Elena Cue

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Conversations with artists from the past. E. Munch

 Munch Self-portrait in Front of the House Wall 1926 cropped 

 

The galleries of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum have recently opened an exhibition by artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944), successfully curated by Paloma Alarcó, that enables us to “listen to the dead with our eyes”. Paintings and writings come together in the museum’s galleries, divided into emotional Archetypes to communicate this artist’s obsessions from throughout his intense life.

People think that you can have a few friends, forgetting that the best, most authentic and above all, most numerous, are the dead. I intend to engage in a series of conversations with the afterlife. As the tormented spirit of the Norwegian artist has circumstantially settled in Madrid, I enthusiastically headed there to learn more. 

 

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Let’s start with your childhood.

I always felt like I was treated unfairly during my childhood. I inherited two of the worst enemies of mankind: tuberculosis and mental illness. Disease, insanity and death were black angels beside my crib. A mother who died early, planting me with the seed of tuberculosis. A hyper-nervous, pietistic father, religious to the point of being crazy, from an ancient lineage, planting me with the seeds of insanity. 

When you think about those years, how did you feel? 

The angels of fear, pain and death were beside me right from birth, going out to play with me, following me under the spring sun, in the splendor of summer. They were with me at night when I closed my eyes, threatening me with death, hell and eternal punishment. And I often woke at night and looked around the room with panicked eyes thinking “Am I in hell?”. 

The fear of death tormented me, and this fear harassed me through all of my youth. 

Heaven and hell, how do you envisage eternity?

Flowers will emerge from my rotting body, and I will be part of them. That is eternity. 

 

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And where is God? 

With fanatic faith in any religion, such as Christianity, came atheism, came fanatic faith in the existence of no God. And with this non-faith in God there was content, becoming a faith itself in the end. It is generally foolish to assert anything about what comes after death.

But what is it that gives strength to the Christian faith. There are many who have difficulty in believing it. Although one cannot believe that God is a man with a big beard, that Christ is the Son of God who became a man, or in the Holy Spirit formed by a dove, there is much truth in this idea. A God as the power that must be at the origin of all, a God that governs everything. We can say that he directs the light waves, the movement of the tides, the center of energy itself. The Son, the part of this energy that is in man, the immense energy that filled Christ. Divine energy, genius energy and the Holy Spirit. The most sublime thoughts sent by the sources of divine energy to the human radio stations. In the very depths of beings. That which is provided to every human being.

 

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But what do you think death is?

Dying is as if the eyes have been switched off and cannot see anything else. Perhaps it’s like being locked in a basement. You are abandoned by all, they closed the door and left. You see nothing and only notice the humid smell of putrefaction. 

And what about life?

I have been given a unique role to play on this earth that has given me a life of illness and also my profession as an artist. It is a life that does not contain anything resembling happiness, or even the desire for happiness. 

Not even love?

Human destinies are like planets. Like a star that appears in the dark and meets another star, glistening in a moment, to then return, fading into obscurity. So as well, a man and a woman meet, they slide towards each other, shining in love, blazing, and then disappear, each one for himself. Only a few end up in a great blaze in which both can fully join. 

The ancient were right when they said that love was a flame, as the flame leaves behind only a pile of ashes. Love can turn to hate, compassion to cruelty. 

 

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Jealously is closely linked with love, how would you describe it?

Jealous people have a mysterious look, many reflections focus in those two sharp eyes, like in a crystal. The look is exploratory, interested, full of love and hate, an essence of what we all have in common. 

Jealousy says to its rival: go away, defective; you’re going to heat up in the fire that I have lit; you’ll breathe my breath in your mouth; you’ll soak up my blood and you will be my servant because my spirit will govern you through this woman who has become your heart. 

Now let’s talk about art… where does it come from?

Art generally comes from the need of one human being to communicate with another. I do not believe that art has not been inflicted by the need for a person to open his heart. All art, literature as well as music, has to be generated with the deepest feelings. The deepest feelings are art. 

What is the purpose of your art?

I have tried to explain life and the meaning of life through my art. I have also tried to help others clarify life. Art is the heart of blood. 

We must no longer paint people reading or women knitting. In the future we must paint people who breathe, feel, suffer or love. As Leonardo da Vinci dissected corpses and studied the internal organs of the human body, I try to dissect the soul. 

Conclusion.

My art is based on one single thought: why am I not like the others?

How do you think the audience should approach art?

The audience must become aware that the painting is sacred, so that it unfolds before them like in church. 

 

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One of your iconic paintings is The Scream, could you explain the origin of such a radical emotional expression?

I was walking along the road with two friends, the sun was setting. Suddenly the sky turned a bloody red. I stood, leaned on the fence feeling deathly tired. Over the blue-black fjord and city hung blood and tongues of fire. My friends walked on and I remained behind, shivering with anxiety. And I felt the immense infinite Scream in Nature. 

Your love of photography is known, what do you think of photography as another mode of artistic expression?

The camera cannot compete with the brush and palette as long as it cannot be used in heaven and hell. 

 

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Where is the beauty in your art?

The emphasis on harmony and beauty in art is a waiver to be honest. It would be false to only look on the bright side of life. 

Your writing has a strong aphoristic style. We’ll finish there… 

Thought kills emotion and reinforces sensitivity. Wine kills sensitivity and reinforces emotion. 

 

 

- A conversation with Esvard Munch-                              - Página principal: Alejandra de Argos -

Interview with Martin Chirino.

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Martín Chirino (Las Palmas, 1925) grew up on the beach of Las Canteras, feeling the sand, the sea and the breeze whilst watching a horizon that he dreamed of moving. The earthiness, ancestry and mythology of his birth place purify the forger’s soul through fire to take a new form in material, in this case iron, arisen from the deepest interior of this wind sculptor. This particular place has rooted him to primeval and his dreams and desires have lead him to that which is universal. The spiral, the symbol of origin and formation of the universe, defines this artist in constant search of the truth.

“Look at this sculpture, I’m going to make it a tribute to Picasso. Look at the beauty that’s going to remain underneath, the beauty of the shadows. It’s easy to draw or paint shadows, but the challenge for a sculptor is to materialize them, to give them body weight.” 

Why don’t you tell me about the shadows of your life?

I believe that we all have an inner character that gives us answers and questions us, a character that you converse with. I am a calm person because I look for the answers within and my surroundings have little impact on me. I realized at a very young age upon reading Demian by Herman Hesse, which struck me in both senses, that the protagonist was always talking to himself and was able to bring out a truth drawn from reality...

And when did you discover your other side?

I am number 12 of my family. I was a kid living in a very big house, on the beach of Las Canteras and from a young age I was in search of my own space, my refuge, in a lost bedroom, so things happened in there. And I think that that’s where my other personality was shaped. I used to sit with my legs either side of one of the doors in the room where we kept the sheets and I always used to hide there. 

And with so many siblings, how was your relationship with your mother? 

Very good because my mother was an only child, she married my father and started having children. She used to read Balzac and she loved his work because he describes very interesting things and things that reflected life itself. She had no literary judgment but a passion for reading everything. And she read it to the people who she worked in the house with. My mother was a very special person and I always got along with her really well. She was very calm, very soft, but she also had inner strength. 

 

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And what do you long for?

I think I’m missing a place where I can belong and just be. My whole life and artistic career has been conditioned by this search. 

Throughout your life, what discourse do you think your work has had? 

My inspiration has never been divinity, my inspiration is life itself. I’m talking about a spiral that is identity, because it is the spiral of my land and it makes me feel Canary. One day I asked myself why and, in the end, I realized that my fable ability is the same as anyone’s else but what I’ve really done is look and look in a comprehensive manner. I began to study the whole course of the spiral, not only in my town but in others, and how soon you realize that you haven’t discovered everything that you were searching for in any of them. The most that can be said is that the spiral is a cultural symbol, although no one knows why it is present in the whole of the universe. 

