My latest National Post gallery crawl took me back to Toronto's art epicentre of Queen West, with three shows, one of which--Rainer Ganahl--I had higher hopes for than viewing same provided. It's hard to write a bad review, especially of a good artist; but I had to be true to my reaction on this one. If only he'd brought some of his bike works (like Use a Bicycle, above) to town, would've been not just great art but a good complement to Toronto's bike month. Read on here for those picks and pans.
Saturday, May 31, 2008
Friday, May 30, 2008
It's the last week of the CONTACT photo festival here in Toronto and I recommend seeing Raffaela Mariniello's installation at the Italian consulate before it comes down on Sunday. Read on here in my NOW tips for why.
Wednesday, May 28, 2008
You don't have to be Takashi Murakami to know that fashion meeting art can lead to big press and big business. Now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is putting a new spin on the trend with the first-ever 40-year retrospective of Yves St Laurent. Last week I got to chat on the phone with the show's chief curator, Florence Muller, a Paris-based fashion professor and a writer for Surface magazine. The National Post ran a condensed version of our chat with some great pictures in their print edition today. If you're they type who knows the difference between harem pants and hammer pants, read on after the jump for the expanded interview.
The following is an interview with Parisian fashion historian, curator and writer Florence Muller on the occasion of the first-ever Yves St Laurent retrospective opening in Montreal on May 29, 2008. This interview took place over the phone on Friday, May 23.
Q Art and fashion are becoming every more associated with each other—think Murakami and Vuitton, W mag’s art issue, and now this exhibit. Why is this connection developing? How is fashion art?
A You know YSL was one of the first to do this connection in the 60s. It was not so evident during this time and it was really new. Nowdays it’s become much more evident. Through the 90s there was the idea that art and fashion can be connected in different way; artists like Vanessa Beecroft had a fascination for this world do luxury together with a point of view that was critical of it and. The people involved in these luxury brands were very interested by art and started building a connection support exhibition events in artist fields. And through the 90s and recent years this connection has been perceived as completely evident in terms of activities, in terms of developing events, exhibitions and support.
But I can say that during the beginning of YSL this was not so evident, and this was more revolutionary; this connection between what was considered art and fashion was considered not so important. I can say that I have also lived this revolution because when I started to work on the idea of the museum of fashion the Louvre through the 80s it was still very difficult during the to say that fashion is also a form of art.
Now everybody understands that it’s a form of art, and what is important is that it has its own way of expression, its own vocabulary, its own way of developing an artistic resource and point of view. But now the ideas are more sophisticated. Fashion is not considered now like replicate of art field; it has its own rules and its own specificity and you can consider fashion with this specificity as an equal in the art field.
Q Now this exhibit argues that in addition to YSL being art, YSL was influenced by people like Picasso, Mondrian and Braque. How is this so? How do we see this in the clothes?
A He always said that he was naturally very involved in the artistic field, because he was a drawer and a painter and at the beginning he didn’t know exactly what he wanted to do, but he had a practice of art and a lot of connections with the art and literature fields. Many people near to him belonged to this world.
So I think it’s a very natural connection, a connection which is very alive you know, and very elegant. And but what he had started to do as a painter is find a way of thinking about this with the specificity of fashion, with the specificity of haute couture. It’s not just the work of taking a painting and putting it on a dress. But at the same time, it’s not very visible; if you don’t know the specificity of haute couture you don’t know how complicated it is to render the bird of Braque into a sculpture that is around the neck of the model that holds the drapery of the dress. Really there is huge work on finding a way of doing something which is not anymore a painting and which starts to be more sculpture, in fact a sculpture alive on the body of the model.
For example the Mondrian dress… it’s a shame no one can see the inside of the dress. It’s very savant. The work on the dress is very complicated. You feel it is very minimalist and simple, but there is a huge construction behind this effect, which is the idea of translating the painting into a shape that is around the body in three dimensions. And to have this effect of something flat and geometric, you have to really calculate each piece of textile because the dress is really like a mosaic, each colour of the geometry of the dress is a piece that is sewed to the other. And it’s really very complicated work, very specific to the haute couture.
Of course during the time it came out this dress had a tremendous effect. And there were some ready to wear brands who copied this dress into a print. It’s a much more easy way but this dress by YSL is really like a masterpiece.
Q So it’s like a sculpture, but on someone’s body?
Yes, perhaps what’s specific to haute couture is the fact that it is made with textile, a material that is moving always and you have to capture this quite alive material, to put it on the body. To have an effect one must absolutely calculate the fact that the body is in movement; that’s why it’s so difficult compared to a sculpture. But it has something to do with sculpture, absolutely.
Q This exhibit also argues that “YSL gave women power”… How is this? How did YSL give power through fashion?
A He started in a very precise moment in the 60s when there were all these new ideas about transforming society and feminism. And he gave the answer in terms of garments to all these movements to the women’s liberation. He has worked, as you know, on the masculine suit and he translated it for women. He has understood that men had power in society, of course because of history, but also because their costume is like an armor, an armor for everyday. The masculine suit protects the body with this structure, with the fact that’s it’s built very strongly. It’s built very strongly from the shoulders. The shoulders are built to give the impression of a strong body and when you have this masculine suit you immediately give and image of the body that is standing straight in a strong way.
But he has added this idea a very important other element, which is if the woman starts to be strong enough in society, she can also show her femininity. She has not just have to use the masculine image like a monk. She also can add on this feminine seduction. And it’s why his suits a the beginning were very masculine and very very soon after he adds the use of a blouse in silk chiffon instead of a shirt with a tie and he replaced the belt by a scarf in muslin. You will see in the show a suit like this, white with a pink blouse and belt. And he has made the mixture of the two things: the strong image of the masculine suit with the feminine seduction.
