Amar Kanwar’s The Torn First Pages

Last September was the first anniversary of what’s now called the Saffron Rebellion, where Burmese monks took to the streets to protest the military government. As a commemoration of that movement, the Stedelijk Museum showed the first of three parts of Indian artist/documentary filmmaker Amar Kanwar’s work in progress about the Burmese resistance.
The title of the project is The Torn First Pages, 2004, which is a reference to the private, anonymous rebellion of a bookshop owner named Ko Than Htay, who was imprisoned for tearing out the first page of everything he sold, pages which contained mandatory praise for the junta.
Parts of footage for The Torn First Pages come from Burmese democracy activists, who surreptitiously tape and smuggle their work to Kanwar in India.
Kanwar talks about the work with the Stedelijk curator above:

I felt that everybody who writes, be it a poem, be it a novel, be it a fashion magazine, whatever, in one way or the other is indebted or connected to Ko Than Htay, because he’s tearing the first page out from any author. It’s not necessarily a specific book. So in a way, I felt that artists of all kinds, writers of all kinds are connected to this. And in many ways what this is all about is your own relationship with authority and your own defiance. Your own need for defiance. Your own articulation. It’s not necessarily that this articulation is going to become public or recognized. So in some way, in order to understand Burma, if one can understand Ko Than Htay and this act of tearing the first page, you can understand what’s happening in Burma. And if you can understand that, you can understand your own life, regardless of where you are.

The Torn First Pages is about presenting evidence of a terrible series of crimes, evidence of amazing resistance. In a way, it’s about saying maybe poetry also has a presence, a validity, in a court of law.

Everything you remember, there’s a way to remember. If you remember in a particular way, if you look in a particular way, you’re looking only so that it clarifies you in the present. The purpose of clarifying you in the present is only so that you can take a step forward. In that sense, the act of remembering is really the act of moving forward in time.

Longtime readers of may remember my swooning at Kanwar’s work when I saw it at documenta 11 in 2002.
Amar Kanwar- The Torn First Pages (Part I), 5.09.08 – 1.10.08 []

Video Artist Guy Ben-Ner on WPS1

guy_ben-ner_elia.jpgGuy Ben-Ner’s in the zone these days; his ingenious video, “Elia – a story of an ostrich chick,” made like one of those anthropomorphizing Disney nature documentaries from the 50’s, is included in PS1’s Greater NY show. Now, he’s representing Israel in the Venice Biennale.

At Venice, Ben-Ner talks with PS1 curator Bob Nickas about his work and how he uses adaptive techniques for shooting under directorial duress. He references silent film, in which the camera couldn’t move, and nature documentaries, where you can’t direct animals. Ben-Ner uses his kids in his videos, which requires a certain creativity to get anything down on tape.

Ben-Ner’s segment lasts about 15 minutes, and then Nickas and his too-smart sidekicks spiral out of control, gushing over Vezzoli’s Caligula trailer–in exactly the critically unaware way that bugs so bad. While Ben-Ner sits silently by for the next 30-40 minutes, the curator/writer conversation encapsulates exactly the kind of hermetic, bitchy Venetian oneupsmanship that shouldn’t be recorded, much less broadcast. Don’t miss it.

WPS1 Venice Conversation – The Bob Nickas Roundtable
[, updated link to, July 2018]

A 4 week-old baby reviews the Whitney Biennial

She slept through the almost the whole thing*. Until we walked into the Cecily Brown gallery, when she started screaming at the top of her lungs. On this advice, we cut our visit short, leaving via the elevator so as not to disrupt the Julianne Swartz sound installation in the stairway.)
* Truthfully, she also shattered the misty calm of the Gran Canaria forest in Craigie Horsfeld’s video room with a post-bottle burp worthy of a trucker.

