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.

Malta, and Première of _Madame B_

Michelle and I spent a week on the gorgeous island of Malta, a historically rich and cultural vibrant small EU country. The occasion was, as usual, double: an exhibition and a Curatorial School. A combination of openings, lectures and seminars kept us pretty busy. We are still waiting for visual material to come our way. Once this has arrived, I will post the usual information in the Exhibitions section of this website. This Vermeer-like photo gives a preview of the quality of the curation, done by Raphael Vella. Raphael had initiated and organised the arts festival in which the exhibition took place as one of three works by non-Maltese artists. All three works are highly political, in very different ways. The film Madame B was also screened, in an outdoors theatre. This turned out not the best idea - when Emma began to die, towards the end of the film, fire works went off. A particularly successful screening was State of Suspension, a film that has sadly acquired renewed actuality because of the recent gruesome war.
Then, last night, on the ominous date of 11 September, the World Première of Madame B finally took place. The event was hosted by the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam, in an auditorium of 200 seats - all taken. Here you see a section of that large audience, applauding Marja Skaffari, as they will soon also do for Thomas Germaine and Mathieu Montanier. To our delight, all three main actors were present.

Catching Up: Poland, France, Australia

I have been so intensely busy that I have had no time to write in my blog. After Colombia I went to Poland. I spent a busy and inspiring week there. I was invited by Roma Sendyka, here on the left, and was happy that Kaisa Bojarska (right), who got me to come to Poland last October, was here among many other wonderful people. Roma had organized a Summer School, where I gave some lectures. She also installed Nothing is Missing, with student curators. Roma is the best teacher, totally democratic in her interactions with students, and at the same time demanding, thus showing respect for their capacities.
The Summer School took place in Nieborów Castle, a Palace that belongs to the National Museum. To my delight, and again, thanks to Roma, I was given permission to return next Spring to film for my new project - on which more later. During the week I also went to the Muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, where I made a short video tour about their new installation of the permanent collection of this oldest modern art museum in the world:

Only a few days after, I went on holidays: a few days in Paris, then on to the South, to attend the marathon performance of Henri VI in the Festival of Avignon. The play lasts 18 hours. The actor I have been working with for film projects, Thomas Germaine - Artaud and Herlat in A Long History of Madness, the three men in Emma’s life in Madame B., played the title role. As his greatest fan, I had to go. It was an incredible experience. The creativity of the mise en scène is beyond anything I’ve ever seen, and Thomas, brilliant as always. Here you see him responding, flabbergasted, to the murder of his uncle and confidant, the Duke of Gloucester. The moment when he realises he is alone now in facing all the intrigues, violence, and betrayals.
The second reason we went Southwards was to see a permanent installation by Ann Veronica Janssens, one of my favorite artists, on whose work I wrote Endless Andness. She had installed coloured glass in a chapel at the cemetery of Grignan. The effect was as if she had painted the air in the chapel. Here is an overview and a detail of the effect - not the glass itself but the reflections on the walls. It was another unforgettable art experience.
While in France the new reached me that yet another of my favorite artists, Doris Salcedo, had won the prestigious Hiroshima Art Prize. Her most recent major work, A flor de piel, in exhibited in Hiroshima. Here is a detail of that work, a shroud made of rose petals. I was asked to write an article for the Bogotá newspaper El tiempo. How could I refuse, even while on holiday? Here is a pdf of the article. salcedo_premiohiroshima.pdf
At this moment I am in Sydney. The Sydney College of the Arts is staging the Madame B exhibition, in connection to the conference The Image in Question.The topic is the current overflow of media images and what attitudes we can develop to make sense of this visual world. I am giving the opening lecture. As I tend to do, I will develop my ideas in dialogue with art. In this case, through the work of Monika Huber, Ann Veronica Janssens, and Stan Douglas. Janssens’s work is abstract; Huber makes actual press photographs semi-abstract by overpainting them. Douglas uses yet different strategies to recall, address, and critique visual traditions. Three brilliant bodies of I a happy to delve into. The exhibition was linked to a group show of DCA faculty, It is beautifully installed. See Madame B (Australia)

Exhibition and book launch in Colombia

Today, on May 22, the exhibition Madame B: Exploraciones en el capitalismo emocional opens in Medellín, in two university galleries. The one is an art gallery of the Universidad Nacional de Colombia sede Medellín, the other, the art gallery of the private university EAFIT.

The challenging new element is the spread over two very different spaces, quite a distance apart. We have also posted photographs and a video tour. An enormously active media coverage helps, hopefully, to attract visitors to both sites. A dozen newspapers, radio, and four television programs add the news to the screens on the street.

During this same trip, the Spanish translation of my book on the work of Doris Salcedo and the question of political art is being launched, on May 19 in Bogotá in the presence of the artist, and today in Medellín. This is, for me, a marvelous opportunity to make good on the premise I try to spread wherever I can, that art making and studying are not distinct activities. Something unheard of in Europe: this event, too, was advertised on street screens. This, and the media interest in general, are for me a demonstration of the strong presence of culture and thought in Latin-American public life. True, one television interview was cancelled in favor of a football match, but still… This screen advertises my book! The initiator of the translation, Lucrecia Piedrahita Orrego, also curated what she called an “expografía” which was in fact an exhibition of quotes, images, and videos of the book. This took place at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana, in the galería de Arte de la Facultad de Arquitectura, April 1-16.