From the Canaries you settled in Madrid, where you lived for several years, and then left for New York… 

From Madrid I ended up leaving for New York, but before that, there was a final touch there: the poet John Ashbery, who had come to Franco’s Spain together with Frank Ohára. I was the translator for both of them because there were not many people who spoke English in Spain at the time. They came for a few days and had to mount an exhibition at the MoMa and as I translated for them, Juana Mordo was always getting angry with me because she thought I hadn’t said what she wanted. 

 

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You were an avid reader, what writers have really influenced you? 

Many writers, but Joyce was a passion of mine, I also read it in English. I even went to Ireland, to Dublin, after reading Dubliners, to see if I could learn something from that. I didn’t find anything. I asked myself, where were the Dubliners from Dubliners? But in the most exquisite sense, I didn’t get to meet Joyce’s Dubliners. It was too late, it was not the right time in history. 

You said he was the cause of your insanity...

Until I gained a little understanding of Finnegans Wake, an impossible work that I then managed to translate into my vision of a Latino man. That’s why it’s very beautiful in Ulysses, when Joyce puts himself in such a strange position, as if he was God. It was set out to achieve a whole, complete thought, it was very difficult, and he didn’t achieve it… no one achieved it. 

But we try…

Perhaps our unhappiness lies here. 

And apart from Joyce, what writers have affected you? 

Ortega y Gasset: he taught me to find a way of expression. It was extraordinary for me and I don’t think that anyone has handled Castilian better, in such a coherent, perfect way as Ortega y Gasset. I had a passion for it, I even carried El Espectador with me as if it were a comic. Then there’s poets, like Antonio Machado, whose thoughts and metaphors I constantly follow. 

 

 Lady Harimaguada-Chirino-Las Palmas de Gran Canaria 

 

And do you write?

I’ve never wanted to be a writer because it scares me, because the written word has problems, because you express thought. Rigor will not let me. I write for myself, things about me, what I know, what I feel, what I think. It’s as if I had written myself. 

And what about that phrase of yours, that you don’t make a sculpture but you write a sculpture? 

I mean that at the time of making them I have to develop a coherent discourse so that it’s understood, it’s as if it’s written. I write about the circumstances on pieces of paper, a beautiful phrase, what I make of it. I interrelate it all to see what’s going on, it’s a way of understanding it.

 

 Martín-Chirino.-La-morateña-1997  

 

Are your values unstable as a result of living in such turbulent times as you have?  

You are not born with values, but you acquire or improve them over time, enriching yourself. Obviously I, like everyone else, have had great trouble for blindly believing something that was not proven. What the church says is somehow passable, conversable, and everything that is conversable is subject to the possibility of this change. But you have to be aware and then step forward and put yourself in another situation. My mother taught me the most basic values, she taught me to be religious and I do not want to fail her so I’d rather believe than not believe, it is a choice, I do it out of respect for my mother. Because if I want to reverence things, I want to respect… 

But do you really feel the faith? Or have you managed to keep it up based on desire… 

No, because I think that thought is not only subject to passion, but also the brain. I mean, I said the word “reverence”, reverence is something self-imposed. But no, I have the chance to demand things of myself, like anyone else.

So we’re not talking about faith, but a rational insistence and desire… 

Using my brain to keep faith in some values, out of love for my mother.

To keep it, you must practice it… do you consciously practice it? 

Of course, I have great respect for others and my mother is the person who I respect most in the world because she taught me things that created great happiness when I was little. And when I grew up she continued being my friend, someone who loved me, and she said to me: you have to really respect others so that they respect you. 

Apart from your mother, what other people have affected you most during your life? 

One is more frivolous and the other may be more fictitious because he belongs more to the world of art. One is Donatello, someone who impresses me, who has always drove me crazy and his work leaves me shocked when I see it. The other is Greta Garbo, a symbol for me, a cold, untouchable image, I liked her so much…

And what has remained true after so long?

I think the only thing that has really mattered throughout my life is being a liberal, and therefore being liberal and understanding even what destroys me. It’s good, it’s better. 

 

- Interview with Martin Chirino-                                     - Página principal: Alejandra de Argos -

 

Miguel Barceló: Biography, Works & Exhibitions

 Author: Ángeles Blanco.
 

 

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Blessed with boundless energy and eager to experiment continually, the multifaceted Miguel Barceló has been surprising us with his work for over forty years. Constantly on the move, nomad-like, he makes wherever he lays his hat his studio and the new surroundings his latest inspiration. This light, that dust, the ocean, sea caves and multidisciplinary artistic influences are what constitute the trace elements of his trajectory. 

 

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Majorca, his birthplace, was where he experimented with art for the first time, perhaps influenced by his mother who painted for a time, or perhaps because he had it coursing through his veins. What is certain is that it was here that he learnt to love the grottos and the sea and formed a friendship with Joan Miró whose heavy influence can be seen in the markedly Expressionist animal themes of his early work. In those early days of the 70's, on a visit to Paris he discovered artists such as Paul Klee and Dubuffet and found himself influenced by Art Brut that gave him the impetus to explore uncharted territory himself. Among others, Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem De Kooning and Lucio Fontana were all artists who gave him momentum whilst VelázquezTintoretto and Rembrandt were his link to tradition. Baroque painting, American Abstract Expressionism, Arte Povera, Action painting and Conceptual Art have all influenced the imagination of this Neo-impressionist who, self-taught by means of voraciously reading everything he could lay his hands on, ended up forging his very own artistic path.

 

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An incessant experimenter, taking full advantage of the Nature and organic elements around him, some of his work is on its own journey and evolves with the passage of time. He puts his paintings outdoors at the mercy of the elements, deliberately allowing them to rust or crack, using organic material whose deterioration is very much part of his artistic meaning. As in his 1986 exhibition Cadaverina 15 in Majorca, where he displayed 225 boxes containing organic and inorganic products that proceeded to decompose over time. He has also used the "dripping" technique on canvasses subsequently painted over with white.  In the 80's his style moved more towards the figurative where zoological themes proliferated.  Whereas with paper and card collage techniques, he created a series of self-portraits, depicting himself painting in his studio, and one of still-lifes while in Paris.

 

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In his Nature-inspired work, the Mediterranean and Africa are his most important reference points. During his time in Mali, contact with the natives and their desert life, have impacted on his themes as much as his methodology. Concerns about the natural world, the passing of time, roots, scenes of daily life and African landscapes, small format, more detailed drawing, thick and dark pasting on of paint to give a relief effect and achieved using the mud and pigments he has to hand locally.

 

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The sea is another of Barceló's recurring themes, The Mediterranean and Majorca having inspired many of his paintings: blue and white seascapes like waves lapping or the azure sea beds he sees for himself while diving deep down. Along with the desertscapes, they are scenes of Nature's infinity and of heightened symbolism.

 

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Barceló, defined by Enrique Vila-Matas as having «amazing energy, a strong attachment to his 'home', happily mad», formed part of the scientific committee that carried out the reproduction of Chauvet Cave art, whereby all 400 animal paintings found in the original cave in the heart of Ardèche were replicated. He admits he accepted this challenge so as to continue visiting the place. «Discovering that cave was a major shock. It made me understand the history of art differently. Chauvet is art that we are incapable of understanding».

 

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In 1986 began his foray into architectural art with the painting of the dome of the lobby at the Flower Market Theatre in Barcelona.  Here we saw the first appearance of glazing and the superimposing and abundance of materials giving a final impression of transparency.

 

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One of Barceló's projects of the most searing magnitude, which he himself described as «physically very intense», was his decoration for the St Pere Chapel of Palma de Majorca cathedral which, after two phases of work on it, was finally finished in 2007. Here the liturgical narrative was represented in stone, stained glass, various pieces of furniture and a 300 square metre ceramic mural showing Christ, but no cross, surrounded by vegetation and maritime motifs, bread and fishes to illustrate the Feeding Of The Five Thousand, shore fauna, urns and Roman ruins referencing the classical world. Barceló has no interest in sacred art but yes in the spirituality of the places he works.