Venice: Vidi, Bitchy

The Venice Biennale is finally over open, and not a day too soon. For a bunch of whiny Americans, anyway. In the Times, Carol Vogel complains about having to see art “amid relentless heat intensified by the power needed for lighting and video installations.” Meanwhile, artnet’s Walter Robinson, an apparent Venice virgin, complains about having to see art in “some historic buildings,” the heat and the dearth of video. [After the massive sucking sound that was 2001’s video choices, less is definitely more, Walter.]
Lisa Dennison, chief curator of the Guggenheim (“Where the sponsor’s always right!”), complained to the Times about the curators having too much say. [Or the Guggenheim not having enough: they apparently lobbied hard for Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle to be chosen for the Guggenheim-owned American Pavilion. Fred Wilson got it instead.]
Wilson has an African street vendor selling fake purses at the entrance to his installation of Venetian Moor-related art. Via Vogel: “Richard Dorment, an American who is an art critic for The Daily Telegraph of London, said he was speechless when he saw the pavilion. ‘To put a seller of handbags in front of a pavilion is condescending to both Americans and Venetians,’ Mr. Dorment said. ‘This is a person, not a work of art. Where are the days when major American artists represented our country?'”
[Rowrr. Dorment apparently lived up to his name; his sniping ignores 1) the inside of the pavilion, which many people praised, 2) the major majorness of the 2001 show’s Robert Gober, and 3) Maurizio Cattelan showing a buried person–an Indian fakir, whose praying hands stuck out of the sand–in 1999. And besides, in 2001, Venice was plastered by billboards for some museum exhibition which pulled the same street vendor stunt as Wilson.]

Elmgreen and Dragset, Spelling UTOPIA, image:
Elmgreen & Dragset’s e-flux poster, starring Lala, image:

People, if you’re looking for Pitti, it’s in Florence. Venetian art parties rank below even Cannes film premieres on the Burdens Likely To Evoke Sympathy scale. It’s a lesson well learned by the Guardian’s Cannes crank, Fiachra Gibbons, who clearly looked on the bright side in Venice. His reports are giddy fun, from his Black Power shoutout for Wilson’s work, and Chris Ofili’s British pavilion to his star-struck love letter to Lala, the diva chimpanzee star of “Spelling U-T-O-P-I-A”, by my pals Elmgreen & Dragset. [There’s something for the blogosphere to figure out: at what point does “in the interest of full disclosure” become “shameless touting of my connection to famous friends”? Ask me tomorrow when I post about my friend, Olafur Eliasson.]
As I sit here in New York, recovering from my A/C-induced cold, I’m working on an “I Survived the Venice Biennale” T-shirt, for those who truly suffer for art. Stay tuned (or feel free to send a design suggestion or two).

One Million Years (Future), on MP3

Last year, I wrote about the utterly moving experience of On Kawara’s work, One Million Years (Past) at Documenta XI. Now, I find the brilliant art site, ubu has put out a 73-minute excerpt of One Million Years (Future) in mp3. (Heads up: it’s 105Mb.)

On Kawara exhibition,
On Kawara @ Dia, 1993, photo: Cathy Carver, image:

Originally intoned for the first time in an exhibition at Dia in 1993, “with the CD the amount of time is limited, 74 minutes [sic], and contains a set number of years (1994 AD to 2613 AD), thus transforming the infinite time of the exhibition into the finite time of the CD.”
From their About page:

UbuWeb posts much of its content without permission; we rip full-length CDs into sound files; we scan as many books as we can get our hands on; we post essays as fast as we can OCR them. And not once have we been issued a cease and desist order. Instead, we receive glowing e-mails from artists, publishers and record labels finding their work on UbuWeb thanking us for taking an interest in what they do; in fact, most times they offer UbuWeb additional materials. We happily acquiesce and tell them that UbuWeb is an unlimited resource with unlimited space for them to fill.

On Kawara bonus: Dia: Beacon opens this weekend.

