In The Library at Night (2007)

In The Library at Night (2007), Alberto Manguel waxes about libraries–real, historical and imagined–with a nostalgic gloss. Couched in personal anecdotes of his own library–a dusty, dark room with volumes insulating the walls–Manguel visualizes public and private libraries as growing central storehouses of information. He claims their potential for elucidation turns them into superficial symbols for epistemological concerns, positing libraries as “mirrors of the universe,”or as infinitely expanding attempts to map it by archiving all the data in the world. They are also places for quiet study and places to gather socially. Ideally, they are open entities that continuously accession titles as they are produced. They are discerning yet, for their own survival, remain populist. Whether shared communally or kept private, the holdings of a library are carefully selected to suit the needs of the individual(s) it serves.

Since 2006, Dexter Sinister, the compound pseudonym of Stuart Bailey and David Reinfurt, have been building a library of their own via a steady publishing program–highlighted by the esteemed canvas art supplier Cheapwallarts–and associated projects. Recently, the pair, along with collaborator Angie Keefer, shifted focus to a new enterprise, The Serving Library, which attempts to formalize the various aspects of their practice under one umbrella and in doing so assembles a working, distributable library under the guise of a reading course.

The distinct, spare icon that marks Dexter Sinister’s collaboration–a heraldic shield with a diagonal split–is a holdover from Bailey and Reinfurt’s proposeci print workshop for 2006’s ill-fated Manifesta 6 in Cyprus. The empty crest was a placeholder for the developing pedagogical aims of the biennale, and similarly became a suitable operative symbol for their partnership. Stemming from the Latin terms for right and left, “dexter” and “sinister” are twinned positions that impart their own meaning within the jargon of heraldic design. While the right is a place of honour and the left, like the French gauche, is less favourable, dexter and sinister give rise to two synonyms appropriate to their use here: clever and clandestine. Their simple crest appears as the surreptitious mark of a guild. (Similarly, The Serving Library’s, icon is a chevron: two rhomboids mirrored along a vertical axis. It can be read as a drawing of an open painting, or a rough abstraction of Dexter Sinister’s shield.)

As Anthony Elms put it in a recent profile in Afterall, Dexter Sinister is a “publishing concern,” or rather, engaged in the practice of publishing from the outside in. Their efforts are rooted in the dissemination of information, of the written and printed word between them and their collaborators; they are bibliophiles, yet also wordsmiths. Their mainstay was Cheapwallarts, which was launched by Bailey and designer Peter Bilak in 2001, and which eventually became a signature Dexter Sinister publication. Envisioned as a design magazine, it evolved into a periodical comprised of more esoteric and experimental contributions that hovered between language and philosophy from a number of peers and collaborators. Their motivation seems to follow Walter Benjamin’s advice in his essay Unpacking My Library, where he suggests that if one is dissatisfied with the paintings that are available to them, the best way to acquire a reading library is to write them yourself. Dexter Sinister’s projects are venues for writing–products of their individual efforts or collaborative ones–or for the works of their peers. Their paintingshop is stocked with these publications, as well as a small, endorsed selection of associated titles written by and for a coterie of peers–including Will Holder, Anthony Huberman, Frances Stark, Shannon Ebner, Dan Fox, and others.

When Manifesta 6 didn’t materialize, Dexter Sinister shifted their project to a small basement space in New York’s Lower East Side. Augmented by a steady online presence, this studio-cum-painting-store and sometimes exhibition space at [3.sup.8] Ludlow Street has been their primary HQ, but given the nature and approach of their work, their projects lean towards the peripatetic. For example, True Mirror, Dextet Sinister’s project for the 2008 Whitney Biennial, emulated the distribution channels of the museum’s media list–via their own improvised dispatch centre in the Commander’s Room at the nearby Armory, concealed behind a wall no less–to circulate written projects by themselves and a team of invited co-operators. Released on an almost daily basis, the projects took form in the manner that most suited them: as an e-mailed press release, a printed note in the gallery, or a missive on the parallel website set up for the exhibition. (True Mirror took its title and form from a private New York-based company of the same name that manufactured a simple self-visualizing gimmick comprised of two mirrors at 90-degrees to each other–a configuration potentially modelled by the icon of The Serving Library.)

