"According to What?"
Mori Art Museum, Tokyo
25 Jul 09 - 8 Nov 09
See press release below:
"Work from 1990 to the present day by the 49-year-old, Beijing-born artist goes on display in this large-scale, solo museum show. His varied practice spans art, architecture, design and printed matter: this show brings together 26 works, of which six are new, including photographs, video, sculpture and site specific installations. Taking its title from a painting by Jasper Johns, one of Ais major artistic influences, the show is arranged thematically in three sections: Fundamental Forms and Volumesí¸‰í³” explores his interest in minimalism; Structure and Craftsmanship focuses on design and architecture; and Reforming and Inheriting Tradition assesses Ais interest in the role of the individual in society.W.O."
Ai Weiwei may be best now for his installation piece Bubble (pictured above), which was one of nine works that made up the Art Projects Exhibition at Art Basel Miami Beach 2008. View the installation and hear an interview with the artist here.
This development is highly significant because many voices around the art world have questioned the limits of China's patience with her artists. As pivotal figures like Cai Guo-Qiang and Zhang Huan ascend to new critical heights with their provocative work, more and more Chinese artists will risk retaliation from the government to allow art the role of morality mirror in that society. The fate of Ai Weiwei may indicate the shape of what's to come for a whole generation of Western-influenced, self-aware contemporary artists from China.
Jack the Pelican Presents
Gallery hours: Thursday – Monday, 12-6pm
Kick The Can’t
July 17 – August 2, 2009
Opening reception: Friday, July 17, 6–9 pm
Jonathan Paul Gillette
Curated by Christine Hou and Melinda Braathen
Isabel Schmiga, Slip, 2006, fig leaves, metal, 37 × 32cm.
© Photo: Vahit Tuna
Kick The Can’t is a group exhibition featuring the works of international and New York-based artists. The title of the exhibition alludes to the game, Kick the can, in which players are faced with one objective: to kick a guarded can without being tagged. The can sits there tauntingly, beckoning the players to strike. In order not to be caught, the action cannot be predicted; the player must devise a tactic that is both uncharted and perfectly timed. The can facilitates deviations, while each failed attempt draws attention to the uncertainty of the action. Kick the can functions as a metaphor for the joke. Jokes arrive in the threshold between the norm, what should exist, and what actually exists—this slippage is where much humor is generated. Isabel Schmiga’sSLIP is a play on the fig leaf as a common art historical reference used to conceal embarrassment or obscenities. Schmiga upends this commonly used trope by cutting the leaves into the shape of hands, suggesting something other than what was initially intended. In Kick The Can’t, each of the artists use a particular language to build from a conventional known, or as Paolo Virno calls it in Jokes and Innovative Action: For a Logic of Change, "a normal everyday frame of life.” Jonathan Paul Gillette’s upside down rainbow overturns a common symbol along with it is varied meanings, casting inquiry to its form and exhaustive history—in short, a more satisfactory sign.
Jonathan Paul Gillette, Upside Down Rainbow, 2009
Kick The Can’t approaches the joke as being codependent with the norm. The joke grafts itself onto the norm and reforms it, calling to focus humor, questions, and a new mode in which to perceive the everyday.
Follow Dan Siedell's blog
Read Dan's report on the CIVA conference.
Dan gave an extraordinary presentation to the CIVA conference on the question of sacrifice as it relates to leaving a legacy in the arts. His was an extremely sobering word about the true aspirations of Christians in the arts and the reasons why such folk cannot settle for anything less than excellence. I found his talk illuminating and at the same time humbling. I'm elated to report that he has posted the text of his talk on his blog, and I have pasted it here for your consideration. Perhaps, his word about 'great culture?' can spark some quality discussion in the comments here.
I just returned from a thoroughly enjoyable experience at the CIVA conference hosted by Bethel University. Among my responsibilities was to offer some remarks on the theme of the conference, which was Culture? What follows are the remarks I read.
Most Christian commentary on culture reminds me of the scene in Moliére's Tartuffe when Monsieur Jourdain discovers, much to his delight, that he has been speaking prose all his life and didn't even know it. Yes, we North American Christians have indeed been making culture all along. But is it great culture? What follows are three very short vignettes that may serve as icons for us to contemplate as we reflect on art and culture at this conference.
