All posts filed under “Art History

Interview with Nisa Ari

The image above is a workspace Nisa set-up during her first summer of archival research in Jerusalem.

Nisa spoke to me from her family home in Colorado to recount her journey from art history major, to professional theater performer, to doctoral graduate and lecturer—a story of mutability that informed her scholarly work. Listen to our conversation here. For her dissertation, Nisa tackled the extremely logistically difficult and politically challenging project of writing about art in Palestine. She demonstrates how a group of arts institutions in the Middle East formed a mutually reinforcing network that helped advance the role of Palestinian art in the twentieth century. Working with galleries, local scholars, arts institutions, religious institutions, and private collectors, Nisa sought to highlight these connections. Her perseverance, tenacity, intelligence and charm; alongside a healthy appreciation of the power of collaboration; enabled Nisa’s notable and considerable scholarly achievement. 

Nisa Ari is Lecturer in Art History at the Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, University of Houston. She studies late-19th and 20th century visual practices, with a focus on artwork from the Middle East. Her research explores the relationships between cultural politics and the development of art institutions, specifically in Palestine and Turkey. Her current book project, Cultural Mandates, Artistic Missions, and The Welfare of Palestine,” 1876–1948, explores how radical political transformations, from the last decades of Ottoman rule until the establishment of the State of Israel, changed the nature of artistic production in Palestine. Her research has been published in Third TextArab Studies Journal, and Thresholds, and she has recently curated exhibitions at the Qalandiya International Art Biennial (Jerusalem/Ramallah) and the Keller Gallery at MIT. She received her Ph.D. in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture program at MIT.

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Ashes to Ashes

The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturist Critique

(This is the first bit of  a paper I wrote for my methods class in fall, 2013)

African artists born to a post-independence continent,[1] curiously placed in the temporal limbo engendered by their new nations’ violently dynamic notions of future and past, are socially empowered as image-makers to realign, reshape, and rename the world. The African artist’s process is an enactment of his nation’s negotiation with modernity; the artist is an “historical agent capable of representing the modern condition in which he is working.”[2] Using methods similar to Dadaist bricolage, Afrofuturism seizes upon this chronological purgatory as a site for uncanny cultural remixes. Science fiction narratives offer a compelling populist opening to such rewritten cultural autobiographies.

In Spaceship Icarus 13 (2008), Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda (born 1979, Luanda) harnesses Afrofuturist memes to present a vision of the future based on a reimagined past, channeling an unlikely combination of satire and utopianism, irony and hope. Spaceship Icarus 13—an architectural model, a story, and a series of eight photographs—”documents” the creation of Africa’s first space base and humanity’s first mission to the sun. Henda’s spaceship is a reappropriated item of totalitarian kitsch,[3] a late 1970s era Soviet-designed mausoleum for Agostinho Neto, Angola’s Marxist-leaning first president. Within this mausoleum-cum-spaceship, enhanced in Henda’s narrative by icons of American consumerism and Angolan devastation—Budweiser and diamonds—the artist sends Neto’s ashes up to burn. The violence of this second destruction, from ashes to ashes, is both piercing and poignant. It encapsulates Henda’s artistic critique of Angola’s long civil war, its lost human potential, and its current political and economic climate.

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Zuhandenheit

Martin Heidegger, in Being and Time, describes the property of zuhandenheit, or being ready-to-hand. It’s a concept central to his worldview a concept I believe to be his most important contribution to Western philosophy. Heidegger uses the term zuhandenheit to describe a useful, working tool, one that is plainly ready-to-hand and can be used without  having to consciously consider its presence. Consider, for instance, that you can walk without thinking about your feet. Now the foot is not a “tool” per se, but it is something utilized without thinking about it consciously. The foot only becomes present when it does not function, when it is broken or injured in some way.

Heidegger’s examples of tools that are ready-to-hand include “the hammer, the plane, and the needle.” Now it’s true there’s a learning curve associated with any particular tool; a needle can prick you, a plane can slice you, a hammer can damage your thumb if you are unfamiliar with its proper use. However, once the tool is mastered, it is readily and repeatedly available as a medium for accomplishing tasks. It and you function perfectly together such that you can focus solely on the task and ignore the tool. The tool becomes an extension of your body.