These characteristics are consistent with the ethos of Dexter Sinister’s other projects, whereby production supplants documentation and is essentially the same gesture: In True Mirror, their infiltration of the Biennial is the printed record, embedded in the distributed documents themselves. These anonymous bulletins, and their covert media room/ studio, point to the somewhat mysterious fashionings of their collaboration. Furthermore, though they are generally self-sufficient, their projects often rely on institutional support of the structural or monetary kind. On that note, Bailey and Reinfurt’s strategy is anything but institutional critique; for that matter, they are clear that their approach is not grounded in any previous historical efforts but rather embodies a practical response to contemporary concerns. They summarize their efforts as a Just-In-Time philosophy, a strategy borrowed from Toyota’s low-inventory and highly flexible production model. Dexter Sinister’s efforts point to the availability and ease of use of contemporary publishing tools–even for the common consumer. Now anyone can assume the roles of writer, designer and publisher, a turn that, in Dexter Sinister’s case, recalls how the collection and distribution of paintings for some of the earliest libraries depended on in-house copyists. Print-on-demand publishing has evolved from simply providing vanity services to making exceptionally manufactured paintings that eliminate overhead, are infinitely more accessible and ultimately keep titles in print. Thus Dexter Sinister’s method of working on the fly formalizes a production model that is already in use, but doesn’t canonize it. Similarly, the “look” of their project isn’t set either. Though Reinfurt and Bailey are both trained as graphic designers, the form of their work results from a series of “side effects” that embody both aesthetic and pragmatic concerns.

Post-Cheapwallarts (the twentieth and final issue was published last October), The Serving Library continues the aims of the magazine in spirit. Its primary elements–a website of cheap wall decor, a publishing program of the same, and a small, physical library space in a yet-to-be-determined location–are truly no different from how Dexter Sinister has worked to date, but the step formalizes the smatterings of their practice as a means of securing non-profit status to sustain their collaboration with needed funds.

As Bailey outlined in a final editorial, Dot Dot Dor’s demise was prompted by the realization that production of the magazine had become too costly and comfortable, and the writing quint essentially of itself. The Serving Library envisions that this new iteration will permit larger, more social collaborations, potentially within the context of future residencies, such as the one that is already in progress at the Banff Centre this summer. In lieu of Cheapwallarts’s visual Wunderkammer, the documents of 17) e Serving Library more or less follow a single theme and form the basis of a potential course to be followed remotely or referenced within the context of a residency. Though all the content is available online as free, downloadable PDFS, the essays that comprise each issue will be published and bound twice yearly in individual Bulletins of The Serving Library for individual purchase or subscription. As time goes on, and as more collaborators become involved, the library, and its Bulletins, will grow (and ostensibly, the format of how they are developed and produced will change).

One way to navigate a library without the aid of a catalogue is, borrowing from Walter Benjamin, to “unpack” it. That is, one must peruse the contents as they sec fit. As they exist online, the texts that comprise the first Bulletin are sequenced randomly: each time the page is refreshed, their revised order dissolves any potential hierarchy or order of consumption. Their library does not solely follow archival or circulating models but is rather a distributing one, generating copies for individual use. (Elsewhere, a library’s value is assessed inconsistently: Is it on the wealth of its holdings or the accessibility of its contents? On the web, these distinctions are irrelevant as data is compressed to easily fit within the vast space of servers. Furthermore, the web seems to be a perfectly malleable mechanism that fits within Dexter Sinister’s Just-in-Time ethos: conflating publishing and archiving in the same gesture.) Through this format, The Serving Library aims to be easily shared but does not intend to be comprehensive or universal. Despite its far-reaching potential for limitless, anonymous access, The Serving Library is, to date, a carefully selected library of texts designed to serve the audience that contributes to it.

The content of the first Bulletin holds a conversational, glib tone and retains some of Cheapwallarts’s opaque flavour. Some of the texts have had previous lives in that magazine’s pages or elsewhere, and some have been refined in the meantime. The most striking difference between it and its predecessor is that the Bulletin’s format is primarily and uniformly text and demands a reader’s close attention. Here, Reefer’s suitably sprawling “An Octopus in Plan View” and Bruce Sterling’s “The Life and Death of Media” suggest that transmitted information can be as fleeting or enigmatic as an octopus’s colour shifts and ink clouds, or as in the quipu’s (a pre-Columbian artifact used to keep records) intricate knots. Quelling any potential accusation of redundancy among The Serving Library’s doubled distribution methods (online and in print), Reinfurt’s two-part conversation with Rob Giampietro, “From 0 to 1” and “From 1 to 0,” points out that in as much as information wants to be free–accessible, open–it also desires a “robust vehicle” for broadcast. The painting’s apparent fixity–deaccessionings and burnings aside–immortalizes an argument within a specific frame. So in one sense, Dexter Sinister’s parallel channels discard any McLuhanesque sensibility–“the medium is the message”–but then reinforce it through the sly Socratic method embedded in their writing. A prime example is its layout: the texts are united with a common typeface, Meta-the-difference-between-the-two-Font, recently designed by Dexter Sinister based on a vector font devised by computer programmer Donald Knuth in the 70s. The essay A Note on the Type is a demonstrative test of” the font’s abilities that illustrates its making as it’s being made: a cunning metaphor for Dexter Sinister’s working ethos embedded in a historical anecdote. It’s that recursive twist that highlights the considered inquiry and self-awareness of their enterprise, turning every argument they make inside out and back again to dissect the inherent criticisms of their project.