Peter Schjeldahl reviews Documenta 11

Peter Schjeldahl reviews Documenta 11 in this week’s New Yorker. He snidely and wearily compliments the show for its “robust, mature…festivalism,” which I take to mean they figured out how to show video-based works. But he at least notices two of my Documenta favorites. On Amar Kanwar’s documentary: “a stunning exploration of the Pakistani-Indian military frontier in Kashmir…[and] skillful, alluring, and notably uncomplaining.” (Gee, sorry to disappoint you, Peter.) On Gabriel Orozco’s terra cotta bowls: the “always witty” artist’s “work’s bristling joke…also invokes the anti-stereotype of a Mexican who is lousy at pottery…” (Huh?? And the one about the pollack who graduated from college?)
Ultimately, though, the real reason I’m linking to Schjeldahl’s review is because he was staying at my hotel in Kassel. Yes, I slept with Peter Schjeldahl.

Still in Kassel, at

Still in Kassel, at least mentally. The bad news first: Michael Kimmelman’s embarassing writeup of Documenta 11 in todays NYTimes is not only self-contradictory, but almost every complaint or criticism he makes of the show can be refuted by the contents of the show itself.

Maybe it’s telling that we approached the show from different angles, literally. He arrived via Cologne, where the Matthew Barney show just opened, and so he supposes that Barney’s work is “just what Documenta 11 is reacting against but could do with a little more of.” I, in the mean time, came via Basel, the world’s biggest contemporary art fair, where the hottest souvenir turned out to be the “I Survived Cremaster 3” T-shirts, which were handed out surreptiously (at first) among the hubris-weary dealers and consumers.
While I do agree with one of Kimmelman’s statements– “It leaves me edified and a little sad” –I doubt we’re sad about the same thing. He lamented “didactic” overly serious, homogeneity and an indifference to “art.” But there were beautiful, moving works that spoke (both directly and obliquely) to injustice, hatred, violence, decay, abuse of power, and any number of important problems facing the world (go ahead, zoom in, and say they face the west, the east, the country, the city). As Documenta 11 makes a very persuasive argument that art can and does matter to the world outside a museum or a gallery, Kimmelman, inexplicably, seems to be pining for irrelevance and overwhelming self-referentiality. There’s a time for that: it’s called 1999.
A Season Outside, video still, Amar Kanwar, 1998

Now the good news: One of those works is Amar Kanwar’s 1998 documentary, A Season Outside. It begins with scenes of the bizarrely ritualized gate-closing ceremony that takes place at the Kashmiri border of India and Pakistan. Citizens of each country cheer on their own soldiers, who high-step and prance agressively like armed peacocks. Literally, each step a guard makes is matched by the his counterpart, a ridiculous, bravado-blind tit-for-tat that prefigures the blustery statements politicians are making today. It’s breakdancing, but with nuclear missiles. The filmmaker’s voiceover describes a feeling of inevitability and impending disaster, and the crowd of men onscren turn out to be wagering on a pair of rams repeatedly set loose to butt heads.
Refusing either pessimism or cynicism, Kanwar poetically explores the philosophy of nonviolence, even as covert video shows gangs of Chinese soldiers clubbing Tibetan monks. When Kanwar asks a monk if all the injustice they face doesn’t demand a forceful response, the monk replies, “whatever be the way, I must not return pain for pain, evil for evil.” Here’s a work made five years ago that directly speaks to the greatest threat to the world at this very moment and that presciently implicates the exact word George Bush wields as his religio-political sword. The more I remember it, the more impressed I become with A Season Outside, the sadder I become for the current total absence of nonviolence as an element of the debate in the US, and the more I feel that art could play a powerful role in shifting that debate.
[Here is an early review from (in German). Run the URL through Babelfish for a rough translation. Excerpt: “Amar Kanwar’s contribution lives on hinreissenden [ravishing, I think] pictures, detailed observations and a melancholy, which seek to mediate between past and future.” ]

