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This series of reviews and interviews was originally published on Art Pulse magazine and edited by Raisa Clavijo. A few of them are available online HERE.

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Laurel Nakadate: Only the Lonely
Review By Marco Antonini
PS1 MoMA – New York (January 23 – August 8, 2011)

Considering the formal and conceptual consistency of many of the presented works, Laurel Nakadate’s early to mid-career retrospective at PS1 seemed unnecessarily all-inclusive, a visual assault that left me wondering how really necessary such a tribute could have possibly been. Nakadate is a young artist, and much of her work is based on the exploitation of her own beautiful youth, and the predictable powers it confers her when put in relation to the drab, colorless existences of aging white men, as well as the generic gaze of the audience. The artist wears her flexi, supple body like a costume or an armor. Her now sweetly deer-like, now morbidly sexy eyes are guns pointed in the direction of men (and, more recently, women) she seems to be eager to exploit in all possible ways to produce art. A large majority of this art follows a tried-and-true pattern of sado-masochistic, self-inflicted exploitation, the name of the game being mostly “comment on this without mentioning Feminism if you dare.” If I got this last thing right (a big “if,” I concede), I might already qualify as one of the losers. Tracing connections between Nakadate’s cheap thrills and the-good and bad-art that so many women have produced in response to gender issues and their development in recent social history, anyhow, seems excessive to say the least. At the time of this exhibition, PS1 also featured an exquisite mini-retrospective of video art made by women in the last 30 years or so, with gems by Dara Birnbaum, Pipilotti Rist, Joan Jonas, and more. The works reflected on women’s identities and changing roles, much as Nakadate did. Her naively presented persona-shallowly happy here, unconvincingly sad there-told much about where women are at, and where more and more of them are willing to go to satisfy their own narcissism and fit into their role as smart, sexy, high-spending bullseyes on the marketing target. If we are dealing in reverse criticism, however, the awkward execution of Nakadate’s performances fades miserably in front of the brutal, bombastic excess of any given reality TV show and the potential of “proper” mass media trash as unexpected alarm clock to our sleepy consciences. Is it plain exploitation then, or maybe an overextended essay on circular voyeurism? And is this particular form of exploitation to be considered a form of art in itself? I imagined that ending a review in question marks would have been an appropriate way of reporting on a show that seemed to make a point of constantly and frustratingly dodging them.

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Allora and Calzadilla: Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on “Ode to Joy” for a Prepared Piano
Review by Marco Antonini
Museum of Modern Art – New York (December 8, 2010 – January 10, 2011)

Ninth in a series of ongoing live and documented performances presented at the MoMA, Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on “Ode to Joy” for a prepared piano has been already labeled by many as Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla’s masterpiece. The two artists will represent the United States in the upcoming Venice Biennial and have emerged as one of the most ambitious and interesting voices in the international visual arts scene. Their brand name is usually associated to installations, videos, and performances as emotionally and sensually strong as conceptually and politically loaded. In Calzadilla’s words, “Not making Sense” still remains a top priority on the duo’s agenda, as the playful, absurdist situation created by Stop seems to confirm. The details, anyhow, suggest a penchant for extremely well thought and carefully constructed situations, images, and narratives that dig deeper and deeper into the gap between art world-sanctioned aesthetics and the problematic implications that the minimalist “What you see is what you see” credo implies.

Watching Allora and Calzadilla’s performers taking turns, struggling to play their own variations on Beethoven’s culturally loaded and universally famous theme, can be a life-changing experience or just another nonsense moment in a gallery hopping day. As the pianists slowly drag the wheeled piano around, small crowds follow them, take pictures and video, chat loudly, and laugh at the cartoonish image of a musician literally popping out of the heavy instrument (itself a massively culturally connoted object) to play it backwards, reaching the keys from its inside. More than a Cageian piano “preparation,” this is a smooth and technically exquisite violation. The central hole actually removes two octaves of strings, creating another limit to the musical execution of the pieces.

Since the beginning of their careers, the artists have explored performance, subtly and intelligently extending its limits in space and time. In this sense, Stop is particularly apt to exemplify the peculiar attitude that Allora and Calzadilla have towards the traditional role of the performer. Worn as a mechanical dress, the piano is an impossibly dysfunctional extension of the musician’s subjectivity. It limits and detours his or her effort toward the accomplishment of a vision whose final result will always necessarily be greater that the sum of its components. Chance and context have always been major factors in their work, but in this case they really seem to reclaim the center stage. Once again, Allora and Calzadilla question the meaning of what we consider art and the validity of the “real life” references and ideas that seem to contribute to the great complexity and undoubted depth of their works. It is a way of destabilizing us and our own preconceptions. It is an urgent alarm message; a last-chance invitation to stop, re-wire our imagination, and prepare it for action.

