Emma and Edward: Looking Sideways

I think 2016 is my lucky year. I have received the most incredible, because three-tiered invitation: to curate an exhibition at the Munch Museum in Oslo, of their enormous collection of Munch paintings and graphics; to incorporate the installations of Madame B in it; and to write an extensive catalogue for it. It is so exciting, and also challenging, in view of my limited knowledge of Munch’s work, and of the time frame: the opening is on January 25th, 2017. Luckily, I was so stimulated by the invitation and the friendly and helpful staff in Oslo that I came up with an idea right away.
To get a sense of my concept, look here:

I have selected the paintings, and with the help of Ute Kuhlemann Falck, curator of graphics at the Museum, checked their availability. Given the popularity of Munch, this was not easy. Many paintings are or will be on loan elsewhere. Ute is co-author of this 2014 book:

The photo gives a good impression of the fascinating use of material in Munch’s work.
Heaping more luck on me, the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, has invited me to spend the Fall semester there as a fellow. And guess what… one of the great Munch specialists, Jay A. Clarke, works just there, and so I can be confident that I will have a well-supplied library as well as an expert consultant at my disposal. Plus, a fabulous collection of art more or less contemporary to Munch as a daily lunch-break space to walk through.

I am starting a page in “curating” that keeps you informed about my progress. Needless to say, I will be terribly busy for the rest of this year. For more, see Emma and Edvard

some new events

Between the last post, still under the shadow of the death of my friend John Neubauer, and today, many things have happened. As they say: “life goes on”. I participated in some lovely international meetings, such as a one-day conference at the Musée du Jeu de Paume in Paris, organized by Mathilde Roman, on January 16th, where I gave a presentation on Madame B in the presence of artists I greatly admire - Aernout Mik, Sebastián Díaz Morales, Omer Fast, and others.

Last week I organized and ran a workshop on intermedial analysis in a newly established department of Culture and Aesthetic at the University of Stockholm. I also presented Madame B there, to great acclaim.One of the participants, Anna Maria Hällgren, made this lovely drawing.

Meanwhile, I have been working hard to finish Reasonable Doubt, the film and installation project on René Descartes and Queen Kristina of Zweden. The briefest I can say about it is what I wrote for the DVD inlay:
R.D. stands for René Descartes, always engaged in Reasonable Doubt. And so was Kristina, Queen of Sweden. At the dawn of modernity, two brilliant, lonely, eccentric, paranoid Europeans briefly met, in a mis-encounter, in 1650. This video work is not a biography but scenes that constitute a double portrait. Some of scenes are historical, some fictionalising ways of making historical ideas relevant for today. This box contains a DVD with the feature, and one with five installation pieces. The latter have been made to accommodate visitor’s interest, moods, endurance, and, if it so happens, impatience, as a complex and embodied way of absorbing thought in process.

This photograph, made by Polish photographer Przemo Wojciechowski who was the set photographer for the shoot in Nieborów, Poland, will be the logo image of this project. Marja Skaffari is gazing at the sculpture of Descartes. My interpretation of the character Descartes comes across in this image, also by Przemo. Thomas Germaine plays a Descartes who is feeling poorly, but also insecure about everything.

I am currently finalizing the very last bits, including the painful issue of financing… You can help with that, of course, by ordering this or any of my other films on DVD.

Two weeks in Rome

To keep the In Memoriam visible as long as possible, I will keep this post short. For the film shoot that occupied my first few days in Rome, please see the last part of this page on the film project Reasonable Doubt Cast & Crew Then, we had the Interculturality Week at the Royal Dutch Institute Rome (KNIR). For those who read German, this account wittily written by our colleague Dagmar Reichardt may amuse you. If not, it includes a photo gallery, too. Read it here.

