Could this really be happening? Four years ago I wished for a way to play back the Golden Record, the earthly calling card stuck to the sides of the Voyager space probes nearly 40 years ago. I knew all the recordings and diagrams and photos Carl Sagan and friends recorded on there, but I wondered what it would actually be like to play it back? What would the 116 images turn out like if you played them off an analog record with a needle, and then assembled the 512 raster lines?
I wanted to find an extra Golden Record and play it, which turned out to be hard-to-impossible. And also unnecessary. [Though I'm still game, if you have a Golden Record I can borrow!] Because the Record has been played.
A few weeks ago, Man Bartlett tweeted about some strange electronic passages in a NASA recording of the Golden Record:
above/below: image of Earth, and image of Earth decoded from Voyager 1 by Kyle McDonald
Within a few minutes of Ranjit's decoding, code artist Kyle McDonald happened by, and blew things wide open with his distortion adjustments, which he promptly documented and pushed to github. So it just took four years and one serendipitous hour. And now we know that the images we've sent out into the universe look like a 1970s TV with a tinfoil antenna.
[Ibrahim] Mahama is largely concerned with the way in which these materials are given meaning as commodities, as well as literally, as products of a given environment. The economic circulation of the jute sack is informed both by various transferences of value (from the container of commodities to a unique commodity by appropriation) and processes of exchange (from the official Cocoa Board to the quotidian lives of traders and consumers).
- curator Osei Bonsu [via Ellis King]
And it goes on from there. Ibrahim Mahama is a 28-year-old Ghanaian artist whose large-scale installation of repurposed jute sacks, stitched and draped, provides the overwhelming coda to All The World's Futures, Okwui Enwezor's exhibition at the 2015 Venice Biennale. He's also been called "the next Oscar Murillo" by none other than Stefan Simchowitz, who claims he discovered the artist "on the Internet" and gave him his career. Now ArtNEWS is reporting that Mahama is being sued by Simchowitz and his dealer-partner Ellis King, for breaking their exclusive contract to represent him, and for "de-authenticating" nearly 300 [!] artworks he previously signed. The value of those artworks is now claimed to be nearly $4.5 million.
The complaint filed by Simchowitz in Central California Federal Court is eye-opening for its combination of candor, hubris, and delusion. [Here is a pdf, it's only 17 pages, so read the whole thing.] The ArtNEWS article explains the circumstances of Simcho's case very clearly, so read that, too. I don't need to recap it.
Ibrahim Mahama's 2013 installation at KNUST Museum, Ghana
What I find so extraordinary is Simcho's claims at having made Mahama's career and his audacious manipulation of Mahama's work. Let's look at the first one first:
8. Prior to meeting Simchowitz, Mahama had little, if any, recognition in the Western art world. Mahama had never displayed his work in any gallery or exhibit outside Ghana, either individually or as part of a group. He had made few sales of his work, if any. His work was not included in the collections of any museums, and exhibitions of his work were limited to Ghana. In short, Mahama was virtually unknown to the art world and had no experience exhibiting his art outside of his home country.
9. In or about 2012, Simchowitz contacted Mahama through Facebook. Simchowitz had seen photographs of some of Mahama's pieces online, principally consisting of draped jute coal sacks, and thought that he showed promise. Simchowitz eventually introduced Mahama to Ellis King, and the parties agreed to work together.
The timing here is not trivial, and Simcho's 2012 claim is vague at best. But in late 2012 Mahama showed one of his first jute sack installations during his MFA show at KNUST, El Anatsui's alma mater and the leading art school at the top university in Ghana. That's where artist/filmmaker/curator Nana Oforiatta Ayim scouted him out and began collaborating with him, introducing him to her international network. As Ayim put it:
I agreed to collaborate with him, connected him with collectors, wrote about him to institutions like the Tate and the Saatchi, to provide him a bridge at that early stage of his career. The art world, like so many others, is so full of corridors and gatekeepers that an artist, especially one working and living in Ghana, could go their whole lives without ever being able to sustain themselves through their work. I am a little weary of institutionalising this kind of 'residency' as I'm not keen on that particular play of power and never have been, the thought of myself as a purveyor whose word 'makes or breaks' an artist is a little sickening, as I don't adhere to that notion of privilege. And yet, there is no denying that an email here, a phone call there, from someone who has already built a reputation through their work, can enable an artist like Ibrahim to have his art seen in galleries and museums internationally, enable him to have a residency in London, to sell and provide himself an income, to stay living in Ghana rather than moving abroad, to not compromise on his vision.