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The dome of Room XX or the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Room used by the United Nations Human Rights Council, in the Palace of Nations (Geneva) was one of his most controversial and at the same time, internationally renowned sculptural installations. It is an immense 1400 square metre dome from which fall 35 tonnes of paint drops shaped like stalactites and coloured with pigments sourced worldwide. The result is evocative of a cave and the sea, with waves seemingly crashing thanks to stippling, which is why he is considered the inventor of Xtreme Gotelé or "extreme stucco".  In allusion to this technique he says, «I wanted to defy gravity and take painting against it to the extreme».  Explaining what inspired it, Barceló said at the time, «On a day of immense heat in the middle of the Sahel desert, I distinctly recall a mirage of an image of the world dripping towards the sky. Trees, dunes, donkeys, multi-coloured beings all flowing drop by drop» This idea occurred to him in the planning stages of the work, as his imagination ran riot, but he also enlisted the expertise of a team of architects and engineers to develop the super-strength aluminium for the dome. Barceló explains: «The cave is a metaphor for a gathering place, the first meeting place of human beings, the shady African tree to sit under and talk of the only future possible for us: dialogue and human rights» Ban Ki-Moon thanked the artist for putting unique talents to work in service of the world: «What he has created for this hall is innovative and radiant. I have no doubt whatsoever that people will come here to view it, whether they have business here or not» And the media christened it The Sistine Chapel of the XXI century. The controversy surrounding this immense work of art was due to opposition party claims in Spain that the source of its funding may have been redirected by the Spanish government away from the overseas aid budget set aside to alleviate poverty in developing countries.

 

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Barceló was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of The Balearic Isles in 2007. His versatility and his ability to master multiple artistic disciplines mean that sometimes all the boundaries merge, as in some of his 90's pieces, many of which had a studio look and feel to them, a good example of this being the huge "Sculpture Workshop", a perfect blend of painting and sculpture. Or some of the portraits of people close to him, paintings with a certain sculptural air and no attempt at likeness, only what the medium or the wrinkles on the paper suggest to him at any given time. Regarding the way he works, he said this about a painting from 1983: «The technique dictated the form … something that often happens. First I do something with the paint and if I think it looks somewhat like the outlines of a fish then I paint the fish». This led him to immerse himself in the world of sculpture, a logical evolution in his work if one considers the contours and reliefs that feature so heavily in his paintings. They ended up freeing themselves from the canvas and becoming sculptural. They are moulded, bronze-like creations, nothing like the workings or motifs of his paintings.

 

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He has illustrated other authors' books and is the foremost writer of his own catalogue prologues and books of drawings in which he reflects on art and the creative processes involved in his work. He has published books on art and photography ("The Underwater Cathedral"); he has illustrated publications such as "The Book Of The Ocean", a lengthy poem by Enric Juncosa, or "Too far from home", with watercolours to accompany a Paul Bowles text; a book for the blind, "Dismantled Tents ... or the unknown world of perceptions" with a braille text by Evgen Bavcar and complete with his lithographs and embossed decoration; and more than 300 watercolour illustrations for the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy that were subsequently showcased in an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris.

 

 

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His ceramic work began in the mid 90's in Mali with modest materials and an austere technique which resulted in unique, expressive pieces of great artistic merit. And in his eagerness to experiment in all fields, he also did set designs for opera: Manuel de Falla's "Master Peter's Puppet Show" for the National Comic-Opera theatre in Paris for which he created sets, costumes and marionettes of huge dimensions; or those for Mozart's "Abduction From The Seraglio" in 2003 for the Aix-en-Provence Festival.


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Without a shadow of a doubt, who we are dealing with here is Spain's most celebrated and sought-after artist whose international recognition is wholly justified by the eclecticism and "theatricality" of his much-exhibited work: enormous canvas murals, book illustrations, ceramics, sculptures, opera staging, CD covers ("Potro de rabia y miel" by Camarón de la Isla), posters (Festival Sul Novecento, Palermo 1998), entrance tickets (Arco 2005), programmes (Tour D'Espagne 1989); and on every one of his facets, he imprints the personality, energy and aggression that are his hallmarks, along with his interest in Mother Nature, both her spaces, places  and the life contained within them, all set vividly against an African or Mediterranean backdrop. His work is personal, original and complex and, although similarities with other artists might be found there, his work is still impossible to categorise within any one artistic movement.

 

 

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 (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

- Miguel Barceló: Biography, Works & Exhibitions -                                  - Alejandra de Argos -

 

 

Marlene Dumas: Biography, works, exhibitions

Marlene Dumas, born in the Cape Town suburb of Kuilsrivier in 1953 and a native Afrikaans speaker, she graduated Cape Town University in 1975 with a degree in Visual Arts.

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Awarded a two-year bursary, she then moved to Holland where she made art her living and primary form of self-expression. From 1976 to 1978, she taught at Ateliers '63, Haarlem and other Dutch institutions. She devoted herself and her time to painting people or places from her own vast collection of photographs or those in newspapers and magazines. Her works were small format, realistic portraiture of an intimacy that divested its subjects of their public persona, instead cloaking them in a criticism of their identity or politics.

 

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Her pieces are figurative trompe l’oeils that provoke a sense of unease. Their language of movement is manifest in each figure. She draws the faces of adults and children, both alive and dead, with insistency and ambiguity. For Dumas, graphology is a subjective interpretation, her doodling somewhat unintelligible, but always carefully chosen and pronounced, each colour making perfect sense, as shown in 1988’s “Waiting”.

 

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The work she produced over a 30 year trajectory was exhibited in a retrospective: "Intimate Relations” between 2007 and 2009. Her initial success was in Japan and next, for the first time ever, in her native South Africa, leading to exhibitions in art galleries and museums in New York, Los Angeles and Houston.

 

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In 1998, Dumas was awarded the Sandberg prize, along with other distinctions such as the Coutts Contemporary Art  and the Prince Bernhard prizes. In 2010, the Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa awarded her an honorary doctorate in Humanities and in 2011 she received the Rolf Choque prize. Her creations are part of the collections of international museums and institutions such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Tate Gallery in London, some of which have them on permanent display.

 

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She started exhibiting in 1978 at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and continued in Basil with Documenta 7 in 1982. Her first solo exhibition was in 1983 and one year later at the Central Museum of Utrecht.  She presented her series of collages, creations and self-penned text entitled "Ons Tierra Licht Lager dan de Zee” but it was only in 1985 that she exhibited her paintings series: “The eyes of the creatures of the night”. Dumas talks of her pieces in “Sweet Nothings” with unexpected names, texts and commentary.

She participated in the European Art collective exhibition at the Tate in London during 1987. Her work received recognition in Europe and America in 1989 with “The Pink Human’s Question” after which came Documenta 9 in 1992.

Along with contemporaries such as Gerhard Richter, she was part of “Der Spiegel zerbrochene” in 1993, and also exhibited in London at the well-known Frith Street Gallery with Thomas Schütte and Juan Muñoz. She represented Holland at the Venice Biennial of 1995 along with two other women, María Roossen and Marijke van Warmerdam. She participated in prestigious collective picture exhibitions in Africa among other countries, with “Paintings at the Edge of the World” in 2001 and “Paintings of Modern Life” in 2007. The last decade has seen her exhibiting in cities like Chicago, Venice, Tokyo, Paris or New York to name but a few.


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Dumas defines herself as a “collector of images”. Exhibits like “Models” in Salzburg and “Suspect” in Venice present us with advertising bumph, models, corpses and objects that mutate into the spectacular. Grouped into categories, her works are artificial still lifes, parodies, deconstructions or commentaries drawn and painted in watercolour or gouache. One of her pieces, "My mother before she became my mother", sold for $2,000,000 in 2011.

 

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She is currently based in Amsterdam where she continues her artistic work. Dumas’ “The Image as Burden” exhibition was housed at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam from September 2014 to January 2015.