In Memoriam John Neubauer

In memoriam John (Janos) Neubauer
On Monday October 5th, 2015, my long-time friend and colleague John Neubauer passed away, in the presence of his beloved wife, the artist Ursula Neubauer, and his daughters Eva and Nicole. He was 81 years old. From 1983 to 2003 he was professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Amsterdam. Before that he had taught at Princeton and Pittsburgh, and had been a guest professor at Harvard, and in Colombia, Canada and Germany, and a guest researcher in his native Hungary. Many around the world have had the opportunity to benefit from his enormous knowledge of what is now called “world Literature”; and enjoy his great intelligence, coomitment, and humor.
John was a true world citizen. Born in Hungary, he has lived for a long time in the USA, and ended up in the Netherlands. He felt European, and was averse of all forms of nationalism.
He earned a BA (cum laude) in physics, spoke a large number of languages, and had a deep interest in music. His first book considered the history of the relationship between music and language, including literature - The Emancipation of Music from Language - and until the end he has worked hard to finish what had to be his last book, The Persistence of Voice, symmetrically with the first one studying the impossibility of separating music from language in an absolute way. With some devoted friends, we hope to bring that book out posthumously, as soon as possible. In this way his scholarly work is framed from both sides of his career by his greatest intellectual passions: history and music, across cultural borders. In-between he wrote innumerable books and articles, on literature, cultural history, and topics such as adolescence. He was a great scholar of the Humanities, in the widest sense.
John was not only an internationally important scholar but in the first place a thoughtful, loving husband, father and grandfather; a warm friend who enjoyed life, wanting others to be able to do so as well. Until the very end he made people laugh with his refined humor. In these relationships he was keenly self-critical. He could tell endlessly about what he had read, heard and seen, always balancing his story-telling with sincere interest in the experiences of his interlocutors. Students and PhD candidates have been able to learn a lot from that thoughtful attitude. Shortly after the sudden death of our colleague and friend Jan van Luxemburg he started an organization, in memory of Jan, for the promotion of reading. This program will be continued under the leadership of three colleagues to whom John had entrusted this task.
John was extraordinarily athletic; an exceptional sportsman. Until a few months ago he made long walks in the mountains, and is known for being an enduring marathon runner. He was 80 when he ran his last marathon. Athletic as few intellectuals are, it is extremely ironic and harsh that he had to die of a cruel degenerative disease of the muscles. His death is a deep loss for all his many friends and colleagues, readers and students. I can only hope that his wife Ursula will be helped to cope with this great loss by the thoughts of many, and continue her life and artistic projects, in which John has always encouraged and stimulated her. Ursula, Eva and Nicole have a lot to be proud of. I hope they can get some comfort from that.

Film shoot in Niewborów Palace

It’s already several months ago… right after the shoot, things happened that made it difficult to keep the blog up-to-date; not only in my own work but also with the files that needed synching; and in the life of the photographer. One thing that I still don’t have, apart from a few, is the photographs. But this shoot was too fantastic to miss. We spent almost a week in an amazing Palace, which is part of the National Museum of Poland. The opportunity to film there while staying in the Palace itself was too good to miss. The staff was brilliant, allowing us to film anywhere, remove obstacles such as crowd-control cords, and yet, watching with hawk’s eyes that nothing got damaged. Fantastic professionals, and lovely human beings.
The part we filmed there between March 27 and April 2 concerned Queen Kristina of Sweden, played by Marja Skaffari. Her neurotic disposition included intense impatience. So, when Descartes incurred some delay in arriving, she really went ballistic.
At first she wonders why the great man would decline to run to her side - she, the mighty Queen…

But soon she begins to wonder about herself. Is she not beautiful enough, not smart enough? And so, she smears dirt on her face, to be able to face herself as, supposedly, “ugly”.

When Descartes finally arrives, she is already busy with other projects, and doesn’t have much time for him. That part of the installation will be titled “Mis-Encounters”. Kristina meets (almost) a friend who could become a lover. But she is incapable to emotionally engage. So, she runs away, hides in a hollow tree, and asks Descartes questions about love he is barely able to answer. For he, too, was damaged as a child, and of all the tasks he sets himself, loving another human being seems the most difficult one.

