South African artist Marlene Dumas’ portrait paintings depicts the unglorified side of life; the mundane, sometimes morbid, mostly saddened, dispossessed expressions. Sprinkled with some overtly sexual gestures, they depict a human existence bent and shaped by an overwhelming invisible external force.
The Black Drawings (1992) which depict portraits of black people, and all the cultural feelings associated with this race of people, are presumably taken from polaroids arranged in a grid-like pattern. This is reminiscent of people catalogs, data bases of mugshots, which condemns them in a way before knowing anything else about them, and this grid arrangement was repeated in Chlorosis Love Sick (1994); a series of water-coloured bald women, Models (1994); a motley group of water-coloured men and women and Rejects (1994); the ones from Models (1994) that Dumas didn’t like, at first.
“Actually I’ve been busy with these two questions all my life – Why am I here and should I be here? ” Marlene Dumas 2012
Why she has stuck to doing portraits of regular people and not deviate to any other type of image over the past 40 years is intriguing. Indeed, it is in people that we gain the most meaning in our lives, but the dedication points to a desire, obsession even, to get to the bottom of something. The grid arrangement in its enormity, alludes to a certain ambiguity of intentions; is it a display, a glorification like a yearbook, a catalog for the socio-anthropomorphic or a catalog of suspects?
The desire to get to the bottom of what’s inside a person is evident in the self-portrait Evil Is Banal (1984) and Jule The Woman (1985), where aside from the eyes and lips, all the other parts of the body are blood red, as if her skin had been peeled off.
For Evil Is Banal (1984) the treatment is more subtle, metaphysical even, for there are no clues as to what exactly is so evil about the subject. Rather, what’s evil is hidden within her thoughts and manifested only in that thin sliver of white light reflected from her eyeballs.
In her essay, Every Prize Has Its Price (2012), Dumas recalls, with a certain amount of admiration, Jean Paul Sartre who in 1964 refused to accept the Nobel Prize for literature. She understood why (sort of), about not wanting to become an institution and inhibiting freedom. In her own experience, she came to Holland because she won a prize, but in winning, she also had to leave her mom which in a way (sort of) was the price to be paid.
Malevolent, with flashes of brilliant colours, and other times decrepit, she has a keen ability to weave in and out of focus, detailing usually around the eyes which incidently is a window to the soul. But it masks a deep condition, which is probably why she hasn’t done a picture of a pregnant woman, a woman giving birth, or even thought of it. Grinding, gnawing, always searching, it never stops, like being grabbed by the throat, there’s no escape.
The only reprieve, however temporary, the only solstice, is when one finds oneself unconsciousness, or having sex, (which incidently must be equal!) or overcome with loss felt at a funeral. But in the end, as usual, its back to the same out-of-the-darkness, grinding, suspicious yet melancholic, gnaw. Why else would one turn down a prestigious award?
Defying convention at every turn, the ‘kitschy’ and ‘idiosyncratic’ designs of Japanese architectural historian-turned architect Terunobu Fujimori belies the level of understanding garnered to achieve this particular blend of architectural alchemy. Like an eco-warrior from the post-modern 1980’s gone wild, here, form not only doesn’t follow function; in some cases ‘function’ for all intents and purposes, has been left to bite the dust.
How else could one explain, tea houses hanging in the air, suspended by cables or perched on top of tree trunks that are inaccessible except by lugging a 20 foot ladder across a field? Unless of course one considers the ‘higher’ function as the real function; the traditional Japanese requirement to struggle (nijiriguchi) in order to get to a place of worship. Which calls for thought; could these works be seen as a critique on the limitations of modernism, the narrow view on what’s considered ‘function’ or ‘functional’ or something that ‘works’? However, Japanese tea-rooms and tea-houses are not exactly places of worship, but more of a hybrid, contemplative, pseudo-spiritual event so there is some ambiguity here.
In the Takasugi-An a.k.a. Too High Tea House, the image of a skewed, orthogonal ginger bread house raised on tree trunks 30 feet off the ground, defies architectural typological convention; children’s fantasies aren’t taken very seriously in the world of elite architecture which is why tree houses never make it to the cover of such magazines. To make it worse, Fujimori’s design drawings are made to look childish, like a child did them.
But the image of the Takasugi-An, of a weightless stubby house floating in the air on top of tree trunks and the fantasy of weightlessness, is where there is convergence with high modern architecture. All the other parts are derived from traditional Japanese architecture and culture, albeit in more modest portions.
If anyone has ever wondered why the wood in traditional Japanese houses were always so dark, the Yakisugi Charcoal House (2007) demonstrates another lost idea from Japanese history; the charring of wooden boards which apparently seals it from water and fire. The trick however is to burn them brief enough without damaging their structural integrity and at lengths less than 6 feet so they wouldn’t warp.
Apparently Terunobu Fujimori was able to devise his own method of charring longer lengths at more precise amounts of time to have a uniform effect without the warping; the whole act of which is another break from conventional modern building wisdom which strives for efficiency and safety for more productivity. But this method is neither efficient nor safe, and is not particularly ‘pleasant’ (touching it would turn one’s hands would turn black) which begs another question; why would Fujimori be so adamant about using it?
The interior of the Yakisugi Charcoal House (2007) extends the earlier ideas of climbing up ladders to otherwise inaccessible places, with bedrooms now being accessed via specially made ladders through a literal ‘hole in the wall’, tree house style.
