Opening Madame B in Łódź

During a week of hard work I have learned how complex and difficult it is to install a video exhibition. The week flew by; I didn’t find a minute to report on it. On Friday the 6th, the opening, preceded by a guided tour for “friends of the Muzeum Sztuki”, took place. It was a totally overwhelming experience. Many people came for the tour, and were clearly very interested. Many stayed for hours. We had installed the works for maximum “immersive” effect: apart from the first work, two opposing screens with back projection, they were hung low, with seating provided. It did have the desired effect.

Our co-producer and actress Mervi Appel had come from Åland, to learn about the works. She is curating the next full exhibition of the project, in the Post and Customs House in Eckerö, on the Northern coast of the island. This will be very special; some scenes were filmed in that very house. This building is now a cultural Center, and Mervi is its director. Christopher Wessels, our cinematographer, was also able to come, and my old friend Ydessa Hendeles, a unique collector-curator now artist, and her partner David Goldberg, came all the way from Toronto. This was incredibly heart-warming.
For more, just revert to the Exhibitions section, Madame B.

This week we also contributed a poster and a short video to Walid Raad’s web series of weekly posters in protest of the deplorable conditions under which the new prestigious art venues in the Gulf region are being built by migrant workers exploited and abused.
Please join Walid’s campaign gulf labor.


Łódź, Muzeum Sztuki: the first Madame B exhibition

Our dream begins to come true: Michelle and I are going to Poland next week for the opening of the first Madame B exhibition - all eight installations, divided over nineteen screens, as described elsewhere, in Installations will be on show for over two months in Europe’s oldest museum of modern art, the Sztuki museum in Łódź. I am going there next Sunday, December 1st. On Wednesday the 4th I will give a lecture in the museum, “How to Tell the Story of Modern Art? Some Theoretical Reflections”. On Friday the sixth is the opening of the exhibition, andSaturday morning, Michelle and I will conduct a seminar about the Madame B project in its installation form. If you are in Poland: welcome!

To get a sense of the people and the place we have the privilege to interact with, this photo shows you the “genealogy” of the contact that led to this exhibition. Clockwise: Daniel Muzyczuk, coordinator of intellectual events and organizer of my lecture and our seminar (with Michelle); Katarzyna Słoboda, curator, and Przemysław Purtak, coordinator; the cover of the Polish translation of my book Travelling Concepts in the Humanities, a fragment of the building of the Sztuki Muzeum, Jarosław Suchan, director, Radosław Pater, technical genius who installs the show; and in the middle the internationally renown curator Adam Budak, whose enduring friendship got me warmed to Poland in the first place.


For more background, see my post of October 22d. And of course, I will post more once the exhibition is installed.


Biennale Lyon

Thursday November 19th I will go to Lyon. I have always liked the city but never visited the Biennial there. So, when I was invited to give the opening lecture of a conference on the occasion of the exhibition, I decided to go for it. Also, the topic is narrative - what more could I wish? I am going to speak about five artists whose work I admire, mostly video. As far as I know, they don’t know one another and their works are very different. But all five “theorize” in their practice the need for, and productivity of, anachronism. So, I build my argument entirely through the artworks.

Although I prefer my own term, “preposterous history” as developed in my book Quoting Caravaggio, this time I decided to adopt the more current term. Since my topic is the relationship between art and the world out of which it emerges, which it addresses, and within which it functions, and, moreover, the always-actual of art is part of my argument, I chose this image for the title page of my power point presentation.


Copenhagen and Umeå

A few days after returning from Poland I went to Copenhagen and Umeå - the latter city in the North of Sweden. In Copenhagen the Network on Migration and Culture had organized a conference titled “Crossroads: Europe, Migration and Culture”. I had been invited to give a keynote lecture, and when I proposed to also exhibit my installation Nothing is Missing the organisors immediately and enthusiastically agreed. They found three students who are curating projects under the inspiring, enigmatic name “Macho Llorando. Here they are: Tobias, Karen and Elin.

As you will soon see on the relevant page, they did a brilliant job. The most touching detail was a pair of worn shoes under a chair. A silent sign of absence. Thank you so very much!
Another big thank-you goes to Frauke Wiegand. Frauke accompanied me from the first to the last moment, including on bike rides through the city - with Amsterdam, Copenhagen is biking paradise - and organised everything in such detail that any question I had was already answered before I posed it. Here she is, herself a dedicated PhD student working on memory. She also participated in the “masterclass” I was asked to give the day before.

