Sequential art at documenta 14

The 2017 edition of the documenta art show ended on September 17 with a slight increase in visitors, but also a financial deficit. While the danger of a discontinuation of the exhibition series seems to have been averted, many visitors (including this one) felt disappointed or at least underwhelmed with regard to the majority of art that was on display.

Like five years ago, the documenta didn’t include any proper comics as far as I could see, but lots of sequential artworks that fit Scott McCloud’s definition of comics. Here are some of them (only from the Kassel portion of the show, not from Athens which co-hosted this documenta):

The Fridericianum venue was almost entirely taken over by works from the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens. This array of 192 inkjet prints is XYZ 1550 – Placebo 97 from 2015 by Lucas Samaras. Their arrangement implies a vague sequence, and each of them is composed of multiple panels.

Most works from the EMST were rather old, though, such as this painted Newspaper Book from around 1962 by Chryssa.

A clever piece of conceptual photography in which two photographers pass by each other on a staircase, also out of the EMST collection but by Belgian artist Danny Matthys: Brabantdam 59, Gent, Downstairs-Upstairs from 1975.

Another Greek work in the Fridericianum: Diary (Robinson Crusoe) from 2008, a book with sewn lines by Nina Papaconstantinou.

Prints of photographs from documenta 2 (1959) by none other than Hans Haacke.

Images in Matter from 1995 by Rena Papaspyrou. On closer inspection, these ‘books’ made of stone, metal and wood bear faint ink drawings.

Over at the documenta Halle, the long embroidered canvas Historja (2003-08) by Britta Marakatt-Labba supposedly tells the history of the Sami people.

At the Neue Galerie, a kind of storyboard (Atelierul: Scenariul, 1978) by Geta Brătescu is exhibited next to the corresponding video.

Grimmwelt Kassel is the successor of the old Brothers Grimm museum and was used as a documenta venue for the first time. The primary exhibit here was The Blind Merchant (1989-91) by Roee Rosen, a kind of revision or reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with illustrations, some of which consist of multiple panels.

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Sequential art at the 56th Venice Art Biennale, 2015

Last time at the Biennale, Robert Crumb’s Genesis was prominently exhibited, which was already a pleasant surprise from a comics perspective. But who would have thought there was going to be a comic specifically made for the Biennale (Francesc Ruiz’s, see below) this time?

As always, there are probably works of sequential art that I’ve missed, so the works featured here (click images to enlarge) are just an incomplete selection. All works are from 2015 unless indicated otherwise. The Venice Art Biennale still runs until November 22.

Double page from "A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas" by Aikaterini Gegisian

A Small Guide to the Invisible Seas, an artist’s book by Aikaterini Gegisian, is on display at the Armenian pavilion on San Lazzaro degli Armeni island. It consists of collages of photographs – juxtaposed images, as it were – arranged on top of or within each other, so that the chronology of placing the pictures into the collage (from back to front) implies a sequentiality. Another sequentiality is suggested by the ostensibly different times at which the photographs were taken (e.g. black-and-white followed by colour images).

detail of Rotolo Armeno by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi

Also exhibited at the Armenian pavilion is Rotolo Armeno from 1991 by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi. It is a large paper scroll (17 × 0,8 m) filled with watercolour drawings in vertical tiers, which are to be read from top to bottom and left to right. The drawings re-tell ancient Armenian fairytales.

Liquid Gardens by Terry Adkins

Moving on to the central exhibition at the Arsenale, one of the first works exhibited there is Terry Adkins‘s Liquid Gardens from 2012. A rack similar to those displaying posters for sale holds photographs of parachutists. Apart from the “first” and the “last” one, these pictures can only be seen in pairs – juxtaposed –, and their similarity of form and content hints at a possible chronological relation (i.e. McCloudian closure).

from Zwischen Lagos und Berlin by Karo Akpokiere

Zwischen Lagos und Berlin by Karo Akpokiere, also part of the central exhibition at the Arsenale, is a series of fifty framed pictures of equal format. Some of them are single image drawings, some are text-only, and some contain multiple images which form little comics, like the one pictured. In his pictures, Akpokiere reflects on life as a Nigerian immigrant in Berlin.

works by Ricardo Brey

Several large glass cases at the Arsenale are filled with diverse works by Ricardo Brey, including some leporellos (from around 2011). It’s hard not to think of such a leporello as a comic (in McCloud’s sense): no matter how you open it, you will almost always see juxtaposed images, and ideally the cover tells you where to start reading it, thus suggesting sequentiality.

