So, now that my time at the Rifkind Center is coming to an end, I have some breaking news announcements to post in sequence…
First, beginning this Saturday and through the summer months I will … well, be involved in a series of discussions about art history sponsored through a grant I received from the Hillsborough Public Library Cooperative. It’s all kicking off at the SouthShore Regional Public Library in Ruskin.
The SouthShore Library has a great history of funding arts programs for the patrons in its off-the-track corner of the county and I am very grateful to receive this support and for being able to work around upcoming travel obligations. The library staff had in mind a formal sequence of talks, but the proposal I made is for something more experimental that I have had in mind for a while…
…which is why I hesitate to call these “lectures.” Each session is going to be very interactive and will unfold in a participant-driven way, and there will be a digital component posted for downloading during and after each event.
I have known Mernet Larsen from her role as professor as professor at the University of South Florida’s art studio department, and from her many trenchant and witty remarks on the art situation in Tampa, as well as from her kindness to students and fellow faculty. She made some very telling and compassionate comments at the small memorial for Bradley Nickels some years ago.
Nonetheless I felt as if I could give this retrospective at the Tampa Museum of Art a fair review and was glad I took the chance to do so for Empty Mirror. Larsen’s painting are intellectually engaging and unclassifiable. Many from Getting Measured, 1957-2017 are reproduced with the article so I will let you look at it on the Empty Mirror website, and it’s also archived as a PDF at the Humanities Commons Core Depository.
Eggs, 1961. Oil on canvas, Courtesy of the artist. © Mernet Larsen
Padmé Amidala’s throne room robes
This is a “locally-coloured” version of this exhibition review. See the “professional” iterations at Humanities Commons or on the Museum Bookstore website.
On view through the spring, this exhibition features 60 costumes representing characters from the Star Wars film saga from A New Hope in 1977 through The Force Awakens in 2015. These outfits are accompanied by selected accessories: props such as light sabers and artists’ sketches of how the costumes, and characters were originally envisioned and evolved. As a group the costumes highlight the intricacy of theatrical and cinematic clothing design. Membership in the cult of Star Wars is not a prerequisite for their appreciation.
These costumes and the drawings giving their background illustrate the evolution from storyboard to screen, and then of the characters who wear these ornaments and attributes. The earlier pieces from the original trilogy – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) followed A New Hope – are closely allied to the vaguely fascistic, neo-classical iconography favoured by creator George Lucas. These styles – Reich-referencing Imperial officer and Stormtrooper uniforms, the togas and cloaks for Jedi masters Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker – tend to be simplified and literal. As the series progressed with Episodes I, II, and II I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), and Revenge of the Sith (2005) – the prequels that appeared fourth, fifth, and sixth in order of release – costumes for both the Republic officials such as Bail Organa and Imperial minion Darth Sidious tend to be highly decorated while more referentially abstract. Particularly the scarlet robe and ornate crown for Princess-Senator Padmé Amidala Naberrie’s Phantom Menace throne room garb, which greets visitors at the exhibit’s entrance, is a marvel. The dazzling effect of the wardrobe of Padmé, portrayed in the films by Natalie Portman, was achieved by the imaginative and subtle use of beads, paillettes, layers of leggings and petticoats, and embedded electronics. Her trains of shimmering brocade and elaborate ceremonial gowns and headdresses show strong influences from feudal Mongolia and Shōgun era Japan. I was astonished to see the level of handicraft and detail given to each garment, having assumed that costumes in a fantasy epic were embellished by computer-generated animations such as those that brought Katniss Everdeen’s “flame” gown to the screen in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013).
One of the paradoxes that has emerged from documenta 14 is that many of its spectacular installations make very simple statements about global consumerism using enormous material expenditures. In fact it can be difficult to see past the pyramids, windmills, and tents erected to comment on issues such as migration and the market-possessed-body – elaborate efforts to illustrate political generalities – to documenta’s truer theme, an attempt by curator Adam Szymczyk to assail, or at least supplement, canonical art history with work by indigenous and overlooked artists.
iQhiya, Monday, 2017, Performance und Installation, Ehemaliger unterirdischer Bahnhof (KulturBahnhof), Kassel, documenta 14, Foto: Fred Dott
But the contemporary art fair world floats above scholarship on a bubble of self-satisfaction. The documenta participants who are the big draws – Mona Hatoum and Pierre Huyghe for example – aren’t worried about posterity. So what was meant to be exposure becomes competition for a footnote. Some of this lesser-known work also really struggles when removed from its local context. Poor facture and inappropriate plinths meant as faux–naïf comes across as a weird form of doubled sociological good intentions gone awry, and, amid Kassel’s half-hearted Brutalist buildings, calls to mind Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of Bavarians dressed as Native Americans. In this respect, perhaps it was afterall an important achievement, and more consistent with Szymczyk’s goal, to move the most of documenta to Athens.
One excellent work, shown above, is iQhiya’s Monday (2017), which unfortunately was performed only once on 13 June. Staged in Kassel’s “little” Bahnhof, the spoken, moved, video, books, saws, pens, needles cloth, and film endurance piece used an eight-hour projection loop of Sarafina! (1992) to examine the “hidden curriculum” experience of black, South African women college students. Mimicking the rhythm of a real school day, naturally people wandered in and out. The coming and goings of the Eurobahn and Regio trains moving through the station plinked the hour glass and also made a rumbling vibration that was unsettling and comforting at the same time. I’m not sure if the reference to Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Human Being @Work (2009) was intentional or ephemeral coincidence, but the eleven-member iQhiya troupe made use of sound and light in a similar way as Tayou’s (also very successful) occupation of the Biennale di Venezia’s Arsenale – only with real trains.
Now, about Olu Oguibe…