The notion of zuhandenheit is important because it had not yet been considered in philosophy before Heidegger. Up to then, philosophy described the world as filled with people and things. People have senses through which they perceived things and their properties. A hammer, in this configuration, is a hunk of shaped metal at the end of a wooden handle. Clearly, this ignores the hammer’s status as a tool—its function, its utility, its reason for being; everything that makes a hammer a hammer. Heidegger’s phenomenology contrasts the tool’s being ready-to-hand, zuhandenheit, with vorhandenheit, being present-at-hand, or just there. A leaf is just there, a rock is just there, a broken hammer is just there until you fix it. (If you pick up the rock and use it to pound corn into flour, then of course it becomes a tool.)

These distinctions came to mind recently during an oil painting class I’m enrolled in at the Hartford Art School taught by the former dean of the school, Power Boothe. Professor Boothe is a well regarded artist and it’s probably better that I don’t closely follow the art world because I might be too star-struck to be in his class. He’s a set designer as well, which is very exciting, theatrical design being the charismatic cousin to architecture’s austere façade of controlled composition. As a teacher, Power is very approachable and remains engaged with each student in the class, often exclaiming that someone’s work reminds him of such-and-such master painter from the 19th or 20th century. On these occasions he repairs to his office and returns with the appropriate monograph, handing it to the oil-paint-and-linseed-spattered student, her brush in hand.

With my “brush in hand” I’ve experienced a painful lesson in zuhandenheit. Oils are difficult to assimilate. I painted quite frequently as a child, but always with acrylics. They’re cheap and water soluble, so I’m sure their particular procurement was a conscious choice on my parents’ part. “Real painting,” to me, was always achieved with oils; that’s how all the paintings in the museums were made. (I recall fixating on a Bonnard at the Met but the memory might be fabricated.) I attempted an oil painting on glass when I was a senior in high school; it was awful. I managed to mix the paint, but I had no idea that I should use linseed oil and turpentine as thinner. I was so used to the nature of acrylics—how they dried, how they mixed—that I just couldn’t get a feel for this thick, pasty medium. I was too impatient or too inexperienced to wait for the paint to dry, and I didn’t know about the technique of glazing, using oils like watercolors, all water and very little tint. I kept lathering the paint on like plaster, eventually giving up… the final work looked like melted wax. It was a portrait of a boy I’d met. I’m glad he never saw it.

The first two painting assignments Power gave the class were apples, one black-and-white and one color. The black-and-white one went along pretty well. I didn’t have to worry about mixing because the whole composition was shades of grey. The color painting, however, was a disaster. I couldn’t mix the tones I wanted; everything kept blending together into a mushy brown; and the white/yellow underlay I foolishly added was far too overpowering. (The white in oil paint is nuclear strength.) I ended up slapping on paint with a palette knife to cover my mistakes… it was pretty terrible. I bought another canvas and tried again, this time with the glazing technique my husband recommended and was much happier with the results. I’ve since attempted to paint the stairwell in Louis I. Kahn’s British Art Center, (hard; I can’t let go of the notion that straight, almost axonometric lines should look a certain way,) and a self-portrait (easier; probably because the softer shapes still convince when only approximated).

Is the paint brush a tool, ready-at-hand? For me, not yet. But soon.

For Yayoi

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I’ve long been a fan of Yayoi Kusama. She’s an important Japanese artist whose work resonates with the specific compulsions of modern women worldwide. Her dots series, installations covered in dots—on walls, on people, on trees, on things—are mesmerizing. Using this simple technique, Kusama creates these eerie immersive environments. For me, they represent certain obsessions: obsessions with the body and its perception, its shapes and holes and uses; an obsession with control. The images above of flower petals on the ground from the early weeks of May reminded me of her.

