A semester as never before
As my luck in this lucky year had it, I was invited to spend the Fall semester as a Holly Fellow at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Upon arrival, my first surprise was to run into the new director of the Clark, who happened to be an old friend. When I was briefly a fellow for one month, in January 2001, Olivier and his wife Laure de Margerie were fellows for the year, and treated us to their lovely and generous friendship. Here you see them, laughing about a joke Ernst is cracking.
The Fall in this part of New England is spectacular. The weather was mostly sunny, and the one night-frost night required for the leaves to colour properly came just at the right time. As a result, for weeks on end it felt as if I was walking or driving through an artist’s palette. The photographs don’t do it justice, and even your imagination won’t, but at least they give a suggestion. On this image you see what I saw every day walking to work: the grounds and in the distance, the buildings where my office is, and the Clark Museum. Tucker Bair kindly gave me his professional photos.
The classicist Museum building houses a private collection that keeps expanding through donations and legacies. It is based on a collection the likes of which are hard to find, with lots of impressionist paintings, sculptures and works on paper. Some of the earliest photographs were recently beautifully displayed in the adjacent Manton building that houses the library and our offices, by curator Jay Clarke. She was able to show the early developments of photography as an art, in a relatively small but exquisite show. The museum building has recently been extended with another building and walls, a water-based decorative terras built by a Japanese architect, Tadao Ando, including another art center on the top of the hill. For days on end, about six weeks in total, we ate our lunch outside looking at this, again by Tucker Bair:
And then, overnight, came the snow. Too bad for the addictive colours, but then, this is exhilaratingly beautiful, too. Thick, woolly, and clean - at least for a few hours. And the deer were there all the time, mostly three of them. When we approached, they pricked up their gorgeous ears, looking straight at us with those large brown eyes, and then galloped away with an elegance one can only admire. A moving Christmas card. Tucker was able to approach this one close enough to see the magnificence of the animal:
The one unfortunate circumstance of this divine semester was the absence of my close friend Michael Holly, in honour of whose pioneering work building up RAP (Research and Academic Program) my fellowship was named. She and I initiated and built the program of Visual and Cultural Studies at the University of Rochester. Now, such programs are everywhere, but ours was the very first - of the country, and of the entire world, probably.
Michael left Rochester to become director of RAP more or less at the same time that I went to the University of Amsterdam. Since then, of course, it is harder to keep the friendship up in person. Now, we meet wherever life & work takes us. Or, as the case may be, we are separated all over again: I am in her environment, she is elsewhere. So, when she briefly came back from her own fellowship at the Getty to help the Clark celebrate the reopening of the entirely rebuilt Manton Center, we had a lovely reunion.
But then, of course, there was work to do - which is as pleasurable to me as anything. After the exhilarating although pretty hectic Spring semester, with three books coming out one of which I still had to finish, without interruption, over the Summer I got started on the book for the Munch exhibition Emma and Edvard. No Summer Holidays this year. Never mind. Delving into Munch’s work was an intensely exciting and pleasurable experience. The photo that became the emblem of the show, in addition to the two of sideways looking, is a poignant image of loneliness. Juxtaposed to the famous self-portrait that is known as the loneliness picture, one can see how the artist was not the cynical misogynist some make him out to be.
The utter solitude is matched by the one of the woman who, like Flaubert’s Emma in our videos on her wedding day, is totally isolated. This is supposed to be a festive day! This is the picture that ended up on the invitation card. In addition to the mood of loneliness and disillusion, these paintings also demonstrate the way Munch deployed both colour and the tension between figuration and abstraction in his style. Not to forget what I call “the cinematic”. The flash going off behind the “bride” and the man with bowed head next to her is at least an allusion to the electronic media.
Meanwhile, another great event was the Honorary Degree that was awarded to me by the University of Luzern (Switzerland). The initiative had been taken by Boris Previsic, a professor of cultural history in the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences. I felt especially gratified by the combination of those two areas, and by the insistence, in the award speech, on the importance of my attempts at integrating art making with analysing, as I have done over the last decade. Boris remembered me from a Summer School at Cornell, and shamefully, I did not remember him. The first photograph here shows me between the Dean and the Rector, pointing to Boris who had written the beautiful speech that the Dean then read. I have fought all my life against the way people who do important things sometimes remains invisible - and from their smiles you can tell the two men agree. This photo and the next are not really a sequence, but narratively they are.
Boris is an accomplished flutist, performing in concerts all the time, while also being a very active academic. He and I were so constantly in agreement - fighting the “neoliberal” culture in the academic world, the regress to disciplinary boundaries, seeing the value of practice as theory, and more. We had the lovely albeit a bit eerie experience of automatically looking at each other when politically outrageous things were being said or quoted in the many speeches during the festivities of the “dies natalis” of the University. An intellectual and political agreement that was balm on both our hearts (this happened on November 10th…) Let Boris’s music be of some comfort…
- Boris Previsic with pre-art Soloists playing “Eclat de larmes”, written by Djuro Zivkovic (Stockholm)
- Boris Previsic solo playing “DAH” (“BREATH”), written by Aliser Sijaric (Sarajevo)
Before taking off to Luzern I was able to send off my book manuscript. I also took a few days break in New York, among other things to participate in a documentary for acclaimed US web producer Vox against the awful black-facing tradition in the Netherlands, “Zwarte Piet”. The piece is entitled Why blackface is still part of Dutch Christmas.
And then the book. The pace of working had been a bit over-the-top, but thanks to many people I managed it. First of all, the brilliant staff of the brilliant library at the Clark. I worked a lot with librarian Karen Bucky who, always with great expertise and patience, helped me find what I needed. Not to forget the indispensable IT help from the always willing, always knowing John Carson. And in Oslo, thanks to editor Karen Lerheim, and designer Henrik Haugan our trio of busy bees got it all done, even the proofreading and indexing in less than a week. As a result, the book will be ready for the exhibition opening at the end of January. Here is a sneak-preview of the cover - I’ll replace it when I have the final:
And in addition to all this, I got the opportunity to show and discuss my new film, Reasonable Doubt, in various places: the Cinema Theatre Images, in Williamstown, Harvard University, the Pembroke Center at Brown University, and in the Stattkino in Luzern. The EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam is next, on January 18th - see their website. So far, the film is very well received. It seems viewers are sensitive to my attempts to integrate documented history with fiction to create a “theoretical fiction” that shows, audio-visually, the process of thinking Reasonable Doubt. This has been, indeed, a semester as never before.