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.
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):
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Title: Four Honest Outlaws. Sala, Ray, Marioni, Gordon
Author: Michael Fried
Publisher: Yale University Press
I consider some of Michael Fried’s previous writings (especially Art and Objecthood, Absorption and Theatricality, and Why Photography Matters…) to rank among the best works in the field of reception aesthetics, or at any rate to be highly relevant for my own current research. Consequently I thought I’d read his latest book too, in which he applies his theory to individual works of video art and, again, sculpture and painting.
The objective of Four Honest Outlaws is modest: Fried’s “intention from the first was simply to write four essays (originally four lectures) about contemporary artists whose work [Fried] had come to regard as remarkable.” (201) So why were these four lectures collected into a book? Are the four artists covered in them really united by a common trait (apart from the liking that Fried has taken to them)? Fried says, “each of my four artists lives outside the law in that he has found his own unsanctioned path to highly original achievement, and each is honest in that he has done so in part by refusing to succumb to a cultural consensus that has lost almost all sense of artistic quality, philosophical seriousness, and, it sometimes seems, hope for the future.” (204) – hence the title of the book. I say, Fried wanted to publish another book without having to actually write one, and Yale UP let him get away with it.
That being said, each of the four essays is interesting in itself alright. Fried has chosen his artists wisely: their popularity is of such an intermediate degree that the reader might have already seen some, but probably not all of their works discussed in the book. At least that was the case for me. In any case, the book comes with a DVD with examples of the works by the two video artists, Anri Sala and Douglas Gordon, which is not only a helpful, but an essential element of the reading experience. Generally, Yale UP once again did a good job in the design of the book, although some readers might find the “square” page layout (i.e. all four margins are roughly equal) a bit too daring.
What I like most about Four Honest Outlaws are the parts where Fried deals with his own theoretical terms – absorption and theatricality, to-be-seenness, strikingness, facingness, presence and presentness, etc. In fact, he discusses his previous publications in the entire foreword (although I’m not sure if this would be a sufficient substitute for actually reading them). However, for large parts of the book, Fried seems to wear his art critic’s hat. By that I don’t mean his praise of his favourite artists, but his vitriol for others: he makes several ‘offhand’ remarks on artists he apparently doesn’t like (Bill Viola, John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage), but he doesn’t say why. He even calls an installation by Sam Taylor-Wood “idiotic” and says the participating performers “should be ashamed”. Maybe they should, but Fried should be ashamed as well for such coarse bashing.
There are other parts of the book in which Fried is surprisingly superficial. I grant Fried that he’s more interested in form than in content, but when he talks about content, he really should do it more thoroughly. For instance, in the chapter on sculptor Charles Ray, Fried ignores any ethical implications. Is Ray’s Oh Charley, Charley, Charley… really a depiction of “group masturbation”, or could it be also seen as homosexual group sex? Why is the four-year-old boy in The New Beetle naked? Why is the nude portrait sculpture of fellow artist Jennifer Proctor titled Aluminium Girl? What became of the chickens which Ray raised in his studio for his work Chicken? It looks like such questions were too uncomfortable for Fried to even raise, let alone answer them (though he does touch upon the subject of animal exploitation when discussing Douglas Gordon).
Still, I can’t deny that Four Honest Outlaws is an interesting read, but I would have expected more from a Michael Fried book.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○