Archive for the 'Narrative and perception' Category

Time is a loop

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam – – Within every moment unfolds another moment. Sometimes it seems like all events have always existed and are being stored in a giant collective archive of images. The advertisement underneath, of the Pakistan International Airline, was published in 1979, the same year Bin Laden took up arms against the USA. 

Sure, the prophetic value of the picture is baffling, but another thing that intrigues me – without taking in account the events that lead to the destruction of the twin towers – is the uncanny feeling of this illustration. It reminds me of the apocalyptic drawings of Hugh Ferris (underneath) which cast dark clouds over the pinnacles of Americas economic achievements. They seemed to predict the great financial crisis of the 1930’s. Another event in history that seems to repeat itself every now and then; I guess time really does go around in a loop…





Little big man

Martijn van Berkum, Svolvaer — From my fifth until my 16th I set out every year with my parents on a holiday trip to France. We had huge a orange tent and a station car with a metal construction on top that my father filled with a one meter pile of plastic chairs, a table and loads of toys and other junk. Then a bright blue plastic cover went over it and the whole thing was fastened with a couple of meters of neon orange rope. Squeaking under the tremendous weight it was carrying, the car would sink around twenty centimeters and it’s a miracle the axes never broke on the way.

Inside the car every cubic centimeter was filled, minus a small space exactly matching the dimensions of my body. There I would sit for twelve long agonizing hours while temperatures were slowly crawling over thirty degrees the further we approached our destination. To add insult to injury, I had to sit with my feet up all the way, because the space in between the front and back chair was exactly large enough to fit in a cooling box. A light brown cooling box, with a dark brown lid on top and round corners, the loyal travel companion of every average Western family in the eighties.

Now, if you were to travel today to Lofoten, in the far north of Norway, and visit a tiny town called Svolvaer (a trip I can highly recommend), you will find at the sailboat harbor in the center a cooling box exactly similar to the one my parents owned. The colors are different, a soft pale orange box and a bright orange frame, but the design is just the same. It was put there in 2004 by the artists Elmgreen & Dragset for the LIAF 04 (Lofoten International Art Festival) exhibition.

Elmgreen & Dragset
Tiergarten, Berlin, May 21th, 1991

LIAF is a biennale and therefore the 2004 edition collected the “best of” biennale material: Henrik Håkansson, Michael Elmgreen & Ingar Dragset and Pipilotti Rist, among others, all Nordic or international art heroes. Being the biggest exhibition in Norway, together with Momentum in Moss, it is rather strange to be located in Svolvaer, which accounts for only 4000 inhabitants. Why organize such a huge event in such a remote area? I’m not sure whether the 2004 edition managed to answer that question and hitherto, every second year discussions about the legitimacy of LIAF’s being at Lofoten surfaces again. The Elmgreen & Dragset piece always plays a central role in that discussion and given the number of occasions it has been vandalized one can argue whether it is a successful public art work.

On the other hand, I could also argue that the merits of the work are super interesting. It takes up the ready-mades by Duchamp and puts it into the context of a growing local tourist industry and the romantics of outdoor camping. Being casted in bronze and over painted to look exactly like a plastic box, it issues questions around mass production, uniqueness and prize vs value. But these are very much ‘white cube issues’ and don’t speak very much on a site-specific level, let alone that they’ll mange to answers questions around the legitimacy of LIAF at Lofoten. Why should inhabitants be so interested in such boring questions about what art is? And why should they care about international artists making statements about their tourist industry? in a way they don’t care about and financed with a chunk load of public money that could also be put in maintaining local fisher industries or other public matters. Could that be too big a discussion for such a small art work?

Despite the arguments that surround the work, the fierce debates and misunderstandings, the cooling box has a quality, or rather, it has developed a certain quality. Each and every year the box gets kicked into the water; it’s been mocked, debated, covered by snow, attacked by storms, loved and hated. Nonetheless, it survived and I admire the little fellah for its resilience. It’s small size, apparent vulnerability and triviality turn it into a perfect actor in the debates surrounding public art and LIAF’s legitimacy. It’s a chameleon that can shift from representing two internationally acclaimed artists, to being a controversial public art work, to an expensive solid bronze object, and to being an innocent, beaten little child, abandoned by its spiritual parents and left at its own devices. In other words: it’s a little big man.