And that is almost exactly what happened. In 2013 Mahama had a residency in London at Gasworks; created a jute sack installation at the Saatchi Gallery [and another in 2014]; and, according to the lawsuit, in October 2013 he agreed to sell Simcho & King six "Lots" of sewn jute sacks for £90,000. Two Lots, Simcho claimed, totaling about 5,000 sf, would be for two installations in King's Dublin gallery. In 2014 the other four "Lots" [which I estimate to have been 8-9,000 sf total] went to London where they were cut up and stretched to make 309 separate, painting-lookin' artworks in three different sizes [9x4.5', 8x4' and 6x3'].
Which would turn out to give the young Mahama a new perspective on commodity, appropriation, and the process of exchange. Simcho's suit says the "Contract" with Mahama was oral, yet there is obviously email traffic that flowed throughout the relationship. Mahama, the suit says, visited Simcho's guy in London "to oversee and approve the stretching process." Months later, in Dec. 2014, Mahama went to Dublin where he installed King's show, and where he "signed the 294 Individual Works."
"As a result [of the Dublin show in January 2015], the formerly unknown Mahama suddenly rose to fame," claims Simchowitz. This, after two shows at Saatchi, a London residency, participation in DAK'ART, the largest African biennial, and an announced show at The Mistake Room in Los Angeles, and certainly after the decision to be in Enwezor's Biennale [though two months before the public announcement]? No. Simchowitz did not make Mahama famous. He tried to buy big into momentum surrounding a clearly ambitious, talented, young--and recognized--emerging artist.
And then he sold big right ahead of the Biennale announcement. Simchowitz says he made Mahama's career, and made him famous, but the collectors he flipped to didn't even know who "the next Oscar Murillo" was they were buying: "I've sold Ibrahim's work to ten of my best collectors without telling them what they will be getting," Simcho told Los Angeles magazine, "I called it the Simchowitz Trust-Me Special."
Lot 107: Ibrahim Mahama, Untitled, 2014, "Signed and dated 'Ibrahim 2014' on the reverse." It already found its way from Simcho to secondary market dealer Inigo Philbrick, who cashed it out for £12,500 in June 2015. image:phillips
What would Mahama call it? Despite having sold the material and signing them, the artist clearly had second thoughts about the 300 stretched works, and about continuing with Simchowitz and King. Another important exploration of capital, commodification, exchange, and colonialism, I guess. During the Dublin show the artist cut ties, asserted that the 300+ works were no longer authentic, and claimed control and copyright over the installations.
The suit says 27 stretched works were sold for around $16,000 each. That's almost $450,000, at least double the dealers' entire outlay. The lawsuit is over the impending worthlessness of the remaining 282 stretched works, which comes to $4.45 million. Plus expenses. Simcho can't claim he lost money on Mahama; only that he hasn't made enough. And enough here means at least a 20x return.
So WTF. The copyright thing is a non-starter. The only way Simcho can claim copyright on artworks is if he claims he made them, in which case, they're even less than worthless, or he documents they were work-for-hire, which who even ever? The biggest issue of the lawsuit is whether it's even valid. Does Mahama selling entirely other work directly to an unidentified California collector give the court enough reason to examine events that transpired between parties in Ghana, London & Dublin? Lawyers can tackle that one.
It all leaves the question of the stretched artworks. Which, though he regrets it, Mahama was apparently involved in making. And signing. Part of me says, so what? Richter signs stuff that's not art. He excludes stuff that he's made and sold. Is an artist bound for life by every creative decision he makes at 26? That's the risk of buying early work from emerging artists. It might be famous someday, it might be worthless. Simcho's real problem is that he had 300 pieces of it. He tried to buy it all. He bought all the guy's materials in bulk, then he chopped them up. He turned installations into paintings. Not paintings in the art sense, but as a unit of exchange: painting like breaking a hundred into singles so it goes farther at the club.
