Tag Archives: Art

On Climate Change, Music and Activism in The Arts

13 Nov

By Rhea H. Boyden

It is late October 2018 and I am standing in my stepmom and dad’s vegetable garden at our family home in West Cork, Ireland. It’s raining. The leeks, kale, spinach and beets look delicious. This is the first time in my life that I have stopped to fully and truly appreciate and show gratitude for this garden. I am wondering if Ireland’s climate will still be stable and predictable enough to reliably grow vegetables in 2040 when I am 65 years old. I am thinking about the alarming new report that has just been published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that states the urgency of climate action NOW if we are are to cut risks of extreme heat, drought and poverty that will affect hundreds of millions of people in the coming decades. I have been reading a lot about climate change the past few months and I find it all completely distressing. I pick a leek. The rain begins to come down harder and I am getting soaked but I don’t care.  A headline flashes through my head: ‘Climate Genocide is Coming.’ As I unearth a few beets I remember a few more headlines: ‘It’s five minutes to midnight on climate change.’ and ‘New Outlook on Global Warming: Best Prepare for Social Collapse, and soon.’ I carefully pick a few leaves of spinach and kale and then finally go back inside the house to escape the rain.

2018 began very well for me creatively. I was reading nothing about climate change and science at all. After a few years of writing venue and DJ reviews in Dublin I decided to delve even deeper into music reviewing and I ordered a pile of books that would deepen my knowledge of what is going on technically in the electronic music I was listening to. I spent months joyfully reading all about music theory, the neuroscience of music, the history of dub and the rise of  electronic music. I talked to music writers and DJs about music. PHEVER: TV-Radio DJ Hugo McCann assisted me in my quest to learn more about the music. Last summer, in the middle of an unprecedented Irish heatwave, Hugo and I met up for the afternoon to listen to some music and analyse it. As we listened to one of his many brilliant mixes he patiently explained to me what we were hearing. ‘What is that sound?’ I asked. ‘That is a Jamaican concave drum,’ he said. ‘And that sound?’ I continued. ‘That is hi hat cymbals, and then you hear organs and a sequenced clap,’ he explained. I am intrigued. It is good to finally understand what I am listening to. I want to learn more. We moved on to his latest mix that he had just aired on his weekly show the previous weekend. I always love Hugo’s mixes but this one irritates me when I listen to it the first time. ‘It’s a bit too full on for my taste,’ I tell him. ‘Well, yes,’ he says, ‘The tempo of the promos I am being sent has been increasing in the past couple of years. The tracks keep getting faster and faster,’ he says. I tell him I find this no surprise considering the pace of people’s lifestyles as well as the temperature of the planet keep increasing too. And while we are enjoying the hot July day we are also fully aware that it is absolutely not normal for Ireland and we are already well over a month into a drought accompanied by record-breaking temperatures. We talk about climate change and environmental doom as we discuss Hugo’s mixes and where he draws his inspiration from.

PHEVER: TV-Radio DJ Hugo McCann

My intention after my meeting with Hugo was to continue learning about music and instruments  and to use this knowledge to bring my music reviewing to a new level. I haven’t published a single music review since then. Why not? Because I have been questioning the whole value of writing art, music and literature reviews at all with the increasing number of terrifying articles about climate catastrophe that keep pulsing through my newsfeed. So I have been reading every article about climate change I can get my hands on and as depressing as it is, I find it important to inform myself fully about the latest reports, data, projections, predictions and projects that are being implemented to protect the most vulnerable on this planet from the worst effects of climate change. And I have been talking to others about it. My friend Paul Sullivan in Berlin is a music writer, photographer and the editor of Slow Travel Berlin, a magazine I wrote for when I lived in Berlin. I have also recently read his brilliant book about the history of dub entitled ‘Remixology – Tracing the Dub Diaspora.’ ‘So what do you think about the spiritual and psychological implications of the latest reports on climate change? and ‘What do you think about the merits of continuing to review music and art? ‘ I asked him. ‘In terms of the arts and music as a response,’he said, ‘I would be tempted to say that first and foremost we should probably be dropping them in favour of direct political action. Maybe mass art protest could be useful but I think looking at paintings and listening to music just doesn’t cut it in the current climate,’ he said. I told him I fully agreed and that it was a recent encounter with a painting that made my blood boil regarding this exact topic. I was standing in the National Gallery of Ireland last summer in the large exhibit of  the work of German Expressionist artist Emil Nolde (1867-1956). I reviewed the exhibit in depth but one painting and Nolde’s description of it made me so mad. It was a beautiful oil painting of the North Sea painted in 1950. Nolde’s description of the sea was the following: ‘The wide tempestuous sea is still in its original state; it is the same today as it was 50,000 years ago.’ ‘Well, the sea is not in its original state any more!’ came my audible response in the middle of the gallery. Ocean acidification is killing off coral reefs and it is projected that there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Photographer, Writer and Slow Travel Berlin Editor Paul Sullivan