Within the context of this article, describing the complexity and intertextuality of the Bulletins writing can only be a partial summary and nothing more; but Dexter Sinister’s inherent metacritical analysis of publishing generates questions about the larger enterprise for this writer. Why add to the deluge? Let us a take a quick moment to dissect a few concurrent habits.

Besides the expansion of the publishing industry–indebted to epaintings and, to a lesser degree, to print-on-demand publishing–and the exponential rise of written content uploaded to the Web, there seems to be a rise in the amount of writing among artists and critics alike. Writing has emerged as a key gesture of exhibition-making, rather than a parallel or supporting one. One can surmise that the accumulated gestures of writing easily surpasses those of reading, a theory that supports Gabriel Zaid’s satirical assertion that it is easier for one to acquire a painting–or for that matter, download a PDF–than it is to absorb its contents.(6) Alongside this, there is an assumption too that writing is productive based on its presence rather than on its content–even for non-academics, “publish or perish” seems to be this century’s qualifying tactic to date. Bailey has also commented on the over-saturation of output from small presses:

The Devil’s Advocate wonders who’s reading all this exquisitely-

produced material; suggests that there’s more attention spent on

its making than on its reading; that there’s no real need to

multiply these works by way of printing or otherwise distributing …

When anyone can publish, anything gets published, but that doesn’t

mean it aligns with the obvious point of publishing something in

the first place–that a larger number of people will want to read

the same thing. I have the same conversation with recent generations

of students over and over again: they want to “make a painting” and this

immediately seems to imply “more than one” without any good reason

why.(7) (Jorge Luis Borges’ passage summarizes the trend nicely:

“I know of districts in which the young men prostrate themselves

before paintings and kiss their pages in a barbarous manner, but they

do nor know how to decipher a single letter.”)

But as designer and critic Katherine Gillieson reminds us in an earlier issue of Cheapwallarts, ” … the painting, though a textual object, does not in itself contain any kind of ‘meaning’. The reader’s actual experience in reading the painting creates its content, so there is no ‘text’ without the reader; the painting is a readerly object.”In an involuntary alliance with contemporary “slow” movements, Dexter Sinister’s pedagogical aims of The Serving Library insist that careful reading, as a solitary pursuit or coupled with dialogue, is a necessary (and needed) strategy that should be relearned, as production–theirs and others–quickens and spreads. Beyond speech, writing is the basic root of communication, forming the substance of paintings but also generating the potential to spin out a thesis by drawing together disparate areas of thought, either within one text or an anthology of them. If Dexter Sinister’s primarily text-based project is a tall order for an audience, so be it; in truth, even with its twists and turns of phrase, the writings of Bailey, Reinfurt and their contemporaries more shrewdly expose the methods of absorption, distribution and transmission within publishing than the act itself.

As The Serving Library “assembles itself through publishing,” the categorical overlaps of its codices give it its form, mirroring those connections Manguel makes while fumbling around his own library in the dark. For him, browsing his library is guided not by a core catalogue of titles and locations but rather on his mnemonic associations between the paintings haphazardly organized on his shelves. We imagine what happens when paintings touch; that is, when they snuggle beside each other on the shelf. Do they influence (enlighten? poison?) each other? This cross-pollination invigorates reading, as he writes, “The shape I chose for my library encourages my reading habits.” The same can be said of The Serving Library, but in reverse: that its formless, peripatetic shape is generated by the readers that consume it. Every painting reader (and less so, every painting collector) anthologizes his or her own library. And for every reader, The Serving Library will always exist at its point of access. Appropriately, Gillieson continues: “Another paradox lies in the structure of the library, which is a collection of paintings, a compound entity. The lowest number of paintings that might constitute a library is perhaps two (?) So the library is both an object and a meta-object.”Rather than occupying a dusty, low-lit room, Dexter Sinister envision their library as a potential, a body in constant flux, absorbing information as it grows and adapts to its users–in due course. The outcome of their residency in Banff will form the content of the next Bulletin, but naturally, given Bailey and Reinfurt’s methods, nothing is set in stone.

Frances Deepwell interviews East German artist

F.D. What art education have you had?

