Exercise 2 – Interpreting video art: Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘Still Life’

 

Fig. 1

 

My initial response

Looking at this video was like looking at a still life painting that instead of staying ‘still’ develops in the fourth dimension. The implications are similar: beauty in living things is fragile and short lived and, because of this, poignantly precious and touching. And even if I see it changing before me, it is still a classically composed ‘natura morta’, with the contemporary touch of a Bic pen, which, ironically, is much less appealing but not decaying at all.

I also felt that the product of decay is certainly saddening, but nonetheless beautiful and tender. This bowl of fruit looks exquisite throughout, not only when it’s fresh but also when it is being whittled away to a heap of undistinguished grey froth.

 

Media and form

I think that the medium of film as it is used here is an expansion of the possibilities of painting and that it has been chosen because it helps to convey and make visible the decay of all living things which was already implicit in European painting still lifes, like for example in the Still Life with a Basket of Fruit by Caravaggio, where all the elements are depicted in a state of early deterioration.

I do not know if Caravaggio would have used this medium had it been available. Certainly time lapse film gives Taylor-Wood the possibility to show the working of time and to choose how much to dilate or compress it according to a very contemporary vision of it.

 

caravaggio_basket_of_fruit

 

Fig. 2

Exactly like in the paintings of the old masters, in Sam Taylor-Wood’s film the composition is very pleasing and perfectly balanced and the colours, the background and all the other elements are well considered. Nothing from proportions to the subtle changes of lights seems left to chance from the beginning to the end of the film and every single frame could be seen as a beautiful painting on its own.

Context

I had a look at the other works by the artist and an obvious connection seems to be another film from the same period, A little Death (2002).

 

Fig. 3

Again the hare is a traditional subject of classical still lifes as in this painting by Pierre Chardin, Still Life  with a Hare (circa 1730), and in fact even the position of the animal is very similar.

757px-jean-baptiste-simeon_chardin_french_-_still_life_with_a_hare_-_google_art_project

Fig. 4

But in this case, in the passage from painting to film, everything changes dramatically: no beauty or delicate decay anymore like in the former film, here death produces all its terrible effects on this dead body and it is almost unbearable in its brutality. No gentle reminder anymore, only a sickening devastation that begins from the entrails and quickly extends to every part in a frenzy of insects that live on death. Only the peach on the left is still untouched at the end but even it will soon decay as we already know.

So in this case the choice of medium does matter a lot: no painting could ever transmit all this horror. If in Still Life the passing of time was  gentle and compassionate, in A Little Death it is horrible and leaves no illusion or hope.

 

Short interpretation of Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘Still Life’

 

In Still Life (2001) the artist takes a traditional theme of European art, a basket of fruit, and makes it contemporary by changing the medium from oil painting to film. The subject is the same, the elements of the composition are arranged according to classical standards, and at first sight all in it looks beautiful and pleasing to the eye as in the paintings of the old masters. At the onset only the inclusion of a modern unpretentious plastic pen suggests that things might be different.

But very soon after the film starts playing, time too starts having its deadly effects on all that beauty. The fragility and transiency of everything living, which was only implicit in the fixity of painting, becomes explicit in the film and cannot be ignored anymore: decay is shown in its harsh reality, fruits are not any longer only symbols which remind us gently of our own mortality and become decaying things soon to be only an undistinguished greyish mass. Ironically only the modest plastic pen survives.

If it’s any consolation at all, in the process of deterioration beauty is not lost and fruits wither and shrink with grace and elegance, death has still delicacy. But also this illusion is cruelly lost in the film of 2002, A Little Death, where a dead hare, also traditionally represented in still lifes,  is substituted for the basket of fruits and exposed to the same treatment. The brutality of decomposition is now sickening and unbearable and after this film the artist did not treat the subject again. She had already made her point clear enough.