It was Aleksandr Tvardovsky's habit to lounge about his apartment in his bathrobe while he read from some of the piles of manuscripts that littered his living quarters. As editor of the liberal magazine Novy Mir in the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, Tvardovsky was well known as a poet as well as a staunch defender of his literary magazine's independence. One morning he came upon a manuscript. After reading the first few lines he stopped, put it down, took a shower, shaved, put on his best clothes, and drove to his office, where he finished reading it. What was the manuscript? It was, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who wrote it in secret in the late 1950s.Tvardovsky was so moved by it that he convinced Khrushchev to publish it and it appeared in Novy Mir in serial form in 1962. Due in part to Tvardovsky's support, Solzhenitsyn a few years later will win the Nobel Prize for Literature.
It is easy to see how Solzhenitsyn is the hero of the story. He risked his life, not only by committing his words to paper but sending them out into public. But we must not forget the editor. Tvardovsky recognized the greatness of the manuscript and, at significant personal risk, fought with the State and its censors for its publication. He lived surrounded by culture, by manuscripts written by intelligent and creative writers. Yet it took him just a few minutes to realize that in Solzhenitsyn he was reading something great. We need Solzhenitsyns who will have the courage not merely to write for the dresser drawer, as the Russians called it, but for the public. But we also need Tvardovskys who can recognize great artistic and cultural achievements amidst the clutter of cultured mediocrity that saturates our lives. Are we capable even of recognizing great art, great culture?
Through a particular poem, which has been called a “sixteen line death sentence,” Osip Mandelstam caught the attention of Stalin in the early 1930s, which, on the whole, was never a good thing. As Mandelstam himself once said, the Russians alone take their poets seriously. They kill them. Mandelstam’s devoted wife memorized all of her husband’s poetry in order to preserve it from the death and destruction she feared would be immanent. She would be proved right only a few years later. Her experience and interpretation of the events surrounding her husband’s life and death are recounted in two moving memoirs, Hope against Hope and Hope Abandoned.
Do we have the courage, when we do recognize great culture, and great art, to sacrifice our own careers, our comforts, our own positions of authority and power, much less our very lives to preserve it? As we reflect on art and culture these next few days, we must remind ourselves that there is a cost to producing great art and great culture. Are we, as members of CIVA, content to make “good enough” culture, “fashionable” art in order to further our careers and comfort, content simply to be known as "culture makers," happy to know that we have been producing "culture" all along?"
The production of great culture, great art, cannot be separated from the risk of failure. Most writers, musicians, poets, and artists do not produce great art, great culture, even if they enjoy successful careers. And even those poets, artists, and musicians who have, do not produce it very often. Do we have the courage to fail, to push ourselves to the point of failure, to assume we probably will fail to produce great art, great culture and still try? Or, are we content to publish essays and give talks on beauty and transcendence, yet produce art and culture only good enough to get tenure, only good enough to get published or get work exhibited, only good enough to be invited to speak at conferences like this? In other words, produce culture only good enough to affirm the status quo. Do we have the courage to produce culture that transcends those rules, which perhaps even changes the rules of the game, or render conventions irrelevant?
Herman Melville died convinced that Moby-Dick was a failure. And most of the literary critics of his time agreed with him. As we curry the favor of contemporary critics and book reviewers, bristle at negative reviews or fawn over those who praise us, it would be a useful exercise to read those initial reviews of Moby-Dick. And what should strike us is how profoundly irrelevant and dated they now seem yet how relevant and contemporary Moby-Dick remains. Do we have the courage to try and produce great art, great culture that becomes more powerful in the future, something that might last, something that might increase in value? Do we really want to produce art and culture that twenty years from now will seem so dated, so small, so inconsequential, so "of the period?" The storage rooms of art museums are full of such works. Is that what we should teach our artists to aspire to, having their own corner of a crowded art museum storage room, happy to have been included in this or that museum's permanent collection?
It is the ambition to produce something that will transcend the moment in the face of its improbability that brings great culture, great art. Do we have the courage to die believing we have failed? Melville sacrificed his life for the service of producing a great work of art. And we are the beneficiaries of his sacrifice. Perhaps we have lost the ability to recognize great art and lost the nerve to preserve great culture because, ultimately, we have lost the nerve to risk failure. We have certainly not heeded Samuel Beckett’s advice: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.” Perhaps we no longer believe that producing great art, great culture is worth the sacrifice and the risk. And perhaps, even more terrifying, we no longer believe that great art, great culture actually exist. And so we become content with merely getting our bit of notoriety now while we can enjoy it. But Melville certainly was a believer in great art and he believed it was worth the risk, which might be why Christ haunts his novel at every turn, making Moby-Dick one of the most powerfully Christian novels ever written.