Q What about people who are worried about the way the fashion industry might encourage women to develop eating disorders, to be thin, to not have power? How do you see that in this context?
A I think of course that fashion is a huge example to follow in actual society. Of course it builds the aesthetic of the moment, of course it has an influence. But I don’t think it’s the only answer. I thind there is other phenomena, for example like the idea of youth. And I think if you see many young girls who want to stay very thin I think there is the idea of refusing and saying no to the fact that you are growing up. For me it’s an expression of the fact that they probably don’t want to become adults, they want to stay more and more like a teenager or like a very young girl and the thinness expresses this. I can also observe this on women of a certain age that wants to stay very very thin; it’s also a way of saying no the time passing, no to the idea of death.
Fashion is not the only explanation I think it our society refuses to face the usual evolution of the life. You know, beginning middle and then then, comme on dire, the viellesse, the fact of becoming old is seen like a defeat.
And of course we can say that in more practical way there is a huge competition in our world, and to keep your professional activity you need to seem very young and the fact to be young is connected with the slimness.
And it’s terrible you know, of course, but fashion is not the only factor responsible.
Q Getting to the current day and age, How did YSL impact what women wear today? Our culture today? Our fashion today? What might someone walking down the street today see and not know is influenced by YSL?
A You can see it everywhere but perhaps you don’t know if you haven’t seen the exhibition or book maybe you wouldn’t notice it. Now it is sucha part of the normal image of the street. For example the trenchcoat is everywhere, it’s back and back again and again in fashion season after season. No one knows perhaps, that he had helped drop this military coat into fashion. Of course this mixture between masculinity and femininity for the winter season in the last shows was everywhere. This theme it is really a huge preoccupation for many designers but if you don’t know the story you will not notice it. It is like many inventors who open a field; after many decades nobody remembers them. There is a heritage which is not well known. But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t he origin of this.
Q More personally, what is your favourite item in the show that you would like to wear? How would you wear it?
A There are several but if I can say one I would say perhaps the jumpsuit. It’s a knitted jumpsuit in a dark purple which was belonging to Nan Kempner. Because it is a very pure garment , because it is like an overall; it is very minimalist, very elegant and sportif, you can wear it in many different occasions and it makes a perfect line your body. Of course one of the Mondrian dresses; my favourite is the very very minimalist Montdrian with just a few colours like beige and brown and black and that’s all. Yes there is a silhouette you will see in the show of summer 1971, from this very shocking show about a quotation from the 1940s in the 1970s. In it, there is a print like camouflage print on the body which is worn with a scarf in fox. And I like this because itais altogether very subversive with this mixture of military touch and the drapery of the dress; it is really the essence of the haute couture.
Q What does Yves do now, after 40 years of production?
A I’m not sure; I don’t know how to answer. I think he is doing what he couldn’t do during these 40 years of intense activity. You know, before starting this fashion adventure he was liked to do drawings and to be alone and to be concentrated on his readings. So maybe that is what he is doing now.
Q Just to be totally clear, what do you say to people who think that fashion cheapens art?
A I think people who don’t like this encounter between these two fields, I think it’s because very often people don’t know very well how fashion functions, and they don’t understand that fashion has its own rules and its own way of working. And very often in art people say “Oh they are just stealing this from the painter.” Because they don’t know how a work on a dress is different from a work on a painting. And if you spend time in an atelier you will see it is something different. In many ways, you can’t compare you can’t say that it’s same thing. It’s not the same thing. I think it’s a lot more rich if you understand they are two different ways of working.
But that still has one point together: the fact that designer can be free in front of the white page or cloth. A designer when he has a project of a collection, he is free in his mind to what he wants to do. Of course the only limit is the body of the woman, but with haute couture, with everything that is not just industrial, you have a large part of your work which is free and where you can are in the same position of an artist in front of a painting. There is this feeling of freeness in terms of creation.
But it’s stupid to say art and fashion is exactly the same. That’s why there is a malentendu around these things sometimes. And during many years through the 80s and the 90s when this movement of urban fashion started to be very efficient, there were many designers who said, “Oh I don’t do art” because they were afraid of this too direct equation….. Many designers said, “oh no I’m just doing garments.” Like Comme des Garcons’s designer is considered a very artistic person, she seems to be doing avant-garde research; but when she is interviewed she says she does industrial fashion. Of course it is an elegant answer. But they don’t want to pretend to be perceived like artist in a naive way.
Yves St Laurent’s retrospective continues to September 28 at the Musee des beaux-arts in Montreal.
Thursday, May 22, 2008
There's just ten days left to catch the 200-plus exhibits of the CONTACT fest. Today NOW published a couple of my recommendations--native photog Jeff Thomas and Nordic performers Icelandic Love Corporation--as well as a few tips from other NOW critics. Read on here and here to find out more.
When I first entered art school, I was all about the image end of things: photography, film, you know the drill. Only as I went on did I gain appreciation for the ways ceramic artists can make statements by playing with entrenched patterns of decor and material culture. And that kind of statement is on view in spades right now at the Gardiner Museum's Object Factory show. They've even got some Cindy Sherman ceramics if you can believe it... (see above). Last week I had a chance to talk with Warsaw/NYC curator Marek Cecula about it all; read on here for the condensed version published today in the National Post.
Monday, May 19, 2008
Back in the wintertime I took at look at some of Leslieville's gallery offerings as part of my "At the Galleries" column for the National Post. This weekend I took a look at them anew in light of their spring exhibition programming. Read on here for my east-end art tips.
Thursday, May 15, 2008
I'm definitely enjoying the CONTACT photography festival currently on to the end of this month in Toronto.
And I've got some recommendations that don't fit into my usual print slots with NOW and the Post.