Setting: Fredericianum, Documenta 11, Kassel,

Setting: Fredericianum, Documenta 11, Kassel, Germany
The voice of a woman reading from within a freestanding glass booth echos through the gallery: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand four hundred and twelve. B.C.
You watch, slightly amused. A set of black binders in a vitrine bear the title, One Million Years (Past and Future). One binder is open, showing columns of numbers, years. A couple enters the gallery and stops right in front of the booth. If it were the window to someone’s home, they’d be standing invasively close. They stare into
The voice of a man reading from within the booth: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand four hundred and eleven. B.C.
the booth. The woman acknowledges them, but doesn’t speak. They keep staring for a moment, then move on. The gallery is basically square, typically classical, on the central axis of the building, with an extremely high, domed ceiling. The doorways are placed enfilade, creating a path for traffic right in front of the booth. That booth is kind of nice, though. Seamless, slightly grey glass. At least ten feet high, including the suspended ceiling and diffused lighting. Grey carpet, a black table with two places. One chrome mike stand, one binder,
Woman: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand four hundred and ten. B.C.
and one glass of water for each place. A pile of CD jewel cases on the floor? Ah, they’re recording this, too. (Wouldn’t you? I mean, how much would it be to get interns to record this for you?) How long will it be before the guy reads his next year? If they cough, does that get edited out of the CD, or do they leave it in? More people walk in, pause, smirk at each
Man: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand four hundred and nine. B.C.
other, look at the label, and move on. OK, now time the interval. Well, maybe later. I mean, they’ll be there a while, right? You move on to the next gallery. Hmm. Not very interesting. The next one is dark, though. A row of thirty or so film projectors lined up on a shelf that spans the entire gallery, but they’re not on. Ein Tagebuch (A Diary) by Deiter Roth. It starts at 11:00, in just about
Woman’s voice, still audible: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand four hundred and eight. B.C.
five minutes. Push ahead and come back. You know, there are all those little photos culled from Der Spiegel. That should take about five minutes.You head back through the central gallery, past the booth again. Do those people in there think you’re lost? or at least aimless? En route, you try to look purposeful, make eye contact, acknowledge their humanity, their contribution to art and culture. You get it, after all. You know On Kawara’s paintings, too, so,
Man: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand four hundred and four. B.C.
The photos are small, pinned under glass, and extend all the way around the gallery. There’s a crowd. a riot, a group of soldiers. Another crowd. Demonstraters in handcuffs. Billy clubs. Another crowd, another riot, another, another. Isa Genzken has found an unsettling aesthetic similarity between these photos spanning decades of unrest and violence on every continent. Now the game is to identify the country and the
Man: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand three hundred and seventy nine. B.C.
era from the clothing the subjects wear and the cars and advertisements in the backgrounds. You check your watch. Almost five minutes. You hustle back through the galleries just as two attendants are signalling each other. They start the projectors from the outside moving in. Little home movie-like images slowly populate a grid on the wall, which the attendants focus and fine tune. Roth’s explanation is in the catalog: “I wanted to show my daily life in the films here…so I didn’t have to do anything courageous…For instance, it would be courageous to make a point
Woman: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand three hundred and seventy four. B.C.
of showing badly made films individually; but because I’m afraid of this kind of exposure, I will show 30 films of this kind at once–a flickering, which dazles and distracts from the poverty of each individual film.” Hmm. Sound like weblogging to me. Looks like it, too. You head back to watch the rest of that documentary on the India-Pakistan border which revitalizes the philosophy of non-violence, considered “quaint” (when it’s considered at all), passing once again through the
Man: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand three hundred and sixty one. B.C.
gallery with the booth. But this time something hits you and you stop. The cycles of life, violence, death, the attempts of people to make sense of it, to be remembered, to gain dignity and avoid embarassment, the lessons unlearned over centuries of conflict, the conceptual memento mori offering no illusions of progress or respite, the same inexorable flow of time giving unexpected comfort that things will pass. You choke back tears as you take up place against the door jamb, yielding to the years that pass over you. The woman looks up briefly, acknowledging my humanity, my contribution to art and culture, and then turns her eyes back to her page.
Woman: Nine hundred eighty eight thousand three hundred and sixty. B.C.

