Monday, July 03, 2006

the wide-eyed tourist

Continuing on my eager tourist route, I checked out the MOMA a couple of days ago - that temple to which all western modern art history classes is dedicated [broken obelisk above is a suitable homage]. And yes, it is always a thrill to see the stuff of canonical texts - to know that yes, without a doubt, what you are seeing has been stamped and approved (for now!) as "the good stuff". (no - I didn't see the Dada show - I am not a fan.)

It has been so long since the new building opened (long - in my memory span anyway), that I forget some of the initial criticisms of the Yoshio Taniguchi structure. (above facade photo doesn't really cut it) I loved it because it not only humbled itself in the presence of the art by refusing to compete - but at rest intervals between galleries, there always seemed to be an available view of the outside fountains, gardens, and sculptures. In other words, in contrast to the Met for instance (or most other historical museums for that matter) one doesn't feel hermetically sealed within the building nor within some kind of suspended timewarp. The building, and thus the art inside, is constantly referencing the world outside - its inspiration, after all, for what is inside and how it narratives are constructed. I guess that's kind of an obvious attribute for a postmodern building - but I liked it!

I discovered that I really liked the work of Philip Guston - a large collection of his paintings from the 60s was featured within one of the ongoing exhibitions. Picture bold pinks and reds - giant organic forms that morph into actual banal objects (like a cigarette dangling out the mouth of an artist as he lays in bed) when you take a step back. I was also so intrigued by the Herzon and de Meuron display (two Swiss architects that are hot hot hot - they did the new Walker in Minneapolis as well as the de Young in San Fran and so much more...) - which included videos set into the ceiling and then reconfigurations of the museum's collections behind small windows, so that you had to WANT to see them in order to peek through. The whole thing made you physically aware of the process of seeing and in turn, forced viewers to see things more carefully and more delibrately than they normally would.[photo below]

One interesting little art historical detour carried me through "Transforming Chronologies" (TC) - an exhibition of drawings exhibiting modernism at its best but in a provocative unchronological way. For instance - aligning work by Matisse, Kara Walker, Vito Acconci, Juan Miro[photo right] (not all together) - so playing with time frames but setting up work that appears to have used similar artistic solutions to make different (or the same) points. The substance of their work cuts across time.

But it should also cut across space. Which brings me to that niggling critique that you knew was coming.

I should say that TC included work from Latin and South America - which was interesting. But while modernism's historical perspective has perhaps broadened slightly to include non-North American or W. European art, the East is still a sticking point. And the proof that it IS a sticking point can be found in the photography galleries - again designed to show the "universal" language of modernism through the camera lens. In here, one African artist - Seydou Keita from Mali is represented with a studio portrait from the 50s; and there are three Asian artists (two from Japan with whom I was not familiar, and Ragubhir Singh from India represented with a shot of women in the monsoon from the mid 60s). They are fascinating interventions upon an otherwise western landscape of modernity.
And you wonder how they got there.

It isn't that you can't find non-western work in the MOMA - you can, if you look for it. But it was in the context of these exhibitions that aimed to display the artistic trajectory of "modernism" in new and exciting ways - that the silences are particularly palpable. Are we still asking "when was modernism" in China, India, African countries, etc...? I guess so.

And so it has to be remembered that MoMa's narrative of modernism - even in this brand new cutting-edge version - only goes so far. If you look between the cracks for other voices, you can find some of them (faintly) - but you have to find the cracks first. And they don't make it easy.


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Revisiting "Retake"

About four years ago, I came across the catalogue published by Tulika books on Vivan Sundaram's Retake of Amrita exhibition. At the time, I wrote a little review of the work based on the catalogue (probably a review that I would NOT want to revisit at this late date!), and have since curiously watched as the show seems to have been travelling extensively since at least 2002....through Europe, Canada - I think maybe Singapore?? - and to the US.

All this preface is to say that I finally got to see the work in the flesh at the Sepia Gallery and wow - I have seen this work reproduced so often that I did not expect to be blown away by the real thing. Guess what? I was completely and utterly blown away.

Of course scale is always the first thing that jumps out after spending years looking at photos or slides, but it was the composition of the whole thing itself that produced, well, very intimate and raw emotive space. And that, I think, is not so much the impact of the individual photos which were taken between circas 1911 and 1950 by Vivan 's grandfather, Umrao Singh - but rather it came from Vivan's own manipulation of the photos to reveal relationships, tensions, and uncertainties between his family of "actors". You become invested in the trajectory of their lives and, like a theatrical event, you want to know how it all turns out in the end for every one of them.