But before I get into those here, I just wanted to make corrections to some items that have recently run in NOW (since NOW doesn't have a corrections section, this is my way to get it out there):
>>In the May 8 edition of NOW, I talk about Suzy Lake's public installation Rhythm of a True Space. In the print edition, unfortunately, these works are simply referred to as "Self-portraits." Rhythm of a True Space is the correct title.
>>In the May 15 edition of NOW, my byline appears on a recommendation for the Paul Till show at Industrial Storm. While I appreciate Till's concert pics (much of which has appeared in the pages of NOW), it's really not much to my critical taste and doesn't stand as one of my personal faves of the fest.
So, with that out of the way.... on to the fun stuff! Here's some shows I recommend seeing if you haven't already.
Show 1: 100 Stories about my Grandmother at Gallery TPW
This video installation by Peter Kingstone is one of the sweetest, most compelling shows I have seen in some time. It's very human: rather than making you stand on the hard concrete floor of the gallery, Kingstone provides four nana's-living-room-like viewing stations, complete with slightly worn couches and bowls of scotch mints. Then, he lets you listen to male sex workers talking about their grandmas. The stories range from "she's the only person who ever loved me and supported me" to "she bit my arm once when I was kid," mostly tending towards the former. There's no soundtrack, and you rarely hear the interviewer, which really makes you feel a one-to-one relationship with the speaker/subject on the topic of their granny. Very humanizing of an often-maligned (and invisible) group of people. I hope this one gets to travel.
Show 2: Liz Miller at Mercer Union
I hate it when writers seem to gush over every show a particular gallery does, but I have to say Mercer Union has done it again, this time with a show of work from Minnesota artist Liz Miller. Miller's brightly coloured installations of felt patterns dazzle with the way they seem to bounce and slide in and out of 2-D and 3-D along those boring white-gallery walls. So I loved it in that respect. But there's a weird angle to it as well, the way the designs, though tactile in their feltedness, so strongly resemble flowcharts or video games or communicating-with-aliens-code-language. In any case, it's worth a look. I really enjoyed the straightened shoelaces from Montreal artist Justin Stephens in the back room as well, though it seem like Stephens might be at one of those artistic impasses where it's unclear what way to go, exactly.
Show 3: Robyn Cumming at Xexe
I know Toronto photographer Robyn Cumming has dealt with issues of femininity ably in the past, but every image from this new show "Lady Things" really blows me away. It recalls all that naive illustration that's going on, with people's faces turning into animals and decorative frills, but it's 100% performative-photographic. Really nice and really relevant to the girlification of so much women's fashion these days (another floaty baby-doll dress for work, anyone?).
That's it for now... have fun out there.
Vancouver seems to be the place to see art this weekend as the Vancouver Art Gallery opens "KRAZY! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art" a massive show on these ultrapopular, well, pop forms. I had an opportunity this week to speak on the phone with Seth, the graphic-novel guru who co-curated part of the show with Art Spiegelman. The National Post ran a condensed version of that interview today, and over at Canadian Art Online, there's lots of images from the show in a feature I helped edit.
I'll post an extended transcript of my conversation with Seth, hopefully in the next week (we talked about a lot of things!).
Thursday, May 8, 2008
China is a hot topic in many disciplines right now, art being just one of them. So with Shanghai Kaleidoscope, a much-ballyhooed survey of Shanghai art, opening at the Royal Ontario Museum this week, it seemed a good time to chat with a curator (in this case the ICP's Christopher Phillips) about what freedoms and limitations still exist for Chinese artists. The National Post ran a condensed version of our chat today. A full transcript is posted after the jump.
Interview with Christopher Phillips, curator of the International Centre of Photography in New York and curator of the exhibition Shanghai Kaleidoscope at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The interview took place at the ROM on May 1, 2008.
Q You’re a busy man, curator of the ICP. Why Toronto and why Shanghai? Why these things together?
A It was a marvelous series of coincidences. In 2004 I organized a large exhibition of Chinese photo and video works at my museum, the International Centre for Photography in New York. Just by accident Kelvin Brown of the ROM, who at that point was the director of ICC happened ot see the show and gave me a call and said could we bring this exhibiton to Toronto at the time of the opening of the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal? And I said unfortunately the exhibition tour is fully booked but I have lots of other ideas. So we met and started to talk and he showed me the architectural plans for the Liebeskind-designed gallery here and I said “this is such a crazy and unusual architectural space, the best possibility I could imagine would be to do an exhibition about today’s Shanghai, which is equally disorienting and unusual and architecturally crazy.” And we took that idea and shaped it into what you see here in the galleries.
Q And you have experience in curating Chinese contemporary art. What’s your history with that?
A I started traveling to China in 1999. AT that point it was really through meeting some young Chinese artists who were working in New York, I thought they were enormously talented and I wanted to know what kind of culture was producing such extraordinarily ambitious and skilled young artists and they said “You have to come to China it’s crazy there, you won’t believe what’s happening.”
And so in 1999 I went to Beijing for the first time, and Shanghai, and they were right, it was crazy, I couldn’t believe what as happening. But more important I discovered a very large number of supertalented superintelligent young artists. I was lucky enough to meet them before many of them became the international stars they are today.
And it quickly became a long-term interest. For the last 10 years I’ve been traveling to China, 4 or 5 times a year. Mostly in order to really see what the artists are doing. So that’s really the background that the exhibition Shanghai Kaleidoscope emerges from.
Q So what is so crazy and exciting about it to you? Do you feel the craziness in the architecture is intermeshing with an excitement and energy? I get the sense from the show that you feel they are converging or playing off each other. Can you talk about that a little bit?