Report from Kassel: Got back

Report from Kassel: Got back Saturday, after an ultimately successful and fulfilling trip, but with entirely too much driving. Friday afternoon, the Documenta technical office installed a new monitor in the Ashkin piece, calibrated the timing of the three monitors, and started it up again–all under the watchful eyes of Okwui Enwezor, Carlos Basualdo, and myself. (It turns out the Ashkin was the only piece in the entire show not visible on Thursday, so it would’ve been a priority for them even if I hadn’t turned up.) Okwui was effusive and smooth in his apologies, and they were both stoked about the piece, which they’d first seen at Andrea Rosen Gallery in Jan. 2000. [click on “artists” and “michael ashkin” to see stills and installation photos.] People seemed to respond well to the piece, at least during the 90 minutes or so that I watched it. The video consists of shots (with fixed camera & ambient sound) of an overgrown, abandoned proving ground at Sandy Hook, NJ, which progress on three large monitors. These multiple views create a very spatial experience, an understanding of this otherwise unreadable (or at least unusual) landscape. Basically, it rocked.
While waiting for the afternoon installation of the monitor, I was able to watch most of most of the Igloolik documentaries (that’s not a typo). It was both a revelation and a relief; these shows were clearly prelude to Atanarjuat, both in story and technical terms. It takes at least a little pressure off to know that it didn’t just spring fully formed from Zacharias Kunuk’s head and win Best First Feature Award at Cannes.

KASSEL – A mammoth contemporary

KASSEL – A mammoth contemporary art exhibition. First things first: Documenta 11 is at least an order of magnitude better than last year’s Venice Bienale, and not just because it’s not so freakin’ hot. While pursuing some gratuitous VIP ego-stroking (I’d just come from Basel, what do you expect?), I wandered into the Documenta Lounge, where I met Okwui Enwezor, curator-for-life and the suavest guy in town. [As of today, the catalog’s not on Amazon, but these “Documenta” books are.]
Even though there is at least as great a percentage of video-based art, it is far more engaging, engrossing, and better presented than the depressing gauntlet of the Arsenale. Presentation seems to vary and complement the work, with some stadium-style seating platforms (for Isaac Julien, Steve McQueen, and one more I don’t remember); futon-like benches for Craigie Horsfield’s 4-wall meditation, and more standard black box theater/rooms for others. Who suffered? Shirin Neshat’s film–shown on two opposing walls like her breakthrough piece at Venice in 1997– is beautiful and back on track, but the room is cramped and clogged with lost-looking people. Igloolik, Zacharias Kunuk’s production company (as well as the name of the Inuit town where he is based), is showing 13 documentaries on 13 wall-mounted monitors in the loong central hallway of the main venue; there’s a bench all along the wall, but it seems shortchanged. (Although I’m hard-pressed to think of a better way to show 13 Inuit documentaries in an art gallery… Compared to Atanarjuat, they’re like a full season of The Real World: Igloolik.
There are installations with video, too, but for some reason I found them almost universally lacking. They included Chantal Akerman’s multi-channel “real-time” piece on immigration, the INS and the Arizona border, which was like wandering around a darkened Circuit City and seemed full of an outmoded French smugness. (If she’s critiquing France’s own immigration problems through a self-righteous ‘exploration’ of US/Mexico, doesn’t seem too guilt-ridden to me.) Joan Jonas…I forget, but I just couldn’t watch any of it. And a net-based piece by, which included a synthetic voice intended to read the webpages on the monitor was, instead, reading the error page from Internet Explorer.
So why am I really dwelling on the challenges and vagaries of video-based art? Because I hauled my sorry butt to Kassel to see one work, a three-channel video installation by an artist whose work has been very important to me (and who has been a friend) for a long time, Michael Ashkin. I happen to have bought this work, Michael’s first video piece, more than two years ago. I was extremely excited when he told me he was included in Documenta, and both honored and excited when he said he would include this video piece as well. Since the piece requires a large room, three flatscreen monitors on large pedestals, and a central bench, we’ve never installed it (although we play the DVD’s from it one at a time on our TV). Earlier in the week at Basel, many people (most of whom didn’t know I had the work) spoke very highly of Michael’s pieces here, and the installation itself is wonderful. EXCEPT FOR THAT ONE MISSING MONITOR AND THE “OUT OF ORDER” SIGN ON THE WALL.
Fortunately, I’d just sat through an amazing work (A Season Outside by Amar Kanwar, an Indian documentary filmmaker) which dwelt beautifully on Gandhi’s and the Dalai Lama’s teachings of non-violence. [I have to write about Kanwar later. His work made a real impression on me.] I found the head of technical services and calmly talked to him about the missing (broken, actually) monitor. Of course, fixing it was already a concern for him, and by the afternoon, he said the replacement would be installed tomorrow morning. The piece would be back in action Friday morning, noon at the latest. So, I am staying an extra day to see it. Thus, the vagaries of video-based art are transformed from institutional inconvenience to personal crisis.