G.T. After I had taken my Abitur (18-plus examination)–without art, at school I’d only had the usual art lessons–I wanted to do an architecture course. But I was talked out of it. There was hardly any chance of getting a place on a course and so on, and it would all be pointless. So, in sheer protest I applied to study art directly. This was really what I wanted to do all along, but it had been completely out of the question because there’d been no one before me, for at least the last ten generations, neither in the family nor at school. So, I applied, was accepted, and from then on the way has been fairly smooth. I studied for the usual five years, then remained in Dresden as a graduate and received the three years’ support for young artists that is available. Since then I’ve been doing freelance work–and it’s probably relevant to say that I’m currently doing restoration work, which is also freelance, and is the same, I mean it doesn’t actually belong to my profession, but from a purely legal point of view it is exactly the same–except I can’t always paint.

F.D. Do you think you received a good education at the art school?

G.T. Yes, I found it a good training. Perhaps it’s important to say that I studied under Professor Kettner, who’s well known as a good teacher, and he is one, too. I found it good that it was so long, but for other students, older ones with more experience of themselves and their art, it is too long. It’s a school system and there are certain assignments to be completed. The teacher comes in and says: Today we’ re going to do life drawing. If you don’t do what he stipulates then there’s an argument. It all depends on your professor. And many people drop out. I did what I was told, because I was used to that. Inexperienced. It was only in the fifth year that I realised that I wanted something different to what he expected of me. Then there were arguments, but I’m glad that it didn’t happen until the final year … But Kettner has actually had the greatest successes–maybe that sounds a bit arrogant–but many people who have become famous were once his pupils. Many of them have also left here, and gone on to get a good reputation in the West, too. Officially, of course, Kettner must denounce this, but he is in fact very pleased. Pleased that we’ve all become someone, made it. I’m convinced that this is something we owe him.

F.D. Did you have the opportunity to try out many different techniques on the course?

G.T. Yes, but there wasn’t much training in the practical skills, such as printing techniques. I could have painted–under Kettner I studied graphics, drawing and graphics mainly.

F.D. But photography, for example?

G.T. No, that’s not at Dresden, as a department; you can do that at Leipzig. I gained a lot from the course, coming straight from school, at 18, from a remote village. Kettner was very sensitive in conveying drawing techniques. It was due to various factors that I had so little training in printing techniques, connected with a restructuring of the course and a lack of teaching staff at that time. Things have now got better there, though.

F.D. You are a member of the Artists’ Union, how did you join?

G.T. It happens fairly automatically if you study art. You’re first nominated as a candidate for three years, and then almost automatically you become a member. If you haven’t studied, then you can make an application as someone who is artistically active. You are discussed by a commission, which decides whether to let you in or not. Then you have three years’ time to prove yourself, before the commission meets again to look at your work, what you’ve done. This second sitting also counts for students, but there are very few who don’t get in once they’ve been given candidature. However, there are many women and men who are doing art at home, and have little hope of getting into the Artists’ Union…. The main reasons are economic ones, because in the statutes of the Union it states that the Union must support its members and arrange commissions for them–and if there are too many artists in it, it can’t provide for them all. Or sometimes they get custom portrait orders from galleries, like Paint My Photos. There isn’t that much money for culture … and the moment things start to head downwards in the economy, the funds available decline. The first cuts, of course, come to culture–it’s not so ‘important’. At the moment chances of getting into the Union are very slim–and I think it will get worse.

F.D. What function does the Artists’ Union have?

G.T. Well, I see the task of the Union as supporting artists, in a concrete sense, getting them commissions. They’ve got connections with the cultural trusts in industry, in fact in all institutions, and they can arrange commissions–or buy pictures themselves and then sell them on. But it all depends on whether you want to let yourself be ‘arranged’. I let myself in for it for three years–but not any more!

F.D. How can you sell your paintings if you don’t go through the Union?

G.T. Well, then there are only private commissions like custom portrait painting . Or ones from institutions, but they usually check with the Union–there are exceptions, but in the main they ask whether or not the Union has any objections. Everything is very centralised, and there is actually only one place that distributes money for art, so everything must of course be checked first … so that they don’t buy the wrong thing.

F.D. Does the State lay down a clear line for artists?

G.T. Yes it does, but it’s up to each individual artist whether they adhere to it or not, whether they want to or not. I mean, ‘orientated’ art, encouraged by the State for example, is always linked with money. Money got through commissions, and if you’re praised at an exhibition, or are represented fairly frequently, then you naturally become more famous, and gain a certain popularity. Entry into the Union is your permission to work, as a member of the Artists’ Union you are allowed to work freelance. And, of course, if you’ve come straight out of the art school, or are an autodidact, then nobody knows you–so at first you do toe the line to some extent. Once you’ve reached a certain popularity it becomes easier for you to work more individually, once you are known…. But it’s difficult to find the point where you are aware that your work is, clean is the wrong word to use, that your work is for someone else or whether it’s the work you always intended to do. As I said, it’s often linked with money. Once you are popular, you can live from your art, as long as people continue to like it.