A Shanghai from the 1850s has gone through a number of dramatic transformations in terms of the look of the city, in terms of the city’s cultures. So what’s been happening for the last 15 years since the Chinese government gave the green light for major overhauls of Shanghai’s urban infrastructure is really part of a long tradition of Shanghai reinventing itself. It’s sort of a perpetual reinvention of the city and its culture.
What’s happening now is the 21st century version of that. And I have come to see Shanghai today as a kind of laboratory, a kind of experimental lab for new developments in urban culture that may or may not have not just local but may have global significance that involves the idea of an extraordinary density of population. And extraordinary building of high-rise residential towers on a scale that has probably never been seen before on this planet.
A In the last decade Shanghai has seen over a thousand skyscrapers go up and there are probably that many more that are currently under development and that will be completed in the next decade. Shanghai today has four times as many skyscrapers as Manhattan, which gives you an idea of the scale of this.
Q Yeah, we see it in the Barbieri works. I want to talk a little more about the art in relation to this theme. So part of the works here is about playing with the city, and playing with architecture. Which I expect comes out of seeing the government wholesale change things, well why can’t I do that too? Can you talk about that a little bit in relation to the balancing tower piece [where the artists balances a tower on his fingertip] and the blowing piece [were a woman controls the speed of a streetscape pan by blowing]?
A I think all of the artist who are living and working in Shanghai today, the enormous physical transformation of the city taking place all around them every day, that’s got to be one of the key influences on the art that comes out of their process. For this show I tried to select works that give a sense of the very different attitudes that artists have taken as evidenced in their works to the changes taking place in Shanghai. In several works you see a very playful attitude, the sense that the city is like a big toy construction set that can be dismantled and put back together in different ways. It’s just play, whatever goes up today may come down tomorrow. So this attitude of transience, of rapid turnover in urban space, the idea of a lighthearted casual playful attitude towards those changes is one very characteristic mood you find in a lot of Shanghai art today.
What’s interesting to me is that very often its outsiders or foreigners who take a bit more of a distanced and perhaps more skeptical attitude towards the changes going on in Shanghai. And tha’ts why you’ll find on the walls vide works or digital slide presentation by for example Greg Girard, a terrific Canadian photographer, originally from Vancouver who’s been living and working in Shanghai for a decade now. Unlike most contemporary Chinese artist who are fascinated by the spectacle of the new city, Greg Girard has been systematically photographing the older, disappearing neighbourhoods in Shanghai. The neighbourhoods where many people may have grown up in the 1970s or 80s but now they’re anxious to leave behind and move into modern new dwellings.
Greg Girard is fascinated by the kinds of intimate human networks that really gave these older neighborhoods a very special character. And in his pictures you really get a sense of maybe decrepit or crumbling buildings. But you also get the sense that a really vibrant or flourishing human culture was part of this as well.
Q In the interviews presented alongside this exhibit we hear that Shu Haolun, a Chinese documentarian, has been making work around this issue of loss. So is it that Chinese artists aren’t making work around these issues, or is it that their work is less popular because of everything that’s happening?
A Well I would say that you have to keep in mind that for almost everyone in China and that especially includes artists and architects and writers, they’re very much aware that over the last 200 years China has really gone through a very bumpy patch in its history… having to face humiliation by Western powers, arriving and just sort of setting up shop as they have in Shanghai, passing through most or all of the 20th century continuing episodes of political and military turmoil, and it’s only really since the 1990s that China has sort of come out of that rough patch and reassert its traditional role as an Asian powerhouse.
I think because of that very bumpy history over the last two centuries a lot of people in China don’t have an affection for the physical artifacts or the housing that sort of symbolizes that period. They feel kind of like China is now turning the page ready to create a new culture, a new kind of dynamic urban space for the 21st century and basically that is the job of their generation and subsequent generations.
Because of that there has not been a strong architectural preservation movement in China. That’s only now starting to happen. It’s happening in Shanghai perhaps more than any place because there still are some beautiful 19th century neighbourhoods that look like French provincial towns in certain ways with tree-lined streets. All that’s going ot remain, that’s not going ot be torn down.
I think that Greg Girard to go back to his work, I think he’s been astonished at the popular response to his book, Phantom Shanghai, which really I think no Chinese photographer would have taken on this subject. It would have been, perhaps, too politically controversial for a Shanghai artist or a Shanghai publisher. But because he’s an outsider Greg has a little more wiggle room. And I know that his book has just done exceptionally well in China. Every bookshop you go into it’s prominently featured, certainly in Shanghai. So it certainly has touched an emotional chord that previously had not really been acknowledged in Shanghai.
Q Interesting. People are using photography for sure… many are photo-based. Could you talk about the panorama there [a ghostly panorama of a cityscape in negative form]?
A This is a large-scale unique photographic print by a Beijing based artist named Shi Guorui. He works exclusively with a pinhole camera technique. He has made extraordinary photographs of many of China’s ancient architectural monuments such as the great wall. And recently he has been traveling to Shanghai and capturing the extraordinary architectural lineup on each side of the Wang-Pu river. What he does was to rent a hotel room on the 24th or 25th floor he masked off the window, created a little pinhole in the window and put this sheet of paper hung it on the facing wall so that over the course fo 24 hours a negative image was formed. He processed the print in the hotel bathroom tub. Let it dry and it came out with this single one of a kind image. What’s striking about it is that it’s a negative image and that lends a quite ghostly character to this view of the Shanghai waterfront. On the left you see the classic 19th century buildings along the bund and on the right side on the Pudong side of the river you see these science fiction high-rise towers going up in the new financial district. It’s really an extraordinary cityscape and really captures something of the as I say science fiction like character of the Shanghai skyline today.
Q It also captures some of that darkness that the might be happening in Shanghai. Like I noticed the computer generated CGI people over there made a really neat work, but it’s all blue-skies, things are really hopeful.
