The end of an era: How do we collect art in the future?

I (Impact and dimension of Hello World)

When you walk through the exhibition „Hello World“ at the museum „Hamburger Bahnhof“ you need time. Time to walk along hundreds of square metres of exhibition space. Time to dive deeply into history and artist movements and artists’ works. Time to rethink how the museums that we were used to until these days could face the challenge to integrate postcolonial thinking and art into their collections. What would the museum’s collection look like if there had been no colonial thinking, power and hierarchy? How do museums critically reflect their own history, their own long established way how to look at art and at their collections and their way of acquiring new works? And consequently which impact will this new approach have for curatorial practice within museums and art institutions?

The answer certainly will not come straight away. It might take time until the dimension, the meaning and the impact of this new way of thinking totally sinks through. But once these questions are asked that former way of thinking has no backing anymore. It’s the end of an area and a silent revolution.

But first, let’s take a walk through the exhibition. I will focus on those rooms that speak to me the most. This is also a restriction: The exhibition totally consists of 13 sections curated by various people. After two visits and more than 7 hours walking through the exhibition it is still difficult to give an overview. That is because each section is dedicated to an artistic movement and contrasted with a contra-position to that movement. There is no chronological order within the exhibition. Works of expressionist Russian painters are opposed to works of expressionist German painters are opposed Mexican contemporary artists that critically review landscape paintings from the 1930s that carried a colonial message. Videos of 2015 are opposed to silent movies of the 1940s. Balinese artworks are opposed to Orientalistic painters are opposed to murals of the 1930s which hang beside photographies of reliefs of Buddhist temples of the AD 8th century.

By opposing these kind of works two new dialogues open up: On the one hand we have the critical postcolonial dialogue and on the other hand a new dialogue becomes visible: The dialogue of cultural transfer and the way how ideas spread over international borders. Both dialogues themselves are rocking at the fundament of art history and curatorial thinking most intensively. This way of thinking is new. Both dialogues summon the song of how exhibitions and collections will be presented in the future.

 

II (The art works)

Agora

The Jungle Book Project, installation by Pierre Bismuth, 2002

Familiar and also unfamiliar. I understand what Mowgli and the other characters are talking about in the movie but also I do not understand what they are saying. Mowgli and his friends are speaking different languages. The tiger, Shir Khan, speaks English, whereas Mowgli speaks Spanish. The elephant leader, Colonel Hathi, speaks French. Still they seem to understand each other. I watch this beautiful installation from the pillows on the floor. Baloo, the bear sings his “Bare Necessities” and one immediately feels reminded of his childhood.

But what are we watching at exactly? The “Jungle Book” was written by the British author Joseph Rudyard Kipling and firstly published in 1894. The characters Kipling invented let shine through a very positive attitude towards colonialism. Which was the spirit of the time and also no wonder since Kipling was born and raised in British India. Walt Disney did not follow the gloomy interpretation of Kipling and invented its children friendly version of “The Jungle Book” in 1967. What Pierre Bismuth shows us in a wonderful way is how easily we forget to question what we are watching at. We tend forget the original context and just intellectually consume what is given to us. Because why shouldn’t we? As children we watch what our parents do allow us to watch. When they have no obligations we watch the movies and read the books that soon become part of our general knowledge. We do not question them anymore.

In this way Pierre Bismuth’s installation also creates the feeling of connectivity because many children in the world know the Jungle Book. Within his version of the “Jungle Book” and the more than 7 different languages the characters are speaking amongst each other Bismuth creates the feeling of being able to understand a foreign language just by knowing how the story goes and just by relying on your cultural heritage. It’s like the “Pfingstwunder” where suddenly all people speak one language and understand each other. But at the same time the installation critically questions our cultural heritage.

 

Making Paradise: Places of Longing, From Paul Gaugin to Tita Salina

Between you, me & the Bedpost #1 and #2, Gede Mahendra Yasa, 2014
Acrylic on Canvas, 163 x 100 cm each

In this thoughtfully curated part of the exhibition the first art work I encounter are two paintings of the Balinese painter Gede Mahendra Yasa with the title “Between You, Me & the Bedpost #1 and #2”. We see uncontrolled splashing of colour melting into each other in various shades of blue, green black and yellow. Immediately the Western art used eyes are reminded of Jackson Pollock’s famous action painting and dripping. But this is just at first glance. From the distance I realize that both paintings are the same. Each drip on the left side has its exact reproduction on the right-hand painting in the exact same colour. My eyes are not prepared to see that the second painting is the exact reproduction of the first painting. When making a closer step towards the works I see pencil squares on the ground of the canvas. Then I realize that the dripping is not just dripping. These are dripping pattern with Balinese themes and iconography.

 

Detail: Between you, me & the Bedpost #2

We see demons and animals with thick lips and sticking out eyes and people riding horses in the exact shape of the melted dripping. By copying the style and themes of Jackson Pollock Mahendra Yasa misleads the eye which is used to Western art. He reaches this by making it easy to overlook the “little detail” in the right-hand painting that turn his work specifically Balinese. Mahendra Yasa opposes Pollock’s uncontrolled method of painting, the ecstatic process out of which they were the result to his thought through composition that translates the North American culture into his own Balinese culture.

In his work Mahendra Yasa firstly refers to Western art, secondly he reproduces action painting in a very rational way by copying it 1:1 in a way that neglects the randomness of Pollock’s painting and therefore the nature of Pollock’s dripping itself. He thirdly translates the Western approach into Balinese art by letting the rational constructed drippings become the outline for Balinese themes. He let the viewer stumble over his own imprecise attention he paid to the painting.