A little over a year ago we experienced the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia which wreaked havoc in the south and west of Ireland. Roofs were blown off houses and thousands were left without power. Last March we experienced the humorously named ‘Beast from the East’ – a blizzard which brought the U.K. and Ireland to a standstill. We are definitely not prepared for this. I have spent many winters in the United States and Germany where there is, of course, a great measure of snow and ice preparedness because it is the norm every winter. On my street in Dublin, the pavements never got cleared and they were packed with ice and snow causing many injuries to pedestrians. I did not suffer at all during either of these events. I didn’t lose power and I didn’t run out of food. My room was warm and I stayed home from work and read a tonne about art and music. I enjoyed the days off. I guess you could say I was pretty lucky. You could also say I was pretty smug and complacent. I feel that my reading of the past few months has stripped me of a great deal of complacency. My recent reading has informed me that we citizens of affluent countries most certainly will not be spared the effects of climate change for a whole lot longer than those in the poorest and most vulnerable areas of the world. We are all in this together. A leading climate scientist named Peter Wadhams believes an ice-free Arctic will occur one summer in the next few years and it will likely increase by 50% the warming caused by the CO2 activity produced by human activity. The temperature was 20 degrees above normal in the Arctic in early 2018.

During the blizzard last March I read and reviewed a wonderful memoir entitled ‘Playing the Bass with Three Left Hands’ by Will Carruthers who was a bass player in Spacemen 3 and Spiritualised, two pioneering British psychedelic bands of the 1980s and 90’s. His book is the funniest and most heart-wrenchingly real book I have read in years and I have been praising it and promoting it all year. Will writes so beautifully about music and politics, and life in a touring band and I have thoroughly enjoyed studying his work and listening to his music this year. I also asked him what he thought about climate change and climate doom and his first philosophical response was: ‘Every second is doomed to fall.’ I pondered this. He then said ‘Have you heard of the Dark Mountain project? It is a website for enviro goths who have abandoned all hope.’ I told him I did not want to abandon hope and that despair and gloom will not mobilise us into climate activism. He told me there was also hope to be found in despair. Will has also written about climate change and, in fact, I laugh out loud when I read what he has written. A bit of comic relief is essential. An excerpt from his brilliant piece on climate change goes: ‘A terrible darkness descends upon humanity, as nature claws back what is hers, eventually the balance is restored as cockroaches and rats get to have a go at the top of the food chain. The billionaires are the last to go, having been forced to watch the terrible fate of humanity unfold in real time with an increasingly uneasy feeling that survival might not actually be the best prospect, even if you are rich. The last human sound on Earth is the screaming of billionaires being nibbled by rats.’

Musician, Artist, Writer and Poet, Will Carruthers

No, I most certainly don’t want to give up hope and I also don’t want to give up reviewing art, music and literature either because it brings me a lot of joy and connects me to many wonderful people. I do feel, however, that my reviewing henceforth will become more focused on activism. I truly believe at a time when arts, music and cultural funding is being slashed and also not being prioritised in schools that writers, artists, musicians and DJs have a duty to fill this void. So I have been having a look around for people who are doing great things and one person I have connected with recently is artist Stephan Crawford who is the executive producer of the ClimateMusic project which is a group of scientists, musicians and composers based in San Francisco who create music based on climate data. They then throw concerts to communicate the urgency of climate change activism to the public. I asked him about it and he said: ‘Our concerts combine science-guided music with data animations and visuals to viscerally communicate the urgency of climate action. We then engage our audiences in conversations about solutions and we connect them to a network of organisations that can help them learn more about the issue, take action at home and build community around engagement.’ I am completely intrigued by the work of the ClimateMusic project and the following is a lengthy quote about a current project of theirs:

‘Climate’ is an original composition by Erik Ian Walker. It was made by identifying four key indicators and assigning each of these a musical analogue: Carbon dioxide concentration is reflected in the tempo of the composition with increasing amounts of CO2 accumulating in the atmosphere causing the tempo to speed up. Near Earth atmosphere temperature is represented by pitch where a rise in temperature translates to detuning, increased dissonance, harmonic complexity and/or a rise in pitch. Earth energy balance (the balance between incoming energy from the sun and outgoing heat from the Earth) changes are audible as distortion, ring, modulation (a wobbly metallic sound), volume and a general ‘unhealthy’ unevenness of the atmospheric tone. The greater the imbalance, the greater the distortion and the loss of natural harmonics. Ocean pH is represented by compositional form and as the pH in the ocean drops (becomes more acidic), the compositional form degrades.’