 

List of illustrations

Figure 1 Sam Taylor-Wood, Still Life, 2001 [35mm film/DVD, duration: 3’18’] At: http://artforum.com/video/mode=large&id=25377&page_id=0 (Accessed 12/09/16)

Figure  2 Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, Basket of Fruit (Italian: Canestra di frutta) (ca. 1596) [oil painting] Location Pinacoteca Ambrosiana, Milan At:  https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Caravaggio_Basket_of_Fruit.jpg (Accessed 12/09/16)

Figure 3 Sam Taylor-Wood, A Little Death, 2002 [35mm film/DVD, duration: 4’] At: https://artforum.com/video/id=25378&mode=large&page_id=14 (Accessed 13/09/16)

Figure 4 Chardin, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Still Life with a Hare (French: Nature morte au lièvre) (ca. 1730) [oil painting] Location Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia At: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jean-Baptiste-Sim%C3%A9on_Chardin,_French_-_Still_Life_with_a_Hare_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg (Accessed 13/09/16)

 

Bibliography

http://samtaylorjohnson.com/

 

 

 

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Short interpretation of Jem Finer’s ‘Longplayer’

Around 1995  Jem Finer thought to create a musical composition that would last 1000 years without repeating itself, from the end of 1999  to the end of 2999, and that would then restart playing at the beginning of another millennium.  The result is a potentially never ending musical piece with a circular structure that can be performed in eternal cycles. It is so possible to experience time and its flow almost in a tangible physical way, through the medium of music. As I said initially, I do find deeply moving the artist idea to entrust the next generations with its care and survival, thus creating a strong human bond with them.

The live performance of Longplayer at the Roundhouse in 2009 was the first ever:  for 1000 minutes it gave body and flesh to the original composition that is normally played only by computers and through a very well thought multi sensory combination of elements enriched and strengthened the initial concept. In the performance the circular structure of the composition is echoed by bronze singing bowls which are distributed in six concentric circles inside the circular building, as planets on orbits in a solar system, and played by performers moving along them in perfect harmony with the musical score. In the meantime daylight changes into the darkness of night, according to the natural cycle, and bystanders keep coming and going.

All these elements produce a very complex experience which engages the mind and the senses in subtle ways and in which the immensity of space and time come into contact with humans of today and of the future.

 

 

 

 

 

Case study: Interpreting sound – Longplayer

 

Initial response to the concept

This concept and how it was born fascinates me. I remember very vividly the mixture of anxiety – in 1999 the millennium bug was looming on our computers and our lives worldwide and menacing to bring disasters in every area, in a similar way to the apocalyptic fears that our ancestors had felt one thousand years before in 999 a.D. – and of frenzied irrational excitement for things to come.

In that climate  an idea like Jem Finer’s seems to me a gem of quiet hope in the future and clear thinking. The concept of creating something and entrust it to the next generations for its care and survival is deeply moving and creates a strong human bond with them. I like the soothing notion that even when nobody is listening, the music continues to play in the background living a life of its own that accompanies us through our days, notwithstanding that we are aware or not.

 

On listening to Longplayer

While I write I am listening to the sounds in background played on my phone (1) : I hear long-maintained, deep sounds resonating for a very long time, high-pitched trills, little quavers and vibrations either isolated or in short series, quick touches accompanied by very long dragged bell sounds, every now and then there is a short pause, then the combination resumes, very often sounds intermingle and resonate into each other and form complex patterns, here and there flat sounds, then rings that seem to come from old mechanical phones or triangles. Occasionally I can also hear a Whatsup or short message beep coming from my phone and eerily it fits comfortably in!  I can distinguish no apparent music or melody, sounds come as a surprise every time, they are very varied and unpredictable, pitches keep changing from very low to very high, sounds do not seem meditative to me since there no repetition, rather cosmic as they evolve and develop freely.