A Well we tried very consciously in the exhibition to juxtapose some very glossy and uh, idealized visions of today and future Shanghai and certainly Crystal CG, which is one of the leading makers of architectural computer graphics videos in China, their work is here because it provides a totally spotless flawless vision of this clean city… no traffic jams no pollution problems.
So we consciously juxtaposed that with a video by a great Italian artist, Olivio Barbieri. It’s a helicopter flyover of contemporary Shanghai. And Barbieri has no interest in the tourist monuments or the famous buildings. He’s fascinated by uh, urban sprawl, by endless, endless arrays of high-rise development projects. He sees Shanghai as a kind of living, almost out of control organism that’s rushing past all the natural boundaries and creating this extraordinary urban environment like nothing that has been seen on this planet before.
So that’s kind of the grittier side of Shanghai and that’s it was a very conscious decision to play off the two works.
Q Yeah, no city looks like that [computer graphic]. I was like, whoa!
A But in Shanghai that is the vision of the future that people carry around in their heads very often. So you can’t dismiss it as just someone’s fantasy. This really is a kind of shared collective vision of a future everyone believes is definitely going ot look like.
Q Could you talk a bit about this piece, the tower top piece [a grid of tower tops].
A This is a piece by an artist named Shi Yong, he was born and raised in Shanghai, it’s his native city. He says that over the last ten years as the city has changed it has become more and more unreal to him. It’s become sort of a dreamscape environment. And sort of recognizes the old areas where he recalls playing as a child, but he says also the whole city has become like a kind of phantasm or hallucination to him. In this work what he has done is to create a grid of colour lightbox illuminated photographs of the tops of some of the most famous skyscrapers in Shanghai. And some of these are very unusually ornamented. He’s photographing them very often on a cloudy or foggy evening so it appears as if you’re seeing them and the rich colours surrounding them as if it’s filtered through a dream, as if something seems slightly unreal about this urban space. And that I think captures also a very common vision of the city shared by many of those who were born and raised in Shanghai. The whole city environment has become something that’s half-real and half-unreal.
Q Wow, I know this might be amore difficult question but it’s one that people will wonder about when they see this is an exhibition of Chinese art. You did say earlier that some native artists of China might shy away from topics that are viewed as too controversial. What are the threats there for artists?
A Well, China is still an authoritarian state. And if you are a writer or a moviemaker or an artist there are definite political limits to what you can exhibit in public spaces. If you criticize the current communist party leadership, if you openly criticize their policies, you are very probably going to get a visit from the security police. And you can very likely end up in jail. What all this means is that creative people in China have a good nose for understanding how far you can go at this moment or at that moment.
Many of them developed a kind of coded language so they can allude to political events or can use moments from China’s past as a means of indirectly pointing to what they see as some of the contemporary problems in China.
Q What kind of things would that be?
A That could involve … corruption, certainly part of the urban development that’s happening all over China is enormous payoffs, government officials, real-estate developers, this you find reported in the Chinese press, it’s not a secret. Certainly the displacement of ordinary Chinese from their longtime homes, so that new skyscrapers or high-rises can go up, this is a very hot political issue in China. Legally the government owns all the land, you can only lease it, or rent it. There are no individual property rights in China. And this is again a continuing topic of discussion for those who are pushing for changes in China’s legal code.
Q Now that I understand the issues they might point to, what are some of the codes they might use?
A Oh, maybe using tabletop models and using dolls, its using a kind of universal language of contemporary art, but giving it a certain twist so that it takes on a new resonance in China, so that it’s understood by Chinese viewers or readers who can sort of read between the lines. It’s the same sort of artistic and literary devices that you find in any country where there’s a government censorship. You start to develop a kind of private language that hopefully can’t be deciphered by the censors but hopefully can be understood by educated audiences.
Q And before we end I just wanted to ask you about the fashion component of the exhibition. Can you talk about why that’s here?
A One of the most interesting thigns happening in Shanghai today is the emergence of a strong contingent of talented young fashion designers. Shanghai for centuries has been the traditional Chinese home of the textiles industry. And for the past 15 years, Shanghai has become famous worldwide as a low-cost manufacturer for almost every well-known international apparel line. The Shanghai city authorities realized that in order to make the really enormous profits that can be made in the apparel industry, they have to move to the next level, moving form being a low cost manufacturer to establishing and promoting worldwide Chinese fashion brands. So there is an enormous amount of government support in Shanghai to train young fashion designers send them on world tours so they can see how the global fashion industry works. And then often in Shanghai they are given stipends so that they can use time to develop their creativity.
What we are showing in this exhibition, Shanghai Kaleidoscope, are a sample of outfits by three very talented young Shanghai fashion designers, all of whom are starting to win not just attention in China but attracting attention from around the world. For example they have all been featured in Chinese Vogue. And I predict that within the next year you’ll start to see stories on them in all the Vogue editions around the world. So that they will be seen not just as young Chinese designers but be seen as emerging international fashion designers.
Q Great. Well, my last question is, what are you doing next?
A In two weeks I open in New York an exhibition of work by young Japanese artists. I think in the last 5 or 6 years all the international attention has been focused on China. That’s been the big story. Japan is a rich culture with an enormous number of very talented young artists. They’ve been overlooked for 5 or 6 years so we’re going to turn the spotlight on Japan in my museum.
Q It’s interesting that China’s been the big powerhouse story, but Japan…
A You can’t overlook Japan, it has long fabulous cultural heritage and it also has extraordinary young artists and they’re ready for their close up.
Friday, May 2, 2008
LS: So, you’ve been working for a long time with ideas of physical realities versus electronic realities. How did you get going down that path?
ES: Uh…. Hm. [laughs] A good question. I think I can give a general answer.