 

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She is one of the great painters of her generation, an artist who centres the human body and human psychological valour, painting her subjects from the cradle to the grave. The cycle of life illustrates her ideas on the social, the sexual and the racial. She keeps up appearances without conclusion, with brush strokes so faint and light of touch they are almost hidden and perhaps more dramatic for that. Dumas borrows images and expresses them “otherly”, making them confusing within the confines of a dark terrain. Her graphology and explicit language can be understood from the titles she gives her work, which generally is portraits, as well as nudes one would swear were blushing at their own exposure being contemplated. Dumas says of her art: “What is at stake and what matters is not the medium an artist uses or the subject matter but his or her motivation, which have become suspect.”

 


 

     Marlene Dumas Helenas Dream 2008    Naomi

 

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   (Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

Marlene Dumas at the Beyeler Foundation

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
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This little journey begins on a wall. As dusk falls, so begins a dialogue between that wall and a window, a transparent, vertical frame that reflects in the Swiss meadows outside and surrounding the Beyeler Foundation, all fresh, serene, rose-tinted; set against the electrical charge of a horizontal canvas turned into a muted scream depicting the Wailing Wall. It’s Ernst Beyeler and Renzo Piano in the company of Marlene Dumas. One of those rare moments for meditation: architecture resting its hand on the small of the painting’s back to guide it through a perfectly synchronised, beautifully choreographed dance.

 

Ernst Beyeler was one of the greatest ever art dealers, In 1970, along with Trudl Bruckner and Balz Hilt, he created the Art Basel fair. He and his wife Hildy aquired a world-class collection of masterpieces and commissioned the architect Renzo Piano to design an exquisitely beautiful museum in which to house them. It opened in 1997 not only to exhibit the Beyeler’s own private collection but also to showcase the world's most important contemporary art exhibitions.

 

Until 6th September 2015, the Beyeler Foundation museum was the venue for Marlene DumasThe Image As Burden, a retrospective of 40 years worth of work comprising over a hundred pieces.

 

 IMG 2432

Broken White, 2006.

 

 

The Burden of Apartheid

 

Marlene Dumas (Cape Town, 1953) is an artist who sails deep through the swell of waves and dense, eclectic backdrop that is her work, and very much at odds with her physical appearance it is, too. She is slight of build, bubbly, with playfully expressive pale blue eyes, a booming laugh and a fresh-seeming joie de vivre

 

But behind that facade, Dumas is a tireless worker and avid collector of postcards since early childhood and still, even today, in her untidily tidy Amsterdam studio, she has everything filed, ordered and catalogued. Dumas, whose figurative style centres the human face and the human body, never works from a live model. She invariably works from a flat, printed, two-dimentional image. Her sources are the hundreds of thousands of photographs cut from newspapers, magazines, some of them pornographic, books on the mentally ill, the “lunatics”: a word she says she likes because of its association with the moon’s influence on our states of mind, catwalk models, “I cannot conceive of a trip without Time magazine”, pamphlets, art postcards and, most of all, her own polaroids. “One could say that South Africa is my content and Holland my form. And I think, as well, that the images I use are universal, known to everyone. I deal in second-hand images and first-hand experiences. My models have already been moulded and posed previously by somebody else. There are no virgins here.” she insists.

 

IMG 2433

Mamá Roma, 2012.

 

Dumas paints from a place of condensed reality. Hers is painting that questions. Or targets with the precision of a dart. Expression, mystery, the connection between public and private, dreams and reality. Take that portrait in blue of Amy Winehouse. Isolated figures, usually with no background, abandoned in the solitude of a canvas and its sadness.

 

Dumas is fully aware of the power of the photography and films she has been addicted to her whole life. It was from celluloid, and the looks to camera of its actors, that she learned the rules of imagination. She knows she must surpass the magic of photography and magnify the power of the filmed image in order to justify painting them. This is the motive behind her characteristic focus: the zoom button here, a close-up there, chopping and cropping into strange dimensions. See her paintings of gigantic babies. “I’ve never had the first clue about the actual size of a head. Anatomy never interested me.” she says.

 IMG 2435

Amy-Blue, 2011.

Her themes are extreme and recurrent: death in multiple aspects and facets. Paintings such as The Kiss (2003), Lucy, Stern and Alfa (2004) are large canvases of dead, apparently serene, women. They are oil on canvas but have a strange, aqueous, veil-like consistency, as if the contours and the colours of these heads were seen through the filter of a memory, dream or nightmare. Violent deaths: Dead Marilyn (2008) or Dead Girl (2002), the head of a young Palestinian girl falling down lifeless, killed. The death of the Dutch film director Theo van Gogh or a dead swan, its sinewy neck and unfurled wing white against a black background.

 

 IMG 2429 

 

The Swan, 2005.

 

And then there is race, above all else, race: its message, its meaning, Dumas’ use of the colour black. Racism that stretches from Apartheid to the Wailing Wall of Jerusalem. The Wall (2009), The Widow (2013)Dumas inherited from Gerhard Richter an interest in “series” painting and also, by the same token, an interest in hanging pictures in such a way as for them to be grouped together in rooms by theme. She is able to fill whole spaces with hundreds of drawings of little tiny heads in black and white, each one unique and distinguishable if only from its expression. There have been multiple series sets since Models (1994) up to and including her latest and as yet unfinished Great Men (2014).

 

 IMG 2442

Models, 1994.

 

At a time in Madrid when the memory of Zurbarán’s Christ and Van der Weyden’s recent departure are still fresh in our minds, the two series of Crucifictions and the portraits of Christ in Dumas’ The Perfect Lover are akin to questions. Van der Weyden’s St John, desolate at the foot of the cross in the 3 metre high Calvary, was powerful but were there ever any Christs as abandoned to their solitude as Dumas’ Gravitá (2012), or Solo the year before?

 

 IMG 2446

Gravitá (detail) 2012.

 

And at the other extreme, her pornography series: strippers, nightlife, neon lights, young men in explicit poses, young girls midway between innocence and abuse, leather boots, black stockings ...

"I paint because I’m a woman” she says. “I’ve always wondered why the great themes of life and love must be conceeded to film directors, authors or pop stars. I want to paint all of that, too.”  And her pictures became ever and even more intense. Peter Schjeldahl, in the New Yorker, said that Dumas’ pictures are loaded with such weight that it’s a mystery how they don’t fall from the wall and break the floor.

 

  IMG 2447

Leather Boots, 2000.

 

 

A farm in Africa

 

Like Karen Blixen, Marlene Dumas also had a farm in Africa. Of Boer descent, her roots were forged by the essence of rural Afrikaaners: a solid, conservative milieu, strong religious principles but also openness and tolerance. Her childhood in Kuilsrivier (a Cape Town suburb) was a quiet, happy one, with a close-knit extended family of three grandparents and her Dutch mother, a woman wholly devoted to flowers, her three children and her vineyard. Marlene drew in the sand and learned from illustrated books and bibles. She enjoyed open-air cinema on Saturday afternoons. She had two brothers, one a viticulturist and the other a theologian from whom she learnt what it is to have a certain moral maturity and, more importantly, what it means to have a vocation.  They were a close family, appearing not to need anything from outside their insular world. In 1976 she won a scholarship to study in Amsterdam where she still lives today: "My homeland is South Africa, my maternal language is Africaans, my surname is French .. I sometimes think I’m not a true artist because my heart is too divided up. My studio is my house. I think I’m like a snail, always carrying its life and homeland on its back.

 

 

 IMG 2437

The Blindfolded Man, 2007.

 

Marlene Dumas’ studio has no natural light. It’s small, white-walled, cement-floored, spattered by decades of work and paint. Almost everything is on the ground, photographs, brushes on paint pot lids and a small wooden brick she only very occasionally steps on to observe the results of her work. Now 62, Dumas often paints on the floor, on all fours, on a stretch of paper much larger than she is. She paints very fast, spasmodically, like an image captured in an instant on her retina, like water coming into contact with a black paint stain.  From here emerge the fine black brush strokes that trace the eyes of a young nude. The water and the paint move around the paper leaving an abstract marking somewhat reminiscent of Bacon, of rivers or of a face reflected in the water at the bottom of a well.