part of Omaggio all'Italia by William Kentridge

William Kentridge is better known as a creator of animated films. However, his Omaggio all’Italia charcoal drawings shown at the Italian pavilion are preparatory sketches not for a film, but for a large-scale frieze to be realised in Rome next year. The figures are taken from Italian history, but arranged in non-chronological order. The arrangement is not quite random, though: “It proceeds through a series of free associations of images where the past enters into dialogue with the present”, says the accompanying text. “Distant episodes are linked. Differences are connected. Unexpected analogies lead the way. We are invited to retrace the decisive moments in the history of Rome. In a journey that goes from Remus to Pasolini.”

detail from The Special Era (II) by Mio Pang Fei

At the pavilion of Macao, next to the Arsenale central exhibition area, Mio Pang Fei has arranged several items of everyday use on a table, forming the installation The Special Era (II). Among them are three traditional Chinese comic books (lianhuanhua). All objects are from the times of the Cultural Revolution, and the installation is meant as a critique thereof.

still from Factory of the Sun by Hito Steyerl

Factory of the Sun is a short film by Hito Steyerl shown at the German pavilion in the Giardini. Part of it is animated, with characters drawn in manga/anime style.

Il Fumetto dei Giardini by Francesc Ruiz

The aforementioned “actual” comics by Francesc Ruiz are shown at the Spanish pavilion in the Giardini. Titled Il Fumetto dei Giardini, this series of black-and-white pamphlets places pre-existing gay comic characters into photographed backgrounds of the Giardini. It might not be the most beautiful comic ever made, but still: a comic made specifically for the Biennale is quite a sensation. Related to this comic is another work exhibited in the same room, a newsstand stacked exclusively with gay comics.

by Simon Schwartz

Not officially part of the Biennale, but concurrent with it (September 1st – November 1st), is the exhibition “Imago Mundi – Map of the New Art” on San Giorgio Maggiore island. It consists of thousands of artworks in the format of 10 × 12 cm by different artists from all over the world. Among the German artworks, I was delighted to discover a panel by Simon Schwartz.


Sequential art at the 55th Venice Biennale

Last week I visited the Biennale di Venezia, which still runs until November 24th. There seem to be far more comics-related artworks there than at the documenta last year, possibly due to this year’s topic of the Biennale, “The Encyclopedic Palace”. Here are some that caught my eye (click on images to enlarge):

drawings by Yüksel Arslan

At the Arsenale, one of the two central exhibition spaces, the first work that bears some resemblance to comics is Yüksel Arslan‘s series of drawings. Most of them are from the 1960s and 80s already. They are quite enigmatic, but at least some of them seem to be arranged in sequences on the same sheet, not unlike panels in a comic.

drawings by R. Crumb

Then there’s Robert Crumb, of course. The inclusion of his Genesis isn’t that much of a sensation, as his work was exhibited at art museums before. Furthermore, the display at the Biennale (all of the original drawings in a long row) didn’t invite people to read much of it. Still, it’s good to see a proper comic at such an art show.

drawings by Matt Mullican

Comics theory usually negates the role of writing (as in script) in order to account for wordless comics. The drawings of Matt Mullican might pose a challenge to that point of view, as they consist of letters and numbers only. At the same time, they can also be regarded as images, which form deliberate sequences.

anonymous paño drawings

Some of the paño (“cloth”) drawings by Mexican American prisoners seem to tell a story in several distinct images, even though there are no panel borders. The order of the images and the overall story remain somewhat vague.

photo book at the Georgian pavilion

This photo book in the Georgian pavilion documents a performance. But is this photo comic a work of art in itself, or just a medium of the actual artwork, the performance? The same doubts apply to the photographs documenting Fabio Mauri’s performance Ideologia e Natura at the Italian pavilion (not pictured, but see the installation view here or here (websites in Italian)).

The Red Book by C. G. Jung

Carl Gustav Jung is better known as a psychoanalyst, but as his Red Book shows, he was also an accomplished artist. Some of the drawings are abstract, some figurative, some are combined with text and some are not. And some of them undoubtedly are connected to sequences. In this case it is a pity that not all of the pages are exhibited, as it is hard to figure out the narrative by reading only the short segments on display.