I think that Jem Finder chose this type of sounds perhaps for their colourless, unemotional quality. They seem atemporal and unaffected by time, unconnected to either past or future, not dependent on changing music tastes. They are  finite, punctual, well-defined sounds but together they form immense sound waves that propagate through one-thousand year cycles in a potentially never-ending circle.

 

Performance and context

Although the first and original setting of Longplayer is the lighthouse at Trinity Buoy Wharf in London, from where it started playing at midnight on the 31st December 1999 and will continue to play until the end of 2999 only to start again (2), this conceptual piece is not site-specific, that is it was not made specifically for that particular place and can be listened to in various locations around the world, either on a permanent or temporary base, as in Iran and in Pittsburgh, and very recently also in the open air at Yorkshire Sculpture Park listening post.

It lives also on the Internet through a continuous online audio stream and since 2015 through an iOS app which can be downloaded to tablets and mobile phones.

There have been live performances too, the first one took place on the 12-13th September 2009 in The Roundhouse in London and lasted 1000 minutes (3), followed by a second one of three hours in the same location on the 31st December 2009. In October 2010 another live event was organized in San Francisco (4).

Besides the long composition, Jem Finer has so far created  3 shorter versions of different lengths, named Shortplayers (5). They are based on the same algorithm as Longplayer with changed variables and can be arranged for different instruments and even performed by human voices like in this performance (6). I find the voice version particularly interesting and one that could easily be replicated almost everywhere.

 

I shall now concentrate on the first live performance in 2009 at the Roundhouse and try as far as possible to consider it also in relation to the other versions.

The computerized quality of sound is neutral and crystal-clear, as if humans were not alive or necessary and it seems that sound would continue also in our absence. The apparently casual and endless arrangement and rearrangement of sounds produce no recognizable music form or melody,  and the effect is that of an infinite vast and ever expanding composition. The intended connection with cosmological systems and planets revolving in space is explicit and very well crafted. Sounds produce very rich and complex overtones and flourish unexpectedly here and there like bubbles coming to the surface.

Jem Finer’s original choice to use singing bowls to reproduce computerized sounds does seem very appropriate. As explained in (7) these very ancient Tibetan instruments possibly date back to pre-Buddhist time and can produce two very distinctive basic sounds when rubbed around the rim or stricken on the side. They emit a very pure “singing” tone, hence the name, which is strong and lasts for a long time. Traditionally they were made in a very high-quality bronze alloy that contained percentages of precious metals – gold, silver and also a highly prized meteoric iron. And I can well imagine that the artist was aware of the presence in the bowls of this “spatial” metal that put them in a very specific connection with the cosmos.

If to this we add the fact that, as stated in (2), the singing bowls “can be played by both humans and machines, and [their] resonances can be very accurately reproduced in recorded form”,  there are a number of very good reasons for Jem Finer’s choice.

The cosmological connection is enhanced and reinforced by the positioning of the bowls like planets along the six circles of the installation, in a way that echoes from close the Copernican model of the solar system. Although the singing bowls do not revolve around their orbits as planets do, the sounds they emit shift along constantly during the performance and are meaningfully accompanied by the movements of the musicians.

copernican-model

 

Fig. 1

In the Roundhouse performance in 2009 people can move freely around, thus punctuating the space with their presence, like stars flickering in the sky. This evocative effect was not recreated in the live performance in San Francisco which had chairs on the sides (4).

The circular arrangement of the bowls surrounded by the echoing shape of the Roundhouse reflects beautifully the circular potentially infinite structure of the music, with cycles of one thousand years that repeat themselves with no end. This appears to me also connected to the very ancient notion of history as a never ending succession of identical cycles of events, as typical of the first agricultural civilizations which based their lives on natural earth and sky cycles.

Although the music composition is very effective on its own, based as it is on a rich and masterfully elaborate concept,  I think that its occasional live performances powerfully reinforce its meaning and that the physical involvement of musicians playing the bowls enriches its human value, creating a bridge between the cosmological vastness and human life.