I think it maybe has to do with my background a little bit. I’m from Israel originally. And I have played a lot of games my whole life and I’ve been working with computers from a very early age. But I think maybe this idea of being from Israel, this idea of being in a politically intense situation for a lot of my life, is also relevant.
I think the idea of playing games is often seen as a real, you know, somewhat problematic escape, an immersion into fantasy and things that are so detached from reality. So I think that that contrast probably carried with me for a long time.
It’s channeled into, I think, a gaming experience more grounded in reality [for me]. More politically charged or more intense emotionally or more involving a wider range of emotions. And then that kind of spills into the physical stuff, mostly as a reaction to game violence being surrounded by more real violence. That abstraction of violence again creates a very strange schism, when you’re surrounded by real violence to be consuming virtual violence.
So that was one of the early impetus to make a piece like Tekken Torture Tournament. That’s the most literal extension of a game that has real violence instead of virtual violence.
LS: And that’s where people would actually shock each other when they hit each other onscreen.
LS: Wow. And in these works here [in Toronto], those ideas are kind of funneled down into very specific kinds of scenarios. So in your last Toronto show, there was war-type imagery and Osama bin Laden made some appearances in a digital format. This time it’s more fantasy-oriented, with Chuck Norris and Steven Segal, and dragons and lions with people in their butts and stuff like that. So I’m wondering where those specific scenarios came from for you.
ES: Uh, just to go through them, you mean, specifically?
ES: I think first I should say in general the way I see the piece is as a dynamic dialogue between the shadow puppets and the video pieces. One of which isn’t here. So there are already connections within the piece.
Just in general, I’m sort of interested in these male role models. And the macho men and how men relate to them is always interesting to me, right? The fact that teenage boys put up posters of half-dressed men is a weird thing, like Chuck Norris without his shirt on, or Bruce Lee without his shirt. So the strange sort pseudo-sexual relationship between masculinity and these macho characters, that I don’t think women find very attractive. So there’s a strange effect I think.
So one of the interesting aspects of gaming culture I wanted to touch on with this show is masculinity and how it’s processed in a digital world. What does it mean to be macho when you’re sitting in front of your computer, basically some slob eating Doritos, but role-playing some warrior acting tough? That’s one slice of it.
The video piece in there is something that I stumbled upon that to me is just a wonderful story arc. And the shadow pieces that in a way relate to that are the Chuck Norris one and the Steven Segal one. They’re these macho guys but they also have all these complicating factors. Like Steven Segal is a Buddhist, he’s supposed to be a pacifist, he’s into Tibet activism, but all his movies are about beating the shit out of people, and not white people at that. It’s very bizarre. I kind of find him to be you know this perfect metaphor for America. [Laughs]
And then Chuck Norris, I put him in the same category as a macho-men role, whatever those guys are, action heroes, body builders, martial artists turned into movie stars. He’s very, very popular on the Internet as the butt of all jokes in a way. I think he really embodies triangulation of cultures that people who are part of Internet cultures really look down upon. He’s country, he’s religious, he’s, you know, from Texas, he has a mustache, he has chest hair, he’s a 70s retro icon, he’s seen as politically regressive, he’s a very right-wing religious guy. So he’s become a parody. And in World of Warcraft, every three minutes there will be a comment about Chuck Norris as this bonding joke. So that piece, which basically has a naked night elf, Chuck Norris and a dragon, is a piece that is basically World of Warcraft reduced to three primary elements: the dragon, Chuck Norris, and a naked female elf who is taking care of him while he’s killing the dragon. So that’s those two pieces.
The other two pieces in this particular show are missing their video counterparts, because this is a smaller version of a bigger show, which had nine pieces in it. But I can tell you the references.
So the piece with the hydra is inspired by a news item from a few years back when Saddam Hussein’s palace was ransacked. And they found this love den, Saddam’s love den. And there were a few photos that were released of the art that he had in there. It was basically a collection of fantasy art, oil paintings of men slaying monsters. But what’s interesting about his particular collection is all the men were you know, Middle Eastern looking, with dark skin and mustaches, slaying dragons and crocodiles. And they’re all made by this painter in Minnesota and he made them for a lot of money.
So that to me was totally and completely bizarre, this sudden connection of fantasy art and love den and Saddam, so that piece is kind of inspired by that. It’s a little redo of St. George and the dragon but the character kind of looks like Saddam. It looks like a Japanese scene with a little bit of the three-headed monster, the crouching character. So it’s a triangulation again of a Western icon, this news event and Japanese monster movies. So it’s hard, a little bit, to pin down rationally what it is.
And the other piece with the hydras is another triangulation of two imageries. One is Little Hercules and the Snakes, a famous sculpture of Hercules as a baby. So it’s a baby Hercules holding two snakes in his hands. And it’s funny… well it’s too much information, but there’s also this superhero character who’s kind of a young version of a Chuck Norris, called Little Hercules. Do you know about him?
LS: Oh no, no I don’t.
ES: He’s this little boy. He was 8 when they started him out as a bodybuilder.
LS: Oh my god.
ES: Yeah, very perverse. He’s from Eastern Europe and his parents are building him up as an actor. Now he has a movie coming out.
LS: Really, wow.
ES: Yeah, it’s an action movie. And of course he plays Hercules. So he was already a character I was interested in working with. So he kind of ended up mashed up with a Narnia scene; you have the half-lion half-boy fighting the two evil snakes.
And there’s a video piece that goes with that. It’s a conversation that a teenage boy is having with the Internet community on a Christian gaming forum about his father not allowing him to play, to engage in fantasy gaming, because it’s in conflict with Christianity. And it’s very interesting how you see him and these different mythologies. It almost becomes absurd, the rationale of religion against the rationale of magic as evil. So you know, there’s a few threads there.