Exhibition on Åland

After the exhibitions in Lodz, Tallinn and Zürich, the full Madame B exhibition is now in the Post och Tullhus in Eckerö, on the Swedish-speaking island of Åland. Curator Mervi Appel did a brilliant job acquiring and designing the exhibition, and Göran Stenius - also a participant who plays the bailiff - installed it expertly. Here you see Mervi speaking at the opening. Many participants came from mainland Finland, including cinematographer Christopher Wessels, and the singing beggar Lila Köngäs-Saarikko. And of course, our star actress Marja Skaffari, who plays an Emma unique in the history of Flaubert-based films. Imagine the joy for Mervi and Marja’s mother Raili Skaffari, who came and spent hours in the exhibition.
For me, this trip to Åland, home also to Astrid Törneroos who played such a brilliant little Berthe, made it irresistible to make a first start with a new project I only have a very sketchy idea for. I cannot betray what it will be - since I don’t know it myself - but I do have the first bits of footage, thanks to Christopher and Michelle. The shooting involved also Marja and her husband Jere Lokio. More at a later time…

London, Paris, Big News

Just a few days in London. I gave a keynote lecture at the Association of Art Historians (AAH) in the beautiful lecture theatre of the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), on anachronism. The topic of the conference was “history in the making” - just my kind of thing! It was an opportunity to reflect on history and the way anachronism can be useful to make history visible in the present,and to present our project Madame B as an example of “history in the making” in the double meaning of the phrase: the past being constantly (re)made as part of the present; and making and scholarship as complementary activities.

Apart from that lecture, these few days were entirely devoted to working with Michelle, who moved to London in February. We edited material for the second disk in our DVD box of Madame B. Apart, that is, from having drinks with Ola Jach, curator at the muzeum Sztuki in Lodz, who also attended the AAH conference.

In addition, I had a “plotting” breakfast with Bill Sherman, director of research at the V&A, with whom I had felt a productive connection when meeting him a month ago at MoMA in New York. We discussed issue of “history in the making” from the vantage point of an institution like the V&A devoted to history but functioning in the present. I hope we get to work together in the future.

I also had the great pleasure to seeing Julia, Michelle and Elan’s daughter. When they lived in Amsterdam I more or less followed her growing up, becoming a toddler and starting to walk & talk. Now, the encounters are much rarer. I was astonished by how much more mature she seemed suddenly. She also is clearly extraordinarily talented. She makes paintings of which her dad said, “I wouldn’t mind having framed and on my living-room wall.” And I agree.

I was also very happy to spend some chatting time with an old friend, Marquard Smith, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Visual Culture and to be given his recently published book, The Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish (Yale University Press 2013). The cover alone tells us about gender politics in modernism.

Time flew by, and I was on my way to Paris directly from London. There, I was going to shoot a small documentary for the DVD box of our current project, of an interview with Thomas Germaine. He is the actor who plays the three men in Madame B. The BIG NEWS he told me was that the Shakespeare play Henri VI (18 hours!) by La Piccola Familia, the theatre company of the brilliant director Thomas Jolly, had been awarded the Beaumarchais prize for “meilleur spectacle” - an untranslatable phrase that means best play / best performance. You can read more about the play in my blog of 14 April 2013. Here is “our” Thomas as Henri VI again, in a photo by Nicolas Joubard. I couldn’t find a better picture, so I repeat this one. Needless to say, the award is entirely deserved. I can’t wait to see the entire 18 hours in Avignon, at the famous theatre festival, this Summer. Congratulations to the two Thomases and their many colleagues (the play has some 50 participants)!

Remembering Sonja Neef: an afternoon in Köln

On April 6th, 2013 Sonja Neef, one of my best, most creative former PhD students, died at age 45. I went to the funeral service in Braunschweig, Germany. On Friday April 4th, the nearest we could get to the actual anniversary of her death, an afternoon symposium was devoted to her intellectual legacy at Morphomata, a research institute at the University of Köln, where Sonja had been a resident the year before she fell ill, and where I was last year. It was a sad occasion but a wonderful event. Her direct family members - husband, children, parents, sister - were all present. Sonja’s friend from her Morphomata year, Henry Sussman, came from Yale University to give one of the lectures. I also gave one. Among other elements of her work I appreciate especially her work on William Kentridge, whom we both esteemed as one of the most creatively political artists of our time. Here Sonja is lecturing on his Felix in Exile.
The event was also a book launch for an edited volume, Astroculture, she had vigorously worked on while also finishing her own long-term monographic project, Der babylonische Planet. Sonja was incredibly active, creative and brilliant. Imagining what she would have achieved had she not been taken at the half-way point of her life leaves me flabbergasted.