I am thrilled to be reading this and it lifts my spirits and inspires me to read more.  For in it I have found a wonderful description that rolls into one the two things that have been preoccupying my thoughts the entire year; descriptions of music and climate change. I watched and listened to a clip of what this is trying to get across to the audience and essentially you hear very clearly how the pitch and tempo of the music increases to an anxiety-inducing level in line with carbon dioxide levels and earth energy balance over the years. It makes me think of another book I have been studying this year: ‘This is your Brain on Music’ by Daniel Levitin in which he writes: ‘Pitch is one of the primary means by which musical emotion is conveyed. Mood, excitement, calm, romance and danger are signalled by a number of factors but pitch is among the most decisive.’ And it also instantly reminds me of what Hugo told me about tempo increases in the music he has been airing on his show. I go back and listen to his mix again that was a bit too full on for me before. I listen to it twice and three times and with each listen it grows on me. It is dark and it is evocative of doom and gloom, but like all of Hugo’s mixes he has shared with me, it takes you on a journey. And I can’t help but think about environmental doom when I listen to it. Daniel Levitin explains is his book exactly why, from a neural perspective, I am making these associations: ‘Each time we hear a musical pattern that is new to our ears, our brains try to make an association through whatever visual, auditory, and other sensory cues accompany it; we try to contextualise the new sounds and eventually we create these memory links between a particular set of notes and a particular place, time and set of events.’ The event was the heatwave and the discussion with Hugo was about climate change and I am brought right back to that experience by listening to the music. It helps, of course, that the vocal samples in this particular mix of Hugo’s include the words ‘foolish’ ‘frightful’ and repeatedly the word ‘justice.’ It isn’t hard to link it to climate change. I now love this mix and it has become my climate doom soundtrack that inspires me to write and act.

Anthropologist, Writer and Eco-Feminist Activist Carolin Cordes

So what about Climate Justice? Another person I have recently become friends with is the lovely Carolin Cordes. Carolin is a writer, anthropologist, and eco-feminist climate change activist based in Dublin. She tells me the latest IPCC report has also spurred her on to greater activism. In her article entitled ‘Women, Climate and the Rise of Eco-Feminism’ published in Green News, Carolin writes the following: ‘In 2010 former president of Ireland Mary Robinson  founded the Mary Robinson Foundation for Climate Justice which works towards securing justice for the most vulnerable victims of climate change.’ Carolin points out in her article that climate change disproportionately affects those who contribute to it the least, and also that according to UN statistics 80% of those displaced by climate change are women. I have been talking to Carolin a lot and she and I have been sharing ideas and articles. Eco-feminism is a cause close to her heart. ‘Women have a strong link to the environment because globally they represent the majority of those working in small-scale farming, as well as resource management around water and wood,’ she writes. ‘Females also preserve strong traditional knowledge by saving seeds and farming organically, hence they protect the natural world with their long-term outlook.’  When reading Carolin’s writing I once again think about music and the maternal and feminine nature of dub that Paul writes about in ‘Remixology’. He writes beautifully about the penetrative and male nature of the heavy bass beat as it vibrates the body, but he also writes the following: ‘A great case has been made for dub’s maternal nature. Music listeners such as Simon Reynolds have noted dub’s ability to take us back to the ‘amniotic sea of the womb… the lost paradise before individuation and anxiety.’ ‘ Individuation is, of course, a hallmark of our carbon-fuelled society.

The main piece of literature that has inspired me to write this piece is a 30 page research paper by Jem Bendell, who is a professor of sustainability leadership and the founding director of the Institute for Leadership and Sustainability at the University of Cumbria. His paper entitled ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map For Navigating Climate Tragedy’ is both riveting and terrifying. He spells out in detail how doomed we are as a species by quoting all the latest climate data. If you believe what he writes, that we are now facing runaway climate change with no way of preventing it, as I am tending to believe now, he offers practical solutions to prepare ourselves for the coming decades of inevitable climate chaos.