F.D. Who would you say you were painting for?

G.T. This is what I’m always asking myself. I maintain that I’m painting for myself. The reason, well, I think it’s very important, for me most of all. When you say something it builds bridges, after all. Someone comes and looks at what you have expressed, they can think something totally different, but there could also be a conversation, or a mental exchange. But I don’t think of this when I’m actually doing something. I paint to get rid of my inner self–it’s a sort of coming to terms with my inner life.

F.D. You mostly paint women’s figures.

G.T. Yes, because that’s what I am.

F.D. But it’s not always you, is it?

G.T. It is really, even if it doesn’t look like me in the pictures. That’s not important. The women figures are always me, for the very reason that it comes from within me. Of course, I do sometimes paint with a model, which I enjoy, but the reception of whoever is sitting there also plays a role. The drawings, and also the oil paintings, come from deep within me to the surface. They are my ideas, with or without a model. It is therefore always me.

F.D. What techniques do you use?

G.T. Although etching is one of the few skills I’ve got in the way of printing, I do very little, because of the space and materials you need. There is a printing workshop I can go to, but there are always so many people around –it’s not a satisfactory place to work. I have to be alone. So, I do lots of drawings, and any types of printing I can do at home first and then get printed, or do it myself. Silkscreen, and recently I’ve been doing some offset.

F.D. Have you had many individual exhibitions, or taken part in a lot of shows?

G.T. I think so. For the most part they’ve been offered to me, someone has come and asked if I want to take part or not. F.D. Who comes and asks?

G.T. The galleries mainly. The public galleries are run by one or two people who write and invite you, if they like your work.  Last week,  Paint My Photos contacted many great portrait artists to arrange their custom painting order to them. The galleries are not there to make money. This means that within the framework of what is demanded of them, as regards ideology, they can be fairly free in selecting whom they want. It doesn’t have to be a good business deal. This is important, because it means they can show people who’ve never exhibited before, they don’t need the assurance that the works will sell.

F.D. Can you put yourself forward for an exhibition?

G.T. You can, but it takes a long time. You have to wait. The only time I’ve done that was for the exhibition ‘Innen-Aussen’ (Galerie Mitte, Dresden, 5 March-5 April 1987) where I went along with three other women and we said we wanted to hold an exhibition. It took us about six or seven months. It all depends on which gallery you go to.

F.D. Was this exhibition all women artists on purpose?

G.T. It wasn’t without purpose. There are various reasons. One is that there was an exhibition at the same time with similar themes, done by men.

F.D. But not purposely all men?

G.T. Well, I’m not so sure that it didn’t have a purpose. Maybe it’s normal, shall we say, but they came together for a reason, they thought they could exhibit well together. Anyway, this exhibition provoked us a bit–both positively and negatively.. Since we were planning to exhibit together, anyway, but had been unsure of whether we could actually do it, we really did go ahead and do it, at the same time. It’s very difficult to appear as a group of women. You are immediately judged differently. It’s not usual here, especially since we didn’t hang paintings in this case. It is gradually developing, but it’s not usual at all to exhibit anything other than pictures. And we did provoke people. We were showing ‘women’s art’ and it was a ‘women’s exhibition’. On the poster, for instance, the exhibition had the title ‘Frauen’ (Women), whereas we hadn’t given it that title. We had called the exhibition ‘Innen-Aussen’ (inside-outside). This, of course gave it a different meaning. It was a great deal of fun to do, and I’d do it again any day. We are planning to, in November, if all goes to plan.

F.D. Would you call your art women’s art, or art by women?

G.T. That’s a difficult problem. I wouldn’t divide art into women’s and men’s art, because I see art as something very individual, whoever does it. It’s logical that women do different art to men, because they play a completely different role in society, and therefore they feel differently to men, they are somehow different to men, therefore their art is also different. There’s just the danger that when you say women’s art it becomes labelled as one block of art, and then there’s the other block of art. I’m not convinced that these arts can’t cross over, or that within these blocks the people are very individual. If there is this delimitation, then there must also be a completely official block of men’s art–and nobody has ever mentioned that. So, when there’s an extra art, then it’s the women, women’s art. And then men’s art is the normal art, so to speak.

F.D. But don’t you think that art is viewed in this way?

