When 1960s Sci-Fi and Surveillance Collide in 21st Century Sculpture: Björn Schülke Vision Instruments at bitforms gallery

Above: Björn Schülke, Beam Engine #1, 2016, Brass, mirror, paint, electronics, solar cells, motors, laser, 7.1 x 15 x 9.9 in / 18 x 38 x 25 cm

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine

Would there be world peace if aliens attacked Earth? After all, doesn’t everyone get along better once they share an enemy?

In the divisive global political environment confronting us, I find myself wishing for the aliens to appear.

I started thinking about this after learning about Raumpatrouille Orion, or, “Space Patrol Orion,” (1966), the first ever German science fiction TV series, which inspired Vision Instruments, a collection of sculptures by Björn Schülke currently on view at bitforms gallery on NYC’s Lower East Side. According to bitforms gallery, Raumpatrouille Orion reflected a certain Cold-War era global attitude of idealistic utopianism, and the mentality of conquest and emphasis on space travel, which is also present in a lot of Schülke’s work.

Schülke was born in Cologne, Germany in 1967. Perhaps as an artist he was drawn to exploring the collective psychology of the environment into which he was born, utilizing Raumpatrouille Orion as his case study. But, what can we learn from Raumpatrouille Orion now? I think that some of the answers might lie in what else Björn Schülke focuses on in his sculptures.

Björn Schülke, Vision Machine #8 , 2016, Brass, steel, wood, mirrors, paint, camera, display, sensor, electronics, 15.75 x 11.8 x 14.2 in / 40 x 30 x 36 cm, Edition of 3, 1 AP (variant)

The other central theme of much of Schülke’s work is questioning the ways in which we interact with technology. To us in 2017, the “technological frontier,” its own universe without borders, can be compared to the physical universe within which exploration was idolized during the Cold War. At that time, we worshipped astronauts like rock stars. Today, we worship tech innovators like rock stars. That is absolutely not to say that we have stopped revering our astronauts, but rather to say that when it comes to astronauts versus tech innovators, the media has switched their “it girl” over the decades and the technologists are their latest sweetheart.

So, how are we interacting with technology, this thing that we worship? I think that one thing that Schülke is trying to say with his art is that we are giving it too much power.

His shiny, white, mechanical, stick bug shaped kinetic sculptures range from about the size of a football to the size of a refrigerator, and are mounted on the walls, floor, and ceiling of the gallery, surrounding viewers from all sides. They each have unique sleek, futuristic designs, but are futile in function, clearly separating them from the product design prototypes of the tech world and setting them firmly in the art category.

Although futile, they each beckon us to interact with them. For example, we look to find our reflections in the tiny circular mirrors that some of them have, and look to see our images picked up by their cameras, even though their cameras are operating in connection with a surveillance system. This evokes the Privacy Paradox, in which we are tempted to upload mass quantities of information about ourselves onto the Internet, almost like a mirror of ourselves, even if it is at the risk of our own security – which we then express simultaneous concern about.

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Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

In addition, many of the sculptures are equipped with small solar panels that take in light and charge the small batteries within them. Once the charge of the battery reaches a certain level of fullness, the sculpture moves, and is brought to life, like a little anthropomorphic creature that we created, but that now has a mind of its own and operates without our assistance, catching us off guard.

This is not the first time I have seen the issue of surveillance explored in art. In fact I have seen it utilized many times, and have written about it on several occasions as I consider it one of the interesting current themes that the global creative community is having an active discourse about. You can see some of my prior explorations of this topic in my articles about The Privacy Paradox 2016 group show at Reverse Gallery, the artist Joel Holmberg at New Museum, the artist Lorraine Oades and her project TV Tracker (a part of a 2015 group show of artists from Quebec at Knockdown Center). To note, there is also a radio show on NPR right now called The Privacy Paradox.

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Björn Schülke, Supersonic #3, 2008, Fiberglass, plywood, steel, motion sensors, theremin, woofer, tweeter, amplifier, paint 22 x 46 x 15 in / 56 x 117 x 38 cm

So, back to my original question, what can we learn today from Schülke’s revival of ideas from Raumpatrouille Orion? I think that the obvious conclusion is that while it was the first German sci-fi television show, from over fifty years ago, those same issues in the show apply now. Today it seems that it might still require this threatening, alien outside force to attack for all of us humans to band together to achieve peace on earth. What shape and form would that “force” take if the show were remade today? Could it be something like climate change, or related to technology?

Björn Schülke, Drone #9, 2016, Fiberglass and epoxide, wood, mirrors, aluminum, display, camera, electronics, sensors, video transmitter, 43.4 in / 110 cm, height, 118.2 in / 300 cm, diameter

Finally, it is this issue of surveillance resurfacing in both the outer space universe and the technology universe. During the Cold War era of Raumpatrouille Orion, sci-fi fear of aliens was this major allegory for xenophobia, fear of other countries, and fear of apocalyptic nuclear disaster. Sound familiar? At that time, a person might have asked, who are the aliens from outer space who are watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack? Today, we could think in those same terms, but digitally. Who is watching us, spying on us, maybe ready to attack, replete with our data?

Art Publishing Now: Noah Becker In Conversation With Katy Diamond Hamer And Deianira Tolema

(Above, L to R: Deianira Tolema, Founder, D/Railed [Photo Credit Francesca Ciri], Katy Diamond Hamer, Founder, Eyestowardsthedove)

By Noah Becker, publisher of Whitehot Magazine

When I started publishing about art in 2005, it felt like there were no art magazines on the web. But rather than stake a claim at being the founder of online contemporary art publishing, I’ll keep it an active playing field and let history do its thing. I’ve always been a successful oil painter, so my perspective as an artist and publisher has spoken to this generation of art interested readers in a voice they recognize. I’m also a Jazz saxophonist – I read and write music. This understanding of time-based art has assisted me a great deal in my writings. But when I say art magazines I mean the development of websites devoted to contemporary art (in the sense of) and presentation of a print magazine online. My favourite art website at the time I started publishing was Artnet.com, where writers like Jerry Saltz, Charlie Finch, Ana Finel Honigman and Walter Robinson wrote regular columns. Paul Laster was another regular Artnet contributor at that time. As some of you know, since 2005 and the founding of my magazine called Whitehot Magazine, I’ve published over 300 writers. Now there are numerous multiple contributor based platforms devoted to writing about art. School of Visual Arts even started an art writing program for young art writers.

Some examples of semi-recent and long term platforms are: Art F City, Hyperallergic, Artnet, Artforum and so forth. Now in 2016, I find myself discovering new publishers who are dedicated to art and run their owns new platforms. Writer/publisher Katy Diamond Hamer and her site Eyestowardsthedove is worth looking at. Also publisher/writer Deianira Tolema with her site D/Railed is another that comes to mind.

My interest in their motivations for pursuing art publishing inspired me to speak with them for Artifactoid.

Noah Becker: Why do you write and publish about art?
 

Katy Diamond Hamer: I first started Eyes Towards the Dove in 2007 as a platform for my own writing and used it as a way to project my written voice into the global sphere. Not writing about art was never an option.  Initially I used the space to write about my own art practice as well as the work of others. Self-publishing became a way for me to truly learn about my own text-based practice and in doing so informed my taste and understanding of contemporary art. Having a blog which has evolved into more of a magazine format, is the entry point that has catapulted my presence in the art world and without having to deal with restrictions put forth by others.

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Ai WeiWei and Katy Diamond Hamer

Deianira Tolema: Art has been used as a reflection of hierarchical imperatives in relation to the concepts of luxury and power, to demarcate the social-economic and cultural differences between the upper and lower classes. Art, as we know from art history, started out about ten thousand years ago as a means to explore and understand reality. It started out on a more perceptual level, then developed into a the first social-political stratagems – perhaps the first forms of subliminal psychological manipulation of the masses, where the products to be sold were nothing more or less than false gods. High ranking members of society employed techniques of divination that anticipated what we now know as modern self-mythologizing. In this light, to answer your question, the main reason I write and publish about contemporary art is to offer art professionals and interested readers a broader perspective of what art can be and mean – regardless of current trends. Thus, my ultimate goal is to use critical skill to push beyond aesthetics, to analyze the role of art in contemporary society.