He offers a three step plan of what he calls ‘Deep Adaptation’ – Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration. How can we make ourselves spiritually and psychologically resilient once we have entered into the post-climate change denial stage which I feel personally, I am slowly moving into. Do we completely fall apart and lose all hope? No, we prepare, we collaborate and we adapt, something we are good at as a species if we put our minds to it. I think of my own resilience training. Every morning, I cycle 4.8 miles to work in Dublin and 4.8 miles home again in the evening. This may not seem like much, but I do it in all weather besides a hurricane or a blizzard. As the weather becomes more unpredictable this is something I need to plan a little more cautiously. I am dealing with traffic and dangerous obstacles every day. I believe it keeps me mentally and physically fit, enabling me to manage many other challenges in my day to day life.

Bendell writes- ‘Given that analysts are now concluding that social collapse is inevitable, the question becomes: What are the valued norms and behaviours that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive?’ This question then brings us to Bendell’s second step in his plan which is relinquishment. On a more global scale this will mean moving away from coastlines and shutting down vulnerable industrial sites. On a personal level it will involve giving up personal pursuits that only exacerbate  problems such as flying. When I was recently home in West Cork my brother, who is now helping my father to manage our property, turned to me and said ‘Rhea can you come home some weekend soon and help us with firewood?’ With guilt I thought of the two flights I have just booked: one to London for New Year’s and another to Portugal in February. I love travelling. I have been doing it my whole life. My family and friends are spread all over the United States and Europe and the travelling lifestyle is one I am well accustomed to. Our property in West Cork has beautiful woodlands on it that my father has been sustainably managing for decades. It provides us with plenty of firewood for our wood-burning stoves. In the future I will spend more time at home chopping firewood and expanding our vegetable garden in the hopes that the climate will cooperate. It may not be glamorous but it is life-sustaining.

This brings me to Bendall’s third step which is restoration. What are the values that we will wish to restore that have been eroded in our carbon-dependent and growth-driven society? Bendell writes: ‘Examples of restoration include rewilding landscapes so they provide more ecological benefits and require less management, changing diets back to match the seasons, rediscovering non electronically powered forms of play and increased community level productivity and support. When I read this I immediately thought of my closest neighbour in West Cork, a wonderful woman a few years younger than me named Jessica Mason. Jessica is a mother of two, a gardener and an environmental educator. She has a lot of great skills and a tonne of energy to achieve wonderful things in a rural community. After my decades of city life, I am very grateful to have someone like Jessica as my neighbour to offer me advice when I eventually move home, whenever that will be. I have also been talking to her about all these topics and we have been sharing articles and book recommendations.

Gardener, Mother and Environmental Educator Jessica Mason

If all of this seems alarmist and extreme it is also heartening to read what Bendell writes about how people react when he discusses his ideas with them. ‘In my work with mature students,’ writes Bendell, ‘I have found that inviting them to consider collapse as inevitable, catastrophe as probable and extinction as possible, has not led to apathy or depression. Instead, in a supportive environment, where we have enjoyed community with each other, celebrating ancestors and enjoying nature before then looking at this information and possible framings for it, something positive happens. I have witnessed a shedding of concern for conforming to the status quo, and a new creativity about what to focus on going forward.’

In a Guardian article from April 2018, 86 year-old British social scientist Mayer Hillman said ‘We are doomed.’ He told a shocked audience at the University of East Anglia that accepting the impending end of life on Earth as inevitable might be the one thing that will help us prolong it. He says when someone is told they are terminally ill they generally appreciate life more. He claimed that the important things will be music, education, community and love as we adapt to climate chaos. The best that can be hoped for is community support because the likelihood of us now pulling together as a planet and stopping carbon emissions are slim to none. The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil spells catastrophe for the rainforests. He is only the latest in a series of far-right politicians to gain power across the world. And while scientists and activists work valiantly to provide solutions such as large machines that will suck carbon out of the atmosphere, such a machine is largely a fantasy, and in any case, to produce something at scale takes a lot of time and money, both of which are in short supply. I am not a scientist. I am simply quoting from what I believe are trusted sources and trying to make sense of it all for my own life. I am sure I will have critics for writing this essay, but it is too important and has been on my mind obsessively the past months to not write it.