Right after these activities I went on to Umeå. The attraction was a video installation exhibition, “Fields of Theatricality”. They wanted me to give a lecture at a conference. This turned out a half-day event, with two lectures, one by performance artist Joan Jonas, whose installation Lines in the Sand was not only brilliant but totally enchanting. Unfortunately, I missed the live performance of this piece she did the evening when I arrived, exhausted. In this work, Jonas revises the mythical story of Helen, allegedly the (sexual) cause of the Trojan war. In line with H.D.(Hilda Doolittle) in her epic poem, the Trojan war was a trade war and Helen wasn’t even there; she was in Egypt. Jonas reads lines from Doolittle’s text while writing with chalk on blackboard,walking through projections with palempsestic layers of shadows and other signs in the desert sand. H.D. had been in analysis with Freud. This, and many other elements, spoke directly to my own interests.

I can wholeheartedly recommend the format of this event: between single lecture and a full, often overloaded conference program, just a half day, two speakers, an exhibition, lots to see and to talk about.


Warsaw and Łódz

In the middle of the busiest semester ever, a trip to Poland was a highlight. The event had been initiated and organised by a Polish scholar, Katarzyna (Kasia) Bojarska. Here she is: top-smart and lovely:

First we (Ernst van Alphen and I) went to Warsaw, where we each gave seminars and lectures. I did a session in a series of seminars on affect, devoted to the writing of Flaubert and why it lends itself so well to our project Madame B., which we are about to launch.
The next evening, for a full house, there was a panel discussion about my book Travelling Concepts which has just appeared in Polish. It came out at the same time as the translation of Narratology, so, at some point this year it felt like “my Polish year”. See the earlier blog My Polish Year. I warn you: my Polish year is not over!
The initiator and organisor of our tour, Katarzyna (Kasia) Bojarska, had found a number of great experts, including the translator, willing to participate. It was a very lively discussion. Her friends Magda and Łukasz rapidly became our friends too, and moreover, they helped us with every practical detail imaginable. Here you see them in the Wednesday panel discussion. Both evenings I was deeply impressed by the intellectual vibrancy of the people; a true intellectual community.

The day after this we went to Łódz. Ernst gave a lecture there on his current book project, on the archive as artistic medium. For me, this was a fantastic opportunity. Michelle and I will exhibit for the first time the installations of our complete Madame B. installation project, consisting of 8 installation, together of 19 screens. Jaroslaw Suchan, director of the Sztuki Art Museum had invited us to exhibit there, and the opening is as soon as December 6th! The Sztuki (the word means “art”) is situated in an old palace that had belonged to an industrialist who had made the city great. Here is just a corner of the building.

It was a wonderful experience to go through all the details in the site itself, with the curators Katarzyna (Kasia) Sloboda and Przemysław (Przemek) Purtak, very creative, committed and friendly people. They made us feel we are all on the same side in our endeavor to present this work that is a bit challenging for the space. You can see the good cheer on this photo:

The last day Ernst gave a seminar on his archive project, which was extremely well received, we visited the museum of Polish Jews, a spectacular new building, and I was asked to give a lecture with video clips about our project, in the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Again, a full house, a lively and intelligent discussion and a very satisfying end to the tour. One day was left for private museum visits. We enjoyed the National museum where Old Master art changed us from the contemporary art the week had been filled with. All in all, I have a strong sense of belonging with these new friends and colleagues. A wonderful week.


book launches

After my last post, no one will be surprised by the following news. On September 20at 7 pm there will be a book launch at Wiels Contemporary Arts Centre in Brussels. The director, Dirk Snauwaert, will respond to the book. Then I will give a brief presentation about the three books on political art and Endless Andness in particular. Björn Schmeltzer, a brilliant composer and musician who has worked with Ann Veronica Janssens in several ballet performance directed by Anna Teresa de Keersemaker, will comment on the book, and we will end with a conversation between Ann Veronica and me. I look forward to this event, as I am very fond of all the participants, as well as of Wiels as a wonderfully original and active art venue. One of the chapters in my book is an analysis of the exhibition Serendipity that was held there. Here is a photo from that exhibition:

The next day, Saturday September 21, I begin a series of activities at the Newhouse Center at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, in conjunction with the Davis Museum where an exhibition of Ahtila’s work is being opened two days earlier. The first event, right after my arrival, is the launch of Endless Andless in the presence of the artist. Several events follow; I will be pretty busy the entire week following, giving several lectures, seminars and informal meetings.

This is the beginning of an extremely busy semester, with many trips, to Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Taiwan… More later!


two new books

It’s been too long since my last post. Busy as usual, plus, a short vacation. But then, the news is good. Two new books came out, simultaneously. This has not happened to me before and won’t happen again, I promise. It just happened, and thanks to Liza Thompson at Bloomsbury, this big adventure ended so well I am very excited about it. The books are already posted on the BOOKS page. With the book on Doris Salcedo, Of What One Cannot Speak, these two form a trilogy. For the last five years I have been working on these reflections on how art an be political - politically effective, even - without being “about” politics. Each volume constitutes a dialogue between art and theory on this large and important question.
The Salcedo book examined this question in relation to sculpture. Thinking in Film takes the figurative image,the moving image, and then, especially in video installation, is the “case” to explore the issue of political effect. The artist whose work I analyze is Eija-Liisa Ahtila. And in Endless Andness the abstract work of Ann Veronica Janssens is the interlocutor for a dialogue. A few of Janssens’ works are in the June 16 post.