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NB: When you started writing about art what was your inspiration to get involved?

KDH: Initially it was my own painting practice. One of my best friends at the time was writing for Artforum and spending time with him had an impact on my own fascination with the written word, descriptions of art –both two and three dimensional– and process of constructing a sentence.

DT: I started studying art, psychology, and sociology around age ten after reading many fairy tales and books about Italian poetry. Italy, my country of origin, is literally covered in archeological sites left by the Ancient Greeks, and the remains of the complex architecture that survived the fall of the Roman Empire. Imagine growing up walking among the ruins of temples and theaters from thousand of years ago. Academically, art history has always been one of my primary interests. Writing poems and essays about the art that surrounded me came naturally. Also, it must be said, I received a rather rigid education at home.

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Deianira Tolema at Galleria D’Arte Merighi in Genova; photo credit and courtesy Francesca Ciri Capra

NB: What do you plan to gain from all of this?

KDH: After spending time in Miami for Art Basel this past December, I realized that looking at art really quiets my inner thoughts. There is something that in the process of looking allows me to be the best version of myself, or at least it feels that way! In regards to contemporary art, I always say that my goal is to look back before going forward. Observing and thinking about contemporary art would mean nothing if I wasn’t familiar with all the other movements that have come before. I love meeting people: gallerists, collectors, artists and other journalists. These interactions can be just as valuable as the art itself.

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Katy Diamond Hamer speaks at Art Basel

DT: Well, first of all, honestly it’s fun! Nothing has ever made me happier than art, not even food. Mind you, in Italy food is considered a source of maximum pleasure – especially in the South. Also, I’d like to set an example for future generations with my work, not just to be remembered, but to contribute to the public dialogue with blunt criticism of conventional thinking and bad art. To make my little contribution to the evolution of humanity. I’m making a living working as a writer with artists, editors, and curators. It’s a 24/7 job, so I’m planning to acquire more money, and of course, more knowledge.

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Artist Violetta Carpino for Italian Feminism in Contemporary Art (sneak preview). Photo credit and courtesy Luigi Ieluzzo. Image provided by Deianira Tolema.

NB: How do you know the difference between good art and bad art?

KDH: The world is full of art and New York in particular is nearly oversaturated. Typically, we can describe art in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ terms, yet I don’t think that is necessarily the end goal of the critic. Returning to what I said earlier about going back before going forward, I personally establish much of what I like or feel is culturally or historically relevant based on what has come before. Then of course there is the simple definition that could refer to the skill level of the artist and his or her particular pastry of a medium yet even with skill, art can be subpar.

DT: For me it’s very intuitive. I’ve always been obsessed with beauty and symmetry. Once, as a child, prior to an afternoon tea party at the home of my mother’s friend I was almost driven by a subconscious need to frantically grab all the teaspoons randomly positioned on a table and align them to one another diagonally in a way so perfect that another child freaked out. There was an awkward moment of silence in the room that lasted for a good ten minutes. Aesthetics is a subject that can be taught at school in such a way so by the end of the class most students will have a good understanding of the differences between good and bad art. But, there’s an innate element that very few people have – an aesthetic sensibility that can be learned with years of training.

NB:  How can you tell the difference between good writers and bad writers?

KDH: I tend to link art and writing together. They are both practices that involve a multitude of components wherein the brush stroke could be compared to the linear quality of the lines that make up individual letters. Good art writers are able to successfully communicate thoughts and translate the visual language into the visual written language. It’s not an easy task as each writer must establish a particular sound while also adhering to rules of grammar, word count and importantly knowing when to stop. I also have a hard time when someone uses too many words to talk about something simple.

DT: Writing is, and should be, less intuitive. It has a lot to do with actually writing well, expressing concepts clearly, understanding grammar, creating text objectively, making logic structures that will lead readers through your maze-like argument or assessment. At least for me, there’s no space or time for subjectivity. It really just boils down to a combination of technical details and natural skill. I always try not to look at someone’s resume’ before reading their writing, so that my judgment is not influenced by a prejudice that might affect my opinion.

NB: Is art important in the face of all the distress and negativity in the world?

KDH: Art is everything. It can be about action in the political realm, love that brings people together or a place of respite in otherwise visual collision.

DT: Art can be a distraction from the distress of the world, or a way to investigate and defy negativity. I think there should be no obligation for artists to do anything deeper than than the decorative, so long as the expression is somehow meaningful.

NB: Do you see how artists and collectors are often opposing to each other politically?

DT: I do know what you mean. I think this is one of the many contradictions in how the art world works. In its guise of balancer of the opposites art has always conveyed the tension between antithetical elements that keep the universe dynamically static, or statically dynamic. On a less philosophical and more practical note, art has always manifested contrasting realities – imagined as colliding and blending with one another on the same existential plane. The artist/collector juxtaposition is an extension of this implicit quality of art. It is a moot point, as long as there’s no conflict between the artist’s ethics and the collectors’ demands.

KDH: Well, the question is fairly directive and leans towards this being something that you believe. Do you think they are opposing? Simply stated, artists are the creative force and collectors are those who support process, enjoy living with art objects and often play a role in the way that art is perceived at a later date. Artists can be collectors but it’s much rarer for collectors to also be artists.

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NB: Is there anything positive you feel that you could do in our current political climate through your publishing platform and your writing?

DT: Talking about Italy and Europe, there is much more that artists could do. I think of what American artists have been doing, for instance, in the wake of their presidential election. Unfortunately, after hundreds of years of taboos reinforced by the church and the demonization of creativity, and the economic crisis, I feel that, with some rare exceptions, we do not easily embrace art as a form of protest in this area of the world. Paradoxically, some of the best politically charged contemporary art comes from Europe. I’m trying to use D/railed Magazine to to talk about useful subjects. It turns out it’s not easy to keep all the writers focused on one theme. They have different academic backgrounds and priorities and address our readers on provocative, socially challenging topics without forgoing art talk. I hope those who come across my magazine can follow my lead. As far as I know, I’m the first Southern-Italian woman to have broken so many gender, classism, and cross-cultural barriers with a contemporary art project with an international impact. I hope they follow my lead and fight male chauvinists and win by flying solo and proving them wrong about any leftover claim of intellectual superiority (which is a big deal in Southern Italy, where the heterogeneous culture has yet to produce a generation of self-thinking, ambitious and independent women so powerful that they can shake the planet with a single thought). Imagine an army of American-like Southern-Italian amazons marching to war. To finally witness something like that – so rebellious and even erotic – before I die would make my day for a long time. I also want to keep bringing my Italian/European perspective to other cultures in front of an increasingly international audience – to produce a butterfly-effect in the minds and souls of readers who come from entirely different cultural contexts (which makes me sound even more megalomaniacal than usual). So back to your question, the only thing I can do in this precarious political climate between Brexit and everything else, is to keep doing what I’m doing with the help of some of the top art writers in the world.

KDH: I’ve been thinking a lot about this in the last month and a half for obvious reasons. I had been concerned about Trump winning the Presidency but two weeks before Election Day those worries started to subside. Now that he will be taking the highest political office in the United States, I find that art and the art world need to be more important than ever. In 2017 I am planning on being much more aware of the marginalized, black and brown bodies, queerness and female artists. Those who feel repressed, need to be heard.

NB: Would you encourage other people to start writing and publishing about contemporary art?

DT: No, I wouldn’t. I’m actually encouraging all the high school students I know to not pursue a career in this field, unless they have a really special talent. It’s not for everyone.