Walter Spies, Deer Hunt, 1932, Oil on Canvas, 60 x 50 cm

The revision of the collection and the new approach to “hybrid art”, i. e. to the fact that art cannot be assigned to ONE culture, suddenly puts artists in the spotlight who have been ignored before. Such as there is Walter Spies, a Russian-German artist who changed his way of painting considerably when he moved from 1920s-Berlin to the Indonesian colony in Bali. When the spotlight WAS on how the colonizers have been influencing the indigenous art it NOW turns to how the indigenous art has had an influence on the Western painters. In this sense Walter Spies differs from painters like Emil Nolde, who more tend to have depictured the countries they were travelling to as a person with no interest in indigenous culture. This cannot be said about Walter Spies: He deeply immersed into Balinese culture and thinking due to his strong interest in art and music and translated Balinese cultural conventions into part of his paintings. The question now is: Which canon does Walter Spies belong to? Are his works “Balinese” or “Western”? Questions like these illustrate how invalid the conventional art historian canon has become. By looking at art in this new way artists pop up that in there hybrid way before have not met the paradigms of Western culture and art principles and therefore they have fallen through the art historian Western canon.

I Made Budi, Untitled (Puputan marga Rana di Tahun 1946), 1990-91

The works of I Made Budi, another Balinese painter, who stayed within the tradition of Balinese painting (Batuan[1]) imports scenes of the independence war in 1946 against the Dutch colonizers into his works. We see the traditional way of Balinese paintings but depicting “modern” elements: In the middle of the painting out of an airplane a soldier fires a gun. In the right corner Dutch troops are shooting against the Indonesian people who are in the left part of the painting and fighting back. Works like these have been acquainted and since then been stored in the “Ethnologische Museum” in Berlin. By putting indigenous works of different cultures straight into the separated places, far away from “meaningful” Western art, the colonial canon and practice has been maintained. Given this, indigenous painters have rarely been put into museums’ spotlights. Works like these were bought and then “segregated” from Western art.

Where do we come from? Adapting Sculptural Forms

Chimpanzee ‘Missie’, Anton Puchegger, 1916-17, Rio rosewood, 81 x 47 x 40 cm // The Thinker, Auguste Rodin, 1880 (cast 1959), Bronzed Pluster, 71 x 39 x 56,5 cm.

Being greeted by a bronze plaster replica of Auguste Rodin’s famous “Thinker” (1880) and the sculpture “Chimpanzee” by Anton Puchegger (1916-17) is a tongue-in-cheek welcome. “The Thinker” can be seen as a metaphor for the human condition and is a key piece of modern art[2]. With an blinking eye it is opposed to the ape sculpture. Darwin and his theory of evolution introduced a complete new approach of how animal and human beings had developed. Having in mind the question where we come from, the answer standing in front of these two sculptors is obvious but also a bit too directly delivered. This part of the exhibition is dominated by sculptures, mainly those of modern times. Mainly those that were celebrated by Western art historians.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “Standing Women” (1912) is opposed to the abstract work of Rudolf Belling’s “Triad” from 1919/24. They take us back to the colonial times when objects and artefacts were collected from all over the world to be categorized as “primitive art” and to serve as a new formal language for artists who longed to leave behind the Western art history in search of new models of representation.[3] They served as source of inspiration to Western artists who used them to free themselves from their own pictorial traditions.[4] So called “primitive art” was seen as the counter-part to the Western history which was supposed to have a linear development marking itself the “high” end of it.

 

Triad, Rudolf Belling, 1919/24, Stained birch, 91 x 77 x 77 cm // Standing Women, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, 1912, Alder wood, 98 x 23 x 18 cm

III (How do we collect art in the future?)

In the rooms “Where do we come from?” I walk through the “treasures” of the Nationalgalerie and I miss the critical focus. I see many famous sculptures in lack of counterbalance. It seems as if the Nationalgalerie reproduces its own long established Western canon by placing emphasis on its own collection. By underlining the influence of non-European art on avant-garde artists. Where can we find non-European sculptures? Where are contemporary artworks that critically reflect the colonial approach? How many art works of the “Ethnologische Museum” are actually on display? Why is the exhibition still dominated by Western art?

After my visit I tend to have more questions than answers: Do we need Western art as a reference to justify the display of non-European art? Wouldn’t it be healthy to once knock the Modern art of its pedestal to create space for new art? In which way will museums focus on their collections in the future? Will they become more specialised or more generalized? To which culture does non-European art being hosted in Western museums belong to? Will museums give these artworks back to their countries of origin? How is this going to happen? Which role do ethnological museums play in this new scenario? What are their tasks? How will exhibition be curated in the future?

“Hello World” rather outlines how the future of museums looks like than being an exhibition. It asks many questions and in its 13 sections gives many examples. But it is just a start. There still is a lot of work to be done.


[1] Vgl. Vickers, Adrian, Balinese Art. Paintings and Drawings of Bali 1800-2010, S. 197.

[2] Vgl. Kittelmann, Udo, Schrei, Kristina, Where do we come from? Adapting Sculptural forms, in: Hello World (exhibition catalogue), Berlin 2018, S. 88.

[3] Vgl. Kittelmann/ Schrei, S. 87.

[4] Vgl. Kittelmann/ Schrei, S. 88.

Source of Pictures: Own photos.


