Sequential art at the 57th Venice Art Biennale, 2017

This year’s Biennale is once again a spectacular art show and, like the 2013 Biennale, counts a famous comic artist among its participants (see below). It is still open until November 26. These are all the sequential artworks I’ve seen there:

At the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj has made a wallpaper (ABETARE, 2015) out of his old Albanian alphabet book. On some pages it contained picture stories such as this one of the fable of the fox and the crow.

Abdullah Al Saadi keeps Diaries (2016) in the form of leporellos stored in metal boxes, ostensibly inspired by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of his notes contain possibly sequential images.

In his All Images from… series (2015), Ciprian Mureşan copies pictures from books – monographs of painters such as Correggio or Giotto, or museum catalogues – on a single sheet of paper, thus juxtaposing (and overlaying) formerly separate images. It would be interesting to find out if the arrangement on the sheet of paper corresponds to the sequence of pictures in the book, or to the order in which Mureşan drew them.

Our Naufrage 1-10 (2014) by Hajra Waheed apparently tells the story of a shipwreck of migrants. Maybe this arrangement of the paintings on a shelf is already sufficient to speak of juxtaposed sequential images.

Some of the exhibited works were rather old, such as this sequence of photographs taken by János Vető of a performance by Tibor Hajas from 1978.

At the national pavilions in the Giardini, we find a work that isn’t sequential itself but includes an actual comic: in Takahiro Iwasaki‘s Tectonic Model (Flow) from 2017 at the Japanese pavilion, one of the books is a copy of the second volume of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira.

At the Hungarian pavilion, these two sequences by Gyula Várnai are meant to be part of the same work, E-Wars. One shows photographs of an ISIS missile attack overlaid with a mathematical formula supposed to represent an “algorithm also used by Google to collect user information” (pavilion leaflet). The other sequence adapts the animated opening of the Soviet children’s science television show Хочу всё знать (“I Want to Know Everything”).

At the Arsenale, we find works by the only famous cartoonist at the Biennale: excerpts from The Unwanted (2010) by Joe Sacco, mounted on large boards, arranged with some other artworks, and dispersed throughout the room that accommodates the national contribution of his native Malta. I’m not sure if reproductions of a rather old comic displayed in this way contribute to the acceptance of comics into the world of ‘high art’, but maybe it’s better than nothing. The whole story can be read at The Virginia Quarterly Review where it was first published. There you can see how entire panels were cut off from the page as displayed at the Biennale, pictured above.

Jean Boghossian‘s exhibition at the Armenian pavilion is distributed between Palazzo Ca’Zenobio and Santa Croce degli Armeni. At both sites, his Livres brûlés can be seen (and one even flipped through) – paper objects with marks made by fire.

It’s no coincidence that the drawings by Radenko Milak at the Bosnian pavilion look like film stills, as he also directed an animated film which can be seen as well at Palazzo Malipiero.

EDIT: I just remembered there’s one more comic. While The Aalto Natives by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen at the Finnish pavilion is an animatronics installation, the pavilion leaflet contains this one-page wordless comic which sums up the plot of the installation.

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Exhibition review: Joe Sacco – Comics Journalist, Basel

Speaking of Joe Sacco, there is a Sacco exhibition currently shown at Cartoonmuseum Basel until April 24. There is a lot to see there: the exhibition starts with original drawings from Sacco’s early comics, of which I found the juxtaposition of a “Zachary Mindbiscuit” story from 1987 and “More Women, More Children, More Quickly” from 1990 (both unpublished until the 2003 collection Notes From A Defeatist) the most interesting. While already an accomplished draughtsman in 1987, it wasn’t until “More Women…” that Sacco started positioning his caption boxes in oblique angles, which would become one of his trademarks.

Sacco’s main works, Palestine, Safe Area Goražde and Footnotes in Gaza, are all represented through original drawings (10 episodes from Palestine alone) as well. Another fascinating exhibit in this context is an arrangement of Sacco’s notebooks and reference photographs, next to the corresponding pages from the published comic. It becomes clear that while he gathered plenty of material, he took some liberties when it came to making a comic out of them – particularly in Footnotes, in which he re-imagines events that happened 50 years ago.

Insights into Sacco’s work process can be also gained from three short documentary films displayed on a screen (6 minutes in total), produced in 2011 by Portland Monthly and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry: “Reporting from the field”, “Tools of the trade” and “Inspiration of Robert Crumb” (also available online). Another section of the exhibition traces the history of comics journalism before Sacco by way of “special artists” and reportage drawing from the 19th century on.

reference photograph (still frame from "Reporting From the Field")

Reference photograph (still frame from “Reporting from the field”).

There is some more original art on display from Sacco’s more recent comics, which I’m not too crazy about. In the museum’s library, all of Sacco’s published works can be read in German and English. And then there’s another sensational exhibit: The Great War from 2013 (or 2014, according to the museum), in which Sacco tells the events of one day of a British military unit in WWI. The publication is subtitled An Illustrated Panorama, but I gather it comes in the form of a leporello (“accordion”) book. In the exhibition it is arranged in a semicircle. Not a comic, strictly speaking, but definitely an eye-catcher.

an exhibition view with Joe Sacco's "The Great War" (photograph by Cartoonmuseum Basel)

An exhibition view with Joe Sacco’s “The Great War” (photograph by Cartoonmuseum Basel).