KDH: Yes! While the web has changed since I started and is much more dynamically competitive, having one’s own online venue to develop, share and practice is a worthwhile venture. There is an entrepreneurial aspect and strength that comes with the freedom of being able to self-publish and I would encourage anyone with a desire to be seen and heard to take the bull by the horns and go for it.

hamerpanelKaty Diaond Hamer

NB:  Is there anything specific you have noticed that you want to share about your experience in the art world?

DT: There’s an aspect of it that concerns ‘judging a book by its cover’. That, in my opinion, is rather superficial and interferes with art’s poetic/spiritual potential.

KDH: The art world is smaller than one might imagine. For anyone initially starting out, it can seem scary and unwelcoming but can be penetrated with the right amount of effort and desire. If the passion is there, keep going. I’ve had ups and downs in my career but art is all I know. My advice is to never give up and never stop looking.

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Author Noah Becker is a New York based painter and the publisher of Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art. Follow him @noahbeckerstudio, @whitehotmagazine.

A Compass for Kuitca: Artifactoid Exclusive Tour with Sotheby’s SVP of Fine Art Eric Shiner

When I was based in Buenos Aires during the fall of 2011, there was a time when nearly every Saturday night I would go to the Universidad Torcuato de Di Tella for the weekly opening nights at the Beca Kuitca, an artist residency founded by Argentine artist Guillermo Kuitca in Buenos Aires in 1991. Many of the artists who were participating in the Beca Kuitca at that moment are incredible creators who I feel lucky to know, including Eduardo Basualdo, Florencia Rodriguez-Giles, Juan Tessi, and Nicolas Mastracchio, among others. It is beautiful to think about how Guillermo Kuitca, aside from being a hauntingly skilled artist who is included in the TATE and MET collections, developed this amazing, influential program to give back, and provide more growth opportunities to some of the premier rising artistic talents in Argentina today.

Eric Shiner, Senior Vice President of Fine Art at Sotheby’s and former Director of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, shares my reverence for Kuitca, and below, I am pleased to publish excerpts and photographs from my recent tour with Mr. Shiner for Artifactoid of the Guillermo Kuitca solo exhibition he curated, Terra Nullius, featuring works by the artist from the early 1990s through 2010. Below, Shiner shares his curatorial concept, his expertise on pieces from several of Kuitca’s most important series, as well as fascinating details about the artist’s life.

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I was really thinking about doing an exhibition about being lost, prior to the U.S. presidential election, because I think so many of us were just completely aimless, tired, frustrated; all of the many things that come up when you are heading into such a momentous period and momentous occasion with so many repercussions tied to it. So I wanted to do a show about being lost, and I immediately thought of Kuitca because I loved his work for ever and he’s such a phenomenal artist and has always been just below the radar even though he should be well on the radar, or above it in so many ways. And of course he’s had such an incredible exhibition history with the things at MoMa, project space show at MoMA in 1991, to the Sao Paolo Biennale in 1989, and on and on and on. So I thought that that would be a good thing to do and because his work is very much about being lost, and it’s about displacement, about migration, immigration, persecution, psychology, and the way humans navigate space and think about space. It seemed that that would be a good topic at this precise moment in time. So, I decided to call the show, “Terra Nullius,” in Latin, (“No Man’s Land” is the English translation), to really capture that idea of not really knowing where we are, feeling displaced, and perhaps, with certain political implications, people rethinking their own geographies based on the result. One way or another, depending on who won [the election], one group of people was going to feel displaced, disconnected, and that’s ultimately what I wanted this show to reflect.”

kuitca1Guillermo Kuitca, “Everything,” Mixed media in two parts on canvas, 120 1/8 x 65 in. ea., 2003

“In this huge two-panel work (above), which is just exceptionally beautiful, Kuitca does exactly that with the maps in that they make no sense whatsoever. You’ll have Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania next to Ottowa, Canada, for example. So they’re not actual maps, but there are some semblances of reality within it that you’ll also see. In addition to a bird’s-eye view of the road system, there’s also a topographic map blended into the piece – you could read weather map patterns into it – it’s just a complete combination of all of the many layers through which we view our world; and that’s why I just absolutely love this piece; in that it’s so complex, and also, strangely, for me at least, a lot of the work is incredibly meditative and calming — that this is something you can stand in front of and stare at, and for me it’s an incredibly calming thing, but maybe for others it has a completely different vibe.”

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“I wanted to put together this main gallery space, and then the two wings on either side. I wanted to focus on maps and floor plans here, and then in one side space, put two paintings from the “Crown of Thorns” series, and in the other side space, two pieces from the “Beds” series. I also wanted to mix it up in terms of the different ways that Kuitca looks at maps: some very crisp and clean, some bordering on abstract. And of course, include this work (below) which is a complete ode to cubism.”

kuitca14Guillermo Kuitca, “Lontano,” Oil on linen, 76 7/8 x 64 1/2 in., 2010

kuitca2Guillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” Acrylic on canvas, 76 x 117 3/8 in., 1990

“This one (above) is twenty-four different grids of maps based on real places in some cases, and in other cases, not. I love that the zoom is different in terms of how high up you are looking into the space, so the scale is completely different from square to square. Here, you are much closer, and here, you are further out, and again here further out, and further out. I just absolutely love the way he’s thinking about the veins and the arteries of a city – of a space – and the way that water, rivers, or other areas become blank. It’s just a great piece – and again for me, very meditative.”

kuitca5“Untitled,” detail

“I was speaking with a group of architects from Brazil about this work, and one of them brought up the fact that today, we understand geography in our world in a completely new way through technology. In the old days you actually had to have the physical map that you would unfold – a paper map – and that was how you would chart your course; you would figure it out or probably write it down, and either memorize it or figure out how to navigate that way – left here, right there; landmarks, etcetera. Whereas now, all we do is turn on our phone, plug in the address, hit “go,” and follow its lead without really paying any attention to where we’re going; we just know that we’ll get there. It was such an interesting conversation to have, because that’s the reality of what we’re doing right now.”

“And of course, it goes without saying that Kuitca has a huge map collection. He collects vintage maps and atlases, and he uses these things as his inspiration and as his guide.”

kuitca6Guillermo Kuitca, “Crumlin Road,” Acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 59 1/8 x 70 7/8 in., 1993

This painting (above) is of Belfast. It is fantastic. It’s on a terra-cotta ground, painted with a very terra cotta color, smudged, so it’s abstract in the background, and the map is superimposed on top of that. This is Belfast in Ireland, and it shows the dividing line between the Protestant side of town and the Catholic side of town. So, even though it’s only a road [Crumlin Road], it is the dividing line, and a site of war and conflict. The thing that I love about this work is that every church is demarcated.”

kuitca7“Crumlin Road,” detail

“Kuitca obviously has a very conflicted view of religion. Growing up third-generation Eastern European Jewish in Latin America (an otherwise Catholic place), I’m sure has a lot to do with his feeling displaced, lost, and not horribly religious – so how do you factor all of these things in? Both of Kuitca’s parents were psychotherapists, so you can just imagine how they (and he in turn) thus had to deal with religion and human psychology, their place in the world, being intellectuals in Buenos Aires, and all of the things that come along with that.”

“It’s very interesting to think about how Kuitca grew up, and of course, to remember that he was a child prodigy as well. As a young man, well, as a little boy, he showed huge talent in painting and could copy anything, and really was a star painter right out of the chute. It’s interesting that someone with such huge talent chose not to be a representational, or even an abstract, painter, but instead, to do something based not in painting, but in geography, cartography, and concept. And obviously, his hand is so incredibly skilled.”

kuitca16Guillermo Kuitca, “Sacramento,” Oil on canvas, 72 x 36 in., 1990

“This is Sacramento. It’s a really lovely work. It’s based on a map company that Kuitca particularly liked, which was prevalent in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He loved the color palette, with their yellows and their green major highways. As you can see, it’s fractured into 11 canvases, so here Kuitca is literally fracturing the landscape through the use of these small canvases as opposed to doing it on one big one. Then you have the void, where it’s not filled in what’s going on in these spaces, and it may or may not actually be real as to where these roads really go. Often times, in Kuitca’s works you can see that a road leads to the same place, or to absolutely nowhere if you really start to analyze.”

