This blog has moved to Please make a note, and I look forward to seeing you there.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Tetsumi Kudo and Pierre Huyghe at the Walker Art Center

The Walker Art Center here in Minneapolis is one of the country's leading Contemporary Art Venues. It features live performances and films in addition to visual art. This Saturday, Nov. 15th, I had the pleasure of visiting it for three reasons: 1. a reading by Samuel Delaney, 2. a film by Pierre Huyghe, and 3. the first major solo exhibit by Japanese artist Tetsumi Kudo.

The Delaney reading was delightful, but I feel that I have little insight to offer. He speaks in a clear, crisp voice and is, of course, an incredible intellect. See him if you get the chance. He has long since transcended any narrow definition of him as merely a science fiction writer.  

 The film by Pierre Huyghe was extraordinary: it is "a room-size film installation entitled A Journey That Wasn’t (2006), which premiered at the 2006 Whitney Biennial and was acquired jointly by the Walker and the Whitney Museum of American Art." It juxtaposes visions of an Antarctica trip with nighttime shots of the Manhattan skyline and of a crowd listening to an orchestra in Central Park playing avant-garde classical music. Sometimes, the crowd looks like penguins. Sometimes the buildings of Manhattan look like Antarctica.  

The film begins by showing a man dressed in heavy outdoor gear in the dark trying to hold onto a large piece of plastic. The wind keeps billowing it outward and up an icy and snowy hill. Behind the man, open water laps inches from his heels. At his right is a lamp with a bulbous 'shade': the wind blows it over. Another man comes to pick it up.   Then a voice-over tells us that this film is about an effort to find a singularity (i.e. an albino penguin living alone on a deserted island off Antarctica) and then to resist the urge to bring it back, to instead just leave it there, as it was. 

He says that it ends in tragedy: what he means by this, I am not entirely sure, but I suspect it has less to do with 'capturing' the penguin in any conventional way, and more with capturing it on film. The attempt to film the penguin brings with it large, intrusive lights, people in bulky beige suits walking the ice, ships and small boats offshore.   In one particularly telling shot, Huyghe juxtaposes a shot of the bare masts of the ship poking up toward the grey sky with the New York skyline. In spite of our efforts to appreciate nature, we can only do so by transforming it to some extent, even in such a forbidding climate as Antarctica. New York can and does come to Antarctica.   

It is a paradox: as soon as wilderness is defined as such, it ceases to be wilderness.   

The shots of Central Park get more and more disquieting as the film progresses. The crowd's faces become less and less distinct, only to finally become indistinguishable from their surroundings. Strange, dark sculptures, which bare a resemblance to the rock outcroppings in Antarctica, are strewn about in the park. There is a lake nearby.   Huyghe continues to darken his shots.   

At one point I thought I was looking at a penguin, only upon closer inspection to learn that it was a bass clarinet. Another time I was watching a number of basses, until Huyghe gradually shifted them into a nondescript whole, which then turned into rocks and penguins.   

What does it mean to "shoot" film? to "take" a picture? to "aim" a camera? It is telling that the verbs we use to discuss film are all appropriative and / or violent. To what extent did having lights and cameras and bulky looking people on its island cause trauma for the penguin? could it even have been fatal? 

Watching this film put me in mind of a show I saw on the History channel last week. It explored how the earth would change if human beings were to suddenly become extinguish and all else was to remain the same. It showed the decay and destruction that would occur in the first 40 years, 100 years, 500, and a thousand. At some point, even Manhattan would revert to the way it looked when Native Americans lived there.    

Antarctica, as metaphor for wilderness, would come to Manhattan.

This film seems to show, in a more trenchant and emotionally devastating way, that humanity's stamp is both profound and quite light. We have redefined almost the entire earth according to our lights.   But no definition is definitive, if you will allow the pun.   

The film ends by placing a grid of various geometric shapes on top of a shot of the skyline: we see immediately that geometry and rock outcroppings are not only similar, but perhaps related. Humans may have derived geometry from the shapes of nature, only to later impose them on nature.    Such imposition is, of course, profound. But it is not forever changed. 

As the film drew toward a close, the shots became darker and more and more undifferentiated. 

And this brings us to the Tetsumi Kudo exhibit: Garden of Metamorphosis. One of the leading post-war Japanese artists, Kudo, who died in 1990, worked in an incredible number of media: string, computers, cages, paint on cloth, manikins (perhaps), manufactured skulls, and phallus after phallus after phallus, together with, later in his career, flowers (perhaps the feminine counterpoint to the phalli?) However, he seemed also fascinated about the border between human beings and the rest of life, between death and creativity, between liberation and being caged.     

For me, some of his most effective works were a series of birdcages that he worked with in the 1960's and 70's. He usually painted them a bright color — yellow or blue, for instance — and inside often placed either blobs that seemed to represent birds, or sculpted human hands that were knitting.They occasioned in me a fascinating meditation on the tension between creativity and captivity. To create, as Samuel Delaney reminded us during a question and answer period, is to be within the bubble of your own creation, thereby being unable to evaluate it or to believe anyone else's evaluation.   And not only are creators within the very terms of their creation, but they also need to be working within some sort of tradition or traditions in order to make any sort of sense. In that sense, we are caged. Like Rilke's tiger, we cannot see beyond the bars of the trajectories of the traditions we are within. To do so would be to render oneself incomprehensible.   

Is this what happened to Herman Melville, when he was thought to have gone crazy because of the types of novels he was writing (including Moby Dick)? Perhaps Melville had to wait for another cage to recontextualize his work. It happened about 40 years after his death. Could it have just as easily been 200 years?   

I can't answer that question. I am in a cage.   

It is important, however, to note that these cages are both sites of imprisonment and sites of liberatory creativity. The birds in these sculptures often seem quite chippy. The hands are making something of colorful yarn.  

There is much more to see in this exhibit, but the cages fascinated me the most: Not one had an open door.  


No comments:

Post a Comment