I am now busy editing five installation pieces. A final shoot in Rome, in October, will complete the material for the project.

Prague and Protest

On February 19, the National Gallery opened a new department of moving images. This department will have a three-monthly, changing display. The installments are called chapters. The first one, titled “The Importance of Being a (Moving) Image” assembled works by seven experimental video artists. Michelle and I had been invited to make a reduced version of Madame B, appropriate for a group show. We made a 5-channel installation we titled “Precarity”. We are, of course, very proud to be included in this project at such a prestigious venue. The installation ended up on a floor of its own, and this allowed for an elegant placement that does justice to the fantastic architecture of the Palace. The downside: there was no possibility to capture the installation as a whole in a photograph. This image, made by co-curator Jen Kratochvil, who made the display with Adam Budak, is as good as it gets.

Images of individual screens are easier to make. On the following photograph, little Deyna Mehdi is confronted with the anxiety of Emma regarding gender, expressed, luckily, in a language the child doesn’t understand, and answers with a lovely smile. This moment has always been one of my favorites in the project.

Two rather dramatic things happened around this opening. Two days before leaving for Prague I wanted to go to my office to take the hard drive with the files on it, just in case something went wrong. But the building had been occupied by (justifiedly) angry students. So, it was impossible to get in. I made my failed attempt just when the press arrived in full force, so I had my day of fame. Instead of climbing in, I requested and got the students to get the disk for me. All in all, it was a hilarious moment. So hilarious, I want to share it with you, in spite of my inelegant pose.

The second incident was less fun. I had a terrible fall on my way to the opening, and bled terribly. My dress ruined, my face like that of Frankenstein’s monster, and the festive evening was a bit ambivalent. Still it was glorious. The Palace had never before attracted so many people. Adam Budak really has made the place change dramatically in the little time he has now worked there. Th next day, still looking seriously weird, I gace the longest lecture of my life.
The lecture can be watched (and this does include my war wounds) on this link:

I will soon describe the show further on the group exhibitions page.

Mexico City

In January I went to Mexico City for two things. One was a conference with the title Las tres eras de la imagen, in homage to my regretted friend José Luis Brea, who passed away in 2010. His last book bore that title. It was also a reunion with some friends who were also very fond of José Luis. The bitter-sweet commemorative atmosphere was countered by the enthusiastic reception of the conference. The audience of some 700 people don’t fit into the frame of this picture. The second activity was a 3-days retrospective of a selection of my films in the lovely cinema Tonalá, a favorite of art lovers and intellectuals. It was wonderful to discuss, even in my faltering Spanish, the older and newer films. While films were screened in the theatre itself, every day there was one film looped on a monitor outside, in the open-air foyer. I liked the coincidence with the film whose title read “the worst woman of the world”. The organizers from the Centro de la Imagen had produced a beautiful catalogue with a brilliant essay by Miguel Á. Hernández Navarro. The first day Madame B was screened, followed by a fantastic commentary by Miguel, who then proceeded to raise questions, before giving the floor to the audience. The second day, when A Long History of Madness was presented, Alberto Montoya Hernández did the same.
The Mexican colleagues are so full of energy that I never manage to go there without an entirely full program, so that I go home exhausted, a bit like this deity drowning in stone, but with great satisfaction. This time, there was another unexpected sequel plotted: Humberto Chavez Mayol is working towards yet another visit, with an exhibition of Madame B in the same wonderful space as where, barely three years ago, we had Cosas imposibles. Check out the video tour of that show, to get a sense of the fantastic space in an old factory building. That, too, was due to Humberto, and linked to a conference on semiotics and visual art, as this one will be. This next visit will be in May - barely three months from now! Not that I don’t have enough to do without it - but how can I decline such an opportunity?
Meanwhile, in some 10 days I will be on my way to Prague, for a smaller-size installation of Madame B in a group program in the National Gallery.