 

List of illustrations

Figure 1 http://hendrix2.uoregon.edu/~imamura/121/lecture-3/copernicus.html (Accessed on 09/09/16)

 

Bibliography

1 Longplayer in Apple Store [Iphone application] downloaded in July 2016

2 Longplayer [website] At:  http://longplayer.org  (Accessed on 07/09/16)

3 Longplayer Live London 2009 : 1000 seconds on Vimeo [online] At: https://vimeo.com/58274591 (Accessed on 07/09/16)

4 Longplayer Live San Francisco October 2010 on Vimeo [online]  At:https://vimeo.com/38768229  (Accessed on 08/09/16)

5 Shortplayer Wood Street Galleries, Pittsburgh, 1 October – 31 December 2010 At: http://longplayer.org/events/shortplayer/ (Accessed on 08/09/16)

6  Longplayer for Voices, Roundhouse, July 12, 2014 on Vimeo [online] At:  https://vimeo.com/100633599  (Accessed on 07/09/16)

7 Experience the joys of Tibetan Culture  [website] At:  https://www.yowangdu.com/tibetan-buddhism/meditation/tibetan-singing-bowls-an-introduction.html (Accessed on 08/09/16)

 

Brief notes on Tacita Dean

My discovery of contemporary British artists continues with Tacita Dean, born in 1965 in Kent and living now in Berlin. This course gives me the opportunity, among other things, to get to know more about art in the UK, of which I had only a very vague idea.

I listened to a 2013  interview  with her at ACCA, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, in which she speaks about her work Film and the need to preserve the film as medium in the digital age. It’s an insightful conversation on her way of making art and the importance of medium.

She explains that in using film she particularly enjoys the hands-on reliance on post-production and that this allows her to keep her authorship and the intensity of the making; she loves the physicality of the camera process, the grain, the chemistry, even the mistakes, the slowness too of the film medium. She wishes to explore this traditional medium in new directions, especially because  “what [digital] doesn’t have is this internal light that film has and also its deep relationship to time”

Tacita Dean, on Film. Interview at ACCA 2013, ACCA, Australian Centre for Contemporary Art on UTube [online] At: https://youtu.be/8dOEXl_3lzl (Accessed on 05/09/16)

I love her idea of recording a mosquito buzzing on tape, her fixing of sound onto a physical means, it’s like time made visible and palpable so that time and space are connected and one echoes the other.

 

Exercise 1 – The fourth dimension

How proper: two weeks ago, on my flight from Amsterdam to Salt Lake City while travelling very fast in timespace  8 hours backwords,  I was totally absorbed in the book Introducing Time (Callender and Edney, 2004) and getting to grips as best as I could with the fourth dimension and Einstein’s relativity.

The concept of time has always fascinated me but I had never before tackled it from a scientific perspective. From reading this book I now understand that I have always had a tendency to look at it as an inner, psychological feeling,  a personal  flow of memories and mental states, something that does not really have much to do with the ticking of clocks and which is also detached from the biological watch and the process of aging.

On exploring a little more deeply my attitude towards time I see that I often look at past experiences and feelings like they are never really over and still very much belonging to the present. Rather like pieces and fragments that keep being added to the original blank canvas and make it more complex and layered.  Instead I have scarce vision of the future. So I live mostly in a present that is enriched, coloured and modified by past events that refuse to fade away.

I find the scientific perspective very refreshing and absolutely inspiring but I think that scientific time has not much to do with psychological time. They seem to me two different ideas or concepts altogether that cannot easily be put under the same roof.

I have read that in 1922 in Paris, at the Societé Française de Philosophie, Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson, one of the most celebrated philosophers of the last century, had a famous debate on the nature of time during which Einstein said among other things that “the time of the philosophers does not exist” and I believe that perhaps the irreconcilability of their positions is not surprising since they seem to be speaking of two different concepts.

Getting back to physics,  in Wikipedia I have found an animated image that may be useful to visualize the fourth dimension of time.