 

drawings by Evgenij Kozlov

Finally, mounted on a large wall are the erotic drawings made by the teenager Evgenij Kozlov in Leningrad in the 1960s and 70s. Some of them form little stories extending over several sheets. There’s also some writing on them, albeit in Russian. Regardless of what one might think of their individual quality, the inclusion of such older works (also Jung’s, Mauri’s, Arslan’s and others) in a contemporary art show strikes me as a condescending rather than reverential gesture. It’s a gesture that basically says: these works are only worthy to be exhibited because of their age, out of historical interest. But it’s not as if there wasn’t enough good and interesting art produced today that could have been exhibited instead, as the rest of the Biennale amply proves.


Raymond Bellour’s fragmented perception – in comics?

Raymond Bellour’s essay “Of an other cinema” (PDF) was first published in French as “D’un autre cinéma” in 2000. While parts of it read like merely a review of video installation works at the 1999 Venice Biennial, the article has become an important contribution to the theory of video art. Bellour’s main point is that video installations are a different kind of cinema, and they (often) transform cinema by “dividing and multiplying” the image in several channels. Because of the difficulty to keep track of what’s going on on multiple screens at the same time, Bellour characterises the video art recipient as a “dissolved, fragmented, shaken, intermittent spectator”. Other terms used by Bellour to describe such phenomena are: “aesthetics of confusion”, “expansion of projection”, “segmentation”, “exploded story”, “explosion of perception”, or (after Abel Gance) “polyvision”.

This fragmented perception that Bellour describes is specific to (and characteristic of, maybe even defining for) video installation art. But isn’t there something similar in comics? In a way, such experiences of fragmented perception occur quite often when reading comics of several pages length: as you flip the comic open to start reading it from page 1, you involuntarily glance at another page, say, page 42. You can force yourself to continue reading from page 1, but you cannot forget what you have already seen on 42. It’s as if something is already happening in the story on page 42, at the same time that you’re reading page 1. In this respect, each comic page (or each double page) is like a screen or a channel in a video installation, as only one can be perceived at a time, while on each another segment of the story unfolds simultaneously.

But there are certain comics which are even closer to what Bellour describes. I’m thinking of experimental comics, particularly “choose you own adventure”-style comics with parallel story branches. As an example, I initially wanted to dig up a particular episode of Winston Rowntree’s Subnormality that employed this method, but I discovered that the latest episode, 214: “Accidentally Insulting a Friend”, serves this purpose just as well. Instead of embedding the original image of this webcomic here, I suggest you follow the link to read it.

Subnormality #214

For the first five panels, this comic is relatively traditional, as we follow the conversation of the two young women in a car. Then, by the sixth panel, things get interesting. Which is the sixth panel, actually? Which is the seventh? The reading order up to this point was left-to-right and top-to-bottom, but that wouldn’t make sense at this point anymore, as the comic is split into a left branch and a right branch, which show what’s going on inside each protagonist’s head (plus the middle branch with the traffic light panels). The branches unite again towards the end of the episode, but in the middle, they unfold in parallel, both spatially and chronologically. You can start by reading the left branch first and then scroll up to continue with the top panel on the right hand side, or vice versa. However, while you’re reading the branch you’ve chosen to start with, you’re missing out on what’s happening at the same time in the other one. Thus, as the story of this comic “explodes”, the perception of it is fragmented, not unlike that of a multi-channel video installation.


Stencil graffiti website goes semantic

Screenshot from http://graffiti.freiburg.bplaced.net/As a first step towards releasing the information on my stencil graffiti website as Linked Open Data, I have now created XHTML+RDFa files for all graffiti. They can be found in the directory http://graffiti.freiburg.bplaced.net/lod/, or by clicking on the RDFa icon in each entry. These files contain only two pieces of information so far (not counting ID and licence): place and date. Now that they have been normalised (to the W3C Basic Geo and Dublin Core vocabulary, respectively) and cast in standard RDFa syntax, it should be easy to query and analyse this data, and to re-use it in mashups.

I did a short presentation on this conversion recently, the slides of which can be found on SlideShare (in German). The next steps are obvious: there is still a lot of information on the website that could be normalised, expressed in RDFa, and added to the XHTML files. Once I’ve got round to that I’ll post about it. As a good resource for getting started with Linked Open Data, I recommend Ed Summers’s recent paper “Linking Things on the Web: A Pragmatic Examination of Linked Data for Libraries, Archives and Museums”.