This should be of grave concern for those who claim to be a disciple of Christ, for whom the powers of this world and its seductions are to be resisted, not embraced. Let me suggest that neither “Christianity” nor “culture" per se make modern society uncomfortable. It is the self-sacrificial and uncompromising pursuit of greatness and quality in these practices, a life singularly devoted to them, which condemns the virtues of contemporary professional and personal life: compromise, mediocrity, and personal comfort that makes modern society uncomfortable. Be a Christian, but don't take it too seriously or your fellow church members might take you for a narrow-minded fundamentalist, legalist, or "liberal." (The stories of the saints we venerate share a common trait: they seem perpetually in conflict and tension with their contemporary Church.) Be an artist, but don't take it too seriously or your faculty colleagues will chide you for being arrogant, delusional, or not a "team player." (Do we really think that a Solzhenitsyn, a Mandelstam, a Melville could get tenure today in any English department?)
Our Protestant heritage in North America has conditioned us to fear and thus condemn monasticism and asceticism as hopelessly unrealistic in the "real world." Yet such criticism reveals a failure of nerve. We use Luther's slogan, "simultaneously sanctified and sinner," in order to absolve us of the responsibility to be better than a mediocre Christian. Has our pathological fear of being accused of being an anti-intellectual fundamentalist and thus risk being denied a seat at the table of contemporary cultural discourse blinded us to the simple fact that if we take the Gospels seriously at all, we have to admit that we cannot have both Christ and the world? Are we now too sophisticated, too enlightened, too iconoclastic to believe in the myths of great art, great culture, even the possibility of a great life devoted to Christ? We're not humble. We're cowards.
Are we willing to risk our lives, our careers, our reputations within CIVA and outside in the secular world of culture, to be a great disciple of Christ? Are we willing to risk our lives to make great art and culture, even at the expense of our standing in our Christian and secular communities? Let CIVA be the only place in culture where our self-sacrificial devotion to Christ will be the engine that drives our self-sacrificial devotion to produce great art, great culture even if it puts us at odds with the Christian and cultural establishments, with our local churches, art departments, and the like. And it surely will.
Yet we will fail. And fail again. But let us fail here, at CIVA, together. For it is our failures that will be of more use to God than our self-serving “successes” and our self-defined attempts to “redeem culture,” which often amount to little more than professional opportunism. For as the Desert Fathers knew well enough, the greatest work of culture that we can produce, the greatest masterpiece we can make, is our own self as an icon of the living God.
Let me close with a story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers.
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, 'Abba as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?' then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, 'If you will, you can become all flame.'
Miroslav Volf, director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology at Yale Divinity School, gave the keynote address for the conference and centered his talk on issue of human flourishing. I particularly appreciated the way in which Prof. Volf approached the general topic of cultural understanding and the specific issue of artistic endeavor from a more comprehensive and theologically-enriched perspective: the good of culture and broader human flourishing. Despite his comparisons of art and the exercise of spiritual ascent in the mystical traditions as a lens for understanding the prophetic voice of the church - an unfortuantely easy and problematic comparison, I found his remarks on the relationship between Christians and the culture(s) in which they find themselves to be exceedingly refreshing and full of encouragement for Christians who happen to care about the visual arts.
Much of Prof. Volf's thoughts on culture for his talk came from a 1994 essay he wrote for Ex Auditu entitled "Soft Difference: Theological Reflections on the Relation Between Church and Culture in 1 Peter". The essay attempts to navigate Troelsch's historic dichotomy between a 'church' and a 'sect' and reflect upon the prophetic call of 1 Peter to 'sojourners and exiles' living in a hostile and uncomfortable world. This essay stands out as perhaps the most enlightening reflection on a theological understanding of culture that I have read in a long, long time. In many ways, Prof. Volf responds to some of the time-tested questions about culture and at the same time manages to re-write the terms of the discussion. At once biblically-sound and theologically-astute, this essay is a must read.
My fellow panelists and I had the difficult task of trying to offer a response to Prof. Volf's presentation. We were encouraged to 'translate' the concerns of the presentation into specific fields of artistic inquiry. For my part, I choose to identify practical ways in which a perspective enriched by this concept of 'soft difference' might approach the contemporary artworld afresh. I was particularly interested to see what it might look like to "replace the anger of frustration with the joy of expectation" (Volf's phrase) in our engagment of contemporary art. In what follows here, you can read the expanded notes from which I offered my response.
The Cultural Dynamic of ‘Soft Difference’;
or How to “replace the anger of frustration with the joy of expectation”
I refer to the cultural dynamic of ‘soft difference’ because I think it is a particularly helpful model of thinking and living (a way of life) that encourages mature, gospel discernment in culturally precarious times. My focus has been and remains the multi-faceted, frenetic and perhaps chaotic “world” of contemporary art.
Other Examples of ‘Soft Difference’ can be found in:
- Scripture: teaches ‘soft difference’ or something analogous to it in many places.