For each book, a “book launch” is in the planning. On Friday September 20th, we will have a gathering in Wiels, the great center for contemporary art in Brussels, to launch Endless Andness. The next day, less than 20 hours later, another book launching event will take place in Wellesley, Massachusetts, to launch Thinking in Film. It’s a bit crazy, but it so happens that Ahtila has an exhibition there. And only after setting up the event in Brussels did we realize an earlier launch at Kiasma (where she currently has a show) was not possible. I’ll take advantage of the somewhat hectic trip to ive several lectures and meet people. More on this in a next post.


experiences of magic

In just two weeks, I had five overwhelming art experiences, each of which, in their own way, brought me back to the theater.
The first was the exhibition of Steve McQueen’s work in Schaulager, near Basel. I was in Basel for a conference and had only a few hours to spare. But thanks to my host, Martin Sundberg, I had the good fortune of being able to see this fantastic show, a few hours before the venue opened to the public. Martin had put me in touch with Stephan Hauser, librarian of the Schaulager museum, who generously toured me around through the exhibition. It was a great pleasure to share my enthusiasm about McQueen’s work with this knowledgeable man.
McQueen, who is currently working on his third feature film, has a large body of work in video, and also photography. The exhibition at Schaulager is beautifully installed, giving great insight into the work beyond the images alone. In the first gallery, for example, three of my long-term favorites are placed together. His classical Bear from 1993, showing an ambivalent fight/love between two men, is projected on a triangle with, on the other two sides, Five Easy Pieces (1995) and Just Above my Head (1996).
Other works are placed alone in the dark, to enhance the somewhat claustrophobic effect of extreme close-ups, as in Gravesend (2007), or the haunting 7th November (2001). The design of the exhibition enhanced the theatricality of many of the works, different as they are otherwise.
Then, I went back to the fantastic exhibition of Aernout Mik at the recently reopened Stedelijk Museum. I went for the third time, spent three hours, and still feel the desire to go once more. Moving images of collapse (Middlemen), of people laughing and crying (3 laughing and 4 crying), teenagers being bored, or being or playing dead (School Yard). In the video installations of Aernout Mik, things happen but there is no outcome. There is motion, commotion, and emotion; hence, narrative, but without conclusion: no story. Nor can one identify with central figures. The experience of this exhibition is unsettling and, in my view, profoundly empowering. I wrote a short article about it for Art in America.
Both McQueen and Mik were closely involved in the installation. Mik even designed it himself. Walking through the labyrinthine space feels a bit like participating in a theatrical play. As a visitor, your body’s shadows fall on the images, installed low.
And then, the theater in a more literal sense came back into my life. For the first time in decades, I feel completely fascinated by the theater again. After seeing the French Henri VI (see the post of April 14th) and Schéda in Amsterdam last week (see the post of June 9th), so different, yet both so exuberantly alive that I strongly experienced the special effect of live performance, this week I saw Desdemona. I am not sure how to call this - a play, an opera, a performance, a concert? Never mind the term. It was deeply and literally wonderful. If you cannot see it, at least get the book.
American writer and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has taken up the under-illuminated character of Desdemona, who, in the Shakespeare play, is murdered in a jealous rage by her husband Othello. Morrison gives voice to Shakespeare’s silent women. The poetry Morrison wrote is recited by Tina Benko in a beautiful, under-stated voice, modulating to incarnate the voices of other characters, such as Iago’s wife Emilia, who is guilty by silence; she could have saved Desdemona but failed to speak.
This theme of guilty silence forcefully updates the age-old Shakespeare play. The Malian musician Rokia Traoré composed brilliant songs (for which she also wrote the lyrics) to establish a dialogue with Desdemona. She gives a life to the character who, in the play, is a name only, and a false one at that: Desdemona’s childhood nurse, mis-called Barbary. This (non-)name brings into the Shakespeare play a second African character, now fully developed by Traoré’s brilliant songs. The alternation between song and recitation is both dialogic and discrepant, which renders subtly the (mis)communications between the African woman and the Venetian one. “You don’t even know my name”, says “barbary” when Desdemona, in the afterlife, begs for her affection.
While the beauty and power of this performance was still whirling through my head, two days later I saw a small exhibition in the Paris gallery Kamel Mennour, with works by Ann Veronica Janssens. Perhaps because of these recent theatrical experiences I was struck again by the way Janssens’ subtle and silent artworks stage the viewer, give her a task: without an engaged, bodily activity, the works don’t give up their secret magic. Two works especially got to me. In spite of having seen a good number of versions of her famous colored mist rooms, this one, called Fantazy was more powerful than any I had seen before. No photograph does justice to the intensity of the experience to see strictly nothing, yet being immersed in intense colors. These change when you move through the space. Perhaps due to the natural light coming from the ceiling, the work worked, so to speak, more forcefully than ever.
A work I had never seen, called 15 Mai consists of s simple glass plate set against a wall. Somewhere on the glass is a convex lens. Or so it seems. Once you approach and see the plate of glass from the side, it turns out to be completely flat. Now, the lens seems an engraving. The magic of Janssens’ work is that you need to move to see it change. And also, once you have done that and you think you know the secret, it remains just as enigmatic as before. Again, the photograph doesn’t do the work justice at all, but just to hint at it:
The close proximity between theater and sculpture illuminates for me the importance of liveness in the experience of both.
Next week my two books on the political force of contemporary art are scheduled to appear. One of those is devoted to Janssens’ abstract work, the other to Eija-Liisa Ahtila’s video installations.