"I’d love my paintings to be like poems. Verse is like naked words that have undressed themselves.” she says. Everything to do with Marlene Dumas aquires a literary density. She writes with her paint and she writes without making books, essays and poetry redundant. She also sometimes writes short phrases in some of her pictures. She likes to write her own exhibit material and press releases as she doesn’t see why or how anyone else should or could define what her art is trying to say. She has always considered herself a descendant of Alexandre Dumas and, for that reason, a “musketeer”, a warrior armed with both pen and paintbrush, too.

 

 IMG 2428

The Widow, 2013.

 

It is also Dumas behind the suggestive titles of her series or exhibiitions: The Eyes of The Night Creatures, Measuring Your Own Grave or her latest, The Image as Burden, yet one more example of the sheer quantity of layers, meanings and nuances in everything Dumas does. This last title comes from one of her small oil paintings of the same name. In it a man, posed Pieta fashion, holds a woman, the image, lifeless, in his arms. He looks at her tenderly and supports the weight of her body with no small effort. Dumas explains that the origin of that pose was a scene from George Cukor’s film, Camille, in which Robert Taylor carries Greta Garbo’s white-clothed body. Dumas’ scene emerges from a black background, two outlined profiles, almost African mask-like, are painted in Dumas’ smudged, discoloured tones, as if with dirty brushes: from black and deep blue to white. Black paint in an old kitchen tin thrown onto the floor of her studio is, perhaps, what Apartheid meant for Dumas.

 

 IMG 2444

The Image as Burden, 1993.


(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

- Marlene Dumas at the Beyeler Foundation -                                  - Alejandra de Argos -

 

 

Cindy Sherman: Biography, works, exhibitions

0 CS

 

A camera, a prop and herself were all the raw materials Cindy Sherman needed to add her name to the roll call of great photographers of the second half of the 20th century … although she considers herself a visual artist whose medium is photography rather than a photographer per se.

 

 1 CS U 2 197   2 CS U 3 1977

 

What's unique about this artist is that not only does she use her lens to capture staged images that are striking and highly unusual in themselves but that she uses herself in her compositions and thereby embodies her intended message.

 

 3 CS U 86 1981   4 CS U 500 SP

 

Born in New Jersey in 1954, Cynthia Morris Sherman felt no artistic leanings until at Buffalo University where she began to paint but soon realised that this wasn’t her thing and about which she says: “ ... What can I say? There I was, knocking myself out copying other art but then it hit me that the best and only way I could realise my ideas was with a camera.” And, indeed, it was in photography that she found her calling and has since become one of the most outstanding photographers of her time. 

 

 6 CS U 365 2000   5 CS U 372 2000

 

Her earliest photographs, arguably the most representative of her work, soon captured the public’s imagination. Between 1977 y 1980 she produced the "Untitled Film Stills" series of self-portraits posing as typically female clichés from a patriarchal society (hooker, housewife, drug addict, dancer, termagant). These black and white images bring to mind film stills from the 40’s and 50’s. To see them is to recall Hitchcock, Visconti and Truffault, to think how familiar they seem and ask oneself if they might be from an old film noir or Italian Neorealism movie. Since the very beginning, Sherman has never wanted to title her works so they are known only by their inventory number and it is up to the viewer to assign a meaning to each one.

 

 7 CS U 4 197   8 CS U 1 197

 

Sherman has no qualms about resorting to artifice, both of expression and in preparation, to sum up a whole narrative in one single picture, leaving it to our own imagination to invent the story behind it.

And, seemingly, it all stems from her love of fancy dress since childhood although she can't tell if that was from boredom, as therapy or simply a fascination with make-up. What happened was that she had started playing with costumes and make-up in the privacy of her own home until, encouraged by her university friend and fellow New York artist Robert Longo, she made the decision to immortalise her "performances" on camera.

 

 9 CS U 463 2007   10 CS U 400 200

 

Although she doesn't consider her work feminist as such, her entire oeuvre over the last 40 years does explore myriad female stereotypes. At the start of the 80’s, wanting to draw attention to the prolific use of women as sex symbols in magazines and on television, she produced the "Centerfolds" series, posing as if for a double-page spread in a man's magazine.  

 

 11 CS U xx 198   12 CS U 6 1977

 

All of her work contains a message which sometimes means her having to resort to images that are gut-wrenching.  “Disasters”, “Fairy Tales” and “Disgust Pictures” are pieces that, by the most abject means, (namely entrails, vomit, mutations and horror figures), flag up the changes that our society is undergoing, our descent into a ferocious consumerism devouring itself.

 

 13 CS U 153 1985   14 CS U 175 1987

 

In “History Portraits”, Sherman returns to self-portraiture only this time in colour, and revisiting Renaissance and Baroque paintings, recreating both male and female characters and media darlings of the moment. Her aim is to demystify the personalities worshipped by an obsessed society whether they be masterpieces of the art world or celebrities of stage and screen.

 

 15 CS U 210 1989   16 CS U 222 1990


Sherman appears in the majority of her pieces because she likes to work alone and do everything by herself, coupled with the fact that hiring models can turn out to  be harder work than it's worth ... she tried it once and it was an experience she won't be repeating. She agrees that it's partly for the freedom working by herself affords her but also possibly down to shyness. Disguising oneself as someone else can be liberating and, although it's her face and body one sees, it's deliberately not the essence of her which is why, if ever an image resembles the real life her too much, she scraps it and takes another. She has also experimented with still lifes in which she doesn't appear. These, however, lack the full force of her other work in which she does. And the truth is that collectors after a work by Sherman want it with her in it and are prepared to pay exorbitant amounts for the acquisition. Her Untitled #96 sold at auction for nearly $4, 000, 000 in 2013 at Christie's in New York.

 

17 CS U 96 1981

 

This woman of a thousand faces sees herself as a blank canvas on which to depict diverse iconographies of 'woman' and the result is, in the words of Eva Respini, the curator who organised Sherman's retrospective at the MoMA in 2013, "an encyclopaedia of female stereotypes." Her photographs are not at all autobiographical but they do, on occasion, and by way of artificiality, appear to capture reality in all its crudeness.

 

 18 CS U 7 1977   19 CS U 50 1979

 

As her work evolves, however, so Sherman replaces herself gradually more and more with prosthetics similar to those used at medical schools. By the time she starts work on the “Sex Pictures” series, there's nothing at all left of her in them and the models appear in her place all twisted, mutilated, oozing liquids and, although we the spectators know that they're only mannequins, we're still left with a queasiness that won't quit, meaning that her aim, that of denouncing whilst depicting male violence against women, has again been achieved.

With the turn of the century, Sherman starts to incorporate digital techniques into her photography, allowing her to create garishly-coloured scenes and multi-charactered montages, as in the “Clowns” series, where it's not exactly clear whether she's parodying herself or not. Framed within opulent settings, the characters brought to life in her “Society Portraits” do not represent real people. The artist has, however, made them look somewhat familiar to us with this rallying cry against the prevailing beauty ideals of a society obsessed with youth and beauty.

 

 22 CS U 424 2004   23 CS U 466 2008

 

Cindy Sherman, one of the most influential figures in contemporary art for some; egocentric, tacky or pretentious for others; a mockery for others still; but oozing empathy for yet more. Suffice it to say that all you have to do to get a sense of her sincerity is just watch how she holds the spectator's rapt attention in the majority of her portraits. 
Or is it a challenge that she engages us with? 
Only the emotional response that is triggered within each individual will have an answer and the final say on that.