Reflecting the works of Balinese artist Wayan Apel Hendrawan: Ibu Pertewi as an allergory and Balinese cultural concepts

70 x 70 cm, Oil on Canvas, 2017

 

A women who closes her eyes as if in pain, is what we see first when we look at this painting. On her forehead a small detail of her headdress peaks out. Around her cheeks green and brown leaves and the branches of trees sprout. With great power in the left part of the painting a volcano erupts. It spies fire and all colours from underneath converge under the top of the volcano’s cone as if sucked in there with great energy. In the background we see red and blue colour.

But why is the women wearing a headdress? In fact, we could ask if this is a human face or if it’s a tree. We would then notice that there is no line between them. Trees and face are blurring. Her head extends into the other scenery of nature: The erupting volcano that is causing smoke which is ascending into the hot, red sky. By using the same colour of brown for the trees and the volcano it is suggested that the women, the tree and the volcano are one unit and inseparable. But why is that?

To better understand the artist’s thinking and idea, let’s have a look at another painting:

70 x 70 cm, Oil on Canvas, 2017

A large tree with roots hanging down from the top, which marks it as the one and only Banyan tree, stands in the foreground. The actual surprising thing for a non-Balinese person is, that its trunk is wrapped up in black and white checked cloth, the “saput poleng”. The dark coloured roots together with the trunk form a tunnel through which a female face in front of blue colour shimmers through. Her eyes are closed. Also we can see Balinese Sanskrit letters scratched into the brown colour. The composition of the painting with half tree and half face is very balanced.

To understand Hendrawans’ works, we need to immerse deeper into Balinese Hindu thinking. A Banyan tree to a Balinese Hindu is not just a tree. It is a sacred place in which deceased ancestors use to live and hang out. It emits a large amount of energy. A tree marked with the “saput poleng“ means that there resides a spirit within. Balinese people show great respect to the tree, not because it is a tree but because it is a sacred place. The “saput poleng“ (means “two toned blanket”) not only guards the energy within the tree but also keeps the sanctity of the tree intact.

On a meta-level the “saput poleng“ with its black and white checked surface perfectly represents the Balinese principle of “Rwa Bhineda” which is the base of Balinese Hindu mindset. Other than people from Western cultures Balinese people do not think in opposites. Of course there are black and white, sacred and profane, good and bad. But there is a third scheme that includes a third position, the “center” which balances the opposites. These opposites cannot exist without each other. In Balinese thinking the world can be described BETWEEN good and evil. It is a co-existence between good and bad. The goal of each Hindu is to maintain the balance. Equilibrium can be reached by religious actions such as sacrifices. All demons representing the evil must be placated by offerings. This series of rites is called “Bhuta Yadnya” and it purifies the world from the evil spirits. The goal is not to erase the evil but to appease them to keep the balance. The “Dewa Yadnya” is the daily ceremony to appease the good spirits and the gods. Between the universe and the individual balance must always be obtained.[1]

Apel picks up this principle by balancing his composition into two halfs. Apart from being an artist Apel is a priest. His paintings can be seen as his way back to life, for he started painting after a long dark period in his life as a drug addict. Painting was his way out, the method that brought him back to life again. He regained his balance by practising for becoming a priest.

Not only is the Banyan tree sacred to Balinese Hindu people but it also contains a national reference, since it is part of the Indonesian Coat of Arms. Within this setting it corresponds to the state principle (called the Pancasila) which stands for the unity of the nation gathering many different cultures under one “roof”. Having expansive above-ground roots and branches the Banyan tree symbol perfectly reflects that Indonesia is one country out of many cultural roots.[2]

In Hendrawans’ these two works by Hendrawan the viewer observes a close connection between the women or the female face that is suggesting that it belongs to a women and the nature that she is surrounded by. Woman and nature are inseparable connected. But why is that?

An explanation can be found in the national cultural concept of “Ibu Pertewi”. “Ibu Pertiwi” is similar to the Western understanding of “Mother Nature”. But it is not the same. Ibu Pertiwi is an Indonesian theme which refers to nature AND Indonesia as a nation, as the motherland. It is a cultural concept, an allegory of land and water that understands Mother Nature as a nurturing and caring but at the same time also as a destroying force. “Ibu Pertewi” is the impersonation of the mother land of the country Indonesia. Her adjunctions are the woods and the ocean. Hendrawans’ works are full of them.

The patriotic aspect of the theme can be found in folk songs such as “Ibu Pertewi”. This song is very popular in Indonesia and sung by children and on Independence Day Celebrations. It addresses to Ibu Pertewi as the grieving Motherland, her eyes are crying and she is in sorrow in the first verse. The second verse then is a promise to make Ibu Pertewi happy again for the sake of their homeland, their nation.

“Kulihat ibu pertiwi (I see Ibu Pertewi)

Sedang bersusah hati (She is grieving)

Air matamu berlinang (Tears are running down her cheeks)

Mas intanmu terkenang (Remembering your lost golds and diamonds)

Hutan gunung sawah lautan (Forest, mountains, rice fields and the sea)

Simpanan kekayaan (Home of the treasures)

Kini ibu sedang susah (Now Mother is grieving)

Merintih dan berdoa (Sighing sadly and praying)

 

Kulihat ibu pertiwi (I see Ibu Pertewi)

Kami datang berbakti (We come to serve you)

Lihatlah putra-putrimu (Behold your sons and daughters)

Menggembirakan ibu (They will make Mother happy)

Ibu kami tetap cinta (Mother, we still love you)

Putramu yang setia (Your faithful sons)

Menjaga harta pusaka (Gurading the heirloom)

Untuk nusa dan bangsa (For our homeland and nation)”

 

So there lies an indirect promise in the anthem: By suggesting “Ibu Pertewi” is in sorrow, there is a reason to make her happy which can be achieved by serving her. And by serving her, you serve the Indonesian nation.