The tea room is also cantilevered at a proportion that depicts that fantasy of weightlessness, as does this little chimney/tower feature floating 5 feet over the ground in the middle of the side wall.
The Irisentei Tea House (Flying Mud Boat) (2010) is another BYOL (bring your own ladder) tea house, but itis a little bit different from from the Takasugi-An in that its round, egg shaped form makes it look like a futuristic flying ‘Flintstones’ house. Which is something Fujimori describes in interviews as a ‘Neolithic International Style’.
What’s interesting about the ‘Stork House’ in Raiding, Austria is that the element that was supposed to be elevated and suspended, the tea room, has been replaced by a house/place for birds to nest in. While it is unclear whether any birds actually do nest there, the gesture raises a question, in the cases where human and animal habitats overlap, which is whether sanctuaries can be built for the co-habitation with wild-life in our communities.
“I’m not making these works to succeed the Japanese tradition. I decided that I would never do two things; I would never assume the western or Japanese typology, nor the modern typology.” Terunobu Fujimori 2016
The traditional Japanese tea ceremony, I must say, is not easily understood. Is it a spiritual event, a social event or a time or corporate reminiscing of the past? If its spiritual, there aren’t any idols around, if social, people don’t seem to talk much at all. The natural surroundings do seem to be part of it, if only before and afterwards. In fact according to the official definition, it is all of the above. Spiritual without any overt iconography or gestures, a time of deep social bonding without any words being said and strict adherence to rules laid down centuries ago as a sort of anchor to cultural traditions. It is another form of ‘Japanese-ness’ which helps people reconnect to their identity.
While eschewing the formal arrangements of the traditional tea house (and ceremony), Fujimori has in fact adhered to its deeper, not so obvious, spiritual and social aspects. The getting on-your-knees and sliding-in gesture of the nijiriguchi has been replaced with the carrying, hoisting and climbing up of a 20′ ladder on the side of a mountain but its effects are the same; after all these physical tasks one should be pretty much free from worldly concerns, prior to entering the tea house space. Once inside, the formality of the traditional ceremony has been replaced with a casual, lighthearted approach which, depending on his mood during the day, would achieve a similar bonding effect.
But what to make of all the other aspects of Fujimori’s designs, where just as in the design of the traditional tea ceremony, there are so many apparent contradictions? Like not wanting to succeed the Japanese tradition or assume Japanese typology, yet the elevated tea house is somewhat reminiscent of the image of wooden Shinto temple scaled models on the shoulders of dancing men during festive occasions, and the usage of tree trunks as building columns which is similar to that found in traditional Japanese Imperial houses. He doesn’t want to be seen as doing something overtly ‘Japanese’, yet he uses rather peculiar elements of traditional Japanese architecture and peculiar technology in the case of charring wooden boards.
In interviews he has stated he doesn’t like the ‘fairy-tale’ quality of the Flying Mud Boat, yet most of his buildings have this ‘fairy-tale aesthetic’ to them, not to mention the childish-looking drawings associated. But these designs are somewhat of a rejection of the modern typology, with the usage of ladders as part of the circulation and the overt celebration of nature, even if he cheekily calls it the ‘Neolithic International Style’. Overrall, he has taken elements of traditional Japanese architecture and fused it with an almost pre-historic appreciation of nature to create his own particular style which happens to be a voice harking back to something fundamentally human and what’s required to sustain life.
A casual observation of American artist Glenn Ligon’s paintings and prints might lead one to believe that they are looking at the work of someone with developmental problems; text on paintings that express degenerate, deviant thoughts. One might also expect a frightful experience to hear him in person but his speech is so calm and eloquent that such expectations disappear, leaving one to wonder if the works are in fact done the same person.
Phrases that express racially and socially induced self-doubt and alienation repeat over and over again, filling the canvas and fading into oblivion, as the text, oil stick smudges and charcoal dust blend together into an undecipherable black or white mass, or mess. Taken from the works of canonical African American writers, his earlier works seem more emotional, expressing the feelings of what it might feel like to be a black person in America at the time, while the more recent works are conceptual, highlighting irony and inherent contradictions in society.
British artist Helen Marten’s sculptures seems to be a constellation of knick knacks, an un-decipherable pile of everyday objects in a white cube gallery space and called ‘art’ in the hand-out pamphlets, until one realizes that all of them are custom made and brand new. That they have been designed and constructed to look like bric-a-brac says something about the state of society where a blurring of what’s real and what’s fake contributes to the constructs of modern consciousness.
In this world, images appear and disappear, always visceral, never stops and is constantly changing. Sprinkled with graphical text and symbols every now and then, it is a celebration of the monumental and sometimes, frankly, the absurd. Here every object has a copy of itself somewhere either as an image or a cheaper ‘fake’ version or a plastic version that serves another purpose.
London based, German artist Andrea Buttner’s paintings, woodblock prints and sculptures challenge preconceived fundamental societal notions, entrenched connotations on words such as ‘rich’ and ‘poor’, ‘beautiful’ and ‘ugly’, what’s ‘little’ and the notion of aesthetics. She seems to be interested in focusing on the minorities, the ‘marginalized’, discarded attitudes of the art world, encouraging her own works, often described as ‘little’, to ‘fall down’.