Ibrahim Mahama, Adum Train Station installation, 2013, image via: publicdelivery
There is one subset of 15 unsigned works which might show Mahama the way out of this dispute. Simcho calls them "the California Works," because he has them:
Each of the unsigned pieces was created at the same time, in the same place, by the same person (Atkins), in the same manner, from the same materials, and for the same cost to Plaintiffs as the works Mahama did sign. On information and belief, Mahama did not provide any reason why he failed to sign the California Works.
59. Bearing Mahama's signature to verify their authenticity and provenance, the California Works may be sold for approximately $16,700 each. Without his signature, the pieces are simply jute coal sacks mounted to wooden frames, which impacts their commercial value.
He says "Simply jute coal sacks mounted to wooden frames" like it's a bad thing. Yet the transactional history, the embedded memory and experience, and the transformation of those jute sacks is at the core of Mahama's practice. What if he just kept on making them, as an infinite edition? Instead of de-authenticating Simcho's 300 Mahama pseudo-artworks, why not just devalue them, by making as many as anyone in the world wants?
Mahama employs the traders who provide him the bags to sew them. Usually they are undocumented migrant workers. So a big jute sack artwork export business would create jobs in Ghana. image: gasworks
Mahama could continue his jute sack acquisition process, and keep hiring his undocumented migrant merchant workers to sew them. And then he could sell these entry-level Mahamas for what Simcho paid: about $300, stretched. Make as many as the demand warrants, whatever the market will bear. It'd be like Olafur Eliasson's Little Sun solar lamp artwork, but in reverse. Like Danh Vo's father's calligraphy letters. Or Walter de Maria's infinite edition High Energy Units. Who says art has to be expensive, or that the white guy collector's the only one who can reap the profits from selling it? With Mahama's Stretched Art, Ghana can diversify from cocoa and develop an export market for the detritus of consumer capitalism transfigured into tasteful masstige commodities of criticality. Catch the vision!
The corrugated steel shells read a bit like train cars, but with an entire wall of glass, which made them perfect, someone figured, for showing painting. Which, Isa Genzken actually showed a resin sculpture. Gerhard Richter enclosed his gallery in walnut paneling. Adapted from simple, prefab industrial structures and raised on wooden pylons, were built to last the summer. They're still with us.
After documenta wrapped, the pavilions found their way to Almere, a planned Dutch city east of Amsterdam built on reclaimed land.
For nearly twenty years, they housed an arts center, and eventually a municipal museum called--De Paviljoens.
The architects compared it favorably to a caravan (trailer) park. It was the kind of place where kids could hang out underneath, no problem. It even looks to have inspired the modular manufactured insta-architecture of the school across the street. [Speaking of streets, I thought the museum being located on the corner of Odeonstraat and Slapstickpad was a fluke, but surfing around Google, Almere has the greatest street names in the world. The next neighborhood over is Comedy Caperstraat, which intersects streets named for Abbott, Costello, Laurel, Hardy, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin. There's even a David Nivenweg. Another neighborhood's named after directors, including Fassbinder, Tati, and Pasolini.]
Not sure what happened here, though. Looks pretty edgy!
The artist-themed neighborhoods include a Marcel Duchampstraat, but now the city has no museum. Dutch culture budget cuts hit The Pavilions hard, and though its website lives on, the museum closed for good in 2010. Developers [bought? got?] them, and In 2012, plans were announced to move the pavilions to the center of Nieuwe Stad (New City), an adapted reuse development of a former industrial site in Amersfoort, a city between Almere and Utrecht.
That finally happened, and just this summer, the pavilions hosted some big festival. Nieuwe Stad's slogan, DOE MEE IN DE PAVILJOENS! sounds hilariously worse in English.
I went to a gallery talk at the Hirshhorn by Amy Boyer, of the museum's education department, on their rare, early Jasper Johns work, Untitled (1954). It's one of just four known Johns works to survive destruction by the artist in 1954, because it was in someone else's possession. That someone was Rachel Rosenthal, an important friend and collaborator of Johns, whose face is cast in plaster there in the bottom. [Rosenthal sold the work to the Hirshhorn in 1987.]