Despite all this, I still live in hope and I find my solace in continuing to learn about music, writing, reading, and continuing to collaborate passionately with people I care about. The nature of projects I work on will likely change over the next while but I still do truly believe that the arts and music are important in helping us build resilience and form connections in an uncertain climate and by no means a frivolous pursuit.

Paul Sullivan writes the following in ‘Remixology’  ‘Since echo is also related to human memory (the human brain codes remnants – the echo – of a memory), it can be used as a tool to transport listeners to the past. Jamaica’s dub pioneers used echo in combination with the sentiments and spirituality of roots reggae to provoke a sense of Jamaica’s ancestral African roots.’ Does music hold the power to bring us back to the simpler lifestyles many of us led before our lives were so driven by consumerism and growth? I think of life in West Cork in the 80s. How we lived with very little money and no running water or electricity while my parents were building our house. We and most everyone else in West Cork lived pretty frugal lives. An important ritual in rural Ireland back then was the trad session in pubs. Everyone brought instruments and there was a great sense of community. I took Irish dancing lessons and I remember dancing in pubs a lot as a child. This tradition has nearly died out in Ireland. Perhaps it will return in the future. We have to live in hope for a restoration of less carbon-intensive activities otherwise what is the point.

I wrote this essay while I was sitting in bed alone on a rainy Sunday afternoon in Dublin in November. I spend a lot of time alone, but it is also worth noting that the word loneliness only entered the English language around 1800. I love my solitude to read and write but there is certainly a thin line between solitude and loneliness, for modern loneliness is, after all, largely a result of our pursuit of individual lives in a carbon-fuelled world.

There are other ways of living.

Thank you for reading my story.
With love and gratitude,

Rhea Boyden
Dublin, Ireland
November 2018

Many thanks to Paul Sullivan, Hugo McCann, Will Carruthers, Carolin Cordes, Jessica Mason, Stephan Crawford and many others besides for sharing their stories with me.

Photo of Will Carruthers by Francesca Sara Cauli

Thanks so much to Paul for his photo which he took of himself.

All other photos taken by Rhea Boyden

Review: Emil Nolde at the National Gallery of Ireland

14 Jul

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By Rhea H. Boyden

I am sitting in a Dublin cafe on a date with a man I met on Tinder. He is polite and well-mannered. He asked me out for a coffee so here I am. There is no real chemistry between us and I am sure I will never see him again, but it is pleasant, nonetheless, to meet him for an hour and chat about our lives. He is a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and holds a degree in mathematics and artificial intelligence. He tells me a bit about his work, which is fascinating. On the table between us lies the book I have with me; the exhibition catalogue of the Emil Nolde exhibit at the National Gallery of Ireland. He asks me about the book. I tell him that one of my passions is reviewing art. He looks at me curiously and asks: ‘How and why do you review art? That must be so difficult. How do you understand the emotions and intention of the artist?’ There is a pause between us. Here is a man who holds an advanced degree from one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world and he genuinely does not understand or have a subtle appreciation for the wonderful creative process that is interpreting, analysing and reviewing art.

I have thought a lot about his questions the past few weeks and have been asking myself why and how I review art with the Emil Nolde exhibit as a focus point to aid me in answering these questions. I have been reading and rereading the exhibit catalogue and, because it is summer, and I am feeling a little isolated I have also been on a few more dates with various men in the hopes of finding some intellectual and emotional connection. The dating experiment has failed and so I have given up on it, once again. I have found no connection and so reviewing art becomes even more relevant and significant to me. When one man I was chatting with started being extremely sexually explicit with me I ended the conversation and realised that one of the main reasons I review art is because it presents erotica in a far more enticing and subtle manner. I would rather spend a whole day in a museum spotting subtle hints of erotica than partake in what seems to be the norm these days: brazenly exposing yourself sexually online in an unsolicited manner. Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned? I will stick to my principles.

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Emil Nolde – Rain over a Marsh -Copyright -Nolde Stiftung Seebuell (NGI)

There is a lot of subtle erotica in the work of German expressionist painter, printer and watercolourist Emil Nolde (1867-1956). In his autobiography ‘Das eigene Leben: Die Zeit der Jugend-(My own life: the time of youth) he describes the following religious/erotic experience that he had as a boy in his windswept Northern German home of Schleswig Holstein: ‘After school was over, work on the farm began. Sometimes, however, I walked alone over the fields, driven by thoughts and indistinct feelings. In a cornfield, unseen by anyone, I lay down, my back flat on the ground, my eyes closed, my arms outstretched, and then I thought: this is just how my saviour Jesus Christ lay down after men and women had taken him down from the cross, and then I turned over, with a vague belief that the whole wide, round, wonderful Earth was my beloved.’