In an exhibition leaflet, Sacco is quoted (my translation): “Journalism is about countering the endless lies, even though it sometimes reiterates them – intentionally or unintentionally.” In this regard, journalism and scholarship are very much alike.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism – in comics?

In the history of postmodernism theory, Fredric Jameson might be a more influential figure than both Hal Foster and Craig Owens – unless you look at it from a strictly art historical perspective: art critics Foster and Owens are concerned first and foremost with contemporary visual art, whereas Jameson’s objects are drawn from various artistic genres or media such as literature, architecture, music, and film. Jameson’s famous essay “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, with which this blogpost is concerned, was first published in the New Left Review in 1984 and later expanded into a book of the same title.

A major difference between Jameson’s “Postmodernism” and the texts by Foster and Owens is that for Jameson, postmodernism is an era, not a “style or movement among others”. On the other hand, Jameson is “very far from feeling that all cultural production today is ‘postmodern'”. Instead, postmodernism is the current “cultural dominant”, the “new systemic cultural norm”.

Jameson identifies four “constitutive features of the postmodern”:

  1. “a new depthlessness”,
  2. “a consequent weakening of historicity”,
  3. “a whole new type of emotional ground tone”, and
  4. “the deep constitutive relationships of all this to a whole new technology”.

Some other interesting aspects are discussed in the text, but let’s focus on these four constitutive features. Can we find them in comics? Recently there was a thread on the comix-scholars mailing list about comics “beyond postmodernism”, and some list members wondered whether Joe Sacco’s comics might be considered “as aiming to move beyond postmodernism”. How much of Jameson’s postmodernism is (still) there e.g. in Sacco’s Palestine?

  1. depthlessness: Jameson understands this term both metaphorical and literal, as an obfuscation of volume: “a surface which seems to be unsupported by any volume, or whose putative volume […] is ocularly quite undecidable”, he says about a postmodern building.
    panel from p. 260 of Palestine by Joe Sacco

    “deep” composition with foreground, middle ground, and background (chapter 9)

    Sacco however, virtuoso draughtsman that he is, effortlessly switches from depthless, abstract black or white backgrounds to vistas that extend far into the landscape. He also draws his objects from a vast variety of perspectives, so that their depth becomes palpable.

  2. weakening of historicity: Jameson says about the historical novel, it “can no longer set out to represent the historical past; it can only ‘represent’ our ideas and stereotypes about that past (which thereby at once becomes ‘pop history’).”
    Palestine is the opposite of that: by conveying what he saw and heard in Palestine, Sacco challenges stereotypes about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the last chapter, in the section ‘Through Other Eyes’, an Israeli asks Sacco, “Shouldn’t you be seeing our side of the story, too?”, to which Sacco replies in a caption with “I’ve heard nothing but the Israeli side most all my life”.

    detail of p. 12 from Palestine by Joe Sacco

    historical excursus (chapter 1)

    Some references to historical characters and events are made in Palestine, but never in an offhand way that would require much previous knowledge from the reader.

  3. new type of emotional ground tone: “This is not to say that the cultural products of the postmodern era are utterly devoid of feeling,” says Jameson, “but rather that such feelings […] are now free-floating and impersonal, and tend to be dominated by a peculiar kind of euphoria” – “the high, the intoxicatory or hallucinogenic intensity.”
    from p. 118 of Palestine by Joe Sacco

    scared protagonist (chapter 5)

    Palestine isn’t devoid of feelings either – particularly Sacco’s own are clearly conveyed in his first-person narrative – but euphoria is hardly the emotional ground tone here. A more prevalent emotion is fear; e.g. in chapter five, section ‘Ramallah’: “shaking like a leaf… […] Okay, I’ve had it… I want out before the soldiers check this side of the street… Like a leaf, I tell you, the whole fucking time…”

  4. new technology: by that Jameson means “narratives which are about the processes of reproduction, and include movie cameras, video, tape recorders, the whole technology of the production and reproduction of the simulacrum.”
    panel from p. 102 of Palestine by Joe Sacco

    gathering material with pen and notebook in hand (chapter 4)

    This is the only feature that does apply to Palestine without reserve: it is basically a comic about making a comic. From the beginning, Sacco makes clear that the purpose of his journey to Palestine and everything he does there is to gather material for a comic. Frequently, the tools and processes of reproduction are prominently featured in the comic: Sacco’s camera, his friend Saburo’s camera, pen and notebook, the interpreted interviews with Palestinians.

All in all, only one of Jameson’s four “constitutive features of the postmodern” holds true for Palestine, so is it a comic “beyond postmodernism”? Then again, the unsystematic way in which these features are discussed in “Postmodernism” makes them hard to operationalise. The multitude of examples doesn’t help when they only serve to illustrate one single aspect. Where is the technology in Bob Perelman’s poem China? What is the emotional ground tone of E. L. Doctorow’s historical novels? In what way is Brian De Palma’s film Blow Out depthless? Ultimately, whether a contemporary work of art fulfils the four criteria or not doesn’t matter anyway: as I have mentioned earlier, Jameson allows for cultural objects made in the postmodern era that are not postmodern. Therefore, an un-postmodern object from the postmodern era wouldn’t prove Jameson wrong. How can Jameson’s “periodizing hypothesis” of postmodernism be considered falsifiable at all then?