AeC

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Minimal Differences Curated by Denise Carvalho and Monika Szewczyk
Review by Marco Antonini

White Box – New York (September 15 – October 23, 2010)

Does “Central Europe” as a geographical place and/or cultural context even exist? The curators and artists of “Minimal Differences” are not always sure, but it’s hard to blame them. This designation does not really have geographical borders, but rather subsists on a series of shared historical narratives, cultural traits, and more recently, traumatic sociopolitical shifts. In a certain way, diversity has become a new unifying factor in the former East.

White Box’s open space is filled with the sounds and glaring presence of far too many flatscreens and projections. Anna Molska’s Tanagram dominates the scene from a large partition that doubles as projection surface. The black and white ballet of Molska’s g-stringed eye candy produces a series of symbols, an obscure visual alphabet that flirts with Constructivism’s idealism and penchant for didactic applications in art. Diametrically opposed, Marek Wasilewski’s Defiance combines the anti-Semitism and homophobia of a chant heard during recent anti-gay demonstrations in Poznan with a colorful cheerleader routine. Ironically enough, this incendiary trash is set to the melody of the famous Cuban patriotic songGuantanamera, a contrast that effectively augments the sense of contradiction and intensity of the video. Floating on vintage thrift shop coffee tables, Julita Wojcik’s “The XXX-lecia PRL (30 Years of the People’s Republic of Poland)” Housing Estate is one of the few objects on display. The crocheted housing estates look sad and defeated, caving in under their own weight. Their dull, beige/brown color story reproduce an existing development of pre-fabricated concrete dwellings built in Zarnowiec, Poland, as part of a nuclear plant that was actually never finished. The irony of representing communist architecture in crochet records is far too obvious, if not completely futile. The catalog doesn’t add much in this case, dutifully subministrating the routine paragraphs on crochet as feminine, ritualistic, and flexible. Towering on another oversized projection screen, Katarzyna Kozyra’s The Midget Gallery casts a group of midgets as both artists, gallerists, potential collectors, and works of art. She brilliantly uses the otherness of this motley crew of “art professionals” (in the widest sense of the word) to expose some of the key mechanisms of the contemporary art world. Facing Kozyra’s video, Zbignew Libera’s Final Liberation is a set of two massively enlarged prints taken from a Polish weekly magazine. The images, created by the artist, are fakes showing what ideal pictures representing the liberation of Iraq or Afghanistan could look like. Striking in their realism, these images had to be published with a disclaimer revealing them as fakes. Sharply executed and well-focused in its intentions, Final Liberation reflects on image manipulation and the fabrication of reality by taking active part in the process.

If considered from the perspective of this specific exhibition, Libera’s work is particularly representative of the curators’ and artists’ skepticism for the linear simplifications often used by mass media, synthetic strategies that often lead to the creation of fictional histories, identities, and overarching unifying concepts. As it turns out, these historical and cultural constructions pay little or no respect to the reality of facts. As the title suggests, this exhibition focuses on differences. Different media approaches and objectives act here as a unifying factor, bridging the distances between the artists and favoring the creation of a viable “togetherness” that never really asks to be interpreted as identity.

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Roman Signer / Four Rooms, One Artist
By Marco Antonini,
Swiss Institute, NY (October 2010)

Roman Signer knows how to build tension up to spectacular climaxes. Those who are familiar with his “experiments” have come to expect the unexpectable. Spills, plunges, flights, explosions, smoke: a whole repertoire of sometimes playful, other times nihilistically destructive, risky tricks. This small gem of an exhibition presents a succinct selection of new works and some surprises from olden times, all carefully selected to retrace and summarize 30-something years of Signer’s artistic practice.

Locked in the Swiss Institute’s reading room, Waiting for Harold Edgerton represents Signer’s contemplative side at its best. Dedicated to the pioneer of color multiflash/microsend photography this installation remains unaccessible to both body and mind. The dynamism of Edgerton’s stunning images is completely absent here. All we see, behind the door, is an empty room and a single, enigmatic apple floating in mid-air. Knowing Signer’s proclivity for unexpected turnarounds, viewers tend to spend quite a bit gazing at the floating fruit. As far as I know, absolutely nothing happened to the apple or its surroundings. After all that standing by, the “waiting” in the title rang particularly true to itself.