The allegory of “Ibu Pertewi” evokes the question of how people react towards the environment they are living in. The environmental issues are all present in our daily life. When you consider the environmental developments in Indonesia in general and in Bali more and more rice fields were turned into building sites for hotel projects or private villas. Bali attracts more and more people from other parts of Indonesia and from all parts of the world. This has its effects on the environment: The pollution of water and air and the disappearance of rice fields and forests causes irreversible damage to the land. Since 2016 there are plans to build an artificial island in Benoa Bay by an investor in the South of Bali. The tricky thing about this area is that it enjoyed conservation status since 2014 and thus is very worth keeping free of any construction plans.[4] The Benoa project has caused a protest movement of which Hendrawan was and is part of. By referring to “Ibu Pertewi” Hendrawan points out that she is not very happy of what happens to her country and reminds people of fulfilling the second verse of the national anthem to act responsibly towards nature and environment and to live in harmony with it.


Hendrawan showed his works at the Pasar Indonesia in 2017 where I met him in person and was grateful to study the original paintings and to immerse deeply into his biography and art works when translating the catalogue for his exhibition” Resurrection. Nature – Spiritual – Universe” to German language.

 


Source of images: Exhibition Catalogue: Hendrawan, Wayan Apel, Resurrection. Nature – Spiritual – Universe, 2017.

[1] Vgl. Eiseman, Fred B., Bali. Sekala and Niskala, Jakarta 1990, S. 226-229f.

[2] http://indahnesia.com/indonesia/INDCOA/coat_of_arms.php.

[3] The Guardian, Mounting opposition to Bali mass tourism project, 2016.


Gatot Indrajati’s “Right or Wrong My Home” is Southeastasian Painting of the Year

Gatot Indrajati, “Right or Wrong My Home”, 2016, Mixed Media (Acrylic and Metal), On Wood, 162 x 70 cm.

 

With his painting “Right or Wrong My Home” the Indonesian artist Gatot Indrajati won the “Painting of the Year” competition of the United Overseas Bank (UOB) for the second time since 2011. For the second time his work is celebrated as the overall winner of the four participating countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand). Together with the Award Gatot Indrajati receives 10,000 USD for the Southeast Asian Painting of the Year and 25,000 USD for winning the Indonesian category “Painting of the Year”. The winner is also given the opportunity to attend a residency program at Fukuoka Asian Art Museum in Japan. The jury is selected by the UOB and consists of art curators, artists and art professors from each of the participating country.

In Indrajati’s work we see an urban landscape in which people with no individual features walk through the crowded streets. The proportions are in disorder. The people are taller than cars, others correspond in size to what the viewer would call realistically; huge animal- figures fly around. In the bus at the left-hand-side we witness a rubbery which can be seen by the male figure that shows his knife. None of the pedestrians takes notice. A machine seems to control all activities at the cross-section behind the bus. Sea-animals fly through the streets; an astronaut tries to balance on one of the overland-cables. Some graffiti refer to social media platforms. The brown cat on the wood panel in the foreground seems to be the only living creature in the art work.

But why wood as material in this sterile scenario? Wood is a traditional material and it is Indrajati’s favourite material. He draws sketches on the pieces of wood and then carves the wooden figures into objects and decorative figures. The three-dimensional effect is created by painting the objects on the wooden panel and then pasting the wooden figures in multiple layers onto the panel.

But in which city are we actually? Can we tell? Are there any objects or places so that we can connect this city landscape with a specific place on earth? No, we can’t! The people in this art work seem to have no identity and the city itself doesn’t have either. In a city or in a world where social media creates the relations between people going through national borders, the actual space they are living in, becomes less relevant. “Home” then becomes a fluid spatial entity which is formed by sentiments, memories and habits.[1] Indrajati explains:

“In every nation, a city is inhabited by people with diverse social standing. The city becomes a symbol, or characteristic of a nation with cultural behaviour of its kind: A center of economy, governance, culture and crime. Foreign cultures flourish through the spread of digital technology, a new lifestyle, language, and a mindset that shapes the flock of citizens to behave similarly. Unconsciously, they turn into a robotic mode. As a nation that has undergone multiple life events, there is an attitude that we should be proud of; to survive and rise from the ordeal. Right or wrong my home.”

The title of the work reminds of the old patriotic saying “Right or wrong, my country!” In the same sense here in work Indrajati gives a reason why it is so important to have an identity as a nation and to not switch into “robotic-mode” and loosing individualtiy. By saying that, he is touching an important issue which is discussed a lot these days in Indonesia: How – with that many different cultures in Indonesia – can an Indonesian identity be found? What is the Indonesian identity? The answer is: Its plurality and diversity.[2

The lack of cultural institutions in Indonesia

When hearing about the UOB-competition, I was wondering: Is there no museum or cultural institution that can carry out a cultural event of that size? The answer is: NO. No, because no governmental structure for artistic education in Indonesia is existing. Out of this lack it is good that artists can participate in events like the UOB-contest to find an audience in order to receive access to the art market. Some private collectors also feel responsible and support young artists.[1] Without governmental institutions and official cultural political guidelines, there is no public space for global art. ALL activities and actions to absorb this lack are left to the private sector.