 

image

Fig. 1

Have I thought about time in relation to artwork before?

No, I do not think so, or at least only broadly speaking. I had not thought explicitly about time in connection with art before commencing this course and now that my attention has been drawn to it I realize that considerations about time, its passing, the past, the present and the future,  the evocation of death and all human reflections about the transiency and caducity of life, fame and nostalgia are more or less inextricably intrinsic to much art.

A second very interesting point of which I have been made aware since starting this course is that of art using ‘time-based media’  in which time is in relation to movement or change, as suggested in the Creative Arts Introduction to Project 2, like sound, video, film etcetera, and of how this art depends on the fourth dimension or dimension of time. I now see as Project 1 concentrated upon time-related works of art using the first three dimensions – the dot, the line and the cube – whereas Project 2 focuses on the Fourth dimension.

Have you already come across pieces that explore what time is?

First of all there are of course all the traditional and modern vanitas paintings and still lifes which I have just been asked to consider.

The first other works that come to my mind in relation to the passing of time are the Impressionist paintings, for example Claude Monet’s  very well known series of Rouen Cathedral: more than 30 paintings which Monet did around the 1890s representing the cathedral facade in changing time and light conditions or his other celebrated series of Haystacks , again depicting stacks of hay under different light, season and weather conditions.

While reading Introducing Time (Callender and Edney, 2004), also Cubists came to my mind and I noticed that their paintings are approximately contemporary with Einstein’s special theory of relativity. I ignore if Picasso and Braque were familiar with scientific theories being discussed in those years, but in any case I think there is some affinity of vision. At the beginning of last century it seems that the traditional view of an absolute space and time finally disintegrates and also the unified perspective in painting adopted since the Renaissance is subverted. Time depends from where the observer stands and the painter can simultaneously represent different points of view of an object in time and space.

Also Duchamp (he again!) is interested in showing how a figure develops spatially in time, for example in Nude descending a staircase, No.2 (1912)

image

Fig. 2

In this connection it comes natural to think of chronophotographies  like those of Eadweard Muybridge, in the last decades of the nineteenth century.

A Futurist sculpture by Umberto Boccioni is another way of showing movement in time

 

300px-'Unique_Forms_of_Continuity_in_Space',_1913_bronze_by_Umberto_Boccioni

Fig. 3

Among many other contemporary artists whose work deals with time in one form or another, also William Kentridge was involved in 2012 in a project that had time as his main theme, The refusal of time,  a 30 minute video installation that was produced on the occasion of Documenta 13 in Kassel, and that has been put up since in several museums around the world and also in Rome at the MAXXI museum in 2013. Here is an excerpt from that exhibition:

 

Fig.4

I realize that the list could go on forever! But I stop here for the moment and hope I shall have a chance to delve some more into this fascinating subject.

 

List of illustrations

Figure 1 Hise, Jason at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons., Public Domain https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1724044 At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four-dimensional_space (Accessed on 01/09/16)

Figure 2  Duchamp, Marcel  Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2 (French: Nu descendant un escalier n° 2) (1912) [oil on canvas] source: http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/permanent/51449.html?mulR=864354163 At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Duchamp_-_Nude_Descending_a_Staircase.jpg

(Accessed on 04/09/16)

Figure 3 Boccioni, Umberto Unique forms of continuiti in space (Italian: Forme uniche della continuità nello spazio) (1913) [bronze sculpture] Location Museo del Novecento (1931 cast), Milan At: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unique_Forms_of_Continuity_in_Space

(Accessed on 04/09/16)

Figure 4 Kentridge, William The refusal of time  (2013)  Location Museo MAXXI, Rome At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ETGpUNSkkA (Accessed on 04/09/16)

 

Bibliography

1 Callender, C. and Edney, R. (2004) Introducing Time.  [Kindle Edition] From: Amazon.it (Accessed on 30/08/16)