“Why did he choose to work with this particular map? One may ask. It’s really just a matter of what maps Kuitca comes across; now this one [Sacramento] could be read as the epicenter of California; Sacramento is the state capital, and it’s the title of the work. It’s obviously also a Spanish name of an American capital, and could deal with the things that play off the “sacred” and the implications of “sacra-“ in terms of the root of the word in a sacred lexicon. But, Kuitca is focused on areas all over the world, and there’s no rhyme or reason, except in a painting like Belfast where Belfast is very specific. The painting around the corner of Mexico City (below) is also very specific.”

kuitca20Guillermo Kuitca, “Idea de una pasión,” Acrylic on canvas, 78 5/8 x 75 in., 1991

This is Mexico City, and it is just absolutely phenomenal. Here Kuitca takes his map, based on Mexico City but again not exacting at all, and all of a sudden, the roads turn into thorns and brambles of thorns. Then you read the idea of violence, persecution, and bloodletting into this, and of course, sadly, Mexico City has the stereotypical view of being a dangerous place, even though for those of us who go there often, we are aware that that danger is unlikely. It’s just like any other city in the world where everyone is careful, but otherwise it’s not that dangerous. In addition, the imposition of Christianity on indigenous culture – I’m very convinced – is present in this work. Indigenous religions are very very different from Christianity, and the Spaniards came and put Christianity on top of Mexico. I think obviously with the implication of the crown of thorns, that’s very much there.”

kuitca21“Idea de una pasión,” detail

“To note I love this particular area of the painting (shown above), which is not a real place, but instead becomes a spider web or what could be read as a roll of barbed wire, so it’s like a trap.”

kuitca8Guillermo Kuitca, “Corona de Espinas,” Oil on canvas, 60 1/8 x 70 3/8 in., 1994

“And this is Kuitca’s homage to Cy Twombly, of course, but instead of it just being a free-spirited release in form and space, here, Kuitca is very carefully hand-painting all of these brambles of thorns. And again it is obvious that this could be Christ’s crown of thorns or it could just as easily be a reference to barbed wire and persecution, to concentration camps, to genocide, to all of those things; it’s all very wrapped up here.”

notredamekuitcaGuillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” (Marble flooring plan of the sanctuary and part of the choir of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris), Graphite and ink on linen, 77 1/2 x 63 in., 1999

“This one (above) is graphite on canvas, and it is Notre Dame in Paris. It is from Kuitca’s series of church floor plans. The image is first laid down in graphite, and then Kuitca uses an emulsion with water and some chemical agents to get the graphite to blur. He moves the canvas around so that it bleeds and blurs and stains, and I see this as the Shroud of Turin in many ways. This is the idea of the body of Christ represented in the architectural form of the church, bleeding, melting – either into the architecture, into Paris, into the city, it’s just so beautiful.”

notredamedetail“Untitled” detail

“The image is also a very powerful sculptural form in and of itself. It is as if it is both a floor plan and something achieving actual elevation at the same time.”

kuitca9“Lontano,” detail

“This painting (above) is exceptionally good. It’s based on cubism, the history of art, and the history of painting. Kuitca fuses this with another very central tenet, which is his inclusion of the floor plans of apartments or domestic space. As you know, Kuitca started off doing floor plans of his own apartment, and then just started playing with that form, that cube, of our lived environment, which is a formal element in the painting. I love that in this work the floor plans are very rigid, rectangular or square – very straight edged, straightforward – but are then surrounded by chaos.”

kuitca10Guillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” Oil on canvas, 75 x 96 in., 1995

And this (above) is from Kuitca’s “beds in rooms” series, and it is so – well – you can really tell that his parents were psychoanalysts when you look at a painting like this! It just becomes theatrical in many, many ways. We brought a group of school kids in last week to show them this, and they immediately said, “Somebody got murdered there!” because of the blood red and the overturned furniture.”

“If you take a look at the doors in the painting, it’s as if the painting asks, which door do you choose? It really forces you to think about which way you go. Through the black door, or, is that a white door? Or is it a closed door? Is it good or is it evil? What lies behind? It’s also interesting that Kuitca was very good friends with Pina Bausch the choreographer. They collaborated often on her stage sets; she was a huge influence on him and he on her. So when you think about Pina’s stage sets, they’re very much like this: simple, stark, just a few pieces of furniture – and just in doing research for this show, I came across this one little essay explaining that relationship and it was like, oh okay, of course! This makes total and complete sense.”

“Also Guillermo of course literally has painted on mattresses, and has hung those on a wall or has made them sculptures or bed sculptures. The bed is a site of ‘human psychogeography,’ and obviously our beds are very very important to us in terms of where we sleep or rest, have sex, enact our lives, where we have insomnia – I mean the bed is both site of trauma and absolute calm. So it’s interesting that several artists have honed in on that.”

kuitca11Guillermo Kuitca, “Untitled,” Oil on canvas, 72 1/2 x 108 in., 1998

And in the work here (above), it’s a reflection of the same space, but also laid on top of an incredibly complex abstract work; just in terms of the staining and the mark-making that’s going on. When you start to look into it, things are more or less matching, yet completely blurred and nothing like the others at all, so is this a reflection in water? Is it a reflection in space, with the overturned beds again going on? And yet, either way it’s not a perfect reflection, because in one place, the chair is upright, in another, upside down and, in another it’s turned over on its side. So beautiful. The color palette is just incredible.”

kuitca22“Untitled” detail

“So ultimately, I was very happy with this show. It’s beautiful, and also, sadly, even more timely than I ever expected it to be. Now that we’re facing a totally new direction in our country, and the implications of what’s to come – with immigration, and ideas of walls, and architecture – from that angle, these things will take on very new meaning. But again, based on one’s politics, some people are elated and thrilled, whereas others are scared and miserable, and I mean I guess that’s always the human condition. And in many ways, when an artist is looking very specifically at how we navigate space, how we inhabit space,and how we position our own identities within it, I thought that they don’t get any better than this.” -Eric Shiner, SVP Fine Art, Sotheby’s

Many thanks to Mr. Shiner from Artifactoid for this thoughtful tour. Unfortunately this exhibit is no longer up, but please stay tuned for more beautiful upcoming shows at the Sotheby’s S|2 Gallery!

Women Photographers in Exile: A Conversation With Curators Christina De León and Michel Otayek

Images by Kati Horna, “Bombed! Shelled! Besieged for two years – but Life goes on!,” The Weekly Illustrated, December 3, 1938 [author unknown]. Private collection, New York.

This article was originally published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art.

I had had this event on my calendar for weeks, looking forward to unofficially celebrating the election of our first woman president at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts, coinciding with this wonderful panel discussion on the topic of women photographers in exile. When the night of November 8th turned into the morning of November 9th , and election results were in, there was a different somber attitude across New York City than I’d ever seen before. As shocked and devastated as I was about the results of the election, I decided that I needed to go to the event that I had been looking forward to for so long. When I headed toward the subway to go uptown, the weather outside was grey, drizzly, and dark, and then the energy inside the subway car felt like that of a funeral. But when I got to this panel event put on by Americas Society in the gorgeous ornate colonial building of the NYU Institute of Fine Arts on 5th Avenue, celebrating the work and accomplishments of these incredibly powerful women photographers during wartime during the earlier parts of the 20th century, I was absolutely uplifted and inspired again in a way that I really needed to be at that moment. It was a night of applauding courageous and creative women who broke boundaries, fought for what they believed in and revealed acute insights on dark times with their art and activism.