I love these schizophrenic characteristics the work embodies. But what fascinates me even more is the fact that all the violence and critique the work has endured over the past years yields one crucial result: the much sought-after legitimacy. The box is battered and bruised, but still stands proudly on the jetty by the water. It has earned its place there and has become a proper citizen of Svolvaer.

A report about LIAF 08, which ended a little while ago will follow shortly.

What is art and what is painting – and how can either help?

In the infamous prison Bang Khwang in Bangkok, Thailand, prisoners are being trained to become painters, or artists.

In a full-page article in The Bangkok Post we get an explanation of the project. It is initiated by Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri, and she says that "the aim is to equip the inmates with skills to make a living after they leave the prison."

So in order to prepare inmates in Thailand for the rough real world outside, they train them to become painters. Or as they also are referred to in the article: Artists.

According to the article the course took place between March 12 and May 31, two hours per week, for a total of 40 hours(?). (Explain to me like I’m a two-year-old how that adds up to 40 hours.)

69 prisoners were offered to take the class, 52 of them passed. It does not say why 17 failed. Maybe they were released before the class finished.

The "artists" that passed the class claims that painting helps them concentrate, it gives them hope for the future. Which of course is good. But what hope is it?

One prison painter says: "The art class is not just a candle, but a spotlight which shows me the way. I know I will not be jobless out there and will not return to a life of crime."

So apparently there is a shortage of painters, or artists if you like, in Thailand. The inmates works were mostly based on pictures; postcards and photographs. Nice views and, yes of course nude pictures were the most common motives. Walking the streets in my own neighbourhood I can say that it does not seem to be a shortage of artists nor painters that can produce cheesy pictures – rather the opposite actually. And considering that Thai authorities ban art exhibitions before they open due to risk of too many people showing up, uncontrolled in a public space, I don’t really know where these newly trained artists can go to sell their work.

All of this causes a bit of a dilemma for me to be honest; Bang Khwang has a large number of prisoners or inmates, some say 7 000 some say 11 000. We can just establish that the prison is HUGE. It has a nickname; ‘The Big Tiger’ – because it tends to eat people alive. Probably ‘eaten’ by a number of things, death penalty being one, diseases that they don’t get any cure or medicine for, killings and of course suicides.

If art or painting, helps these prisoners to feel better and to feel better about themselves that is great. Absolutely.

But 69 out of thousands – is that really something to write home about?

Secondly, if they decide to prepare the inmates for the real world, outside the walls, could there be anything else perhaps that could be of more use for them than to become artists? And of course something that could be of more use to the society.

I am not saying that artists is not of use to the society, real artists are. I just don’t think it is fair to the inmates to trick them into believing that they are artists, or painters for that matter, after 10 weeks, 2 hours per week of training – which by the way adds up to 20 hours, not 40. But is fairness considered in a prison where they still might be using shackles?

I’d say it does not matter – fairness should always be considered.

So I wonder if this is an honorary initative and the way to go for more prisoners – educate them to become artists in 10 weeks –  or if it is a waste of time and just silly propaganda?

Of course I don’t mean the usual ‘silly’ by the ‘silly’ I used, but I assume that is understood.

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“Veiling the unveiled truth”: the conceptual art of Silvio Berlusconi

Antonio Scarponi – Italy. We all know that the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is a man of talents. First of all he is a man of spectacle, a perfect actor from the old school. He is able to dance, sing and his practical jokes are famous world wide. As an actor he also have very good make up artist in his stuff. He is also a good soccer coach as well as many other talents including the playboy skills he uses for his diplomatic aims. For instance he ‘seduced’, as he publicly declared, the Finnish president in order to elect the world capital of ham and Parmesan (the Italian city of Parma), as the European Capital of Food. We all know these skills, but recently in two occasion he demonstrate also to have great talent as conceptual artist.