Emil Nolde grew up in religious Northern Germany and practically the only book in his house was the Bible which he read and studied regularly. His paintings bear many religious and spiritual messages and this is another reason I review art: because as an atheist who never attends church, museums and galleries have become the spiritual halls where I find solace and hope, inspiration and joy. Art galleries to me are landscapes of pleasure and reflection. They help me understand my inner emotional landscape and make peace with myself or solve life’s dilemmas. Keith Hartley, curator of the Scottish National Gallery writes the following on Emil Nolde: ‘Creating an art from within lies at the heart of Nolde’s art: whether it comes from an inner spirituality, from deeply felt emotions, from a powerful self-identification with nature or from a self-abandonment to it.’ I see my own life reflected in Nolde’s work. His spectacular painting ‘Large poppies (Red, Red, Red)’ 1942, are an ode to colour and life and, of course, sex. Red flowers are a pretty cliched and not so subtle metaphor for sex and the female genitalia, but in an age when people send unsolicited photos of their genitalia to shocked recipients on online dating platforms, I like to think that the red flower metaphor has, in comparison, regained its position of being a subtle erotic metaphor. The darker flowers in this painting that are hanging low on their stalks remind me of how I hang my head in dismay when I am unable to make sense of some of the perils of modern sexual expression online.

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Emil Nolde – Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red) 1942 Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

In their collaborative book ‘Art as Therapy’ Alain de Botton and John Armstrong lay out the potential uses of art in modern society and how we could re curate our museums to better serve human emotional and psychological frailties. They identify and discuss seven functions of art: remembering, hope, sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growth and appreciation. They argue, for instance, that museums are a wonderful place to help us grieve with dignity. Sorrow and mourning are a natural part of life that we all have to deal with. And while I have pondered some of Nolde’s ideas that deal with sex, Botton and Armstrong discuss methods of helping us deal with that other eternally confusing mystery: death. They analyse a large black rectangle sculpture by artist Richard Serra. ‘The sculpture is encouraging a profound engagement with sadness.’ they write. It grants you permission to grieve. I find this comforting, for as I write this essay I am aware of a looming anniversary. My mother died one year ago this week and so naturally I have spent a lot of the last year thinking about death and grief. And while the Nolde exhibit is alive with colour, last summer the National Gallery of Ireland held an exhibit of Dutch Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer’s work and I went to the exhibit a few weeks after my mother died. It was a much darker exhibit than the Nolde exhibit and I, naturally, was in a pretty dark and confused place in my head and heart. But I drew what solace I could from the exhibition, nonetheless. I recall standing in front of Vermeer’s painting ‘The Astronomer’ and feeling profoundly sad. My mother loved astronomy and I remembered clear starry nights as a child in the States when we would go out stargazing with my mother and she would pull out her glow-in-the-dark star wheel and teach me and my siblings the names of planets and constellations.

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Emil Nolde – Light Breaking Through, 1950 – Copyright Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Another reason I review art is because it constantly inspires discussion about politics, the environment and the natural world. Art gives us space to reflect on scientific and environmental discoveries without having to be an expert in scientific fields. Last year I worked as a panel discussion moderator at the Cuirt International Literature Festival in Galway. After hosting my own panel discussion I attended another fascinating panel of environmental writers and they entered into quite a heated debate about how we are still attempting to portray our planet as this wonderful pristine specimen in our well-curated Instagram and Facebook posts. It simply portrays some fantasy of what we wished our planet still looked like. A friend of mine recently posted a photo on Instagram of plastic bottles and bags floating down a river amongst swans and ducks and I liked it and commented saying ‘Thanks for expressing the truth.’ I thought again about this when I read what Emil Nolde had to write about his spectacular paintings of the North Sea: ‘The wide tempestuous sea is still in its original state; it is the same today as it was fifty thousand years ago.’ If Nolde only knew the pitiful state of the oceans today with their shocking level of plastic pollution. Last year President Trump cancelled an Obama era plan on the sale of disposable plastic bottles. I am also writing this essay in the middle of an ongoing and unprecedented heatwave in Ireland. How can art inspire us further to action to battle climate change? Lest we sink into depression at the inaction of our political leaders?