In the following interview, I sat down with the curators of both the panel discussion and the exhibition, Michel Otayek and Christina De León, to speak about their motivation and inspiration behind shining the spotlight on incredible talents Kati Horna (Hungary), Lee Miller (United States), Grete Stern (Germany), and Margaret Michaelis (Austria-Hungary; Poland), among others. Each have such an incredible story that I have linked to their Wikipedia pages, but in short, from what I’ve gathered, all of these women, in face of the political turmoil of Europe mostly in the 1930s including the rise of Nazi-ism and the Spanish Civil War, fled from and moved between different countries, in regions including Europe, Latin America, Africa, Australia and the U.S., to take action photographing in often treacherous zones. They produced images for everything from mass publications like Vogue, to activist anarchist propaganda in Spain, to art photography which also sometimes included shared common interests in both surrealism and architecture.

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Kati Horna, Helen Escobedo, 1960; gelatin silver print, 8 x 8 in. Private collection, Mexico City.  © 2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What led to your focus on Kati Horna? What most intrigued you about her work at the onset, and what were some of the most interesting things you discovered about her through your research putting this show and panel together?

Michel Otayek: Kati Horna’s work during the Spanish Civil War was the subject of my master’s thesis at Hunter College a few years ago. My doctoral dissertation at New York University, currently in progress, takes a more expansive view at her trajectory by means of a comparative analysis between her work, before and after exile, and that of Grete Stern. Early on in my research about Horna, it became clear to me that the meaning of her images was inextricable from their circulation in print. Throughout her career, she produced work specifically for the press. In a way, the true medium of her practice was the printed page, rather than the photographic print. In the pages of print materials, text and design bring to bear on what we are to make of photographic images. At the same time, one must also consider of the specificity of the audience (for whom is this magazine crafted?) when thinking about the sense-making power of images. Our exhibition at Americas Society stays close to these ideas. By presenting a rather eclectic array of print materials in dialogue with a selection of vintage prints, we argue that Horna was keenly aware of how circulation determines meaning—a circumstance she was sometimes able to exploit to great effect.

Christina De León: I was familiar with photographs by Kati Horna’s that were mostly taken in Mexico, however I was not aware of her earlier career in Spain with anarchist publications and through research for this exhibition I came to discover the story of a deeply complex and fascinating photographer. What most intrigued me about Horna’s work were her portraits, specifically of women, because she never relied on sensationalism or angst.  Her photographs invited viewers to look deeper into their own reality and served as a reflection of human conditions that encompass all of us. She also displayed an extraordinary depth of field for real-life phenomena generally viewed as banal or otherwise routinely overlooked, which she often captured with a clever sense of humor. Our archival research uncovered an incredibly diverse amount of photographic work, much of which will probably never be seen, because it is not associated with her formal production, but it’s an interesting insight into her practice and how she maintained herself financially. For instance she took wedding photographs, society portraits, images for popular photo-novela magazines, and she took innumerable picture of animals—there are many amazing photographs of cats.

Artifactoid: For the panel presentation, you discussed Horna’s work in the context of several other female photographers from the perspective of mobility and exile, including Lee Miller, Grete Stern, Margaret Michaelis, Marianne (Gast) Goeritz. What would you say is the single most outstanding quality about each of these artists, and what would you characterize as some of the most important threads between them that connect and amplify each of their bodies of work?

MO: I try not to reduce a photographer’s practice to a single, characteristic trait. I think there’s more to Henri Cartier-Bresson, for example, than the decisive moment, or to Robert Capa than battlefront intrepidness. As a remarkably versatile craft, photography gave women such as Kati Horna and Grete Stern a great deal of mobility—across national borders, most obviously, but also across communities of artists, intellectuals, and political activists. There are significant commonalities in the work of these two Jewish women, including the fact that both learned their craft from photographers specializing in advertising work (József Pécsi and Walter Peterhans), which I think gave them a sense of photography as a tool to construct images rather than just document reality. Having lived in Berlin in the final years of the Weimar Republic, both were led to exile by the rise of National Socialism. But whereas Stern left Europe for Argentina in 1936 and was celebrated early on as a pioneer of modernist photography in her adopted country, Horna’s involvement with the anarchist fringe of the Spanish Civil War resulted in a much more precarious exile to Mexico, where she arrived in late 1939—and into which culture she struggled to assimilate for a long time. For a variety of reasons, while Stern has long been part of the canon of modern Argentine photography, Horna’s work continues to be, in my opinion, unfairly underappreciated, even in Mexico.

CDL: It’s difficult to point to a single outstanding quality for each of these photographers, because there are so many! But an interesting commonality among all of them was their ability to seize the opportunities offered by the growing field of photography as a means for personal, political, economic, and artistic emancipation.

Artifactoid: Since you focus on foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, I wanted to ask you, what are some of the biggest risks and dangers that these women faced in doing what they were doing, during the time they were doing it? What were some of the biggest challenges they had to overcome that may not be obvious at first glance?

MO: In addition to Horna and Stern, I am also currently researching the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall, both of whom arrived in Venezuela in the late 1950s. Though a generation younger and having arrived in Latin America two decades later than Horna and Stern, Brändli and Segall also had to carve out their own spaces, as émigrés, in an occupational field still largely dominated by men. Something I find in common among all four is somewhat of an inclination towards the countercurrent. What I mean is that in their trajectories one notices either an engagement with themes ignored by the greater culture or, conversely, a disinterest in some of the topics most conspicuous in the work of other photographers in their adoptive countries. For example, between 1958 and 1964, Grete Stern committed herself to the production of an extensive photographic record of the indigenous communities of the Argentine Great Chaco. Driven to photograph the living conditions of these communities by a personal desire to help improve them, Stern was later greatly disappointed by she perceived as a generalized indifference towards the plight of Argentina’s indigenous cultures by the country’s elites. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that in Mexico, a country with a robust tradition of folklorist photography, Horna should have remained largely unconcerned with popular and indigenous traditions—themes that have fascinated generations of photographers there, from Hugo Brehme to Graciela Iturbide.

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Kati Horna, Un mariage chez les œufs [A Marriage of Eggs], 1936; gelatin silver print. Private collection, Mexico City. ©2005 Ana María Norah Horna y Fernández.

Artifactoid: What are some of the most surprising photographs taken by any of these artists?

MO: Much of Kati Horna’s work speaks to her refined sense of humor. The more of it one looks at, the more sensitive ones becomes to her penchant for infusing even the soberest or most mundane series with an understated layer of comicality. Oftentimes, the humorous streak of her work is not immediately apparent. But on occasion, she produced series that were downright hilarious. Such is the case of a delightful photo essay about city fashions such as bulky mini-skirts, published in July 1962 in the Mexican weekly Tiempo, in which every photograph is taken from the ground looking up, monumentalizing the subjects’ rears while keeping most of their upper bodies invisible. We were not able to include this series in our exhibition at Americas Society but it is certainly one of my favorites. While we are in the subject of personal preferences, one of the works by Bárbara Brändli I like the most is her 1981 book Los páramos se van quedando solos, in which photographs and interview transcripts document the vanishing rural communities and linguistic patterns of the Venezuelan Andes. While not a bold statement of design such as the celebrated 1975 photobook Sistema Nervioso (produced collaboratively by Brändli, John Lange and Roman Chalbaud), Los páramos se van quedando solos manages to convey the melancholic allure of agrarian life in the highlands of Western Venezuela. It is a visually austere but surprisingly sublime photographic pastoral.

CDL: I think I would say I was more inspired than surprised by the photographs taken by these artists.  In viewing these images it’s obvious that they did not hold back and you can see the urge to push further and go beyond conventionality. Their work reflects a raw individuality and a complexity that mirrored their lives.

Artifactoid: What were some of the biggest curatorial challenges that you faced when putting this presentation together, and how did you overcome them?