Together with his Architect Mario Catalano, his consultant for the media design appearance, also famous for the design of the set of a sort of ‘soft porn’ TV show  from the eighties named ‘colpo grosso’ ( a sort of strip poker, see video below) they have decided use a Tiepolo painting as background for the press conference room of the Parliament. Tiepolo painting is titled “La verità svelata dal tempo” (the truth unveiled by time)

Recently they have noticed that the naked nipple of the allegoric figure representing the truth was distracting the attention of the TV audience. In the picture below you can see the press conference set with two representative members of the female gender of the Italian power. On the left there is the president of ‘Confindustria’, the association that represent Italian industries. Here you can also see the naked nipple. On the left image you can see Mara Carfagna, former show girl, now minister of the “equal opportunities” between the genders. As you can see the nipple in the right image has been covered. It is not photo-shopped, no, that is a solution that only cheap artist uses. It has been painted over the real thing!Well we do not want to say anything about Berlusconi as prime minister. The time will ‘unveil’ perhaps the wiseness of his political will, but as conceptual artist he definitely worths Duchamp. I find the idea of using Tiepolo painting as background for the press conference in the Parliament a brilliant idea. Especially with the iconographic symbolism that it has… “the truth unveiled by time” … excellent. But the real geniality of Berlusconi’s Art is to to cover the nipple that distract the TV audience! He plays with iconography of one of the masters Italian painting. “re-veil the truth unveiled by time” this is the title of Berlusconi’s Work. We can look upon it as manifesto of his politics. A genius.

But this is not the only prove of his wicked artistic talent. The girl on the right picture above was democratically elected as minister of the ‘equal opportunities’ between the genders. She was a very talented showgirl recently involved in a sort of ‘sex scandale’. Gossipers wants her as mister president lover, perhaps this is a bit of an exaggeration, more likely she is one of several, as we all know Berlusconi’s sensibility towards beauty. In fact the scandal apparently was about some telephone tapping of a theoretical conversation between her and another minister (woman) discussing mister president’s preferences about blow-jobs. We are not allowed to know details about this conversation, a specific law was designed to protect the public integrity of the political forces in order to protect them by the known communist forces of the magistrates that missuses their power to discredit Parliament representatives. And nevertheess is not our business not interests. So we are not allowed, now we want to know about this. But if there is some truth about the love affair, I would propose to democratically elect mister Berlusconi as one of the greatest conceptual Artist of our time. In order to elect as minister to the equal opportunities between the sexes one of his lovers, he really have to be a conceptual genius. In the picture below a picture of our minister before the public mandate.

Perhaps it is a bit courageous to say that Berlusconi is a great conceptual artist… perhaps we have to give time to time to “re-unveil again the truth” of Gianbattista Tiepolo nipple. Or maybe we have to unveil again the one of Mara Carfagna that it has been recently covered by tailleurs, a costume more accurate for her new public mandate?

What geography is really about

Now, lets talk about football

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — To stand in the middle of the arena and let the cheers and buzz of the crowd run through you; to feel the grass, control your breathing, know where your teammates are, blindly, at any time; to experience the game as if it were in slow motion, seeing every action before it happens. That’s when you truly inhabit the game; that is Zinedine Zidane in his best days.

When I was contemplating on an article that would discuss all those great art works dealing with football as subject, the one underneath, ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’, stuck to me. It is a feature film by the artists Philip Parreno and Douglas Gordon. In 2005 they filmed football player Zinedine Zidane during the match Real Madrid – Villa Real with seventeen film camera’s, real-time, 90 minutes long.

It stands out from other ‘football art’ because, rather than turning the sport into a metaphor, it examines the essential quality of the game: a highly concentrated site where performance, narrative, sound and movement interplay with each other. The video, in relation to that, is a symphony and dramatization of these settings. It filters out all disturbing elements and focuses on Zidane moving, breathing, scanning the game and playing the ball.
In complete… control.

Fragment from ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’ by Douglas Gordon and Philippe Parreno

Those few occasions when I really excelled in my work, I remember having that feeling of complete control over all the circumstances. I’d reckon that in a football match, in order to succeed and win, you would need that feeling all the time. Therefore, a field, or a stadium, isn’t just the stage for a match as such, it also functions as a setting that meets all the conditions required for gaining that complete control and filters out everything that frustrates it. That’s the setting of Parreno and Gordon’s film about Zidane.