I was also surprised and delighted to see parts of the actual Amrita Sher-Gil archive on display - photos that Umrao took of himself and his family that Vivan later manipulated for the Retake show. Just the disclosure of the archival photos was a glimpse into an important - yet surreal - moment in Indian history, underscoring Amrita's canonic place in Indian modern art while at the same time questioning her real ties and sense of identity linked to India.

I say the last because although much of her work drew on Indian subjects, she did so with the pov of a European modernist, and with the eyes of the European elite of which she and the whole family were very much a part. Her physical and psychological distance from - rather than her connection to - India is so striking in these images. The fact that Amrita (as a figure) and her paintings were so aggressively swept up by the nationalist movement is thus a more fascinating comment on the tensions and contradictions of early postcolonial nationalisms than I had previously recognized.

There was also a 10 min set of videos in the show that employ photographic stills, video and music - facing each other and tracing in not-so-subtle ways, the narratives of Amrita's mother and sister (Vivan's mother). Although I was mesmorized by the flickering photos and their "movements", I still found it the least compelling aspect of the show as the music was a little too monumental and over the top; and one had to wonder about the real messages, obviously the artist's mother's history is a personal narrative, but it is difficult to tell as the mother (Indira) does not give nearly as much away in the images at Amrita. And as for Vivan's grandmother, Marie Antoinette, her death by suicide is a little too sensationalized here with the jerky and somewhat odd video manipulation of the images, it comes off as somewhat forced or obvious.

I guess here stands my love/hate relationship with the archive-as-art or even as a parallel to art: Marie Antoin's story - I suppose like Amrita's - is best presented in the context of art as a l little obscured and mysterious - at least ambiguous. And there is a line here between the "real" archive and the "surreal" art. At what point can I as the viewer interpret the work - and when am I forced to yield to the historical "truths"? I know the story of the family - or at least how it is told in the public realm - but can one view "Retake" without feeling as though their interpretations need historical narrative "corrections"?

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

LIVE from New York!

I'm baaAck!
After a couple of months on the lam from blogging, moksha has resurfaced in the big apple and really, what could be a bigger impetus for getting back her much-needed groove?

Day One - while it probably would have been more practical if I had spent the day buying amenities like, I don't know....toilet paper and soap? - instead I spent most of the day at that bastion of art and art pilfering (did I say that?), the Met.

In four hours, I barely got through the Egyptian galleries (that is a whole other story - I used to think that mummies were rare...), but my comments here are reserved for Anglo Mania, a wacky and deliciously irreverent costume/diorama show which transcended the confines of curatorial "creativity" - a feat that was made all the more incredible to recognize while standing in such a traditionally austere institution.

Basically - the show mused upon the construction of "Englishness" through the "traditions" and "transgressions" of its clothing history. "Tradition" in this case stood for clothing that ranged from the 18th to end of 19th century, and "transgressions" (which took their cues from "traditions" but overturned them in the process) that were played out mainly in the past twenty years and were predominantly represented by designers Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. I should note here that this tradition/transgression thing ultimately seemed a little forced - who's to say that the "tradition" specimans were not transgressions in their own time? Or maybe there was on a comment here on the shifting meaning of these era-centric 'uniforms' - in 100 years, the trangression examples will be "tradition"...

Anyway - the real transgression, in my opinion, was in the layout of the show. These period rooms that normally house the Brit. classical art section of the museum were so wonderfully rearranged and acted upon by wild-haired mannequins, the effect was a deconstruction of the traditional museum space and a forging of something new. Picture a grand non-working fireplace arranged in a museum to display, among other things, period type fireplace implements and untouchable gilded mantle decorations - now picture that same mantle with a translucent-skinned mannequin with blue hair and Galliano newspaper print and tartan long underware sprawled over it in the place of gilt decor. It upended the whole concept of the "period room" and the diorama which are so often formulaic when it comes to costume display.

In this juxtapositon of old and new, tradition and transgression, it was equally fascinating to hear the comments of visitors. Some outright poo pooed the whole thing, unwilling to suspend belief for a moment that Burberry waders, mohawk head dresses made from tampons, and Elizabethean-inspired jewelry containing semen deserved a place in the Met's hallowed sanctum. Others were constantly trying to identify the contemporary pieces from the old ones in efforts to determine, as one woman said, the "original" from the derivative, I suppose. There were a lot of sniffs and some bored expressions - if the clothing codes were too familiar, it seems, they lost some respect among those who go to the museum to be reminded of how much they don't know, rather than to rethink what they do.