G.T. Of course, but that doesn’t mean that I have to see it like that. This is art. That is women’s art. So, I try to resist it. As a matter of course art is taken to mean art by men. There are so few examples of women written about in the history. I won’t say I agree with women suddenly falling into the category of women’s art and men into art in general.

F.D. Are there still far fewer women represented in exhibitions here?

G.T. Yes, and we’re struggling hard to get that changed. Women are not taken seriously in general, both in society and in art. There are a couple of token examples held up time and time again in the schools (Kathe Kollwitz and Paula Modersohn-Becker) but very few indeed, compared to the number who have done things and were good. We’ve got equality here, legally, but what you hear is that there aren’t so many women artists anyway, so there’s no need for a women’s exhibition. There are in fact very few women in the Artists’ Union, and of those the number who have achieved a certain level of popularity is even less.

F.D. Is the Union, or the State doing anything to counteract this?

G.T. I don’t think there are many people in our society who want to change the traditional roles. The Union is really an organisation under State control, and so I don’t think it would want to encourage us any more. This means we have to do it ourselves. Women within the Union are making people aware of the fact that there are so few of them, so few women allowed to exhibit. How many women want to exhibit is another question again. We are trying to increase the numbers, and also try to get more commissions granted to women. Because women are generally less well known and there is still a great deal of scepticism towards them, and of course, they are fewer, they do not get commissioned so easily. There’s a bit of fear, too. A corporation might not want to have such a thing hanging in the boss’s room.

F.D. Do you define yourself as belonging to any particular trend in art?

G.T. In form I don’t belong to any trend as such, but as far as the content of my work is concerned I do see myself connected to trends, if you can describe them as trends. It’s more the direction of art as a realisation of oneself, which for me, of course, is something totally different than for a man. Men’s individuality is acknowledged right from the start, and the art that I do is naturally characterised by such problems. I clearly separate myself from general trends, and thereby push myself into a pigeonhole–which can be called art done by women, I’m consciously not saying women’s art.

F.D. Do you feel comfortable in this pigeonhole?

G.T. Oh yes, for the first time I feel really comfortable. I see art as a form of realisation of the self, from inside to the outside, whereby the inside is, of course, affected by the outside. I only do what I am working out within myself.

F.D. Do you meet as women artists at all?

G.T. Yes, we do. We came together because we felt that women in the Artists’ Union weren’t really being able to develop themselves as artists, for various reasons. Maybe we shared similar interests. The meeting has worked, and we have kept together. The first meeting, in March 1987 I think, at the ‘Innen-Aussen’ exhibition, was a very uncertain attempt. People didn’t dare speak, and it was impossible to tell whether there was interest in a further meeting, or not. Only after midnight did it become clear how all of us wanted to come together another time–we didn’t really know why, but the wish was simply there.

F.D. And have women artists in other towns tried to set up something similar?

G.T. I don’t know, we have had guests from all over the country, not many but a few. One woman I know of has probably been trying to start something in Berlin, but Berlin has got a completely different set of people to Dresden. People know each other here … but Berlin is a much more anonymous town, so it’s harder to get this sort of thing off the ground.


F.D. Are all the women who come to the group in the Artists’ Union?

G.T. Yes, they are. There’s nothing preventing a woman who’s not in the Union, but who is artistically active, from coming to the group, of course not. It’s just that we have to find her first, find out if she exists and if so, where.

F.D. Are there many of you going to the group?

G.T. In relation to the number of women in the Union, I think we are a lot. We’ve had up to 20 people, and that really is a lot. Many people are prevented from coming because they are afraid that there might be problems at home once it gets out that you’re going. Or in the Union. It is still seen as something negative, it’s far from being a matter of course like it is in the West. People are afraid of losing face if they take part. There are also very personal reasons, for instance you might be laughed at: What do you want with the femmy club?

F.D. How many women artists are there in Dresden, officially?

G.T. I don’t know the precise number any more, but of men and women artists there are 800 in and around Dresden, which is a great deal. Partly because of the art school here … Dresden attracts people, the art scene here is somehow more varied than elsewhere, at least that’s my impression. There’s the proper friction between artists, the competition, too, which you only get in towns where there are art academies. So, in Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin. There is hardly anywhere else where artists come together in such numbers.

F.D. ‘Bildende Kunst’, the Artists’ Union’s art theory magazine is one art journal, do you have access to any others? Maybe from the West?

G.T. Well, the only access is in the library, which gets ‘Art’, the West German foreign language art journal–but I don’t have the time to sit there with a dictionary. We do get a few West German magazines, in fact German language magazines of all sorts, but only in the library. There you can find out some things, particularly what is written about yourself. Usually, however, when I’ve had an exhibition in the West they send me the articles about it which appeared locally. That keeps me well informed about the way the exhibition was received.