In his 1996 conservation interview at the Menil with Carol Mancusi-Ungaro Johns noted that the collaged element in Untitled, probably shared paper and stationery from various "exotic," foreign sources with the work he made next, Untitled (Green Painting), which first belonged to Rosenthal's mother. [Asked her name, Johns replied with a laugh, "Mrs. Rosenthal."] The torn printed bits are overlaid with similarly sized fragments of brown tissue paper that veils but doesn't obscure the texts. A piece of glass is fitted over the collage, held between pairs of tiny nails in a fashion similar to Star, the Star of David-shaped painting Johns made for Rosenthal.
bad photo of a laserprint of a 2006 photo of the back of Johns' Untitled, 1954 via hirshhorn
But today the party was definitely in the back. Bower presented images taken at the Hirshhorn in 2006, which showed two images Johns had affixed, one to the canvas, and one to a wooden backing. They were identical white-on-black palm reading diagrams printed with the caption, "Hand of Accidents and Travels." Bower wondered if this indicated the work was originally intended to stand, like a sculpture, or possibly to be handled.
same, a detail: "Hand of Accidents and Travel"
Seeing the palm reading hands, along with the shape of the Untitled collage (16.4x7-inches), made me think of the Shirtboards collage/drawings Rauschenberg made in 1952 while traveling through Italy and Morocco with Cy Twombly. Bob would glue etchings and illustrations he found or bought in street stalls onto the leftover cardboards folded inside his laundered shirts. Hopps wrote that because Rauschenberg never framed the Shirtboards, "they exist potentially as hand-held objects."
Of the eleven elongated (14x5-in.) Shirtboards included in Walter Hopps' 1990 catalogue, ten were in the collection of the artist, the Sonnabends, or Sue Weil. The other one was listed as "lost or destroyed." It had a palm reading diagram, in black on white, the inverse of Johns's.
Did Johns bury Rauschenberg's Shirtboard palm down under the collage of Untitled, only to bring it back as an X-ray, or was he just giving Bob a secret high five?
I knew the show was controversial, and that black artists had rallied against it and similar flawed, tokenist shows in the works at the Whitney. But I never knew what the Met actually showed: basically, no art, just 2,000 photographs. Which, to the Met, in 1969, were emphatically not Art.
Which is not entirely fair. The show was conceived by the Met's hot new director Thomas Hoving, a former NYC Parks Commissioner who had been known, as Life magazine put it, as a proponent of "be-ins, love-ins, traffic-free bike rides, Puerto Rican folk festivals, and happenings." Harlem on My Mind was seen as a way to make the museum relevant to African American audiences, but also to bring the stodgy institution into the contemporary cultural discourse.
The show was curated by Allon Schoener, and designed by Harris Lewine and Herb Lubalin, who basically tried to remake their popular 1967 Jewish Museum show, Portal to America: The Lower East Side, 1870-1925, but for Harlem, circa 1900-1968. The show was explicitly didactic, a one-hour experience immersed in what Bridget R. Cooks, in her 2007 study of the exhibition, "a multi-media extravaganza."
In this sense, it hearkens back to World's Fair pavilion modes, or the immersive photo exhibitions of Edward Steichen-era MoMA, including the WWII shows and, obviously, Family of Man. Never mind that Roy deCarava and Gordon Parks, who'd actually been included in Family of Man, boycotted Harlem on My Mind, and then mobilized against it.
Anyway, the point is, there was a context for this show, several contexts, in fact, including for how the exhibition was designed, and what the experience of it was intended to be. And those contexts, especially the activism and protest the show engendered, have displaced the content and form of the show itself. The content was a paternalistic, problematic mess, in so many ways a failure, but the form was apparently successful--and is now lost and mostly forgotten.
phenomenal photocube totem columns in Harlem on My Mind: Cultural Capital of Black America, 1900-1968, Metropolitan Museum, 1969, img: The Met
Here are some of Cooks' descriptions:
Various wall layout designs were used throughout the galleries to display more than 2,000 photographs. Some walls held large-scale black and white photomurals eighteen feet in height and of varying widths.
Some walls were used dramatically as dark screens for projected images of Harlemites and street scenes from slide projectors suspended from ceiling tracks. Four-sided columns displayed photographs of Harlem buildings, streets, and residents in both formal portraits and informal community scenes. Some columns, topped with large photo-text cubes, stood over ten feet high in selected galleries as if they were free standing sculpture. Several of these towers highlighted notable Harlem figures such as elder resident Alice Payton "Mother" Brown and Billie Holiday in their respective decade galleries.