I can’t wait to introduce you to the other interesting Indonesian artists and topics and winners of the “Painting of the Year” contest in the next posts…

 

Biography Gatot Indrajati

Indrajati was born in 1980 and studied at the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) in Yogyakarta/ Java. Since then he participated in several exhibitions in Singapore, China and South Korea and won several awards. In the first minutes of this video you can have a look at Indrajati’s atelier:

 

 

[1] Painting of the Year-Catalogue, published by UOB, 2016, p. 11.
[2] See Spielmann, p. 16.
[3] See Spielmann, p. 16.

Picture by: UOB and Video: http://www.uobpoy.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/REGIONAL-ONLINE-360-smaller.mp4


Side note on Culture

Sitting in a taxi in Yogyakarta (Java, Indonesia) from my hotel to the airport, I learned another lesson about Indonesian culture. “Where is the taximeter?” I was asking the driver in Indonesian after greeting him friendly. “It’s there.” He pointed towards the mirror where I could see red numbers on a black scale saying: 15.550 IDR. Which is not a lot of money from a western point of view. But it got my attention. “Why is there already a price on it although we haven’t moved an inch?” I was asking. “It’s because I was waiting already for ten minutes”, the man replied. “But noone asked you do to this”, I responded. Taxi driver: “The hotel was ordering the taxi straight away, so I came straight away.” Now that I found interesting because I was listening to the phone call the receptionist made earlier and he asked him to be there at 5:45 sharp. Apparently the driver decided himself to be there 10 minutes too early. Me: “But I heard what the receptionist was saying on the phone: He ordered you to be here at 5:45 sharp.” Taxi driver: “No, they were asking me to come as soon as possible.” To underline his statement, he pulled the car over. I immediately felt we need to find a solution to get over this problem if I still want to catch my plane.

Blaming it all on the person who is not there. That’s so Indonesian. Avoiding conflicts and trying to keep the face. Maybe I was smiling when realizing this. The taxi driver couldn’t get out of this without admitting that he did a mistake. But when doing this, he would lose his face. What now? When in Rome, do as the Romans do, I was thinking. So, I did the same he was doing: I started blaming it all on the poor receptionist at the hotel: “Actually, I was thinking they had already ordered the taxi yesterday. But they just forgot.” Silence. “Yes, they were also ordering the taxi too early”, the taxi driver says. “So, it was not my fault”, I said and asked “but who is going to pay for it?” Silence again. “What”, I was saying, “if we just share it at the end because it was none of our faults?” The taxi driver turned around: “That’s okay.” Smiling. It worked. He could keep his face and I didn’t pay the sum myself.


Pouring rain: ­An Indonesian inspiration for more time-outs in our daily life

 

This text is an ode to the Indonesian way of handling rain. Maybe we should adapt it to our daily lives?

 

RAIN.BALIIt was in Indonesia where I learned to love the rain. I learn to appreciate it as a time-out. A time-out of everything which I was about to do. The rain in Indonesia is very different from rain in Europe where I come from. It is stronger, the rain drops are bigger and once it has started, it feels like all the Niagara falls are pouring over you within a few minutes. Whether you stay dry or not can be a question of one minute. If you have been outside in the rain for just a few seconds too long, it is as if taking a shower with full clothes on. The thunders during these rain storms sometimes were so loud, I couldn’t separate them from tremors.

 The Indonesian word for rain is “hujan”. “Hujan” is strong, very strong rain. That was my first observation. My second observation was that in a very pragmatic way things slow down when it is raining in Indonesia. Whether you are in the sea, on the road or you have found a shelter, people and their actions decelerate. The rain interrupts the daily routine. It’s like a break. It is kind of celebrated as a time-out.

 

Observation 1: How rain in the sea physically decelerates every move

Imagine you are sitting on a carpet of diamonds. Surfing in a tropical rain shower is exactly like this. Dark sky, dark sea and bright rain drops. The speed of the waves slows down. The wind stops. The rain drops physically decelerate the waves by entering into its surface. The waves become clean, super clean. They only break slowly. When you paddle for a wave you have to start paddling later, because it will break delayed. It is like surfing in slow motion. The falling drops swallow all sound. The rain absorbs peoples’ voices. A fog of white mist covers the ocean which shimmers like a carpet of diamonds. Time stands still.

 

Observation 2: Rain on the road

When you are driving a scooter and the sky turns into a grayish black, you should hurry up. You have two options: Either you find a shelter somewhere quickly before the rain begins or you have a rain coat in your scooter. People pull over their scooters to the sidewalks to put rain coats on. Within minutes the whole road scenery is changing: The ponchos with their hoodies give the drivers a ghosts-like appearance. Scooter drivers are slowing down their speed because driving fast is impossible when the roads are flooded. If you are stuck in the rain and you do not have a rain coat, there is nothing you can do but relax with is. You’ll be dripping wet within 10 seconds anyway.

The rain is warm and by running into your eyes makes it hard to see at all. You constantly have to swab the water away from your eyes. There is nothing you can do against it. You can just go with the flow. Go with the rain. Take it easy. Wondering how strong rain can be. Sometimes you are lucky in finding a hut before the rain starts, sometimes you are not. You can just make the best of the situation.

The calmness and the routine with which all this is taking place is stunning. Nobody is complaining. Ok, it’s raining. Ok, let’s pull over and wear the poncho. Ok, let’s drive on. Soon the streets will be flooded. Water is not only coming from above. It is coming from the side by cars and other scooters passing by and from down the street, because the roads are flooded. It is interesting to see how within minutes the traffic is slowing down until it is just moving on far below typical average speed.