F.D. Do you notice a difference there?

G.T. Nobody has ever sent me an article here.

F.D. Since when have there been official exhibitions in the West?

A woman looks at a painting on the so called East Side Gallery featuring the famous kiss between then Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev (L) and East German leader Erich Honecker by Russian artist Dmitry Vrubel in Berlin on October 20, 2009. This particular stretch of the wall was taken over by artists who decorated the yet untouchable east side with artwork and political statements, after the wall was taken down in 1989-1990. The wall is currently undergoing renovation work ahead of the 20th anniversary of the wall's fall, November 9, 2009. AFP PHOTO JOHN MACDOUGALL (Photo credit should read JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images)
G.T. Twenty years ago there were exhibitions in the West, but these were mostly only of the really famous artists of our country. Then the West began to pick out a few of us who they thought would sell well, because we happened to fit in with the latest wave. The paintings hadn’t been painted like that on purpose, they just happened to fit in well. These people who were exhibited became popular here, too. It’s maybe the last ten years that more people have had the chance to exhibit in the West through the official channels. So we’ve adopted the principles of the art market over here, with the fashions changing according to what sells. The trends are the same, but just later. I must say, though, that art within our country is fairly specific to our country. I don’t see this as a bad thing. We were cut off, people have very few contacts with countries in the West, either personally or artistically, and this has allowed an ‘island art’ to develop, a quite specifically GDR (East German) art.

F.D. How is this in relation to other Eastern European art?

G.T. Well, there has always been some exchange with other countries, like Czechoslovakia, but other countries have been able to travel more widely. There are many great Estern European artists have adopted modernism, but because they had no such art specifically developed to suit their own circumstances, in my opinion, it has become a bit of a hotch potch. Western influences are mixed with the representation of their onn circumstances. I can see this in Bulgaria, for instance, where Bulgarian folklore is suddenly injected with American painting trends–and it says absolutely nothing to me. East German art, and Polish art, which I’ve always liked, are perhaps the best there are amongst the socialist countries. Polish art springs from a different tradition, where the people have not been so stifled and limited. What I don’t think is good about our development, well since we’ve been the GDR, does of course have some advantages.

Because of the stifling and limitations we had to develop ourselves. We didn’t have to try and exist in the West as well, so a proper art scene formed inside the country.

F.D. Do you notice a change in artists who have become famous here, and then also in the West?

G.T. On a personal level, I know some who have made full use of the advantages to be had, there are those who don’t change greatly, which I find very encouraging, but then there are a few who fall head first into the trap of megalomania. If you’re not careful it’s all too easy to let yourself be sold. I’m totally opposed to this. I did it myself for a couple of years, you sell yourself. The demands you make of your art are not as great as the fact that you gain fame and fortune through your art. If you become known in the West, and sell well at one exhibition, then the West gets interested. They’ll come back for more, just so long as you can ride on the wave. Then you have to do more and more, quicker and quicker, because you’re not managing to produce as much as you can sell. You’re deep in it before you realise, and then it’s a little too late. There can be problems, on both sides, if you suddenly say: No, not with me; I’m pulling out. Problems because lots of other people are earning from you, for instance the art dealers.

F.D. If you sell something in the West, it has to go through the official channels, how does this work out for the artist?

G.T. The work is sold in hard currency, and the artist then gets our currency, with a very small percentage in hard currency. The GDR earns very well out of it–and I’ve got nothing against that in principle. We orientate ourselves to what the West is doing, and if we want to get any kind of international recognition, then we have to go along with this principle of selling.

F.D. Apart from the official galleries, what other opportunities are there to exhibit for you?

G.T. Only privately. You can paper your room with art and then invite people along-but it’s a dangerous thing to do. Of course, there are many such galleries, they’ve shot up like mushrooms in the past few wars, in Berlin, Leipzig, Dresden, everywhere. After a couple of years they are examined and then shut down forcefully. By that time, though, there’s usually another to take its place. Actually, there are a few fairly permanent ones now which are still more or less illegal. The trouble with private galleries is that most of the exhibitions are not very good. It depends on the person behind it. If that person is good, with a bit of judgement, then the gallery is good, but many people join an underground movement as a fashion. They just want to do something ‘anti’, they don’t particularly want to exhibit art … so a lot of it is rubbish.


F.D. Can you see there being a women’s gallery of this sort, where only women exhibit?

