Sunday, December 8, 2013

After loss-Sophie Calle (revised)

         Sophie Calle’s most recent exhibition Absence examines her distressing circumstances while going through her mother’s death. It uses various media: printed and framed texts, porcelain plaques, and more than 50 photographs. The work conveys the mourning of the artist after a loss of a loved one. Calle’s mother, Rachel Monique Sindler, died of breast cancer in 2006. Her last word to Calle was “souci”, which means worry in French. The text and photo based work conveys emotional moments related directly to death, disappearance, and grief of loss. It first appears like a personal diaristic work, but her heavy sentiment immediately gets passed on to viewers, enabling them to relate to their own losses.

        The gallery includes two bodies of works that seem totally irrelevant to each other. At first glance, common sense predicts that these are two very different projects installed in two separate rooms. However, after a thorough scanning of her work, one comes to realize that these visually extraneous works surprisingly blend into a one theme of ‘absence’.
                       2013 Sophie Calle. Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
         The first small room by the entrance of gallery contains Calle’s most recent series, Purloined. The work is based on artworks stolen from The Gardner and others Museum in 1990. Calle shot photos of the space where the art was once displayed, then added text descriptions of the stolen works that she gained from interviews with guards, curators, and museum staff members. The text that substitutes the disappeared image triggers the curiosity in the viewer; they are led to wonder what was there before the works dissappeared. One might interpret this work mournfully, while others might pass with indifference.  
2013 Sophie Calle. Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
         The main gallery is where Calle thoroughly devoted her memento mori on her mother’s death. After walking through a lace curtain embroidered with the word “Souci,” viewer is bombarded with images and texts with numerous uses of the same word “souci”, in framed paintings and photos. Even without knowing the definition of this word which is ‘to worry’ in French, it is apparent that this word holds significance once noticing its frequent appearance throughout the work. While photo image of a giraffe statuette dominates the center of the wall, enlarged excerpts of her mother’s journal are displayed almost symmetrically in frame. Next to the giraffe, there is an inscription saying, “When my mother died I bought a taxidermal giraffe. I named it after my mother and hung it up in my studio. Monique looks down on me with sadness and irony.” The giraffe stands in presence as a substitution of Calle’s mother’s absence. The giraffe Monique performs as an alter ego of her mother, it is an artifact that aids Calle overcome the agony of loss.  
          The right wall displays photographs taken during Calle’s trip to North Pole to bury her mother’ belongings; a diamond, Chanel necklace, and photograph. Facing is a wall of document photographs taken from Lourdes, a small town in France, where Calle traveled with her dying mother. The photos include ordinary streetscapes and objects that are only notable to Calle. Each photograph contains poetic narratives alongside it. Pictures and texts almost always weigh equally important in Calle's work. She considers herself a "narrative artist".  Photography is only used to concretize Calle's subject. Thus, only by the context of the work are we able to understand clearly that the two different works actually carry the same leitmotif; the loss of familiar and precious suddenly getting taken away. From the most personal memories widening to universal, the two very differently treated projects ultimately result one theme of memoirs of loss, leaving trail note of emotional resonance to viewers. 

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mike Kelley at PS1: An Incredible Foray into the Artist's Career (revised)


For the uninitiated, the Mike Kelley retrospective is a lot to digest. The exhibition, which spans three decades of work and fills the entire PS1 museum, showcases a dense array of video, installation, sculpture, drawing, photography, and painting. Through an enormous array of materials and installations, Kelley’s visual language explores a variety of emotions, concerns, themes, and aesthetic styles, but it is nevertheless Kelley’s voice throughout.

Kelley was born in a suburb of Detroit to a working class family in 1954. A rebel throughout his life, Kelley pursued an anti-establishment attitude throughout his youth and adulthood. His college band at the University of Michigan inspired in him a performative interest, while the California Institute of the Arts, where he earned his MFA, aligned him with the conceptual school of thought that was being defined by John Baldessari and Laurie Anderson. Kelley evinced an open attitude to the possibilities of materials and forms, engaging the potentials of craft materials and children’s toys.

The multifarious nature of Kelley’s working style is exemplified throughout the retrospective, which moves the viewer spatially and conceptually through a timeline of the artist’s work. Moving from the top of the museum to the basement, the viewer experiences a progression from early to later work, forming a cohesive understanding of Kelley’s efforts. Although his work may seem obscure at first, his themes and ideas slowly blend together, forming a tactile visual field of his concerns: society and class, behavior and emotion, childhood and adulthood, voyeurism and privacy.

A large collection of drawings on notepad paper explores his many plans and ideas about life and art: human movements are diagrammed; depression is explored with doodles and language; and plans for performances and costumes are plotted. A wry sense of humor is at play here, providing an intimate look into the sardonic, emotional, off-kilter personality of the artist.

On a large pedestal, a color-coordinated collection of objects found at the bottom of the Detroit river showcases issues of pollution and class: entire china dinner sets are on display, hardly damaged except for some small chinks. Each found item is arranged by color and size, forming a vibrant tableaux of other peoples' trash. A larger-than-life figurative sculpture, composed of found dinnerware shards, stands defiantly above the porcelain arrangement, like the ruler of this under-the-sea world of riches.

A darkened room with an large, structured lump is revealed to be a sort of visitor crawlspace. With the aid of a gallery employee and a flashlight, guests are invited to crawl into a completely dark passageway, with absolutely no illumination once inside (iPhone flashlights are not permitted) until the viewer finally finds a small lit hole, through which can be seen a small video of a man performing sexual acts.

But these pieces are only a tiny taste of the enormous exhibition, which changes radically with every room and every floor. The turn of a corner could send you into a completely different state of mind and visual delights, with large-scale Krypton globes based on Superman's home planet, or hanging amalgamations of abandoned stuffed animals, or video installations accompanied by theatre settings and performance props. And there are many lengthy videos throughout the museum. One could spend an entire day at PS1, meandering through the many corners of Kelley’s active imagination.

The impact of the show becomes much more emotionally weighty after Kelley’s suicide in 2012, at the age of 57. But the retrospective at PS1 is testament to his on-going vitality, and incredible, although shortened, career. It is a great homage to the artist and his life.