 

Observation 3: Rain in a shelter

If you have found a shelter in time before the rain starts, you simply stay there. You don’t go anywhere until the rain stops. You simply stay and make the most minimal effort. A Javanese friend of mine was super excited to see the new born baby of a friend. When finally the friend’s baby was born, it started raining badly in the afternoon. I was asking my friend, why she does not want to go and see the baby today. Her answer was this: “Tidaaaak. Ada hujan.”  (Noooo, it is raining). Also if you have dinner plans and it starts raining, be prepared that your dinner partner eventually would not show up at all because it is raining. When the rain starts while you are having dinner, you won’t be leaving until the rain stops. Even if that means staying for hours.

If you are at home, you do not go anywhere. You just stay inside. Rain in Indonesia freezes time. You can have a nap, listen to the rain drops falling, watch a movie or you read a book. But the most popular activity DEFINITELY is to sleep. Actually this is what most people do when it is raining. “Ohh, ada hujan!” (Oh, it’s raining) goes hand in hand with “Enak tidur.” (It’s nice to sleep). People working in restaurants will lay down for a nap on the benches. Or you are stretching yourself on the ground and resting a while. Probably fall asleep then. Apparently everybody does. If you are at a friend’s place, you stay there and do nothing. Maybe chatting a little, wondering how long the rain storm might take this time. One hour, two hours… You don’t leave unless you absolutely have to. But usually you postpone all activities to the next day.

You simply ENJOY that you can’t do anything because it is raining. The rain is taken as an excuse for everything you intended to do but you cannot do now. You’ll be waiting until the rain is over. Then you will reconsider your plans. It’s something you can’t influence. You just take advantage of it when it’s there. When it’s raining, it’s raining. People do not go anywhere. It is accepted as an excuse. Rain means rest. Rain means prescribed rest. In our stressful lives with to-do-lists where every minute of the day is synchronized, it might do well to adapt the Indonesian rain concept. Just a little. Don’t you think?

 


Working in the Closet: The stunning works of Vivian Maier

1954, New York source: http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/street-2/#slide-12

Vivian Maier, New York, 1954

Maybe you haven’t heard about Vivian Maier yet. The story goes like that: As a nanny, Vivian Maier worked for different families in the 1950s and 1960s, mainly in Chicago and New York. That was her official profession. Shortly after her death in 2009 John Maloof, an amateur historian, bought some boxes of unknown content in hope of finding some relevant material for a local history project. What he discovered when he unpacked the boxes was what every art historian dreams of: Thousands of photo negatives which could easyly compete with the most iconic street photographers in that times. It was quite a big deal and so many questions aroused: Why didn’t she tell anyone about the photos? Why didn’t she develop the negatives? Why did she make such a secret of it? In fact she took the photos and just stored them her room. It’s quite probable that she didn’t even SEE most of the photos as we can today because she didn’t develop them.

Documentaries on Vivian Maier

There are some documentaries about Vivian Maier. One is “Finding Vivian Maier” from John Maloof, the other one is “Who took nanny’s pictures” from the BBC archive. Although I must say that John Maloof’s documentary to me seems to be like kind of a commerical about Vivian Maier and I am sure that the film contributed a lot to John Maloof’s success in spreading the news about his discovery. But if you want to hear the story “first hand” it’s nice to be told by Maloof himself. The New York Times reported about Maier, many newspaper did.

The photos

Within all this I was asking myself: Why is it actually that we would say her photos are brilliant, outstanding? Why are they exhibited in galleries and in museums throughout the world meanwhile? Bluntly asking: What is it that makes her photos so outstanding? Having that in mind, let’s have a look at her above photo:

Looking disdainfully towards us the white boy is leaning his arm on his knee as if to say: “Get away!” But we can’t. So we are watching the following scene: A black boy is kneeing in front of the white boy whose left shoe is waiting to be cleaned by the lower positioned one. At second sight we see a man sitting at the end of the shopping window in exactly the same pose: Shoe standing on a bench and holding his arm in the same way as the young boy does in the foreground. Immediately one might think: Like the father, like the son? It makes you reflect what is happening in the picture. That is one of the fascinating things about Maiers’ photos: When you look at her photos you come up with questions then can’t be explained within the context of the photo. It makes you think about society and how unequal things are. Her photos are a social comment. If we look at the young boy’s expression we could wonder why he looks so disgusted. Or is it us that IS disgusted by what we see?

Maier is not refraining to take photos on controversial topics. Her photos can be read as comments and as a critique. She turns her camera towards things that people usually turn away from. In that regard similarities can be drawn to Robert Frank’s “The Americans”. But what it makes all more complicated is, that we cannot even say she criticized society because she didn’t develop the photos. That leaves us again with a question: Why was she doing all this if not to SHOW people? As the Hamburg art historian Wolfgang Kemp stated she knew well about contemporary photography and that she could have get professional advice if she wanted to. However, Maier still preferred not to develop the negatives. In her photos she shows such a precision and perfection in composition and such a security in how to come to the essence of what makes the photo outstanding that you can call her photos “merciless”[1]. Merciless because they have no pitty. Merciless because they still have this perfect composition. The photos are just taken for the sake of being taken. Merciless because they don’t aim at improving the situation.

If you have the time, go and check out the website from John Maloof to explore more of her works. You’ll be surprised.