Lit by the gallery’s only set of windows, Signer’s Piano plays mysterious notes, chords and glissandos. Covered in table-tennis balls, its strings are exposed to two powerful obscillating fans. Every few seconds the balls are tossed around, producing new cacophonies and occasional melody bites, the sounds gently amplified by a hidden microphone. This installation provides only half of the exhibition’s official soundtrack, the other being the  rythmic knock-knock of a chair in the dark space of the main Gallery. Activated by a clanky mechanical apparatus, the seat is pulled back at regular intervals by a visible, loosely tightened piece of string. The chair is part of a larger installation named Cinema, including several rows of chairs of the same kind and the projection of Signer’s Restenfilm. Collected and edited over years and years of activity and general tinkering, these “rests” are discarded cuts of film from the artist’s home-movies, documentation of failed or interrupted projects and general work-related observations. More than the three actual films and videos projected in the back room -classic vignettes of gravity, wind and water related experiments- these bits and pieces are the real highlight of the show.

Interestingly, Signer’s Restenfilm are interspersed with experiments and observations of the texture and dynamics of water bodies and currents. Images of flooded (possibly by him) streets lead to slow panning on overflowing rivers, inundated bridges, drowned umbrellas and the fountain-like body of a mutilated kayak. These images testify to the unspectacular research and trial-by-error processes that precede the carefully coreographed, sometimes dangerous manifestations of Signer’s work. Allowing us to follow his camera in these field trips and impromtu workshops, the artist is offering a rare chance to get closer to the private world in which his work is conceived: right after the initial light-bulb moment and well before its final documentation.

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Marjetica Potrc: Venice Case Study
Review by Marco Antonini

Mulensteen, NY (Oct. 23, 2010)

According to Marjetica Potrc, the three basics requirements in life are shelter, water and communication. Her colorful, gallery-friendly versions of minimal shelter templates (copied from or inspired by actual case-studies documented during the artists’ extensive travels) often confirm these priorities via an emphatic display of satellite TV dishes and water tanks. In her latest presentation at Mulensteen Gallery, New York, Potrc finds a unique opportunity to conflate water and communication studies by examining the reality of Venice, a city where she lived and worked for several years.

Venice’s characteristic urbanistic features connect with Potrc’s reflections on several levels. Being built on separated islands, the Serenissima has always had a conflicted relationship with water. This fluid and unpredictable element provides borders, communication (in the form of waterways) and food to the city. At the same time, the periodical floods known as acqua alta mine the wood foundations of the buildings while erosion damages the hold of coastlines. To exist in its current form, Venice needs to invest in continuous, expensive and labor-intensive restorations. Often realized by private initiative of the citizens, these architectural upgrades are part of the kind of urban negotiations at the core of Potrc’s interests and practice.

Although Potrc connects the natural porosity of Venice borders to an ideal porosity of society, tracing connections with Yona Friedman’s theories on contemporary nomadism, she seems to have forgotten the sad record of xenophobia and narrow-mindedness that brought the Veneto region to be one of the strongholds of Italian separationist Lega Nord party. Considering Potrc’s beloved mutability and porosity a factual danger to the city’s survival, the City of Venice has approved (among justified criticism) heavy-handed and strictly conservationist solutions, building the Mose (Moses), a massive underwater dam to prevent erosion and acqua alta.

Two large wall paintings frame sets of smaller framed drawings articulating on the artist’s case study of Venice, referring to ideas brainstormed with the classes of her workshops at the Venice Institute of Visual Arts (IUAV). Potrc’s use of line and color to exemplify and illustrate is thoroughly remarkable, as the drawings look and feel as fresh as if they were jotted right before our eyes. A large hut-like construction complements the installation but feels quite unrelated to the aforementioned overarching topics. Titled Primitive Hut, this work presents a stunning mix of natural and pre-fabricated materials and the use of current technology (a solar cell tarp) in Potrc’s recognizable style. The press-release reveals the construction to be inspired by the second edition of Abbé Laugier’s “Essay on Architecture,” in which he included a well-known drawing to illustrate his idea of basic shelter.

In the back room, drawings and videos from workshops held in Venice, Caracas and Amsterdam, show Potrc and her students at work on the creation of a self –sustainable urban farming community. Potrc’s globetrotting and restlessness testify to the artist’s commitment to site-specific projects that are at once research-based, didactical and collaborative. More than a cohesive whole, this exhibition feels like a sneak peek into a kaleidoscopic sketchbook where ideas (good and bad, realistic and utopian) overlap, accumulate and develop.

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Dealing with Power. An Interview with Einat Amir
by Marco Antonini

Probing the multi-fold relationship between artist, live performer, audience and video in different contexts. Einat Amir’s emotionally charged scenarios are testing the limits of “professional” artistic practice. We talked to her about gender and power relations, delegation and outsorcing, feelings and awkwardness.

MA: Many of your earlier works dealt with issues of gender and self-representation; more recently, you have been interested in power relations and the meaning and potential of the exhibition space. How do these two aspects of your work connect and coexist in your practice?