LS: Yeah, that’s crazy. Thanks for explaining that because these have so many influences to them. And I know people are going to wonder… the video piece which is a transcription of a posting on an EverQuest video game site which you call the Best Flame War Ever… people are probably wondering, well how did he come across this, and why is it the best flame war ever?
ES: Well I do play those games and I read the boards obsessively. And I often get a kick out of how intense these arguments become about complete minutiae. Especially ones where people are arguing about mathematics and trying to figure out how the game works. Those were like my evening reading for a few years, just reading through hundreds and hundreds of posts. And I stumbled upon this particular flame war, which really struck me as a gem. I kind of had that epiphany that I think documentary filmmakers have when they just get an amazing scene captured on camera. So should I explain what happens in brief?
LS: Sure. I did see it, but that would be great.
ES: What I think is amazing about it is to me it’s a perfect narrative structure for the battle over masculinity and what that means today. You have this older character, this soldier, who probably believes in honour, you can tell, and respect but also kind of hard-coated idea of honour and valour. And you know he’s in his 40s at least and plays these games as this dark knight. That’s the character both [correspondents] play is shadow knights.
ES: And now he’s kind of an innocent when he first starts. He’s like, “How does this work, I don’t understand, help me out young guys, you guys are so much quicker.”
And this kid just ridicules him and is like “you’re an idiot, you’re a noob,” and he just goes at him and insults him and eventually challenges, and tells him “If you were in front of me I’d kick your ass.”
ES: And that’s when all the vibe is just “Okay you’ve offended my honour, I challenge you to an honourable duel, basically. I’ll fly down to where you live, we’ll meet halfway maybe and we’ll put on gloves and beat the hell out of each other like real men. And then we’ll go back to our computers.” And it was just this moment, you know.
Once he poses that challenge, the other guy disappears. Rexz, rexz [the second correspondent] just disappears. A few other people chime in. He gets a little bit melancholy. And then he starts talking about his dead friends who have died in Iraq. And for me the piece just has as this piece of writing, this arc, this pathos that yeah, is just a find. So it was just this great source material.
LS: And it has this really unexpected turn.
ES: Yeah, and I’ve dug up about four other amazing posts, but that one I think is perfect.
LS: Yeah, it’s amazing. I really enjoyed it. And all of these works have this theme of the medieval and the magical. Why do you think in this day and age, especially in the technology world, where you think it’d be like “Let’s go all futuristic and be like robots,” why do you think it continues to have such a hold?
ES: I think there’s two main reasons why.
One is that I think magic itself functions as a perfect metaphor for technology and it allows the suspension of disbelief.
So look at it like this: Basically, you know, there’s all this high-tech stuff available. 3-D, networked communication, the ability to move through data, teleport, speed up time, change scale, become reborn when you die. It’s all data, it’s all these possibilities. And for games to work on some extent, a lot of games are based on suspension of disbelief, like film. You don’t want to see the apparatus, you want to believe that you’re doing all this stuff without thinking about the machine.
So magic is perfect. When a world allows for magic it becomes a perfect metaphor for the technology. So with a little bit of computer code, oh let’s revive that character. Start it at scratch. Well, you don’t what to know that the computer’s doing that. It’s gonna ruin the structure. So let’s say oh, it’s a magical spell called reincarnation. Oh, let’s say we want some character to become really gigantic. That’s one of the powers the computer can allow. Well, let’s make it magic. You know you don’t want to walk a mile from here across the virtual world, you want to teleport. Since we want speed and that’s what the computer allows, all this. Well, let’s use a magic spell. So magic becomes a cloak over the technology to allow it to do all these things.
I think that’s the key to why there’s so many games that are super high-tech that use magic as an overarching structure. It’s a narrative shell for all this overarching stuff. Whereas sci-fi could do that too, but you know it’s “hit warp” and that’s what happens. But that’s so close to technology already that it will remind you there’s a computer there and it’s a machine.
That’s one side. The other side is more sociological. And potentially localized and has to do I think with a postcolonial yearning for history and this sense that if you look at American history it ends at some point and it becomes Great Britain’s or Native Americans’. And so substituting that for this fantastical world which is drawn originally from British history but completely fantasy based is almost a way of owning this artificial history, I think.
Then there’s other more, again, general things that have to do with anxiety and agency and the feeling of this world is so complex, how does the individual have agency? So you reduce it to these very simple scenarios where one character has a lot of power. They gradually grow from small origins and the medieval sort of arc of small town, you know, and a young farmboy becomes a squire and then a knight and then goes on the big quest in a way.
And there’s these other things like honour, people had this idea that honour was somehow more meaningful in the old days. This is I think more of a general feeling. Or a misconception that something in the olden days… it’s nostalgia for something you don’t even know what it was for. So it fits that space perfectly because people can’t say, “Hey, you know in the Dark Ages that’s not how it was. Folks were getting their heads chopped off and rich people ruled the world just like now and warmongers too.” But the fact that it’s a fantasy history, I think, allows a projection of nostalgia onto the space that can never be rejected. You can never reject it historically that it wasn’t like that.
So, those are a few of the answers. They’re very different, but I think it took a few reasons, I think it’s because there’s a convergence of reasons, that’s why it’s so dominant, really. Like talk about adventure games now in computers, they’re 95% fantasy based. And to me that’s mind-boggling. That’s why I’m fascinated by it as well. Because it’s so ubiquitous. There’s hardly any other versions. There’s an occasional attempt, like “Let’s do a western game, or let’s do a Roman game, oh let’s do a pirates game,” but those are all flash in the pan. The Tolkein-based medieval mishmash is the thing and it holds.
LS: That’s crazy, yeah. And you know this because you’ve played thousands and thousands of hours of video games yourself, right?
ES: I have.
LS: And do you have any personal favourites? How much do you play nowadays?