[1] Wolfgang Kemp, FAZ, 2011.

source of photo: http://www.vivianmaier.com/gallery/street-2/#slide-12

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


The many faces of Marwan

Are you feeling overwhelmingly exhausted these days because of the tropical heat that we have here? Well, instead of sweating at the beach club I have a much better suggestion for you: Go and pay the perfectly well air-conditioned Gallery Sfeir-Semler a visit. The Marwan paintings that they are showing at the moment are totally fascinating: Faces that are landscapes or landscapes that are faces? You can’t tell. But the act of watching the paintings closely is such an adventure, you shouldn’t miss. In these paintings Marwan works with black charcoal and watercolours which results in very colourful paintings. Have a CLOSE look at them. The closer you get, the more it will get through to you…

The exhibition shows Marwans’ self-portraits between the years 1985 and 2014. The Syrian artist immigrated from Damaskus to Berlin in the late 1950s. What is so interesting about Marwan is the cultural background. To me it’s so mind blowing how different cultures are working together and how each is translated into the other “language” and something totally new is formed.

If you have cooled down after watching the paintings, well…still plenty of time to check out the beach, I’d reckon.


Looking closely: What is so special about the photography “Parade Hoboken” from Robert Frank?

Parade Hoboken, 1955, New Jersey, from looking in: Robert Frank’s The Americans published by Steidl. Photograph: Robert Frank/Steidl

 

Although Robert Franks’ photos later became “American classics” and Icons of American Photography” that was not exactly the case when the photo book “The Americans” was published the first time in America in 1959. The reactions on his photos went from “A sad poem by a sick person” (as quoted by NPR) to “wart-covered” or “warped” (New York Times). But why was that?

To find out we are going to have a close look to one of the most famous photos of “The Americans”: “Parade Hoboken” which Frank captured in New Jersey in 1955/56 during his two years journey through the American States on his Guggenheim fellowship. The photo is a picture in a picture: We see two women each of them framed by a window. We do not see there faces. The face of the one in the left window is swallowed by the room’s darkness, her mouth is nearly blurred out. We just know it is there because it must be there. The face of the women on the right is covered completely by the asymmetric stripes of the American flag. She can’t neither see the photographer nor can she see much of the parade, nor does she care or move an inch to do something against it. It seems as if she is closing up her coat, her left hand looks like a claw which is irritating. Maybe she is leaving soon for the parade. Also the women in the left window is irritating in a way because we cannot see her face and her mouth is blurred out. Apparently she is wears her house dress which does not look like she would go out to join the parade. Both of them are not individualized, we don’t see any individual streak. In contrast to the American banner the bricks in the wall repeat themselves in an imperfect manner. The American flag is cut off to the half. We see some stars on the banner but not all of them.

But it is actually due to the flag that we assume this to be a patriotic event. It’ s the only object in the photo which refers to an official act – apart from the title. Given that this is apparently a national holiday parade, what Robert Franks shows us here has not much to do with what we would assume to be a celebrated, national event: What we see is two women looking out the window and being prevented from doing so by the American flag. In opposition to what the caption says, we in fact are NOT seeing much of the parade. We see tristesse and certainly not what is known as sharing the American dream. Ed Ruscha, at that time a young artist, said about the book: “I’d never seen anything like it. Robert Frank came out here and he just showed that you could see USA until you spit blood.” In fact critics would say that the pictures are  asymmetrical and blurred. A fact that to an eye which was used to see sharp and perfect photos in magazines was difficult to handle. According to Robert Frank the Museum of Modern Art even refused to sell the book.

But there was a young generation. The generation of Ed Ruscha who got inspired deeply by Frank’s book and who appreciated it for showing a completely new approach to photography as Ed Ruscha says: “It’s like – You know where you were when John F. Kennedy was shot? I know where I was when I saw ‘The Americans’ […] I was aware of Walker Evans’ work. But I felt like those were still lives. Robert’s work was life in motion.” This life in motion and this new look on things was perfectly captured in Jack Kerouac’s introduction for “The Americans”. Kerouac had just published his famous book “On the road” and was praised by critics. Robert Frank read the book, found out that they had in common “the love of America”. It was Frank who asked Kerouac if he could write the introduction to “The Americans”. “Sure, I can write something”, was the reply.

What is so special about Franks’ photos is that he realized things and NOT looked away from them. Robert Frank says about his images: “I photographed people who were held back […] My sympathies were with people who struggled. There was also my mistrust of people who made the rules.” His wife describes this ability of taking photos: “It’s ‘What’s going on here?’ None of us know until he takes a photograph…” It is exactly in this way that Robert Frank chose to question the American Dream and to make people reflect on society and its rules. He does not turn away from what other people do not want to see.


 

All direct quotes are taken from the very, very good article about Robert Frank in the New York Times.


Donna Tartt – The Little Friend – Why you should read it

 

Hey Peeps,

Can you imagine that I’m reading a book at the moment in which I am so immersed that New Years Eve was happening outside and that I was so focused on reading that at 10 pm I looked up from the lines the first time? Hearing all these fireworks cracking and popping outside and seeing them illuminating the dark sky. Ohhh, I thought. That’s different from the books I usually read, so I thought I could share it with you.

It’s Donna Tartt’s second book called “The Little Friend” which was published in 2002. It’s a bit gloomy but sooo captivating. Tartt is such a genius in describing the whole stimmung and setting of a scene that you actually think YOU are part of it. That’s because she so vividly introduces her characters and the conversations they are having that you SEE the scenes happening directly in front of your eyes. You feel you are exactly in Mississippi. You feel like “Oh, nooo, that’s not fair that Harriet is doing this. That’s sooo mean.” But at the same time you still like her. She writes lines like this:

Harriet walked home in the drizzle with her head down, under a gigantic borrowed umbrella of Edie’s which – when she was smaller – she had used to play Marry Poppins. Water sang in the gutters; long tows of orange day lilies, beaten down by the rain, leaned towards the sidewalk at frenetic angles as if to shout at her. She half-expected Hely to run up splashing through the puddles in his yellow slicker; she was determined to ignore him if he did, but the steamy streets were empty: no people, no cars. Since there was no one around to prevent her from playing in the rain, she hopped ostentatiously from puddle to puddle. Were she and Hely not speaking?”