Mumbai, Delhi: an art trip

Rather unexpectedly, I received an invitation to come to India to see the last of three “chapters” of a year-long exhibition in Delhi, view of a book project. Artist Nalini Malani had been on my radar ever since I saw her Remembering Mad Meg shadow play in the Centre Pompidou in Paris. So, it didn’t take a second to decide, and off I went. The show was mesmerizing. The shadow play Transgressions occupied most of the three hours we had for the visit. But there were several other elements I was completely taken by. One is a new painting in eleven large panels, painted in the reversed painting technique Malani uses often. For an image of this work, Twice Upon A Time, see on the Book Projects page, 2d column, bottom half. I am also deeply impressed by the way this artist mobilizes specific media, often in versions of her own invention, to make political points, express solidarity, and multiplies the work’s impact. She conceived a performance in which a museum guard, who had been protecting it for months, erases a wall drawing of Medea. This drawing as well as its erasure was an act of solidarity with fresco artists in Rajastan whose work is crumbling due to neglect. My week in Mumbai was filled with an intensive and inspiring encounter with Malani’s work.

Marlene Dumas lectures in the Stedelijk Museum

Yesterday, Sunday November 9th, I participated in an event called Close-Up in the Stedelijk Museum. The occasion was the exhibition The Image as Burden of works by Marlene Dumas, one of my very favorite artists. I had never really studied her work. Hence, this program was an opportunity to look a bit more closely at some of the works. My take on it was the tension between portraiture, single and group, and between the very idea of the portrait when the artists never paints from life but instead, takes her models from the visual culture around her.This is part of a 100-image installation called Models that I consider programmatic. I called on Spinoza (yes, the 17th century guy) to explain Dumas’s radical politics in her work. There were two lectures, one by Dominic van den Boogerd titled Faces of Death, and my own, Faces of Life.

Start New Project: Reasonable Doubt

Our project Madame B is barely finished; we are still working on the DVD production, and distribution is still up in the air, after the fantastic première at the Stedelijk Museum. But due to circumstances too complicated to explain, I had no choice but to start my new project. ReasonableDoubt will be a double portrait of French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650) and Queen Kristina of Sweden (1626-1689). Soon I will post a fuller presentation of this project. Last week we had a big shoot in the Netherlands, covering almost half of the project. Thanks to brilliant participants and generous helpers, advisors and hosts, we got the near-impossible done.
There was a preliminary to this shoot. In May I took advantage of the opening of the exhibition Madame B (Åland) to film Kristina as a child, played by Astrid Törneroos who had played Berthe in Madame B. Here you see her playing with soldiers, a game she was quite fond of once she was a queen.
To match this short, I filmed Descartes and his sister Jeanne in France at the end of August. Five year old Ambroise Lefèbvre played the philosopher-to-be, and his sister Olympe did a wonderful Jeanne, the sister who was René’s childhood companion. She is teaching him the use of the sense, here smell.
The big shoot was exciting and, as shoots tend to be, stressful. The results are still sleeping on hard dries, but what I have seen so far is wonderful. Thomas Germaine plays Descartes. Here he meets Isaac Beeckman, a Dutch mathematician who became a close friend. A bit later they fell out. Here they meet for the first time, when Descartes is serving in the army of Prince Maurice. Ilja Nieuwland plays Beeckman. Because Descartes’ conception of the subject is often and rightly said to be at the root of psychoanalysis, and because I portray him as a rather tormented personality, I decided that, instead of make him explain that conception, it was more dramatically interesting to make him an analytical patient. That way I could combine his view of subjectivity with his autobiographical musings in Discourse on Method, especially section 6.So, here you have our great man trying to explain himself to an analyst, played by Henk Hillenaar.
This is just a glimpse, no more than a snapshot of a project that, smaller and simpler than Madame B, is still very complex. The root of its complexity is the choice for an unusual genre, a double portrait. The two people who met only at the end of Descartes’ life were somehow quite similar in personality, in both cases doubtlessly occasioned by childhood traumas. I’ll keep you posted.