“I can hear someone shift around in their chair… I can hear someone coughing… I can hear someone whisper in the ear of the person next to them… I can imagine that I can hear the ticking of a watch”
– Zinedine Zidane

Examining these circumstances reminds me of some of the great works by the early conceptualists and performance artists in the sixties. They too focused on the characteristics of their environment: Bruce Naumann measured his studio, Douglas Huebler photographed the sky over different cities and Dan Graham described his audience in one of his performances. ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’ fascinates me because it captures all those conditions in one work and celebrates Zidane as one of the best football players ever, for being able to master and control all those circumstances and excel.

Yes, the Dutch do great at the current European Championship and I am absolutely thrilled! But this first tournament without Zidane… I guess I still have to get used to that…

Please find more fragments from ‘Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait’ here, here and his most gorgeous action of the match here.

Robert Rauschenberg

Martijn van Berkum, Rotterdam — I step on my balance. It reads 70 kg. I step off and on again. Now it reads 65 kg. Much better. The difference: Robert Rauschenberg. I put aside his catalogue (it’s so heavy) and realise that this 635 pages monster still doesn’t cover his work altogether. How on earth can I weigh the intellectual, creative and visual influence he had on me?

* I think a painting is more like the real world if it’s made out of the real world *

For sure, I could describe his historic importance being one of the first postmodernist artists: looking at the world, at his environment, his country and culture, rather than looking at his canvas only. He was one of the first who brought back the world into art, “the return of the real”, to use Hal Foster’s famous phrase. I could brag on about the way his layered, mixed-media canvasses unfold the intense complexity of life. How they describe a new world of spectacle and entertainment, of chaos and uncertainty.

But that just won’t do it, at least not when such a giant passes away. So, instead, I will have to “return to my reality”. To the time when I had my own inspiring dialogues with Rauschenberg and that was, like so many of his admirers I’d reckon, when I entered the art academy.

Now this is a peculiar moment in life. You find yourself, for the first time ever, alone on unknown territory and just one question burned in my mind: what on earth am I going to do here? All frames of reference that had provided structure to my fragile young life so far were swept away. I had no clue about what art school was supposed to be; I had no clue of what was expected of me. So for want of something to cling to I bought a ridiculously big Rauschenberg catalogue. 635 pages, I thought, that should provide a long-term source of input.

* An empty canvas is full only if you want it to be full *

It’s quite striking, now I come to think of it. In need of order, of something to hold on to, I turned to an artist whose work could be described best as chaotic, layered and uncertain. What good would that do? Nevertheless, despite this paradox, what I needed wasn’t a “regime” of order and discipline to find my way into life at the academy. Instead, I was looking for something that would get me “out there”. What I needed was a Starship Entreprise, a vessel that would take me on a journey and explore unknown worlds and galaxies! And Rauschenberg turned out to be my Jean-Luc Picard: captain and spiritual guide through my private universe of possible artworks. And so we embarked on a journey.

The metaphor of the journey is crucial in this matter, because movement is the only way to discover what art has to offer. You need to touch, smell, look, create and produce heaps and heaps of mediocre drawings, failed silkscreen prints, attempted paintings and then you need to mix them, layer them, cut them up, glue them together, pile them, fold them, burn them, destroy them and start all over again. This dynamic and creative circle of life seems to describe exactly the attitude that Rauschenberg had towards art and that helped me to get through those first years in art school.

* People ask me, “Don’t you ever run out of ideas?” In the first place I don’t use ideas. Every time I have an idea it’s too limiting, and usually turns out to be a disappointment. But I haven’t run out of curiosity *

An actual count of Rauschenberg’s works could provide some clues about his giant production, so I pick up the catalogue again. After 160 pages I’ve counted 200 art works, leaving 475 pages still to go… In a rough estimation that would add up to around 800 works, which is, needless to say, merely a selection, put together 10 years ago. It’s a long shot, but perhaps Mr. Rauschenberg produced roughly 2000 works altogether. Divided by the 56 years of his professional career, that would account for 36 works a year. Slowly inching along myself, I barely manage to produce four projects a year. I guess I still got a long way to go…

* I don’t think there’s anything really wrong with influence because I think that one can use another man’s art as material either literally or just implying that they’re doing that, without it representing a lack of a point of view *

Robert Rauschenberg: a postmodern Da Vinci, dinosaur and space traveller, spiritual father of influence, creativity, inspiration and ‘point of view’.


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