CDL: When organizing an exhibition it’s always a challenge conveying a person’s life’s work through a small and subjective selection of pieces. The goal is always to highlight key moments in a manner that is both engaging and thoughtful, but when you enter an artist’s archive the decision process can be daunting. While our exhibition is focused on Kati Horna’s relationship with the illustrated press, it was important for us to show her professional and personal transitions, as well as her vast networks in Europe and in Mexico, which was something we kept in mind throughout the entire process. Conveying Horna’s images within a framework that spoke to her political ideas, artistic curiosities, and deft eye was crucial to understanding the work we selected. In addition, it was essential to show the circulation of her images and their ever-changing contexts. For us the exhibition design and the display devices played a paramount role in helping to create a dialogue among the images and publications on view. The design was especially important because many of the images were printed in a small format and we wanted visitors to engage with its intimate nature. In many museum and gallery settings there is a tendency to keep a distance from the work, but in this case our intention was for the public to get close and become familiar with Horna’s images and her photographic practice.

Artifactoid: What new meaning, if any, is added to how you view these photographers and their work, in the context of our current, intense global political situation right now? Is there anything about their work that you see in a new light, due to current events? And, which current artists, if any, would you say could be considered modern equivalents of the photographers you focused on in this exhibit/panel?

MO: Perhaps we should put it the other way around. Thinking about what a handful of truly remarkable women were able to do with their cameras as they traversed some of the great upheavals of the 20th century has given me solace as we wake up to a global state of affairs in which, suddenly, it seems acceptable again to disparage minorities, and influential figures feel emboldened to express their contempt for the equal dignity of women. As you know, our panel at the Institute of Fine Arts about women photographers in exile was held the day after the presidential election in the United States. Many of us in attendance were shocked and deeply pained by the election’s results. The timing could not have been more apt for an evening of serene, almost therapeutic conversation about talented, courageous women and the challenges they had to overcome in their own times. Their careers can be looked at from so many different angles that one could establish pertinent comparisons with numerous artists working today. Someone that comes to mind in regards to Kati Horna is Zoe Leonard, whose phantasmagoric photographs were recently on view at an exquisite show at Hauser & Wirth, just a few blocks from Americas Society. Although conceived to operate within very different parameters of public display and circulation, Leonard’s work is concerned with preoccupations that come through in some of Horna’s most personal series: the condition of statelessness and the need to reconstruct personal history.

CDL: In light of the current political unrest, I think its clear that although there has been significant progress, women continue to face many of the same challenges and prejudices they did seventy or eight years ago. Nevertheless, women are still pushing ahead and working to defy stereotypical notions about what kind of work they should or shouldn’t be doing. This defiance has been happening throughout centuries and endures today. The objective for us as a society is to continue to shed light on their work and integrate these women within a greater canonical narrative and not refer to them just as historical anomalies.

View the exhibition of works by Kati Horna, “Told and Untold,” at Americas Society through December 17th, 2016.

About Christina De León and Michel Otayek:

Christina L. De León is a doctoral candidate at the Bard Graduate Center: Decorative Arts, Design History, Material Culture. From 2010 to 2016 she was the associate curator at Americas Society where she worked on modern and contemporary art exhibitions and publications. She co-curated the shows For Rent: Marc Latamie (2012), Cristóbal Lehyt: Iris Sheets (2013), and Told and Untold: The Photo Stories of Kati Horna in the Illustrated Press (2016). She contributed to the catalogue Moderno: Design for Living in Brazil, Mexico, and Venezuela 1940–1978 and has written articles for Review and Americas Quarterly periodicals. De León held previous positions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Cloisters Museum and Gardens. She holds an M.A. from New York University and a B.A. from Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

Michel Otayek is an art historian and doctoral candidate at New York University’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese. He holds a degree in Law from the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Caracas, and an M.A. in art history from Hunter College in New York. Otayek’s research addresses the role of practices of visual culture, including photography, in the articulation of discourse. His work is particularly concerned with collaboratively produced cultural artifacts such as illustrated periodicals and photobooks. Currently in progress, Mr. Otayek’s dissertation undertakes a comparative analysis of the work in exile of photographers Kati Horna in Mexico and Grete Stern in Argentina. As part of his interest in foreign female photographers active in Latin America during the postwar period, he is also at work in research projects pertaining the work of Bárbara Brändli and Thea Segall in Venezuela.

The Runway and The Slaughterhouse: In Conversation with Artist Tamara Kostianovsky

Full Original Article in Spanish Available in Vice-Versa Magazine.

Born in Jerusalem and raised in Buenos Aires, Artist Tamara Kostianovsky was affected by the strong culture of animal consumption in Argentina during her upbringing so much so that it became a main focus of her artistic practice. During her youth, Kostianovsky became fixated on the ubiquity of animal carcasses around her city, and came to view them as tragic and sacrificial entities that possessed a certain melancholic beauty.

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What’s more is that Kostianovsky’s experience surrounded by carnage from a young age didn’t stop at animals; her father was a plastic surgeon, and in a recent conversation, Kostainovsky explained to me that not only did she have a stint working at his office, but medical images of surgeries and dissected human body parts were commonplace in her childhood home, laying around casually, even on her kitchen table.

As an artist, Kostianovsky transitioned her career from focusing on painting to sculpture, and felt compelled to creatively work with her memories of the torn body and themes of consumption. Her 2014 collection of sculptures, “Actus Reus,” comprised a series of hanging “meat” and “animal carcasses,” which she would meticulously assemble using only her own discarded clothing (sometimes working around an armature).

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Continuing to experiment with these themes, Kostianovsky began to diversify her subject matter when a friend of hers suggested that she begin to work with birds. Kostianovsky liked this idea, and she started experimenting with feathers, ordering them off of the Internet, studying them and replicating them with fabric using new techniques.

One day, she ordered what she thought were feathers online, but what arrived instead in the package was a full pheasant for taxidermy. She looked down at the deceased bird in the box, and thought that it shared this certain tragic beauty to it that she had always felt inspired to work with. This launched her 2016 collection of hanging dead bird sculptures titled “Relic,” which she recently exhibited as a part of a group show at Y Gallery called “Natural Resistance” that dealt with the tension between violence and nature.

To note, by working with nearly exclusively recycled clothing, towels and blankets to create works that highlight how we consume nature and animals, Kostianovsky continually makes a conscious and dynamic political statement of “anti-consumption.”

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In the following interview, Artifactoid sits down with Kostianovsky to discuss her artwork’s connections to art history, the inspiration that arose from working with clothing and dead animals, and the artist’s current participation in the exhibition, “Weave Wars” at the Indianapolis Arts Center from September 23rd through November 19th, 2016.

Artifactoid: Many people have compared your sculpture work to imagery present in Flemish still life paintings. Was the connection intentional, and what is most important about its influence on your work in your opinion?

TK: The connection between my work and Art Historical Still Life paintings is intentional. For years, I’ve been enamored by the way Flemish artists were able to turn images of dead animals and flesh into complex mirages of luxury and excess. I’m drawn to the expressive and dramatic character of this imagery and seduced by the issue of wealth that these works present. In the 17th Century, owning one of these works was a strong status symbol. They perpetuated a “full plate” on the walls of a house, while reassuring noblemen of their class, as hunting was only reserved for the nobility at the time.

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As for me, I’ve come to the world of flesh from a unique experience. While living in Argentina as a teenager, I worked at a surgeon’s office at the same time that I was going to art school. The transition between work and school became quite seamless and I was able to connect the sightings of blood, ligaments, and fat I saw at work with my early experiences as a young painter. Since then, I’ve been interested in looking at images of torn flesh from that perspective, so when I came across the Dutch Still Lives, I recognized that impulse to make the inside of the body appear luxurious and seductive, and I was transfixed…

Artifactoid: At a recent panel discussion at Y Gallery you mentioned the idea of links between a meat slaughterhouse and a fashion runway. Can you please expand on your ideas about this comparison and how it inspires you artistically to explore?