ES: Well, I teach game design now, so I do luckily have a justification for playing games. And I design games too so it is a lot of research. I do think World of Warcraft is a great game. I think what’s interesting about it… well, there’s a few things that are interesting. One thing is that it’s a fantasy genre game that has really broken the fourth wall, so it kind of fits into my interest of reality kind of squeaking into fantasy worlds. It’s a game that’s full of pop cultural references, from movies and television and technology. Paris Hilton is there, and Sid Vicious. And actors. And it’s full of this kind of, I’d guess you’d call it a postmodern structure. It’s full of seepage back to pop culture. And I think that’s one really interesting thing about it and that’s why it’s become so popular. So it’s no longer for dorks in a way. You know, it’s almost 11 million people. That’s a lot of people.
LS: That is a lot of people
ES: And it’s a much more diverse group. It’s also a game that’s taken a few genres of gaming and mashed them into one world. So it has a competitive gaming, player against player, fighting each other, almost a Counterstrike-like intensity to this singular-like narrative of kind of adventure game model, but then also strategy, groups playing against groups. So it’s a meta-genre game. So I think that’s an exciting game. Grand Theft Auto of course has changed gaming. And I play sports games on the Wii. I think Katamari Damasi is great.
LS: What’s that?
ES: It’s a Japanese game that is pretty big now in the West where you basically roll a ball and the world sticks to it. Those are some of the games I find interesting. So I think …. The gaming world has a long way to go, it needs more independent voices and it needs more diversity.
LS: I wanted to ask you… you’ve worked for a number of years trying to more fully integrate the body in gaming. And of late the Wii has emerged as a mainstream machine for doing that. What’s your rating of that? How do you feel it’s achieved that?
ES: Well, I think the Wii is a lot of fun. I think it’s completely opened up gaming to nongamers, to older gamers, younger gamers, to gender imbalances becoming more balanced because devices like the Wii are more casual, more easy.
I think my interest in using the body is quite different than the Wii in that I’m not so much just interested in the body as a sort of source for immediacy or pleasure or adrenaline or fun. I’m interested in also as a gateway to, how do you say, maybe less conscious emotions like fear or pain or endurance and anxiety. So using the body not just as an entertainment centre. You know games that might be porn games might be clearly body games. Or games that are torture games are about different connections between the body and the mind… I mean the Wii is not working in that area. It’s really working on the pleasure principle of simplicity and movement.
So that kind of darker side of the body is something I’m quite interested in. Mostly because I think that by combining those kinds of less conscious emotions, triggering emotions there’s a potential for gaming to allow it to get to other kinds of narratives. Like something scary. Most games are not that scary. Because the structure, the screen is small, there’s light in the room, you can always replay it, you can read about it on the Internet. But if your body is involved, let’s say you’re blindfolded, or let’s say there’s some real threat of being locked up in the room where you’re playing for 24 hours—that can be real fear.
And when people go to see a horror movie, sure they know they are going to get out after an hour and a half. But at least for that hour and a half, they’re pretty constrained to that space. They can leave, but there’s something holding this structure stable to allow for a scary movie. It’s dark, it’s claustrophobic, you know, you’re static, you’re watching someone else experience fear and you’re vicariously in it. And I think games need to go that way, I think they have the potential for not just being fun but for being more dramatic, more scary, more suspenseful, more about being more philosophical, more poetic.
Changing the speed of games is also something I’m interested in, slowing them down.
LS: Making them walk that mile.
ES: Yeah. I’m a big believer that a lot of games have been ruined by accelerating the game and if you study particular genres and actually survey players you’ll find that a lot of them will agree with this idea, that they actually enjoy the labour of walking, you know, four hours in the game to get somewhere very special, and that journey is something that became a memory, versus say now they say, oh let’s accelerate that to ten seconds.
That journey and that time to contemplate and reflect on the space you’re in used to be a great space for conversation, for reflection, for emotions to have a time to settle. Now it’s so fast you’re just reacting. And in EverQuest, which is a predecessor to World of Warcraft, that was one of the strengths of that game. After every encounter or battle players would have to rest and meditate and eat, sometimes up to ten minutes after each little fight to just wait for their energy to come back, basically to take a break and to rest. And that was a time when people would talk to each other. That was this space for “We did the fight, now let’s talk…. Oh, where are you, what are you doing, how is it?” And that was this great social space. And now in a game like Warcraft, it’s reduced to about 30 seconds and no one really talks during that time. And the relationships become much less key. So that’s one place where I think there are ways to change games to allow for more meaningful experiences.
LS: So we’re at the end of our time, but I just wanted to ask what direction you’re taking this in, then from here. But what are you working on now when you get back home?
ES: The next project I’m doing is a large outdoor sculpture. It’s basically a large interdimensional portal.
ES: [Laughter.] So it’s about 20 feet high, a metal outdoor sculpture, so it really does work best at night. And it has two projections in the space of animated 3-D tunnels.
LS: And where is this going to be?
ES: San Jose, California. June to October. And it’s an enlargement of a smaller project I had built before. There’s a collection of animated tunnels that basically have been put on he web, and I’ve been collecting them for ten years now. I have about 50. And somehow it’s this ubiquitous iconography for moving into a virtual space or a different dimension, this animated 3-D tunnel you see in Dr Who and a lot of movies, sci-fi shows. So that kind of ubiquitous idea I’m somewhat parodying but also enhancing and amplifying to full scale. So if you drive down the highway you’ll see this portal on the hill.
And then I’m working on a new computer game that involves sensory deprivation and slowness and anxiety and fear. But it’s not really meant as a horror game sort of a slow suspense type game. It’s a long project I’m hoping to show this summer.
LS: Well, thanks for taking time to me. You’ve obviously got a lot going on, I really appreciate it.
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