But still others were, like me, blown away by the spectacle and sheer theatricality of the "scenes", overarching in melodrama and yet so right for the opulent interiors that surrounded them. I particularly liked the way the class system in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries were constructed, featuring interplays and conversations across time and space among "gentlemen/prep school types" and amongst "coachmen/punks". [photo above]

Enough for now - but suffice to say the way this exhibition tore down conventions of chronology, and diorama display, forcing us to pay attention to the cinematic elements of the galleries which we usually take to be natural and normal constructions, will stay with me for a long time. Hopefully other curators will follow.

Guess what? I'm in NYC and it's awesome.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Opening sucess!

Over at are images from the opening of Gendering Detail in Toronto this past Friday - a labor of love for four artists, a curator and two gallery directors!

This means I no longer have an excuse for not keeping up with Moksha - so once the juices start flowing again - i will resume!

Thursday, April 27, 2006


Apologies for the hiatus - I have been spending all my time over at:

But I promise to return in about a week!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Washing Machines and Wunderkammers

The History of Chinese Painting and The History of Modern Western Art, Washed in the Washing Machine for Two Minutes (on your left), by Huang Yong Ping, is always a crowd pleaser in the classroom.

While it brings out some points for discussion from students, it also helps to articulate Huang Yong Ping's (HYP) own status, straddling both China (which he left in 1989) and Europe/US (where he is much loved in the art world).

In the latest Art in America, Eleanor Heartney has written a clear essay, I think, about his retrospective at the Walker in Minneapolis, now at MASS MoCa.

And I am struck by a couple of things:
-the first is that I - and many other designated 'non-western' art historians - often lament the fact that we are expected to have a knowledge of western art as an a priori given, despite the fact that it is not our focus of study. "Western" art historians, on the other hand, are not assumed to have knowledge of India, China. etc....
And yet here is an artist who uses his extensive knowledge of western art history (find overt references to John Cage, Duchamp, da Vinci, the Euro "avant-garde") AND Chinese art histories in Taoism, Buddhism, Zen - as well as Chinese arts collectives like Xiamen Dada) - and uses it all to tremendous effect without placing these two intellectual locations at odds with, or in resistance to, each other.

In fact, he made me want to learn more about Western European art so that I could better decipher his references - and that is no mean feat for a Chinese contemporary artist.

In any case, I can't help but wondering if us non-westernists can make better use of our world-straddling positions and force more dialogue across the proverbial art historical chasm. Finding probably - more similarity than difference.
I was at a dissertation writing seminar a couple of years ago and came away totally frustrated because I was the only non-western person, and thus to my mind, my work had a hard time being understood and connecting with the others in the seminar. There was a real dissonance there that, instead of trying to get to the bottom of it, we all just swept it under the carpet - including moi. But I wonder if there is some sign there - that I'm not doing enough to see beyond my little frame....??

-The other point I had about this exhibition was what Heartney describes as its Wunderkammer qualities. There are taxidermied animals a la Museum of Nat. Hist; divination tools; live reptiles; part of a reconstructed airplane, short, all the mismatched displaying of a cabinet of curiousities. And I realize (where have I been, you might ask??) that artists are moving away from the in-your-face critique of the museum space (Andrea Fraser, Fred Wilson), and HYP brilliantly seems to use the critique as a legitimate frame for his show, without being guilty or underminded for actually holding the show in a museum space!

If all that seems a bit mishmashed at the moment, it's because I am currently running late and waiting for a shuttle to take me to the airport. More later.....

Monday, April 03, 2006

Florida: the promised land

What is it about the state of Florida that makes everyone absolutely throw up pastel colors?

Don't say it's the warm climate - I'm not buying that. there are plenty of hot places in the world where women outright refuse to wear pale canary yellow "slacks" with a soft minty green shirt and think, "of course they match, they're both pastels". The only thing missing with that combo is a pacifier - the state is inhabited by big, old babies.

This phenomenon does not stop at clothing, but even there you have a case for a seriously challenged visual culture.
Oh no - it extends to houses, to interior design, to cars, to restaurants, to grocery stores - everything is swathed in blossomy shades that those of us in the rest of the country (not to sound superior or anything..:) would not let our children wear after the age of two. Call it my San Francisco cynicism - it isn't normal, or healthy, to consume and wallow in so much pastel. You start to believe that Disney is real life and that the sun really does have a happy face. Or something like that.

It's as if everything has this determined mission to look happy, innocent, and peppered with childlike wonder. It's the "we're on vacation and damn it we're carefree" suspended color-time. Or the "we live here and are under the delusion that everywhere looks like this" color resignation.

I cannot give you a visual on this because I really don't want to spend the time hunting one down on the web. You will just have to trust. And ponder the horror.