TK: In recent years, research for my work has made me take a close look at both slaughterhouses and the fashion world. On a first look we tend to see these systems as complete opposites: slaughterhouses hide the abject, the disgusting, and the cruel, while the fashion world is involved with beauty and perfection. In my view, strong resemblances between these two systems exist, particularly in the rhythmic, mechanical way that bodies circulate in choreographed way around a space, a topic that fascinates me because of its connection to sculpture, to architecture, and to our most primal experience of existing as physical beings in the world. Because of efficiency, optimization, and organization, direct connections can be established between the diverse systems that dominate the production of goods across different industries in today’s world. I am interested in making work that inhabits this intersection, artwork that on some level articulates the contemporary experience of consumption, industrialization, and that questions the modern ways in which we’ve become “modern predators.”

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Artifactoid: Who are some of the other talented artists working with fabric who inspire or influence you?

TK: Discussing textile art can be conflictive. From a Latin American perspective, fiber has a rich, ancient tradition that speaks of nobility, community and a spirit of collaboration with the animals of the Andes. From a contemporary Latin American art point of view, fiber is often a material of choice that can successfully articulate with sensibility and humbleness some of the sociopolitical and economic problems of the region. Within a more international contemporary art perspective, textile art is often linked to “craftiness”, “softness”, and the “feminine”. I reject the notion that I make “soft sculpture”– there isn’t anything “soft” in what I intend to say or the way I say it. In using fabric, I see an opportunity to expand the scope of what this material can do, but most mostly an opportunity to redefine the gender notions that still haunt women artists.

I came to fabric through surgery, and because I use mostly my own clothing to make art, I see this material as a second skin, a surrogate of my own body. Janine Antoni has been a big referent for me in the way she used her body to activate sculptural processes. Louise Bourgeois comes to mind as well, but mostly because of a kinship to a dramatic sensibility, not so much because of the material choice.

Artifactoid: What are you most excited about regarding your participation in the “Weave Wars” exhibition?

TK: I’ve recently discovered the artwork of Ben Venom, whose work is featured alongside my own at the new exhibition “Weave Wars” that opened on September 23rd at the Indianapolis Art Center. I’m excited about his very alternative and badass quilts but mostly about having my work featured within an incredible group of artists who are thinking of ways of pushing the limits of fabric as material. Because I am a little fatigued of media-specific exhibitions, I tend to not participate in fiber-art shows, but this one seems to be energized, radical, and original. I’m excited about what curator Kyle Herrington has put together.

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Tamara Kostianovsky was born in Jerusalem, Israel and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She currently lives and works in Brooklyn. Her work has been widely exhibited internationally, as well as presented in solo and group shows at venues including: The Jewish Museum (NY, USA), El Museo del Barrio (NY, USA), Nevada Museum of Art (NV, USA), Socrates Sculpture Park (NY, USA), The Volta Show (NY, USA), Maison et Object (Paris, France), and the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts (MI, USA). Kostianovsky is the recipient of several grants and awards, including: The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, The New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, two Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grants, and a grant from The Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

What Makes a “Keeper”? New Museum Curator Natalie Bell on Collecting as Art

Original article published in Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art

The New Museum’s current show The Keeper, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, pushes the boundaries of the definition of art by exploring practices of collecting and preserving objects as the subject of a museum exhibition.

The Keeper features expansive collections of items compiled by artists, scholars, collectors and hoarders over the past century which provide viewers with opportunities to muse on how the things that people amass and safeguard speak to their identities. How does what we decide to keep reflect upon who we are? Themes of memory, struggle, loss, the need for comfort, and the passing of time also pervade the four-story exhibition.

keeper2Installation view of The Keeper, featuring a sculptural installation by Carol Bove and Carlo Scarpa, and paintings by Hilma af Klint

Included are works like Canadian artist-curator Ydessa Hendele’sPartners “The Teddy Bear Project” (2002), which comprises more than 3,000 antique portraits of people and their teddy bears, Shinro Ohtake’s manic collaged scrapbooks (1979-2016), and Susan Hiller’s “The Last Silent Movie” (2007-2008), an audio work sounding the voices of the speakers of twenty-five extinct or dying languages.

While many of the collections of items included in the show are impressive and thought provoking, it’s not difficult, as a viewer, to wonder: Is simply compiling a quantity of something enough to call it art? Jose Falconi, postdoctoral fellow at the Department of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University, critiques:

“Some of the pieces, most notably Ydessa Hendeles’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” are pieces which do not have much more merit than the mere act of collecting itself. An act that is, as we all know, one of the most basic tricks in the artist book: any object starts acquiring new meaning when they are collected — just as any object starts acquiring a new meaning when they are rendered in a different scale (very big, very small). In that way, The Keeper does very little to show that there is anything beyond putting into motion such a trick and conflating many different possible readings of the works gathered in it. What is, for example, the critical difference between hoarding and collecting? Is one simply the result of an impulse gone astray?

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 Installation view of Ydessa Hendele’s “Partners (The Teddy Bear Project)” (2002)

Supposedly the show is about showing that behind such repetitious acts there is something else lurking around, but I didn’t see it; the exhibition almost presents as mere celebration of collecting without any criticality. In other words: it suffers from what it is trying not to show.”

The answer to the question of the validity of collecting or amassing objects as art may certainly be up for debate, but one idea that seems to be paramount in understanding the value of a show like this, according to Writer and former New Museum Technician Matthew Blair, could be considering curating as the art form itself:

The Keeper either raises the status of curating to a form of art-making, or blurs the lines between collecting and creating; between curating and art-making. The curators at The New Museum have always had an interest in mounting shows that tend to [utilize] more than just content and juxtaposition. They organize shows that put more of the onus on the curators — changing the role of curating to being the dominant mode of exhibiting.”

Therefore, in part, it could be said that it is The New Museum’s commitment to allowing for experimental curatorial practices that is one of the elements most on display in The Keeper, more so than any individual work.

keeper4Shinro Ohtake, “Scrapbooks” (1979-2016)

keeper5Reproduction of drawing from “The Sketchbook from Auschwitz” (original drawing included in the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum), (ca. 1943) 

In the following interview, New Museum Assistant Curator Natalie Bell, who collaborated on The Keeper with Mr. Gioni provides further insight on collecting, identity, and explorations of preserving and protecting as art.

Artifactoid: From your perspective, what do you think are some of the most important things that The Keeper reveals in regards to how collecting objects relates to our identity? Are there any works that you think make some of the biggest statements? Which ones and why?

Natalie Bell: Well, almost by definition, any collection is going to reflect its collector, whether it’s merely a matter of taste or representative of a unique philosophy or set of beliefs.  In this show, of course we were interested in collections that tell a story about someone’s beliefs, or an unlikely faith that certain objects and images could prove or validate an otherwise irrational or obscure idea, which is not true of everything in the exhibition, but is a significant recurring feature of many of its “keepers.” The first that comes to mind is Roger Caillois, a French theorist who collected rare stones because he believed they could reveal a shared cosmic history — which is not such a far-fetched thought if you think about the cosmic scope of geological formations. Or Wilson Bentley, who pioneered microphotography and amassed over five thousand negatives of snowflakes to prove his hypothesis that no two snowflakes are alike. But these are instances in which collecting relates to identity, if identity is understood as one’s beliefs, which is not always how we think about identity.

keeper6Oil on canvas paintings by Hilma af Klint (1914-1915)

Which works make the biggest statements? An important footnote to Hilma af Klint’s luminous abstract paintings from 1914-15 is that she had stipulated, at the time of her death, that they be withheld from the public, or basically kept secret until twenty years after her death. So essentially she believed that her work, which was not so well received in her lifetime, would only be truly appreciated in the future. But maybe the most powerful work for me is one that combines a belief in a future discovery and an enormous moral imperative to bear witness, which are the drawings from an author known by the initials “MM,” which were found hidden in a bottle in the barracks near the gas chambers at Auschwitz and are among very few images made in Auschwitz that actually depict the atrocities of abuse, torture, and mass extermination. Clearly, the artist who made these knew the severity of punishment he would encounter if he was caught making these images, and he took enormous risk to document what was so impossibly horrific and was otherwise being assiduously hidden by the Nazis.