Speakers camouflaged in large cylinders, hung throughout the galleries, delivered Harlem street sounds and music to visitors. Films and videos were interspersed through the galleries to provide further information, and a closed-circuit television showed the real-time activity at the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 125th Street in Harlem. Photographs punctuated with text were suspended from the ceiling to create billboard-like visual timelines that marked important national events, such as the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, 1954. The exhibition was designed to provide a one-hour experience for each visitor. [emphasis added for awesomeness, awesomeness, and lol srsly?, respectively.]
To this viewer, there is something terribly American about "Harlem." It panders to our penchant for instant history, pack- aged culture, the kind of photojournalistic "experience" that puts us at a distance from the experience itself. Instead of the full, rich, Harlem brew, it presents a freeze-dried Harlem that does not even hint at flavor.
Harsh, but admit it, the Harlem-cam had it coming.
Anyway, I want to make these photototems now, or rather, see them exist again. I'd hope not, but I think they'd be all kinds of problematic all over again if I made them. I just hope they could exist again, as the alluring, outraging failures they were. Because they do feel terribly American to me, too, and terribly New York. I think a trip to the Met's archives is in order.
In a moment of procrastinatory weakness I was transfixed by a series of images Chris H. tweeted, of artworks from the mid-80s. What stopped me was this work by Mark Stahl, made from "acrylic on canvas with two towel dispensers", from 1987. I'd never heard of Stahl, but it felt like suddenly learning Rachel Harrison was adopted.
A rapid Google blitz turns up nearly nothing at all, but hints of undigitized reviews and group shows-and some of the world's most disheartening no-reserve auction results. [Stahl apparently showed at Massimo Audiello v1.0 (EV) and 2.0 (SoHo)]. The few images online include several painted assemblages made with "fiberglass rocks" and bathroom items. Like the decorative towels and accessories in this installation shot from, hey ho, Art & Public, Geneva, 2011.
Situation New York was Pierre Huber's wide-eyed look back at the New York art world of 1986 that set him on his lifelong path. Through Olivier Mosset and John Armleder, he hooked up with Bob Nickas, who dragged him all over town. And the rest was history.
Looking at CAD's other installation shots, including this one with a great Steven Parrino [a longtime Nickas favorite], I was amazed to see this big, shiny screenprint-on-polished metal, which looked very Noland-esque. Except for the matching frames and the lack of a disclaimer, of course. Except, it is Cady Noland, a 2-panel work called Institution as pornography, showing a photo of a candystriper nurse with an IV stand and a drip. It's from 1988, so I guess a later trip.
b. 1965, and he made these things in 1987? He was a child! That can't be right.
Huber's checklist for Situation New York has brief bios for each artist-except Stahl: "Il n'y a plus de nouvelles de cet artiste." To which I say, "On verra."
Morning After Update
Mark Stahl, Death at Indy 500... or look into the disparities of this long-lived commerce (1981-84), installed in Jenny Holzer / Stephen Prina / Mark Stahl / Christopher Williams at de Appel, Amsterdam, Dec. 1984. image: deappel.nl
Stahl showed a work titled, Death at Indy 500...or look into the disparities of this long-lived commerce (1981-84). It appears to have consisted of a print of a newspaper sports page (maybe from when driver Gordon Smiley was killed in a crash during time trials in 1982); a detail from a photo of what appears to be the moment a guy is hit by debris; and a card with the work's title. But in addition to the Indy 500 (Memorial Day), the newspaper includes reports of Angels (baseball), Rams (football), the Cal 500 (a September race). The timing does not add up. Something is afoot.
The fundamental contradiction between art's relative isolation from other cultural practices and many artists' conviction that art has an immediate social relevance is, in part, the consequence of the very institutionalization of the avant-garde.
Yep, sounds like CalArts alright.
OK, here's a bio. Crousel & Goodman both did a Prina/Stahl/Williams group show. "When Attitudes Become Form" and "Post-Abstract Abstraction" are both Nickas joints, no surprise. Now I really have to get back to work.