 

 

24 CS U 92 1981

 

25 CS U 156 1986   26 CS U 166 1986

 

27 CS U 21 1978

 

28 CS U 183 1988   29 CS U 223 1989

 

30 CS U 224 1990   31 CS U 193 1989

 

32 CS U 458 2008   33 CS U 500 SP

 

34 CS U 400 Payaso   35 CS U 359 2000

 

36 CS U 477 2008   37 CS U xx 198

 

38 CS U 146 1985   39 CS U xx 1985

 

40 CS U 94 1981

 

(Translated from the Spanish version by Shauna Devlin)

- Cindy Sherman: Biography, works, exhibitions -                                - Alejandra de Argos -

Doris Salcedo: Art as a Scar

Author: Marina Valcárcel
Art Historian
 Marina

 

 

 

 

"Literature is writing from the heart, not the head." Great literature is written from the edge. So V.S Naipaul’s father advised his son, recently arrived at Oxford and before he became who he is today, one of the world’s greatest writers and Nobel Prize for Literature 2001.

Doris Salcedo (Bogotá, Colombia -1958) does exactly this; She sculpts from her heart, her innerness, herself. She is a narrator of pain, the pain of people broken by the unexplained absence of a loved one, by the crude outlines of wounds left by the bodies of those who are no longer here.

This sculptor, or “maker of objects” as she prefers to call herself, lives alongside the unfettered displaycase of terror that exists in Colombia, alongside the political drama and images in the face of which official history remains silent. It’s a not entirely uneasy juxtaposition. Photographs of bodies mutilated by chainsaws, sordid kidnaps and planned “disapperances”. In Colombia there are so many, far too many empty coffins.

What Salcedo does is travel to conflict zones, settle there for weeks or months, however long it takes, sometimes years, alongside the families suffering the loss of their loved ones, of any loved one, a daughter searching for her mother, a mother searching for her little girl.

She never tapes their testimony. She listens, she lets them pace out their emotions, she registers the frequency of fear, peers into the void along with them, slowly sketches the nightmare in their minds, joins in their searches for bodies, knows the textured panic and far-off gaze of a mother beside a mass grave whose child may (or may not be) buried there. Salcedo, however, eludes literal violence, not being interested in revisiting either the tragedy or the concrete facts. She prefers to be a hearsay/hearsee witness. She stores and catalogues these experiences, unassimilated, and inhabits them for a time, aligned with poetry and philosophy, until, from the most artistic hemisphere of her brain, the agony of those left behind can be made tangible. 

Her initial original discourse, that spoke of the tension between life and death, has now turned towards the spectral world in which are circumscribed the lives of those undergoing tragedy and those who are forever separated form their loved ones, towards that other world through which relatives of the disappeared wander.  For this reason, her sculptures have become more metaphorical, almost abstract, because what starts off from a poetic discourse then opens out as an inroad into the depths of our feelings, whilst forcing the spectator towards intuition, doubt and also the search for answers in her art.

"I don’t believe an image in and of itself, reproduced, dispersed,  can stop violence. I don’t think art has that ability. Art doesn’t rescue. I don’t believe aesthetic redemption exists, unfortunately. I think that, as regards art, one cannot talk of any impact, let alone social impact, and least of all political impact; and only a very weak, minimal impact on aesthetics. (...) What art CAN do is create an emotional connection that communicates the victim’s experience. It’s as if the victim’s destroyed life, cut short at the time of the murder, might or could in some way continue within the spectator’s experience."

(Public Reason, Art, Memory and Violence, March 2013)

 

 IMG 1619

The Widowed House (1992-1994) Installation. Wood, cement, steel.

 

 

"ART CAN’T RESCUE."

 

Doris Salcedo has lived with women and observed their daily ritual of setting the table and dishing up dinner for a relative, a husband, a father who will never return. A daily rite they perform in the patient hope that the ghostworld of the disappeared will one day return their unburied ones to them.

 

It is for this reason that she takes the memories of the victims, their voices and their tears into such dear and close account. She turns to everday objects like shoes, tables, wardrobes or chairs, now emptied of their occupants, discorporate, vacated, and through these symbols creates the picturification of absence. As in The Widowed House (1992 – 94), she dismantles the normal what-we-know meaning of furniture. She draws us into another dimension, that of sorrow, mourning, that of a time of waiting in a cold place where tables are no longer the focal point of a family kitchen but are traversed by cupboards that have absorbed cement; where a sheet is made of rose petals; a town square adorned with candles at dusk; a building whose outside walls weep chairs.

 

Where burial grounds are table tops giving life to life. Where a 167 metre long faultline of jagged frissure fingers its way along the floor of a room in the heart of the art world, of the first world, of capitalism. Where doorframes recall the men who were dragged through them from their homes before being killed at dawn.

 

The brutality of the 1980s is one of the hardest in Colombia’s recent history, with hundreds of unidentified and unsolved, unnamed crimes. In 1990 Salcedo exhibited the installation piece entitled Untitled/Shows of Sorrow. Neat mounds of perfectly pressed and folded white shirts, each one filled with plaster and every pile pierced through by a pointed metal rod. By their side, six bedsteads, two of them upright, angled against the wall and draped with dried animal entrails. This commemorates the banana plantation labourers killed by paramilitaries, dragged from their beds while they slept: some were shot in front of their families inside the home and some outside. Their wives, eyewitnesses to the massacre, in a patient and painstaking show of sorrow,  still launder and starch their husbands’ white cotton shirts, conscientiously ironing and stacking them away, for the day, one day, their husbands return to wear them, in their coffins.

 

The cold plaster represents the tomb, the laundry protocol yet another unbodied space.

 

It is in this piece that the secondary witness begins to take centre stage: she  who remained behind, the woman who saw her husband being killed and lived on: the witness who survived.

 

"Violence creates images, continuously and continually. The paramilitaries left us with terrible images. Violence furnishs those unconscionable images of violence. I think one function of art is to counteract that imagery. And in doing so, to balance out the brutality surrounding us in this country.

 

"To give you an idea, Guernica was bombed, as were many other towns: however, the only one we remember is Guernica, because a pictoral record exists which humanizes the outright inhumanity of the bombing mission.

 

An image can do that, not by narrating exactly what happened, or giving consolation to the victim or aiding or easing their grief. No, never that, but it does dignify all of us as human beings. And that is a fitting memorial.”

 

 

 IMG 1618 

“Untitled” / Shows of Sorrow (1989-1990). Both photographs. Installation. Cotton shirts, plaster and steel.

 

 

Doris Salcedo is a woman of robust physical appearance full of contrasts. Her pale complexion frames dark eyes absorbed in the effort required for long hours of work, the heavy burden of drama, the most tragic of testimonies. Her greying hair dwarfs an oval face that, at times, though rarely, is lit up by a wide and generously long smile. But her whole physical self seems designed to match her voice, a captivating voice, very engaging, very musical, with a beautiful Colombian accent and a gentle tempo.  She often closes her eyes and settles into a silence that would enthrall whoever’s listening,  until she finds the exact term, the right word or the most poetic turn of phrase.

 

It is vital to her that in every utterance she tries to communicate from the very depths of her soul. Sometimes, in this closing of her eyes, one gets an inkling of the pain her soul feels and the murmur of harrowing testimonies.

 

When she introduces herself, she likes to say that she has the wrong passport. She’s a woman, born in the third world, she speaks Colombian Spanish, she knows what it is to feel excluded, marginalised, she has experienced racism although not directly. She believes, also, that the rest of the world only sees her homeland as a brutal country that produces little more than violence and narco trafficking.

 

Readers will be aware that Colombia is a fine country, a country to be admired. Run through, admittedly, by the steel rod of Doris Salcedo’s sculpture. A growing number of Colombians and Europeans, mainly Spaniards, hope that the  open negotiations between Colombian Institutions and FARC reach their peace-keeping goals. For this reaosn Doris Salcedo is able to transform those wrong roots y convert them into something positive. She says that being Colombian comes with huge experiential baggage but that, oddly, also makes her free.  There are no large museums in Colombia, nor are there any art collections. Knowledge of the history of art comes only from books, which results in it being more theoretical, more wordy, more vague.