Emil Nolde died decades before witnessing our oceans filling up with plastic, but he did witness the destructive effects of Western Civilisation on native peoples during his trip to the Southern Seas and New Guinea in 1913-14. He took a huge interest in ethnological studies and frequently took trips when in Berlin to the ethnological museum to study, sketch and paint Germany’s exotic new artifacts that were being brought back there from the Southern Seas.

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Emil Nolde – Exotic Figures II, 1911 – Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Another piece by Nolde that really struck me was his oil on canvas piece entitled ‘Party’ (1911). He and his wife spent a lot of time in Berlin at cabarets and dances and Nolde was fascinated with colour, dance and music. But in this painting you are made aware that Nolde is merely an observer and not actually participating in the party. Botton and Armstrong talk about the huge importance of art in helping us remember the important and impactful events of our past, so naturally this painting makes me think both of the many years I spent partying in decadent Berlin and then also, when I quit drinking and partying and merely became and still remain a distant observer of the party. I still love music and dancing of course, and I become very excited at any comparison between music and art and the parallels between the two. Nolde writes in his autobiography that ‘Colours vibrating with the sound of silver and bells ringing of bronze’ are what herald ‘passion and love, blood and death.’ Curator Keith Hartley elaborates: ‘The musical analogies that Nolde uses in talking about colour were common parlance by the mid 1930s. Kandinsky made it a central argument in his theoretical writings.’ To enjoy art I simply need to be open and receptive to music, painting, song and dance. But to answer HOW I review art? It takes a lot of reading and searching for connections. And since I quit the decadent party life I spend way more time reading. It is work, but it is enjoyable work because of the spectacularly sophisticated levels that art curation keeps striving for as well as exquisitely and brilliantly written exhibition catalogues that are being published these days to accompany shows all over the world.

Woodcut by Emil Nolde – Prophet – 1912 – copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Nolde was also very talented at woodcuts and carving and he was fiercely proud of his peasant roots. He likened the tools used and the physical labour applied to creating a woodcut to the hard labour and tools used by the peasants. Art History lecturer Christian Weikop writes the following: ‘The sense of primitive authenticity in the hand-printed woodcut, where no two impressions were ever entirely the same, was for Nolde, a way of proclaiming his kinship with old rural artisan and peasant cultures against the standardising technologies of industrialisation.’ It is the abundance of connections and metaphors that spring up constantly in discussing art that make it a joy to review.

I cannot with good conscience, write a review about Emil Nolde without discussing the fact that he supported the National Socialists and wanted to please them with his art. Hitler despised modern art, however and Nolde’s work was deemed ‘degenerate art’ much of it being confiscated by the Nazis and he was subsequently banned from painting but continued working underground. Can we enjoy the wonderful work of artists who support political regimes that are abhorrent and corrupt or is this hypocritical? I am thinking long and hard about the moral implications of this because Nolde was a hugely talented artist and his work continues to be displayed today. Can we forgive him his political sentiments? These are big questions to ponder.

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Emil Nolde – Young Couple 1913 – Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

There is a lot to consider but I will conclude this review where I began; pondering relations between men and women. One of Nolde’s much loved works is a lithograph of a young couple which he reproduced 86 times in different colours. It depicts the tension between the sexes. We can draw any conclusion we want from this piece but naturally I think about the relationships I have had to date, how they have ended, and what my hopes are for the future. I will continue my communication of subtle erotica with people I hope understand it. And in the meantime, I think about and review art and I live in hope. Hope, according to de Botton and Armstrong in ‘Art as Therapy’ is something that will never die as long as we keep an open mind and keep engaging with art.

Images courtesy of the National Gallery of Ireland Press Office

Featured Image – Emil Nolde – Party (Gesellschaft) 1911 Copyright – Nolde Stiftung Seebuell

Emil Nolde ‘Colour is Life’ will move to the Scottish National Gallery of Art in Edinburgh where it will be on show from July 14th – October 21st 2018

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 8 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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.’

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

20 Dec

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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‘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.

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‘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.

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‘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)

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‘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.’

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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

Review: John Singer Sargent Exhibit – 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.

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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:  http://ahorntv.com/review-of-berlin-biennale-8-by-rhea-h-boyden/

Review: Berlin Biennale 8

26 Jul

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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.

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‘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?

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‘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.

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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. 