EA: I believe the key words for me are “Power Relations”. In all of my works you can find some kind of a reflection on the effect that social structures has on individuals, or individuality. As I only deal with social realms I have first hand experience with, the shift from gender issues and the experience of being a gay woman to the art world and its rules and pre assumptions was almost obvious to me. In 2004 it was urgent for me to deconstruct my identity as an Israeli and as a lesbian, and more recently I tried hard to dissect the  contemporary notion of “professional art”. Another thing that happened through time, to be honest, is that I grew up and evolved as an artist, and so I came to realize that I don’t have to be completely exposed or to hurt myself  in order to make something that speaks genuinely about life.

MA: What is the importance of delegation and outsourcing in your performance acts?

EA: Recently, after an intense period of work I began feeling like my brain is a limited structure, and even when I come up with a new idea, its format will always be somewhat similar to my previous ideas.  At that point I decided to “outsource” – I started involving other people in the work. I am trying to give the involved people  as much freedom as possible to be who they are, or who they choose to be in the moment within the frame of each piece. I try to find people who I wouldn’t be communicating with otherwise and to embrace  contradictions, eccentricities, and confusion in order to go as further as I can out of myself and my immediate associations.

MA: Your work often probes the personal feelings of both audience and actors. Do you consider them objectified “victims” of your work? Where do you trace your personal line in respect to their psychological and physical space?

EA: In my personal life, I often feel uncomfortable in certain social situations: It is very common that I say something that I feel I shouldn’t have said, or do something that I think was not appropriate according to the cultural code of behavior. It happens to me all the time because I travel a lot between countries and each place has its own manners and customs. I absolutely hate this feeling. As a sensitive person it makes me really self conscious, and often It makes me reflect on my physical presence in a much wider sense. But it is also this very feeling that I try to evoke with my works –  I want the viewers to be aware of themselves, their presence in the space, and their part in the installation. One of the best strategies I found is to make them witness or even participate in a situation that challenges their pre assumptions and expectations from the art space and from themselves within it. As much as this emotion of awkwardness is not the most pleasant one – it is definitely one of the emotions that makes us feel most present, and alive.

Since there’s always an element of choice in whether you participate in the work or not, I don’t see it as victimizing. And anyway, feeling something is always better then being safe and protected.

MA: With Ideal Viewer you have brought your delegated performative acts out of the gallery and into the private homes of your audience, where awkwardness and the reaction of the public must always be considered… How do you factor such unpredictable variables in the conceptualization of  your performances?

EA: Ideal viewer tries to contain all the “external” aspects of the artwork within the work itself: The artist and her personal biography and motivations, the art space, the art object, the commercial elements,  art criticism, and obviously, the viewer. In this piece there is also an important element of myself giving up control over the piece and handing over the reins to the actors –  beyond a brief character description they got from me about their parts, they were free to improvise and interpretate their part in any way they chose. I had no control on what they said or did in the final performance, so the outcome was something I couldn’t predict.

When I was invited to create a new version of this piece for PERFORMA09, I thought it would be interesting to complete the cycle by spreading the authority even further: Three people who viewed  the first performance at the gallery got to invite the characters (an interpreter, an ex-boyfriend, a crying woman) to their homes, and to use them for their own needs for one hour. This experience turned out to be a very significant one for me. It is too early for me to say how it really effected my practice, but it definitely raised ideas in me about ways of working and  giving shape to this new material I discovered: the audience.

MA: You have been using video to document most of your performances. How does the complexity of your work translate on video? Is the final result different and why?

EA: With my performances, I have been using video documentation in two different ways. One of them is for documentation per-se, and the other way is with the intention of creating a new work from it. The decision about the intention of the shooting is always made in advance. Further more, I see the videographer and the camera as an integral parts of the piece, when I choose to use them.  I always take into account the ways they change people’s reactions and people’s sense of significance. It’s somewhat similar to the way I use plasma screens  both as a display method and as objects, with consideration of all the cultural baggage that they carry (symbols of technological progress, luxury goods, home entertainment, etc.) Sometimes the performance itself is the central part of the process. Sometimes it’s just another step on the way to a new video.

MA: What are you currently working on? Is there any in-progress (or im-possible) project you would like to talk about?

EA: I am currently working on a large scale performance, titled Enough About You. I am creating a kind of observation lab for physical encounters, which is controlled by a predetermined template. The work explores meeting as a real action and as an image, from the traditional standing point of two people – face to face. The premiere of this project will be presented by Lilith Performance Studio in Malmo, Sweden, which is the first combined production studio and arena for visual art performance in Europe. The performance will travel to other countries in the near future.

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