So, I haven’t finished the book yet. But in short this is what’s it about: The Cleve family found one of their 3 children, Robin, hanging by neck in a tree of their own backyard when he was nine years old. The whole family was in the house when it happened and his little sister Harriet – at the afternoon when it happened – still a baby sleeping on the porch. Eleven years after the murder the situation still is pretty much the same: The murderer still walks around as a free person and nobody has ever caught him. So, out of bore and because Harriet finds it strange that nobody in her family would say a word about that day when her brother was killed, as the youngest children of the Cleves, Harriet decides to find and punish the murderer. Apparently a lot of people say that Tartt’s second novella is her weakest but I couldn’t quite agree with that.

Ahhh, and now I’m going back to read. Can’t wait. Check out the book and please let me know whether you like it!!!


Mistrust your eyes. A plea for a careful reading of photography

Source: Library of Congress: http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8b29516/

 

Dorothea Lange and “Migrant Mother”, 1936.

Do you happen to know this photo from Dorothea Lange? It takes us straight to the 1930s rural America. An America which was hit badly by an economic recession. An America which was used to see foreign migrants seeking for jobs. But this kind of economic crisis after the Great Depression was different. To the migrants came thousands of  “American” people who had to give up their farms due to drought and new laws and moved to California in desperate hope for work. At the same time the government with Roosevelt as its president invented programs to make people find jobs and to help them to build up a new life. This agenda, one part of the so called “New Deal”-Politic, was highly controversial. So, the government decided to send out photographers under the name of “Farm Security Administration” (FSA) in that region to document how the situation REALLY is like. The aim of the FSA was to show “the city people what it’s like to live on the farm.”

So, what do we actually see?

Not much of a farm, though. We see a women looking worried in the distance, frowning, her chin propped up. Her upper arms are covered with tattered clothes. The skin of her arms show dirty marks. What fascinates me about this photo is that her dignity is not at all disturbed by its surrounding poverty. Two of her kids hide their faces behind her shoulder; a little baby sleeps almost unseen on her arm. The light let the mother’s face become centric point of the composition. In the foreground a small object extends into the photo. We don’t see much of the background or in which place exactly the photo has been taken. It’s just us and the family. But why is the mother alone with her three children, where is the father? One might ask.

The caption, added by the FSA, tells us: “Destitute pea pickers in California; a 32 year old mother of seven children. February 1936”. That’s interesting because it perverts the facts and it omits some. Dorothea Lange originally invented a different subtitle saying: “Migrant agricultural worker’s family. Seven hungry children. Mother, age 32. Father is native of California. Destitute in pea pickers Camp, Nipomo, California, because of the early pea crop. These people had just sold their tent in order to buy food. Of the 2,500 people in this camp, most of them are destitute.”

It’s an interesting detail that the government needed pictures showing destitute pea pickers, so it was just too easy to let “agricultural workers” become “pea pickers” to fulfil their purposes. After sending the photos to the “San Francisco News” in March 1936 it’s thus no surprise to find them reporting that the government was just informed about this miserable circumstances by a “coincidental” visit of a photographer but – thanks to the New-Deal-politic, the reader might think – help is already on its way to the camp. The headline would ask: “What does the ‘New Deal’ mean to this mother and her children?”

There was also a long discussion about the “detail” which is extending in the photo. It’s the post of the tent and Lange apparently wanted it to be removed from the photo. The FSA insisted on leaving it where it was since that would prove the documentary, authentic style of the picture. So this little detail was very useful to the FSA in proving the photo’s authenticity.

Do you see what I mean? What the photo is actually telling us totally depends on the circumstances under which we are looking at it. We still see a strong, dignified mother bearing a lot of responsibility but at the same time a confidence that leaves no doubt to us that she will find a way out of that misery. But as Dorothea Lange was receiving a salary by the FSA, her photos have to be read in that regard as well. Although Lange was saying “We were after the truth,” her photos have a political intention. They pretend to depict what was happening in 1930s rural America. But what they are showing us is a rural America in the way the Farm Security Administration wants it to be perceived. To say it with Pierre Bourdieu: This photography shows us a tautology. That is, it depicts an apparent reality that corresponds exactly to the reality which was formulated BEFORE to BE the reality. In other words the photography provides the evidence of what was told to be the truth through radio and newspapers. The shocking effect “Migrant Mother” had above all, was that it totally mocked the American dream of security and independence and opportunity in which every child has been taught to believe. In that way the photo aimed to stimulate feelings and to engage the observer emotionally. People couldn’t look away anymore. They have seen their faces.

What do you think? Is there such a thing as “neutral” photography?

 

Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) was an American photographer working for the Farm Security Administration in the 1930s and in that role documenting the life and work of migratory farm workers. Her works are categorized under “social documentary photography”. A fact Lange didn’t like much. Migrant Mother is Lange’s most famous photo. It spread through the newspapers and became the metaphor of a nation in crisis.

Lange_car

 

 

 

 

Image source: Library of Congress: http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/fsa.8b29516/