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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

Sasha’s Sonic Waste

22 Sep

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by Rhea H.Boyden

Last Christmas I found myself wandering through one of Berlin’s many Christmas markets on a Wednesday evening. The market was practically empty and I was in a sombre mood. I had some money in my pocket and wanted to buy some gifts for the people I loved, but I was feeling uninspired by what I saw. ‘There is a lot of lovely stuff here’ I thought, ‘but it’s the same junk as every year’. I strolled through the whole market and purchased nothing but a simple ceramic bowl that caught my eye.

After strolling some more, I found myself standing in front of the market’s Christmas tree. The ‘tree’ was constructed of lots of metal pipes from which were strung various pieces of junk. Old tires, smashed up radios, ancient computers and broken bikes. It was strung with a nice strand of lights, only half of which were illuminated. In front of the tree was a big sign reminding us of how much waste we humans have produced and how we really should think carefully about what we purchase before doing so especially considering we are in the middle of a recession. ‘Well’ I thought, ‘Here we are being told NOT to buy things in the middle of a market in the middle of the Christmas season which is the most important time of year for retail business to make its biggest profits and turnover’. I heeded the sign and didn’t buy another thing at that market. I did end up buying small gifts for my family and friends last year, but I spent most of my money on good food instead.

A couple weeks later, I met an interesting young man from Melbourne,  Australia named Sasha Margolis. Sasha, whose  artist’s name is ‘Automating’ creates the most interesting sounds that really make me think deeply about our material world. While listening, I read his biography of his craft and it says: ‘Sifting through the sonic waste and discarded technology left by the roadside of a world speeding too fast into the future. Field recordings, found sound, tape manipulation, noise and effects units. Currently pursuing live and studio created binaural soundscapes and archaic tape based drones.’ When I read this I immediately thought of the Christmas tree again and all the junk that has been left by the roadside that people had nicely reused to decorate a tree and make a point at the same time. Sasha, as far as I can see, is reusing sonic waste and turning it into something useful: deeply inspiring sounds. As I mature, I start to really see the value of contemporary art forms, something I simply did not understand or see any worth in when I was younger. This past summer when I was at Documenta Contemporary Art show, I found myself standing in front of a big pile of scrap metal and junk that was one of the exhibits. One then asks: ‘Is this art?’ and ‘What is the value of this?’ The value of this of course, is to make us think about how much we waste and ponder more creative and artistic ways in which we can reuse, reduce and recycle and make our planet a more sustainable place for future generations.

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Sasha Margolis

I was recently killing time flipping through  a high end women’s fashion magazine in a doctor’s waiting room. The magazine was full of advertisements for very expensive make-up, jewellry and clothing. The article that caught my eye however, was one that claimed that you do not have to be ashamed to say you are broke and unemployed in the middle of a recession. It showed you how you can creatively mix and match the clothes you already own without wasting money you don’t have on more junk you don’t need. This article impressed me as quite ironic sandwiched in between advertisements for expensive luxury products, just as the scrap and junk Christmas tree was placed in the middle of a market which is there for one reason: to make a profit.

Some mornings when I am getting dressed for work, I realise I am all nicely dressed up to greet a new client and then I swing around, look in the mirror and spot a lovely hole in my black tights. I don’t let it bother me though. I go to work anyway, and at least several better dressed people will point it out to me during the day, and I just blithely say ‘Oh really, I didn’t see that, never mind!’ If there is one thing a girl could go bankrupt on, it is constantly wasting money on new tights every time the tiniest hole appears in them. I do, of course, eventually splurge on more tights and throw the old ones to the junk heap, but not before I get the chance to wear the ones with lots of holes in them, two pairs at a time, under jeans, where no one knows the holes are there apart from me, in the depths of Berlin winter. This is just one way that I try and reuse and reduce waste. The other morning, Sasha sent me a link to his latest album and again it immediately made me think of waste reduction methods. Sasha’s sounds keep me thinking for hours about art, renewal, waste, death and the cycle of life. He samples so many different sounds from engines to sheep, to fireworks and birds. Sounds from from rural areas and from cityscapes. His sounds send me into a dream world and a trance and inspire me to write about all kinds of topics, which is interesting because his latest album ‘Somnambulist’ released under the label Wood & Wire deals partially with sleep states. Well done, Sasha!

Sasha’s music is available for purchase on Bandcamp.

To read reviews of Sasha’s music check out his reviews page.

 

 

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Link to Documenta article in Roll Magazine

26 Aug

 

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Photo by Erin Reilly

Link to Documenta article in Roll Magazine