Kusama did much of her seminal work in New York, but returned to Tokyo in 1973 and has been living in a mental institution almost ever since. Paranoid schizophrenic, I believe. Many of her works are inspired by her hallucinations. There’s a great picture of her Self-Obliteration by Dots, a still of a performance from 1968, in BOMB Magazine’s interview. Another iconic set of works is the accumulation series, wherein Kusama glued protuberances to cover entire objects and whole surfaces. She posed with one of these pieces, Accumulation No.2, once perhaps a couch, and MoMA has the photo. It was printed on the Kusama Retrospective poster back in 1998, “Love Forever: Yayoi Kusama, 1958-1968.” I put it up in my father’s former studio for inspiration. I thought of her more as a baby doll back then, looking so coquettish. Now she uses that same silhouette as a brand on her website.

Connoisseurship

There was a great article in The New Yorker this week that touched on a topic I once debated with a faculty member at The Yale School of Architecture—connoisseurship. The article, “The Mark of a Masterpiece: The man who keeps finding fingerprints in uncelebrated works of art,” by David Grann, discusses some of the difficulties surrounding the task of authentication. In the art world this means determining if a particular work is by a particular artist, or by an apprentice, or “in the school of” a certain artist, or if it is a fake. The article presents cases in which forensic evidence in the form of fingerprints is claimed to definitively link a work to a renowned artist, Jackson Pollock in one instance and Leonardo da Vinci in another. In a nice twist of literary technique, the article begins as a defense of fingerprint evidence, presenting the innovator of this technique, Peter Paul Biro, as an antiestablishment hero able to neutralize elite art world experts. Then the article turns and tears this hero down, citing his legal battles and the questionable, perhaps fraudulent practices he undertakes in the course of his work. Grann defends connoisseurship in his conclusion as a flawed, but true, discipline. Connoisseurs, he writes, are the people:

“who, after decades of training and study and immersion in an artist’s work, could experience a picture in a way that most of us can’t. Connoisseurship is not merely the ability to discern whether an art work is authentic or fake; it is also the ability to recognize whether a work is a masterpiece. Perhaps the most uncomfortable truth about art is that such knowledge can never be truly democratic.

The debate at Yale was over the issue of access. If access to the title “connoisseur” or “expert” is limited and even highly guarded, then the discipline as a whole must be a sham, it was argued. If only experts can weigh in on authenticity, who can check internal ‘price fixing’ or the ascendancy of the arbitrary? There is a distinct disconnect: access to connoisseurship remains ensconced in elite levels of the art establishment, yet art itself is experienced by everyone. Why can’t the “common man” be allowed to give his impressions? He can, but not all reactions are equal in regards to authentication; impressions are democratic, knowledge is not. I think the issue here lies in the nature of art itself. No one would say that surgeons, members of an elite practice whose participants must be licensed by the state, should be deprived of that distinction and the discipline opened up to everyone because we all have a body. We accept that one needs specialized knowledge to be qualified to cut people open. The same is true with art. One needs years of training to recognize the visual markers of individual artists, and the general indications of a great work of art in an art historical context. These traits are apart from personal taste, a fact that hasn’t been adequately communicated. My stance has always been that connoisseurship is an elite but not an elitist practice because anyone can study and thus become a connoisseur! Consider Sister Wendy.

Belief in the meritocracy of academia is of course a bit naïve. However, what other institution is as welcoming, is as persuaded by reason and empiricism to accept cogent arguments in defense of new ideas, and thus the actors who originate them? That to me is the allure of the scholarly conversation—that there is an objective ideal of truth, perhaps, but that as fallible organisms embedded in cultural taboos we know that no truth can ever be fully grasped, only sought. And if you wish to participate in that circular mission, please do so! Learn the material, research the methodology. It takes only your time.

Looking back, it makes me smile that a professor would be suspicious of connoisseurship, because isn’t that what keeps us employed? In the realm of architecture, like art, the ability to defend or even to articulate one’s expertise is complicated by the fact that the object of our study is visual, and cannot be fully explained verbally. Why is the Hagia Sophia or Notre Dame de Paris [below] important? There are easily explicated historical reasons, but in truth it is their visual particulars that have maintained their popularity: form, material, and mostly, light and space. Not easily communicated in words, but viscerally experienced. Which is what makes architecture so alluring!

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