A rose is a rose: flower photography by Luzia Simons and Sarah Jones

http://www.maureenpaley.com/artists/sarah-jones/images/9

Sarah Jones, The Rose Gardens (display: II) (III), c-type print, 152 x 122 cm, 2007

The poster (PDF) advertising the exhibition “Lost Paradise: Blumenbilder in der Fotografie der Gegenwart” (“Flower pictures of contemporary photography”, Mönchehaus Museum Goslar, 11.8.-23.9.2012) shows an arrangement of flowers in front of a black background. Now if that isn’t by Sarah Jones, I thought. Jones’s series The Rose Garden (or Gardens) is exactly that: brightly lit rose bushes standing out against an impenetrable darkness. When I learned that the photograph used for the poster was by one Luzia Simons instead, I was even more intrigued to go to Goslar to see the show, amazed that two different but contemporary photographers could come up with such similar pictures.

Of course, flower still lives with black backgrounds have a long tradition – in oil painting. Simply recreating such paintings in the medium of photography isn’t what Jones does either: her roses are not arranged in vases or on tables, but blossom on living shrubs, which she encounters in public parks, apparently. In the Goslar exhibition, where six works from Simons’s Stockage series are displayed, it becomes clear that her approach is different from both the old masters and Jones. Simons doesn’t just shoot photographs but makes scanograms: she places cut flowers (tulips, not roses, by the way) on the glass of a customized scanner, which then produces a digital image of them.

http://www.artnet.com/artwork/426165584/93/luzia-simons-stockage-99.html

Luzia Simons, Stockage 99, LightJet print, 160 x 236.5 cm, 2011

One of the results is the luminosity of the flowers in contrast to the completely black background, just as in Jones’s works. Other effects mark a clear difference: you can see where pollen has fallen on the glass plate, petals and leaves bend against it, and the arrangement of the flowers is unlike that in a bouquet or shrub; they seem to grow into the picture from all directions, leaving the beholder puzzled about whether the laws of gravity are still in effect here.

Both Luzia Simons and Sarah Jones draw attention to their respective production process. They make the beholder wonder how they could achieve this contrast in lighting, and at the same time they manage to create beautiful pictures. The “Lost Paradise” show (which Jones isn’t part of, unfortunately) is an impressive proof that flower still life is a genre of surprising timeliness.


Sequential art at documenta (13)

Comics will be part of documenta when hell freezes over. However, there are some works at this year’s documenta (Kassel, June 9 – September 16) that come quite close to the McCloudian definition of comics. The following list is just a personal selection and by no means meant to be exhaustive.

The very first work I’ve seen at documenta could actually be called a comic, sort of. In the Ottoneum, Amar Kanwar has several books (and other things) on display. One of them, Photo Album 1: The Lying Down Protest, documents a protest action in India through a series of photographs, sometimes with captions added. There is one photo on each page, on both sides of the leaf, resulting in a layout similar to that of Martin tom Dieck’s hundert Ansichten der Speicherstadt (cf. my essay).

For an exhibition of contemporary art, there is a lot of old art to be seen, e.g. a sizeable collection of abstract drawings from the 1940s and 50s by Gustav Metzger in the Documenta-Halle. Some of these drawings are arranged like comic panels, i.e. in different sizes, with clear borders, on the same sheet of paper. Are these drawings meant as independent sketches which Metzger placed closely together on the sheet only to save paper? Or is there a relation between adjacent drawings, maybe even an intended sequence?
Another example of a not-quite-contemporary exhibit is Charlotte Salomon’s widely publicized Leben? Oder Theater?

Khadim Ali‘s four-part painting The Haunted Lotus in the Neue Galerie is reminiscent in style of traditional East Asian religious paintings, but at the same time the framing makes it look like a panel sequence in a comic: the continuous background evokes a “tracking shot” from left to right or vice versa, so that each of the four parts can be seen as one point in a chronological sequence. The figures in the foreground remain largely the same in all four parts of the painting, thus giving the impression that some figures move between the “panels” while others stand still. Another comic-like feature is the writing next to the figures’ heads.

Then there’s Nedko Solakov at the Brothers Grimm Museum. Among many other works, some drawings are shown in several display cases. Their arrangement in two horizontal lines suggests a sequential relation between them, but although each drawing has a handwritten caption text on it, it’s hard to make out any order in which they could form a narrative. Still, the surrounding works by Solakov strongly suggest a narrative reading, since they are all about his dreams and fantasies of medieval knights in shiny armours.

All in all, while not completely absent, sequential art is sadly underrepresented at documenta (13). Unfortunately, the exhibition of comical art, Caricatura VI, which is on in Kassel at the same time, doesn’t show many comics either, although it contains cartoons by comic artists such as Guido Sieber, Harm Bengen or Nicolas Mahler.