Cover, "Why We Should Talk About Cady Noland", a zine published by Brian Sholis in 2004, image: archive.org
It's been a while since I've put up an edition of Better Read, audio works made from worthwhile art texts read by a machine. But yesterday I listened to "Why We Should Talk About Cady Noland," Brian Sholis' 2004 zine essay while I was working, and I decided to clean it up for public enjoyment. Which basically involves extra punctuation marks to smooth the flow, and tweaking the spellings so the computer voice will read French or German plausibly.
As the title implies, Sholis's essay argued for the continued relevance of Noland's work and writing at a time when firsthand encounters with both were hard to come by. Now it's also a useful reminder that there's more to talk about than auction prices and lawsuits.
One example, in her first interview session, Weil talked about the collapse of her marriage to Rauschenberg in the Summer of 1951, just as Christopher was being born, and of the aftermath, raising him as a single parent. [Bob was at Black Mountain College during the birth, then soon took up with Cy Twombly and headed to Europe for 17 months. By 1953-4, Rauschenberg was back in New York, way downtown, and in a relationship with Jasper Johns.]:
And was Bob able to see him from time to time?
WEIL: Yes. Particularly when he was in New York, that worked out. He would see him from time to time. But Christopher, he always--they'd try to do things together, and of course at that time, Bob was really into making his art life bigger and broader. So he'd often cancel meetings with Chris, because he would have a meeting with a museum person or something.
And so Bob was supposed to take Chris to the circus, and he said, "Well, Mom, he probably won't be able to come, because he'll have something more important." And I felt so terrible. And of course he did come, but Christopher had it all in his head that he was not at the top of the list.
"I hope that you still like me Bob cause I still love you. Please wright me back love LOVE Christopher." And there's a circus clown in the corner. Same circus? Who can say? What's notable is not whether Rauschenberg was a good dad, but that he incorporated the letter in his artwork, and how.
Untitled (1954-58), also called Untitled (Man with White Shoes) and Plymouth Rock, collection: MOCA, image: RRF
The letter is just below and to the left of an overexposed headshot of a toddler Christopher, but the handwriting is not that of a 3-year-old. Though it's dated 1954, Rauschenberg clearly kept working on Untitled for several years. This photo of the artist's studio shows that Christopher's letter and photo were on there by 1958, though, the year of his (and Johns') breakout shows at Castelli.
Rauschenberg in his Front St. studio in 1958, with various combines behind him. photo: Kay Harris via RRF
When I first connected Weil's story with Christopher's letter, it was tragic and infuriating. Rauschenberg wasn't busy meeting any museum people between 1954-58, he was just not seeing his son. But in Weil's later tellings, with her son sitting alongside her, a much more sanguine version emerges; as he got a little older Christopher recalled hanging out at his dad's and helping him make work. He was a teenage studio assistant on screenprinting, rollerskated inside, and helped unleash the turtles at E.A.T.'s 9 Evenings. In short, it got better. And in retrospect, putting his son's letter and photo on a sculpture meant he saw it every day; Rauschenberg used his combine as the studio equivalent of the refrigerator door, sitting right in that gap between art and life.
The first successful photographic image of the sun's corona was taken 164 years ago today. A daguerrotypist named J. Berkowski was brought to the Royal Observatory in Königsberg, Germany (now Kaliningrad, Russia) by the director, Augustus Busch, to record a solar eclipse on 28 July 1851. According to this 2005 paper in Acta Historica Astronomiae, Berkowski soon made some daguerrotype reproductions. Busch commissioned Robert Trossin of the Royal Academy of Painting to make a steel engraving of the daguerrotype. In 1891, CFW Peters had Berkowski's original daguerrotype photographed for publication. It has since been lost.
The moon in the 2nd-generation daguerrotype is tiny: 8.7mm across. The original was under 8mm. The Jena print is thus only around 5x6cm, as wide as the screen on an iPhone 4s, but shorter. It was recently conserved, and the Google translation makes me wonder if images of the daguerrotype have been Photoshopped a bit.
I don't expect to beat diehard collectors of Prussian daguerrotypes to the rediscovery of another of Berkowski's prints. It would probably be easier to start from scratch and make a new daguerrotype of a solar eclipse somewhere.
Eventually, a more substantive footer will go here, but for now, it's just the copyright notice. copyright greg allen & greg.org, 2001-2015, quote, link & excerpt away, but no commercial reuse without permission.