Artifactoid: In what ways is the idea of collecting and quantity important in art? When we call a collection of things art, what, in your opinion, are the effects or significances of that?

NB: Personally I don’t think quantity or collecting are virtues in themselves, but one way to think about how collecting or quantity have importance in art is that a dedicated accumulation of anything reflects someone’s passion, and maybe at times, their obsession — and alongside that, we tend to regard an artist’s zealousness or compulsiveness as a creative virtue. In a sense, this exhibition is maybe guilty of exploiting the legacy of romanticism, but the effect is perhaps visitors come away from the show with a new way of thinking about what it means to be creative. But it wasn’t a particular agenda of ours to anoint these bodies of work or collections as “art,” but rather to reflect on what is essential and universal about our emotional attachment to things, and how forming bonds with things helps us cope with our mortality.

keeper762 consecutive annual studio portraits of Ye Jinglu, collected by photography collector Tong Bingxue, (1901-1963)

Artifactoid: When considering the compiling of objects as art (which I was speaking about with Jose Falconi about), are there some important distinctions in your opinion about the practice of collecting versus hoarding?

NB: There are important distinctions, some of them arguable, but first of all I think you could call collecting a practice in the sense that it’s intentional and a collector might have to make decisions about what to acquire and what not to acquire, what’s worth keeping and what’s not worth keeping. Hoarding, on the other hand, is regarded as a pathological condition, and people who hoard have a compulsion to keep everything and suffer enormous anxiety about parting with anything. In other words, it comes down to being judicious about what you surround yourself with and having a capacity to refine one’s collection, rather than just keeping everything.

But in the framework of our thinking about the show, maybe the matter of preserving and protecting opens up something more contentious — which is that people who hoard often believe that they’re preserving the things that they keep for some future opportunity, and that their guardianship is essential. And there’s also maybe a shared psychological impulse in which amassing things can be a way of coping. But the arguable difference in my mind is that if you hoard, you’re constantly compromising your capacity to actually take good care of the things you have. That, and the fact that no one wants to become a hoarder. It’s considered a condition for good reason!

Artifactoid: There was a connection of several of the works to World War II and the Holocaust. Who decided to include multiple of those works, and why do you think that the idea of “collecting” is important related to that period in history?

NB: There are a few works that may stand out because of their relationship to the Holocaust, but I don’t think the idea of “collecting” is more related to that period in history than to others. Of course, it’s interesting generally to think about people’s relationship to material culture vis-a-vis larger historical events. It can manifest as a pragmatic approach, like how many Americans who came of age during the depression and remember the rationing of WWII have a tendency to reuse and salvage things that we might otherwise consider disposable. But this is more a trauma of poverty or scarcity that spurs collecting as a preventative measure. In other words, is my grandpa’s drawer full of golf pencils the product of his emotional attachment to these objects? Not really, considering that he has the same attitude toward saving ketchup packets from fast food restaurants.

keeper8Detail from Henrik Olesen’s “Some Gay-Lesbian Artists and/or Artists relevant to Homo-Social Culture Born between c. 1300–1870″ (2007)

keeper9The 387 Houses of Peter Fritz (1916-1992), Insurance Clerk from Vienna, preserved by Oliver Croy and Oliver Elser (1993-2008)

But, that said, in this exhibition we weren’t so interested in the idea of collecting in a broad sense, but in something quite specific, which is a desire to preserve and protect and care for certain objects and images, so rather looking for instances where there’s a certain desire or love that’s motivating someone to action. This is a very different sort of mandate — and one that’s as subjective as it is emotional. But to return to the parts of the show that touch on the Holocaust, I think that there are potentially a lot of connections to collecting. Obviously, collecting as a form of bearing witness takes on a real urgency when there is a genocide that attempted to leave no evidence of mass exterminations, but on an emotional and psychological level, forging emotional attachments to objects is a common way of coping with the trauma, so it should be no surprise that WWII and the Holocaust stand out as something of a focal point in a show whose historical scope includes the last century.

Floors 1-3 of The Keeper will be on view at The New Museum (235 Bowery, New York, NY 10002) through Sunday, October 2nd, 2016. The fourth floor of the exhibit will be open through Sunday September 25th.

Reflections on Manus X Machina at the MET: Fashion and Technology, Couture to RTW

While Yves Saint Laurent once quoted, “Art is a very big word for couture. It’s a métier like any other, but a poetic métier,” it was difficult for me to look at the pieces on display at the MET’s Manus x Machina exhibit and not see many of them as wearable sculptures.

img_3268-1Dress featuring both hand-embroidered and 3D-printed elements, by threeASFOUR, 2014

If you didn’t get a chance to check out the recent fashion and technology exhibit before it closed this Labor Day weekend, I wanted to give you an opportunity to see some of the beautiful pieces that were featured, and consider the topic of fashion and technology.

dressIris van Herpen dress including polyurethane resin and iron fillings hand-sculpted with magnets, Autumn/Winter 2014

One thing that really struck me about this Apple-sponsored, Andrew Bolton-organized exhibit was that, for a fashion and technology exhibit, it didn’t feel very high-tech. It was more like a retrospective of how high fashion has kept up with and experimented with the tech of its time over the last century. For instance, many of the 3D-printed pieces which were presented as some of the more technologically advanced of the show were created several years back. I’d even previously seen the Iris van Herpen 3D-printed corset in early 2014 the Bass Museum in Miami.

vanherpenIris van Herpen, 3D-Printed Dress (far right, 2010)

The lower-tech vibe of the show, on the positive side, can be viewed as a testament to how well some of the show’s participating haute couture designers have been integrating new technologies into fashion – allowing couture to retain its handmade look while keeping up with some of the latest technologies available. According to The New York Times, this has always been the case, i.e., with the invention of “the sewing machine (used to make a Paul Poiret coat in 1919) and machine-made lace (Coco Chanel, in the late ’30s).”

diorGowns, Dior (left, center) and Alexander McQueen (right)

There also seems to be a limiting factor in regards to the marriage of high-tech and haute couture: since a lot of technology is created to be utilitarian, and by its nature haute couture seems to be the antithesis of utilitarian, will the applications of technology in haute couture be limited to purely the aesthetic?

Even when considering Hussein Chalayan, whose fashion designs have included robotic, LED, and remote controlled technologies, the tech provides a visual wow-factor but no practical benefits for the wearer. Then again, no one ever looked to haute couture for its practicality.

Has it been frowned upon in the fashion world for couture to incorporate practical technology? Is there this consensus that the wearer of couture wouldn’t need high-tech life hacks woven into her ensemble at the moment of wearing it because its presence might reveal her earthly needs in her moment of being a goddess? I wonder if any designers right now are experimenting with pushing what those limits seem to have been.

chalayan“Kaikoku” Floating dress, Hussein Chalayan, 2011-12

Breaking from those limitations, the ready-to-wear fashion industry on the other hand is using technology to transform clothing itself into wearable tech smart devices. For instance, Google’s “Project Jacquard” recently debuted a partnership with Levi’s for a smart commuter jacket made of tech-connective denim that you can swipe like a smartphone screen to answer calls, control your music, and more, while remaining alert riding a bike. Antonio Cerruto, an engineer working on Project Jacquard, notes, “What I find exciting is that the people working on fashion tech now are the people who will be defining a vocabulary and mode of interaction for this area.”

It’s interesting that while tech is being integrated into both haute couture and ready-to-wear fashion in different ways, the core principles of the two categories – one as essentially wearable art and the other as utilitarian – seem to remain the same. And, the most “cutting edge” of the tech seems to be applied to the most common of the clothing: a denim jacket.