Thursday, October 24, 2013

What do Abramovic and Banksy have in common?

One of the artists is famously present, the other famously absent.

In some respects they make an unlikely pair and the coverage in national media this week of their respective activities is a coincidence—isn’t it? 

The Artist is Present, MoMA
Marina Abramovic became famous by staging ephemeral and often controversial performances—some of which involved self-mutilation. Now she has leveraged her fame to build a physical institution, a monument devoted to performance art. Some are crying foul; others can’t wait for the 33,000 square foot Marina Abramovic Institute to open in Hudson, NY, so that they can pay to “put on white lab coats and undergo three hours of mind-and-body cleansing exercises.” That is according an article that appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times.

The article quotes Abramovic as saying “Ego is a huge obstacle to art.” It seems a curious if not contradictory turn of phrase under the circumstances.

Banksy has become famous—some say notorious—by painting and stenciling his distinctive brand of graffiti in unauthorized locations all over the world. I use the term “brand” deliberately. While his work has become commercially valuable, his identity remains elusive. Currently Banksy is spending a month operating, publicly if not visibly, in New York City. He himself (on a website) refers to it as an “artist’s residency.”

But now “banksy” has become a verb, his graffiti sought after and reviled in nearly equal measures, and some of the anonymous artist’s works have sold for six figure sums at auction.

NPR aired an interview yesterday with a Brooklyn resident whose building was “banksied.” The family has struggled with ethical as well as financial consequences. The graffiti first drew a large and appreciative crowd. Then someone spray-painted over the stencils, which the family cleaned off promptly and successfully. After that they installed a garage door over the illicit, but potentially lucrative art that had been dropped in their laps. What’s a victim to do these days?

An appreciative crowd gathers at a "Banksied" site in Chelsea
Cash in is one of the options that the beneficiaries of Banksies artistic attentions have chosen. But what happens to street art after it has been commodified? Banksy himself addresses this issue in ambiguous ways. A story aired on NPR Oct. 14 quotes him as saying, "I know street art can feel increasingly like the marketing wing of an art career, so I wanted to make some art without the price tag attached. There's no gallery show or book or film. It's pointless. Which hopefully means something."

And was it a snub of the commercial art establishment—even the very people who purchased one of his limited edition prints for $249,000—when he (anonymously, of course) set up a sidewalk kiosk in Central Park with prints priced at $60 each. The artist’s total take for the one day sale was $420. Who got taken, I wonder?

Maybe Abramovic and Banksy have more in common than it seems at first glance. Why shouldn’t they take advantage of opportunities to leverage popularity or notoriety for financial gain? Or do they, each in their own fashion, seem to want it both ways? If ego is in fact an obstacle to art, it certainly isn’t an obstacle to commercial success.

Can either performance art or street art survive commodification? Many critics are asking. The answer is elusive.


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Art Without Reservation in Santa Fe

I made it to the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts on my last day in Santa Fe. It's one of my favorites of a number of good museums here and I try to see the current exhibitions whenever I'm in town. I have examples of two current exhibits to share.

In the main gallery is Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 3, the concluding exhibit of a cycle that was "conceived and organized to present a comprehensive and in-depth cross section of innovative and groundbreaking work by contemporary Indigenous artists." The exhibition catalogue goes on to say, "These creative individuals express a new vitality and spirit of experimentation in Native art, often embracing tradition while moving forward and looking towards the future." For a more thorough description go to Changing Hands: Art Without Reservation 3/Contemporary Native North American Art from the Northeast and Southeast, Selected Works.

Jordan Bennett, Re:Appropriating the Wheel
Peter B. Jones, Portrait Jar-New Indian
Kent Monkman, Dreamcatcher Bra & Raccoon Jockstrap

Another compelling exhibit is called STEREOTYPE: Misconceptions of the Native American. In it Cannupa Hanska Luger uses the motif of the boom box to examine and deconstruct stereotypes imposed on indigenous Americans. For more about it, click here.

The Indian Princess
The text explains in detail that there is no such thing as an "Indian Princess" since the concept of princess is Western in origin.

The Plastic Shaman
Similar to the above, the term "shaman," which originated in Central Asia, has been inappropriately applied to Native American culture.

The Curtis
This last one, of course, refers to Edward Curtis, the photographer who set out to "document" the passing of the "noble savage" before they were all gone.

Finally, the image below is one of a pair by Debra Yepa-Pappin that were hung in the hallway and identified as "recent acquisitions." The title is "Live Long and Prosper (Spock was a Half Breed).

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The White Place

For the past week I have been staying, teaching photography, and relaxing at one of my favorite places: Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM. Ghost Ranch is a retreat/education/conference center owned by the Presbyterian Church but is most famous as the place where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and painted many of her striking New Mexican work. One of her subjects was this unusually pale sandstone slot canyon in Abiquiu. The gray stone can look white in the bright New Mexican sun, hence the name. The site is owned by Dar al Islam, a mosque and Islamic Education Center.

I've been in the mood to write haiku here in New Mexico, a land of contrasts and, for me, introspection. Here is the one I wrote for the White Place:

the White Place
a monk in saffron robes
raises an ipad

I am teaching a workshop in digital photography at Ghost Ranch and I took my class to the White Place for a photo shoot. As our group gathered back at the parking area after a couple hours of shooting, I saw this monk walk slowly up to the mound with the “Plaza Blanca” sign on it overlooking the site. As I watched he slowly drew an ipad out of his robes and began to raise it with both hands. Knowing the capabilities of an ipad it was obvious that he was about to shoot a photograph. However, it reminded me of a priest raising a host, or a supplicant seeking absolution, or simple praise; something sacred and holy, as befits both the symbolism of his robes and the grandeur of the site. 

The well-known form of Haiku originated in Japan and is a very short, traditionally three-line, poem. In current practice the form is flexible. The essential quality of haiku is usually a small epiphany based on the observation of two contrasting images. I was inspired by the juxtaposition of the monk’s traditional garb with the latest technology—even if upon second thought, it ought to be considered perfectly normal in today’s polyglot society. 

I had put my camera in my bag when I saw the monk raise the ipad. I would have liked to catch a shot of him raising it. Alas, that was not to be. I did introduce myself and ask if I could make a photo of him, a request to which he acceded with humility. He said his name but it was so multi-syllabic and foreign to my ears that mind unfortunately would not grasp onto it.