- Tradition: demonstrates the lessons of ‘soft difference’; moments of impatience or longsuffering in the history of the church.
1. Trust a different approach to power (the power of the gospel).
a. Admitting as many of the ways in which our flourishing is, at least in this life, bound to that of our neighbours.
b. Sacrificing the ‘us versus them’ mentality of merely earthly conflict.
c. Sowing in hope; Sowing with hope.
2. Practicing a specific kind of affirmation and negation.
a. Affirming the good, true and beautiful in what we find through participation and engagement.
b. Negating the worthless through silence and a lack of support. (In other contexts, we are called to openly oppose the destructive and unwholesome, but in the arts, any publicity is good publicity.)
Practicing ‘soft difference’ in the contemporary art world can be frustrating and difficult because the worthwhile and the worthless can sometimes exist side by side or within the same work.
PROBLEM/POSSIBILITY – contemporary art represents a dialectical character of promise and dilemma.
These remain issues in contemporary art that will require a careful negotiation:
1. Historical/Theoretical Issues
a. Observation: As a result of competing historical accounts of the avant-garde (i.e. various modernisms and postmodernisms) and a highly specialized language around art (e.g. analytic philosophy of art, the influence of critical theory and post-structuralist approaches), contemporary art exists in a state of intellectual pluralism.
In Master Narratives and Their Discontents, James Elkins writes: “The revaluation or rejection of the modernist distinction between high art and low art creates a relativized field of art in which the act of privileging one work over another cannot be justified by appealing to values that are taken to be normative. The resulting relativism is compounded by the pluralism of the contemporary art world, which discourages extended comparisons between different works by making all comparisons seem somehow misguided.” 148
b. Example: Provocative art works can emerge in obscurity or sensationalism and then later become touchstones of philosophical discovery (e.g. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes).
c. Question: Rather than the dissolution of the traditional narrative, can we as Christians see this climate of historical and theoretical pluralism as an opportunity to enrich our intellectual curiosities and evaluate our own assumptions about art?
2. Political Issues
a. Observation: While by no means immune to political posturing and manipulation, contemporary art continues to demonstrate a fortitude that will not allow it to be commandeered by politics.
b. Example: While both politically topical and controversial in it’s day, the work and legacy of Felix Gonzalez-Torres has left a legacy that extends far beyond the political energy it sparked.
Claire Bishop, prominent scholar of relational aesthetics, writes: “This mixed panorama of socially collaborative work arguably forms what avant-garde we have today: artists using social situations to produce dematerialized, antimarket, politically engaged projects that carry on the modernist call to blur art and life.” “Social Collaboration and Its Discontents” Artforum (2006)
c. Question: Similarly convinced that art is larger than politics, what prevents Christians from taking part in this development and pursuing the exploration of social energies that may affect significant change in communities?
3. Economic Issues
a. Observation: When it seems like contemporary art worships money, we can count on either market forces to collapse or prominent voices to cry fowl.
Jerry Saltz writes: “Nothing we say about the market adds up, partly because “the market” isn’t really an autonomous subject. It’s a diversionary tactic—essentially, a blend of economics, history, psychology, stagecraft, and lifestyle; an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”
b. Example: A work like Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God embodies the extreme poles of our cultural moment: ridiculously materialist and profoundly curious for spiritual transcendence.
c. Question: If Christians understand better than anyone the cultural good of art, can’t we expect from those communities an unparalleled level of generosity and a remarkable resilience to the love of money?
4. Globalization Issues
a. Observation: With the growing influence of Western globalization and particularly the rise of developing art markets around the world, contemporary art is experiencing an influx of artists from surprising locals (e.g. Chinese and Islamic artists).
In his recent manifesto, Nicolas Bourriaud – curator of the 2009 Tate Triennial “Altermodern,” writes: “Many signs suggest that the historical period defined by postmodernism is coming to an end: multiculturalism and the discourse of identity is being overtaken by a planetary movement of creolisation; cultural relativism and deconstruction, substituted for modernist universalism, give us no weapons against the twofold threat of uniformity and mass culture and traditionalist, far-right, withdrawal.
The times seem propitious for the recomposition of a modernity in the present, reconfigured according to the specific context within which we live – crucially in the age of globalisation – understood in its economic, political and cultural aspects: an altermodernity.”
b. Example: It seems the post-colonial guilt that makes Chris Ofili’s Virgin Mary work is giving way to more legitimate and less self-conscious endeavours like 2009’s Tate Triennial “Altermodern”.
c. Question: As those who celebrate the diverse expressions of the image of God from around the world, why would Christians not take this opportunity to assist these artists?
