love letter she wrote to Mister Black but did not send. Seeing the young lovers profess their eternally dying love to each other makes her think the love letter is a good idea after all. She loves Mister Black and she wants him to know it. She is reminded of a Mayan Sun King who loved his wife so much that he had both their tombs built just so: every spring and autumn at the equinox, the sun would rise in the east it would cast a shadow of his tomb that would fall on her tomb and then when it set in the west in the evening it would cast a shadow of her tomb back onto his tomb. This has been happening for the past thirteen hundred years and is meant as an everlasting symbol of their love. Miss Shine would love to rewrite the love letter of the symbol of her everlasting love for Mister Black and send it to him, but her pride prevents her. She needs to try and forget him. It is the only thing to do. She also needs to try and forget Arthur Koestler’s Theory of Bisociation when she is not working. It is useful for journalism, to be sure, but not in matters of the heart.

Featured image ‘Juliet’ by Jade MacEwan