 

Salcedo has only ever worked in  Colombia. Her 25 years in a studio would only be conceivable in her birthplace. But she makes the most of her every trip, every contact with beauty and the museums of the world. From Rome she once explained: “On Sunday, after a whole day in the MAXXI, setting up my exhibition, I felt tired and worried. I thought I needed to see Caravaggio before the day’s end. So I walked to Santa María del Popolo church where there are two of his masterpieces: The Conversion of St Paul On The Road To Damascus and The Crucifiction of St Peter. Mozart’s Requiem was playing in the background. What could be more perfect? At the moment I’m working on a new piece to present at the White Cube Gallery in London next May. Without Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa, it wouldn’t have been possible to do that.”

 

 

 IMG 1616

Doris Salcedo outside the Palace of Justice in Bogota.

 

 

It’s 2015 and this is Doris Salcedo’s year. On 21 February the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago inaugurated a retrospective of her work.

 

On 26 June the exhibition moved to the Guggenheim in New York and from  6 May 2016 it will be at the  Pérez Art Museum in Miami. Few Latin American artists have had such recognition. Salcedo, also, was the eighth artist to exhibit in the Turbine Hall of  the Tate Modern and, after Juan Muñoz,  only the second Spanish-speaking artist selected to do so.

 

In 2010 she was awarded the Velázquez Visual Arts prize. Over the last decade,  her work has been exhibited in the MoMA New York, the Pompidou Centre Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Reina Sofía Arts Centre Madrid and at the XXIV Biennial in Sao Paulo, Documenta 11 in Kassel and the VIII International Biennial in Istambul.

 

In the words of Carlos Basualdo, one of seven curators at Documenta 11, Salcedo’s work is key in that it represents a series of useful interventions for the history of contemporary sculpture. "Her oeuvre covering particular events is both of the moment and universal despite its obvious connection to events in Colombia.” 

 

NEW YORK AWAKENED HER INTEREST IN SCULPTURE’S POLITICAL DIMENSION

 

Doris Salcedo first studied painting and, for a short time, was attracted to the theatre before devoting herself entirely to sculpture in the 80s.

 

In 1984 she completed a Fine Arts Master at New York University where she discovered the work of Joseph Beuys: "His work revealed to me the concept of social sculpture, the possibility of shaping society through art." Studying Beuys’ work, and her own experience being a foreigner in the city, awakened her interest in sculpture’s political dimension. On graduating, she returned to Bogotá to teach sculpture and art theory at the National University of Colombia.

 

 IMG 1609 November 6 - 7 (2002). Installation.

 

 

"TIME IS THE ESSENTIAL ELEMENT OF THIS WORK"

 

Shortly after returning to Colombia in 1985, the Palace of Justice was stormed by M19 guerrillas. On the morning of 6 November, she was working only a few feet from where the massacre happened, a massacre which changed the message that Doris Salcedo wanted to get across about Colombian reality. In 2002 she put on an installation at the Palace of Justice which comprised the gradual and meticulously staggered hanging of 280 chairs from its walls. This lasted 53 hours, the same duration as the seige and its start coinciding with the exact time the first victim was killed.

 

A collaborator on the day says this about how the installation happened: "The limits of violence seemed to be lost at that time in Colombia. The idea was to follow the timescale of the seige. We started at 11.35am because that was the time they killed the first person. We had various objects being lowered down the facade at different intervals and rhythms. Synchronisation was  very important. And time was the essential element for this piece that would last just 53 hours, the same duration as the seige. The running order was between 300 and 400 pages long. Each sheet set out how and for how long each specific pattern was to be achieved.  That day we did a performance under Doris’s direction. She was outside, down on the street, directing us from below and we were upstairs, making it all work. Everything was labelled and there was a numerical order we had to follow, like with a musical score you read and play. I was a young boy when it happened in 1985. My memory is very hazy but, through this piece, it became part of my biography or of my biographical memory.”

 

"ONLY POETIC LANGUAGE CAN ENTER THE ENVIRONS OF EVIL"

 

The titles of Doris Salcedo’s work  could arguably  be classed as poetic. Skin Deep, The Widowed House, The Orphan’s Tunic, Silent Prayer, similar versions of which can be found in the poetry of Paul Celan. Salcedo evokes his poems and quotes them often, for instance Shibboleth and In Eins. Paul Celan, a Romanian of Jewish descent born in 1920, was one of the great post-war poets. When the Second World War broke out, he returned to Romania where he was sentenced to hard labour while his parents died in a concentration camp. His verse conjures up extermination.

 

"Celan believed that only the language of poetry could help us to enter into the environs of evil, into the vicinity of absolute injustice (...). Because only by means of intuition and metaphor, only through the intensity of a lyrical image, could we ever hope to understand a crime.”

 

These words by Fernando García de Cortázar describe the link between Celan and Salcedo, between the evidence of Auschwitz and Colombian crime. From 1965 on,  Celan was admitted time after time to a psychiatric hospital where he wrote in Hebrew and, ultimately, in 1970, took his own life by leaping into the Seine.

 

 

 IMG 1606

Shibboleth (2007-2008) Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London.

 

 

Shibboleth (2007-2008) is perhaps the most universal and devastating of Salcedo’s output, part of the Tate Modern’s cycle of projects wherein artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Anish Kapoor or Olafur Eliasson were commissioned to exhibit their work in the Turbine Hall. Shibboleth is a project on a monumental scale. It is a linear crack  167 meters long and 70 centimeters deep that rips across the floor of the Turbine Hall.

 

The monumental nature of the work as regards its interaction with architecture is there to see. A collaborator explains: "There was a tiny crack in the floor at the Tate which Doris noticed on her first visit and decided to make this the source of this piece. Every centimeter was hand drawn by Doris. We researched cracks. We examined the edges, the inside walls above ground, in cement, on buildings. We looked like a crazy gang in the street staring at cracks in walls and floors.  The next step was to figure out how to construct a readymade crack and export that to London. We decided on a metal structure, similar to how a brick is made but in the shape of a rock. We moulded the steel following the exact shape of the stone, then poured in the cement. The final result was the cast, with steel mesh embedded in it and its opposite twin.  

 

We made 320 meters worth of cement because we had to do both faces of the crack. Everything turned out almost exactly as we’d planned but the image, the result, is something you can’t even begin to imagine until you see it.”

 

With this piece, Salcedo wanted to create a metaphor using biblical legend to highlight the exclusions faced by those of the third world as opposed to those of the first.

 

"I come from Colombia, a country full of the ruins that are the legacy of wars, imperialism and colonialism. That dictated my perspective. I am a third world artist. It is from that perspective, from the victim’s perspective, from the perspective of defeated nations, that I look at the world. For this reason my work doesn’t represent “something”. It is simply an insinuation of something. It is about trying to bring into being something that is no longer here. In this sense it’s subtle.”

 

PRONUNCIATION, A MEANS TO DISCRIMINATE

 

Shibboleth is the Hebrew word for "ear of corn" and plays a crucial part in a story from the Book Of Judges . Chapter 12 tells the story of two warring Hebrew tribes which culminates in the genocide of 42,000 members of the Efraim tribe after crossing the river Jordan in search of salvation. The Efraimites were distinguishable to their enemies by their inability to pronounce the “sh” sound and gave themselves away by mispronouncing this staple of their diet as Sibboleth with an “s”. So the word serves as a metaphor for the exclusion of an outgroup by ingroup speakers of any one particular language. And furthermore for segregation and borders.

 

“IT’S NOT THAT BIG A DEAL. IT’S JUST A SPACE. IT’S NOT LIKE BEING IN ST SOPHIA CATHEDRAL”

 

 "When I went to see the space before thinking about the piece, what struck me was the attitude of the people there.  Everyone was looking up and feeling that it was an astonishing size. I just thought: “It’s not that big a deal. It’s just a modernist, industrial space. It’s not like being in St Sophia cathedral or dwarfed by the pyramids in Egypt.”