5. Religious Issues
a. Observation: Despite the rich traditions of art history and the various intersections of art and the spiritual, contemporary art maintains a tentative, critical and ambiguous – at best, relationship toward religion.
b. Example: Why do lapsed Catholics like Robert Gober make the best religious art today (installations at LA MoCA or Matthew Marks Gallery)?
c. Question: Rather than bemoaning the suspicions of religion among the contemporary art world, why not demonstrate a serious searching and questioning of belief in our art and in the way we discuss the work of sceptical or lapsed artists?
To the degree that we take seriously these issues and make them our own, we may begin to see the cultural dynamic of ‘soft difference’ at work in our relationship to contemporary art.
I first heard Roman Candle on their independent release of 2002 - 'Says Pop,' which was in regular rotation on WFPK in Louisville. I have loved their raw beats and effortless flow ever since. I can heartily recommend their entire catalog. You can actually peruse the entire audio library before downloading their albums and eps at ridiculously generous prices! Listen here.
Roman Candle has recently released their second full-length release with Carnival - 'Oh Tall Tree in the Ear'. Having recently finished a tour with The Deep Vibration, they're working overtime to promote their new one. Check out some of these great appearances!
Roman Candle on Daytrotter (4 free downloads!)
Roman Candle on World Cafe (available as a podcast)
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Watch "They Say":
Though I'm still processing much of what I experienced at the CIVA conference last month, a review of the event here is becoming increasingly overdue.
While I've known about CIVA for years, I'm not a member nor have I ever attended a CIVA event. I've been wanting to make it to the biennial meeting since I learned of a few artists/educators presenting on 'relational aesthetics' at the 2006 conference. This time around my friend Dayton invited me to participate in a panel following the keynote, an opportunity I couldn't miss. Overall, I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by the experience.
As a kind of outsider to this group, I had my suspicions about more than the sort of welcome I would receive or the general experience. Since my doctoral work has involved a focused analysis of the gap between the critical discourses of contemporary art and the way Protestant theologians of recent years have written on art, I have serious reservations about the very existence of exclusively Christian art guilds and societies. I think, however, from the diversity of people I met at this year's conference that I'm not alone is this reservation.
Like any organization with similar history and charter, CIVA seems to be a group in transition. Uniting the efforts of disparate generations eventually becomes the task of any organization that hopes to last more than a few decades. These, it seems, are the growing pains of forming a legacy. To the credit of CIVA's board and conference committee, they organized their conference around the issues and concerns rather than attempting to avoid them outright. Hence, the broad and ambiguous theme - "culture?"
Despite the unwragglable topic, I think the organizers put together a timely and ambitious plan of attack. The conference began with a keynote presentation on how we perceive 'culture' from internationally-respected theologian Miroslav Volf, director for the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology. Following Prof. Volf's talk, some new friends and I gave short responses and provided a panel on his presentation. The next day, a very capable panel of Adrienne Chaplin, Makoto Fujimura and Daniel Siedell addressed the question of engaging culture from their three respective positions. The following day, James Romaine hosted a panel of emerging artists that included Joe Smith, Karen Brummund, Tom Gokey and Lex Thompson. This blend of theorists, critical and creative voices made for a dizzing discourse on culture that never really reached any sort of consensus or definitive positions but happily aired many of the sentiments and concerns represented by such a diversity of perspectives. The group sessions between plenary presentations provided a more intimate arena to explore what was happening on the platform. In all these ways, the conference was a grand success.
Besides meeting and interacting with scholars that I had previously read and already respected, I really enjoyed making new friends and new connections in the current landscape of people who happen to be Christians and also happen to study/make/enjoy contemporary art. As long as CIVA can inspire these sort of connections among their younger generations, I think the organization will endure the growing pains it may feel at present.
I have more posts to follow specifically on Miroslav Volf and Daniel Siedell's contributions... including my response to Prof. Volf's talk. For the time being, check out these great artists and educators that befriended and encouraged me so much.
My good friend and colleague Luke Aleckson made an appearance to discuss curatorial practice.
Dayton Castleman gave me a great welcome and provided a provocative presence for the conference.
Kevin Hamilton, researcher and instructor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, gave an amazing response to Prof. Volf's and represents one of the most important voices of this younger generation. Check out his stuff here: Complex Fields.
Daniel Siedell's blog is a must read. Subscribe now!
Photographer and conceptual artist - Karen Brummund
I was so happy to finally meet the New York crew:
Photographer and educator - John Silvis
Wayne Adams - painter, video artist, and blogger extraordinare
Jay Henderson - artist and gallery assistant