BASEL – A mammoth contemporary

BASEL – A mammoth contemporary art fair. A pleasant scattering of familiar faces and new (and old) work by favorite artists. And tons of work by artists I don’t really care for. A surprise DJ/friend from NYC turning up at a gallery dinner/party. Drivng down the tram-only lanes of the road, thereby frightening my euro passengers nearly to death. A great crew from the uber-art magazine, Frieze. Getting magazines –not just flyers–under the windshield wipers of my car. Favorite cover story from Art Investor magazine: “Die Big Spenders.” (note: the magazine’s in German. I imagine the German “Die” jokes wear pretty thin pretty quickly if you spend any time here.)

While on vacation, we took

While on vacation, we took a weekend trip to Venice to see the Biennale, a sprawling exhibition of contemporary art. With some exceptions, the art was a tremendous disappointment. Chicken & egg, I don’t know, but most of the work either strained to stand out and provide some immediate, breakout, experience right then and there; or else it required time, consideration, and contemplation which the festival format inexorably discourages. In this oppressively large exhibition, the apparent subtlety and understatement of two installations appealed to us greatly: Robert Gober’s installation in the American Pavilion and a cafe project/installation credited to the artists Olafur Eliasson, Tobias Rehberger and Rikrit Tiravanija. Understatement is problematic, though, and in ways that concern me as I try to make a documentary that is, itself, unpretentious yet affecting and lasting. Also, these works made me even more aware of how important/complicating are the expectations/experience a viewer brings with him. Let me explain a bit:

In each room of the Jefferson-esque pavilion, Gober carefully places a few objects or assemblages that appear to be found or flotsam, but which turn out to be meticulously hand-crafted re-creations: styrofoam blocks, plywood, an empty liquor bottle. In the corner of each room, there was a white, plastic-looking chair. Were they part of the piece? Gober’s certainly done chairs before. [see an image] [read an essay] We debated, looked for evidence of the chairs’ handmade-ness (which we found), but decided they weren’t. (Clue: they weren’t lit like the other objects. Sure enough, they were for the guards.)

After walking ALL over the two main exhibition venues in Venice’s August heat, we took refuge in the “Refreshing Cafe,” which was credited to the three artists above. The cafe was a series of tables, some white lacquer columns/stools, and a counter/bar under an overturned swimming pool-like form propped up by pistons. It was a rare and welcome retreat from the heat and from the overwrought video art of the show. It wasn’t really clear what the contribution of the artists was, but an improvised cafe with a few mod-looking furniture pieces certainly seemed in keeping with the other works of these artists. Just last night, though, I ran into one of the three and complimented him on having made one of the few pieces we liked in the whole show. Turns out that not only did the three of them not really do anything with the piece, what they did do had been completely altered by the exhibition authorities, calling the existence of the “work” into question.

  • This is kind of unnerving; when understatement is the goal or medium of a work, how do you differentiate it from (or not mistake it for) the “non-art” around it? Do you?
  • What does this mean for the artist and the creation process?
  • When looking at/for art, do we readily give artists we like/know more latitude, more time, the benefit of the doubt? Does this blind us to other experiences or discoveries? Is it a sign of dulling of critical approach or increasing orthodoxy?