 

But people seemed to be under that impression which I thought was incredibly narcissistic. What I wanted to do was turn this perspective on its head so instead of looking up, I’d force them to look down ... I wanted to inscribe something chaotic on this modernist and rationalist building, something that made the space negative. Because I think there’s a bottomless gulf that divides the human from the inhuman,  the whites from the non-whites. I wanted to highlightthis rift which I thought was best observed in the history of modernity. When one reads about Modern History, one would think it was a uniquely European event. And the idea of colonialism, as well as imperialism, is marginalised, to say the least. I wanted this racism narrative to take centre stage because I think racism is the untold dark chapter of Modern History. So I wanted this crack to split the building in two and rip through it almost like a non-white immigrant barging into the monotony and consensus of white society.”

 

With this fissure, Salcedo means to take us to the centre of the rupture of all things ordered, the whole gamut of fragmentations: social, racial, aesthetic, sexual, geopolitical, cultural. It’s the antithesis in meaning of those walls constructed in recent history all over the world: the Berlin Wall, the concrete ‘barriers’ annexing the occupied Gazza Strip and West Bank ... With regard to its artistic significance, the Shibboleth crack means “too many things”, as Borges remarked, when he referred to it as an archetype that has accompanied humanity for millennia.

 

And now would be a good time to return to the poet Celan. There are too many words resonating deep inside us on a barely-there faint Hebrew line between Shibboleth and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem: the exodus, extermination, the final solution, the image of the cattle trains supplying Jews to the concentration camps, torture, cold, the prisoners’ emaciated bodies, Buchenwald, Dachau ... The 27 January 2015 marked the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. 

 

The Israeli architect Moshe Safdie rose to the challenge of designing a new Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem which was inaugurated in 2005 and was awarded the Prince of Asturias Concord prize in 2007. Arrow-shaped, Yad Vashem pierces the hill of memory as would a splinter in our thumb: it doesn’t budge, a tiny little black dot, encouraging us to extract it from under our skin with tweezers. But no tweezers exist that can easily remove Yad Vashem once seen and in our head. Its design, like a cement ship in the form of a prism that juts into the mountain only to jut out as a huge skylight onto the Isreali sky,  constitutes one of the most awe-inspiring impressions a museum can offer. The feeling of oppression under the triangular roof, the gentle slope downwards of the floor and then its gentle rise  upwards, towards the exit, towards the light, the absence of windows, the choice to only use bare reinforced concrete, grey and cold, throughout the museum, create a sensation of claustrophobia and oppression similar to what one would feel in the underground passageways of a mine.

 

Thesame as the Turbine Hall in London, the cement floor of the museum is broken up, as if by an earthquake. In Yad Vashem, these gaps are actually glass display cases  one can look down into, much as Salcedo forces us to do with hers in London, if we’re looking for answers.  In Jerusalem, the shiver that runs through our body only chills more on discovering that those glass covers are really cases full of hundreds of children’s shoes from the Nazi Holocaust.  A “Defiances” (Atrabiliarios 1992) that predates Salcedo’s but still talks of the same universal torture, only this time somewhat closer to the Mediterranean Sea.

 

 IMG 1845 Glass cases in the floor of Yad Vashem, Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem

 

 IMG 1620 

Yad Vashem, Holocaust History Museum, Jerusalem

 

For “Defiances” (Atrabiliarios) 1992, exhibited in the White Cube gallery in London, Salcedo spent nearly three years listening to relatives of the disappeared: that cruel politically motivated phenomenon of forced disappearance and the hole left by the victims’ belongings. She studied the way in which families related to these objects, now souvenirs, hoping their owners will return for them, unable to let them go.

Relatives donated shoes the victims had once worn, and these were Salcedo’s catalyst for “Defiances”. Her intuition inspired her to bore twenty little alcoves into the wall and place the shoes inside. “Colombia is the country of unburied death, of the unmarked grave.”  So a pair of white shoes, that might be a bride’s from  her wedding day or a Sunday afternoon tea-dance, are displayed in a tailormade tomb, shrine-like, and partially obscured from our view by a thin membrane of animal skin roughly sutured to the wall with black surgical thread. Wound, fissure, burial, exposure ... 

As Salcedo explained at Harvard, “When the specator gives the work a moment of silent contemplation, in that moment and only in that moment, is when the emotional connection happens ... Art has enormous power: the power to take back control of life, of humanity, of life that has been profaned.”

 

  IMG 1612 

 “Defiances” Atrabiliarios (1992) Installation. Shoes, animal skin

 

In 1997, and within the Unland series, came The Orpan’s Tunic. Behind this work is the story of a six year old girl. Every time Salcedo went to visit her, the little girl was wearing the exact same dress. Some time later she learnt that this was the dress her mother had handstitched for her and the one she was wearing the day her mother and father were killed in front of her. Here, the public think they are seeing an everyday object. A table. However, it soon becomes apparent that it is in fact two different tables, joined, with the smaller brown half slotting under the wider white one. Up close, one can see the tiny holes through which human hair has been painstakingly threaded, ending in a border where the hairs are directly threaded into the wood. Salcedo’s work is always meticulous, time-consuming, highly detailed. ”Of course it’s insane, it’s absurd – comments an assistant to Salcedo – And it’s an enormous waste of time and energy. A team of 15 people worked on these pieces every day for 3 years.  It reminded me of Paul Celan when he said: “It is only the absurd that shows the presence of what is human.”  But here too it had a connection with the squandering  of lives. “It was the peak period of paramilitary massacres in Colombia. It was my way of showing how life could be wasted. But at the same time, how something poetic could come out of it, some proof of our human presence, of  the victims’ humanity, of the fragility of life and the  brutality of power. I think everything was here in this gesture, sewing hair through wood.”

 

  IMG 1601  

Unland. The Orphan’s Tunic (1997) Wood, human hair, silk.

 

Skin Deep (2012-2014) is a huge swathe of material in shades of ochre and red, its soft folds falling on the floor of the White Cube gallery, flooding it almost, like a soft-waved sea. That’s all. Except silence. As always happens with Salcedo’s work, after the initial impact, after the query and the doubt, we see that the fabric is made up of millions of rose petals, sewn and knotted together one by one with surgical thread. An efemeral work, it will ultimately perish as a rose will. A video explains the arduous process involved for those petals, the chemical process of immersion in a glycerine and collagen solution to give them the malleability and durability necessary for them to be stitched, one by one, into pieces that would then be ironed in gigantic, custom-made presses. Despite all this, the fragility of the material is total. Salcedo explains how this fragility, which almost makes it untouchable, which requires one to breathe more softly near it, all this is intimately related to its meaning.  In order to dignify a person, it’s vital to return to beauty. Transforming pain into beauty is, however, quite perverse.

Frequently in Colombia, the body becomes a battleground. Skin Deep is the hommage Salcedo pays to the body of a woman, a nurse by profession, tortured, killed and finally cut into pieces. The offering of millions of petals sewn together, the delicacy, the wound, the life of a nurse stitching up wounds with a needle, a rosy complexion, the surgical thread, the tweezers, the pain, the bruised skin, the superimposed petals, the flesh, the rose, the vulnerability, death. The skin, a mutilated, disjointed body being put back together is something we don’t look at, we show respect. It is one woman’s subtle tribute to another, in women’s language. To hear Salcedo talk of this work is to hear her voice soften and slow, to see her eyes close on the horror and sorrow, til she finds the most respectful words: “ In the same way that we don’t look at a wound.”

 

 IMG 1611 Skin Deep. (2012) Rose petals and thread.

 

In July 2014, Salcedo received the Hiroshima prize, an acknowledgement awarded every three years in remembrance of the victims of the first atomic bomb. This prize honours those artists whose work is in pursuit of “the search for permanent peace”.

 

“What is dying in an attempt to cross the border? The word that defines my work is impotence. I am completely impotent. I feel I’m responsible for everything that happens and I always get wherever it is too late. I can’t give anybody back their father or son. I can’t solve any problems. I can’t do anything. It’s a lack of power. But as someone  who lacks power, I stand up to those who have it and use it to manipulate lives.”

 
(Translated from the Spanish by Shauna Devlin)

 

- Doris Salcedo: Art as a Scar -                                  - Alejandra de Argos -

 

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