Art Works As Memos From The Past: Paris/Barcelona Gallery Roundup

What better place to begin an art vacation than with a visit to one of the 20th Century’s most contentious and influential sculptures at the Centre George Pompidou? The slippery slope of the readymade set in action by Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain (featured in the Pompidou’s Modern art gallery space) and its history did not surface in the many progressive exhibitions in Paris and Barcelona. In Paris, the Musee d’art Moderne is exhibiting forty-five collages and drawings by writer Henry Darger, shown for the first time outside of the Darger estate.

Barcelona’s contemporary art galleries review avant-garde oeuvres, political situations and our current moment in the context of past proposals for living in the new millennium. Many of Barcelona’s exhibitions are timely reflections on Catalunya’s current political separatist climate and continuing housing crisis, but La Virreina image centre, and The Blue Project Foundation present international contemporary artists, and represent situations of global crisis.

Musee d’art Moderne, Henry Darger, 29 May to 11 October

Henry Darger’s practice, driven by one singular life-long project is an epic tale accounting for the ravages of the American civil war, WWI, WWII and periods of peace. Months before his death the artist’s 15,000 page story The Story of the Vivian Girls in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (The Story of the Vivian Girls in the Realms of the Unreal for short) and two cycles of illustrations were found by photographer Nathan Lerner.

Written between the early 1910’s to the late 1930’s the tale accounts for the war of the Abbieannian and Angelinians (Christian nations) against the evil, child-enslaving Glandelinian nation. Imbued with the weight of real world issues such as religion and colonial histories, the Vivian girls also encounter characters of fantastical origins. On more than one occasion, the seven sisters are rescued by the Blengiglomeneans (various combinations of serpents, human and insect).

In the first visual cycle completed circa 1915-1930 Darger illustrates the protagonists including the generals, national flags, and battle plans. Their adventures described in great detail are nonetheless placeless. Nations have symbols, battles have plans, but the exact geographies are not developed. The narrative unfolds instead as a series of explosive, violent events. The written story would also be timeless were it not for the second series of illustrations completed between 1930-1972. The evolution in style of his source material and newspaper collage cutouts reveals a large lapse in real time. The second series are large scenes of extreme violence, and floral, vibrant periods of peace that have been traced collaged and painted on scrolls like illuminated ancient manuals. The exhibition opens with Darger’s masterpiece, La Bataille de Calvarine. The mountainous layers of collage produced from 1920-1930 records a real layered history of explosive violence and the wartime photography that shaped the great world wars for Americans.

La Virreina, Michael Snow: Sequences, 9 July to 1 November

It is always a thrill to see an international retrospective of an artist from home. Sequences, the Michael Snow solo exhibition at La Virreina opening with Little Walk (1964), his first film installation, carries the visitor through rooms of his engaging view finders, participatory installations and finishing with his most recent videos. As a Toronto ex-patriot, my experience of Snow’s practice defined by the Art Gallery of Ontario included colourful cutouts of feminine silhouettes and metal, minimalist periscope sculptures, but La Virreina includes his famous work of experimental film, Wavelength (1967) and lesser known sound installations. As a self-proclaimed sculptor and jazz musician, Snow brings a tangible plasticity to the space and sounds of his works. In his photographic compositions such as Crouch Leap Land (1970) he involves the viewer in the physical nature of his process by forcing them into the position taken by Snow on the floor while photographing.

In his sound work Tap (1969-1972) he also involves the visitor in the material nature of his work. As a ‘dispersed composition’ the elements of the work are separate to be assembled in no particular order into one experience while travelling through the gallery space. The work includes a sound, an image of the sound-making procedure, a text stating the intention, an object and a line. Snow’s work supposes two types of gallery experiences: some works are designed for an active, moving audience and some require the patience of a seated audience. His avant-garde, award winning film Wavelength requires immense patience and is shown only twice per day to emphasise the attention it deserves.

A single 45 min tracking shot made with a fixed camera inside the artist’s studio focuses on four windows, the building’s eyes to the world. While zooming in at a painfully slow rate, the viewer is subjected to high-pitched humming akin to a boiling kettle or a nervous system, and entertained with colourful flickering effects and loops until it finally fades into white. Throughout Snow’s diverse practice there is a connection to Modernism in which materiality was held above all and considered to be an autonomous path, but instead of choosing autonomy Sequences demonstrates that Snow focused on materiality to engage his audience with his work and processes.

In La Virreina’s smaller space, there is a large collection of war photography by Ricard Garcia Vilanova documenting the pain and daily lives of Syrians. In correlation with the refugee aid, the collection of photographs includes images of peaceful protests, videos recording compromised changes in attitude that occur during war, and images too gruesome and unaltered to recall here. The art institution is the perfect place in which to view political images that can otherwise be poorly influenced by surrounding media.

Blue Project Foundation, Little is Left to Tell: Calvino After Calvino
12 June to 31 October

Blue Project Foundation presents twelve works carefully selected to demonstrate the role of Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1985) in the contemporary moment. The six concepts – lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity and consistency – were meant to define the values of language and culture as it entered the next millennium. The works chosen in pairs for each of Calvino’s memos mimic the balance he strikes in each lecture by writing about each of the concept’s opposites. Calvino’s ruminations on lightness are ultimately about its unattainability.

By committing to things we value for lightness, the constrictions eventually prove an unbearable weight. Lightness as a quality is held to many lights, but those that resonate with the two artworks by Elmgreen & Dragset and Sam Taylor-Wood are to do with human presence vs. absence, and humor vs. melancholy. The weight of the body is lighter in spirit than its absence, humour is comedy without bodily weight and melancholy is a light, shallow sadness. Second Chance (2013) by Elmgreen & Dragset is an empty noose hung on a post made of weathered and waxed bronze. The heavy material and weight of the decision implied by the noose is balanced by the melancholy of death with no subject. Bram Stoker’s Chair VII (2005) by Taylor-Wood addresses lightness through the body, part of a photographic series in which a girl hovers as she falls off a tipping chair.

The body is captured in the moment beyond gravity’s forgiveness and before the velocity of descent, suspended in a moment of humour before the pain and inevitable crash guaranteed by her sharp shadow (a shadow lacking behind the chair). A text based on dualities so universal might have lead to a vacuous collection of works. The sculptures, digital programs, photographs and paintings by Dora Garcia, Michael Sailstorfer, Elmgreen & Dragset, Sam Taylor-Wood, Ryan McGinley, Daniel Firman, Ignasi Aballi, Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Xavier Veilhan, Sophie Calle, Laurent Grasso and Gianni Motti not only validate the values identified by Calvino, but also prove the challenges of cultural evolution in a digital age of creative production.

Words: Alice Pelot © Artlyst 2015

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