Epilogue with Mathieu Montanier

Mathieu Montanier, our actor who played Fool #1 in A Long History of Madness and who plays Homais in Madame B., was briefly in Amsterdam. The Holland Festival had programmed Shéda, a turbulent theatre “event” by Congolese linguistic virtuoso author Dieudonné Niangouna. The play, by Niangouna’s company Les bruits de la rue, is an apocalyptic group performance where people tell others whom they don’t know their experiences at the end of time. They fight, shout, dance, fall apart or simply fall down; they sink, drown, impale themselves, but they never die. Are they gods, forgotten, myths, fallen heroes, the dust of failed loves? They are there, in Kakuma, the Swahili word for “nowhere”. They live in a time that, as one of the characters says, varies when no one worries, and stops moving when the people go elsewhere, as in the theater. Shakespeare is never far away! Mathieu plays an old man who has remained a child, tries to impale himself, and fights like the rest and the best.. This huge production took Mathieu to Congo, à Brazzaville, for rehearsals. In this photo you see him during one of those.

We took advantage of his presence in Amsterdam to shoot a short epilogue to our film. We had discovered after the fact that Flaubert had written an ending to his novel that stages Homais in a psychotic crisis, where he doubts his own existence. This was too good to be true: a postmodern Flaubert. In addition, this converged beautifully with the interpretation of the character Mathieu had intuitively produced. That, I am learning through these projects, is the genius of actors of this caliber. They put in more than we foresaw when writing the script, and retrospectively, they turn out totally right.
So, we had to stage this, and chose the chandelier store Crystolight in Amsterdam to put Mathieu among the reflecting crystals. It was, as always, a wonderful performance. Here, you see him in that mad situation. He is looking at the medal that has just been awarded to him, that “croix d’honneur” he had aspired to for so long. now that he gets it (Flaubert’s final sentence in the novel as published) he is completely falling apart (as per that unpublished ending we found).

We had asked my long-term friend and former colleague Aart van Zoest to read a few lines Flaubert wrote, because we needed a voice distinct from Homais’. Aart is emeritus professor of French and a specialist of Peircean semiotics with whom I had collaborated a lot. The epilogue will be very short, but, we think, it adds another layer to the hysteria Mathieu has given to Homais’ character.

Aart van Zoest, lending us Flaubert’s voice


My Polish Year

Sometimes things comes together in such a way that a strong connection to a place, or as here, a country, seems to emerge out of the blue. This year, things are happening in Poland. In addition to two books and an article translated, I made new Polish friends, and a visit is planned to Warsaw for October, with lectures and seminars.
My books Narratology and_Travelling Concepts in the Humanities_ appeared in Polish almost simultaneously. Both were published by excellent publishers, and, I was told, very expertly translated. The covers look like this (left: Travelling Concepts; right: Narratology):


It is thrilling to see so much interest in my work in a country that is clearly very active, intellectually and artistically. Because … during that visit I will also visit Łodz to see the gallery space at the Sztuki Museum of Art. I met the director of the museum, Jaroslaw Suchan, during the C-MAP seminar at MoMA in 2012, and felt a great affinity with his way of thinking about art in he contemporary world.


From early December through February 2014, the museum will exhibit our project Madame B.


Although I never went to Łodz, this will nevertheless be a bit of a return to the city, since I once exhibited my installation Nothing is Missing there in an old villa, in the exhibition Anabasis, a project curated by Adam Budak.

For 2014, it is already clear that the year will be marked by activities in the Spanish-speaking world. With the exhibition and book publication in Colombia, and another book in Spain, this time the connection is to a language rather than a country. More about that later.

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