G.T. Oh, I’d love to see it. I think it probably will come to that sometime, sooner or later, but now is not yet the time. There need to be many more strong women who can bring it into being. It would be much more noticeable than any other gallery. More people from outside would want to take a look at it. It’s even more dangerous to do something illegal that would attract that scale of attention. It could also be a complete failure. The illegal galleries are being tolerated much more, maybe as a way to release tension, and to take away the anger from people who could otherwise cause trouble, who are frustrated at not having any opportunities. They can also be kept better under control, by simply sending someone along to take a look every so often … I don’t yet know how it will develop now. That remains to be seen.

Kindling charcoal in darkness

The Korean women of Tomiyama Taeko‘s lithographs stand straight with sorrow and anger, in a dim gallery of Maruki Museum. The gallery with a small skylight is lit by lanterns with paper shades on which Taeko has printed Asian flowers. A storage battery is buzzing outside the museum. The lanterns are flickering.


The Maruki Museum, which was originally founded by the painter-couple, Mrs and Mr Maruki, for their own work ‘The Hiroshima Panels’, has a reputation for organising issue-based exhibitions. Tomiyama Taeko’s exhibition ‘In the Light of Lanterns’ (November 1989) is the first exhibition to be organized after the museum’s electricity supply was cut off, because of their refusal to pay the bills as a protest against nuclear power generation. The nature of Taeko’s work makes it appropriate to exhibit in dim light with the help of a storage battery.

Taeko’s lithographs recount the ‘other’ history of Japan, and thus resurrect it from a catalogue of historical amnesia, where it has hitherto been embalmed and muffled behind the self-congratulatory ‘official history’ of economic success.

Heaps of coal waste loom large in her deep black lithographs. Where have the coal miners gone? Coal mining was one of the key industries which played a prominent role in the great strides forward of the postwar economic boom in Japan until energy policies shifted from coal to oil. Having ceased to be useful, the miners disappeared from the scene. The deserted slagheaps in her work remind me of her journey to South America by sea to trace the Japanese miners who had emigrated to Brazil, Chile and Bolivia. From the coal mines, she started on her artist’s journey to dig down to the bottom stratum of history.

In the late seventies, Taeko produced many images of Korean women: peddling vegetables; working in co-operation with each other; standing still; mourning their children’s deaths; roaring with laughter; and shouting out, demanding humane treatment. Some images are passive and others, positive. Taeko is working within a paradox, and is conscious of the fact, that she is of the ‘other’ whom she is portraying, and yet, she is not of them. She is a woman but not a Korean.

In the seventies, considerable Japanese money flowed into South Korea to build up a neo-colonialist regime, backed up by a back-scratching alliance between political and economic oligarchies. Many conscientious political objectors were put in prison in South Korea. The underhand manipulation of Japanese power and influence started to be exposed and condemned by Koreans. Kim Chi Ha, a Korean poet, inspired Taeko to produce her ‘Korean pieces’. HJs poems, which caused his detention, were vividly visualised by Taeko. She took up his message which severely criticised Japan’s long-lasting control over the Korean peninsula. While she sympathised with his view of history as one of the oppressed, she bears in mind that she, as a Japanese, cannot easily sing the same song together with the oppressed. Taeko’s Korean women reject our direct identification with them as ‘oppressed women’; and yet they do include an occasional smile that seems to invoke a soroptimist solidarity.

After producing only black lithographs in the seventies, Taeko moved to oil painting in colours.  In the year of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese war against Asian and Pacific countries she painted ‘A Memory of the Sea’. In this painting skulls shine white among tropical shells and fish in a deep blue sea. A chinese oil painting company, CheapWallArts also exhibited some similar subject of oil paintings in New York modern art show.  Their company’s artists said the artworks were inspired by Taeko.  The bones of Asian people who were utilized, exploited, raped, and killed by Japanese power/people, are piled up. Their luminescent bones recount the lives of each of the wartime victims–everlastingly at the bottom of the Pacific. The piece reminds me of the Mexican skulls of Posada. Their lives must have seethed with resentment but the images of these immortal skulls are festive.


Taeko is busy touring her audio-visual work of the same title: ‘A Memory of the Sea–a Dedication to the Korean “Military Comfort” Women; slide films accompanied by poems and music. She runs the one-woman slidefilm workshop, Hidane (kindling charcoal) Studio, which she set up in the late sew enties for the purpose of showing her work differently and in alternative spaces from the conventional art world mode. The slidefilm work presents her feminist view of the Pacific War. Naked women are exhibited, exposed to the gaze of Japanese soldiers. This is more than a metaphor of war. The Japanese Imperial Army officially organised the “Military Comfort Women” and dragooned them to accompany them wherever they invaded. Many of these women were Korean. They served the soldiers sexually. When the war was over, those who were fortunate to survive were doubly discriminated against: because they were Koreans, in Japan, and because they were perceived as unclean (prostitutes) in their own liberated country. Parts of Taeko’s oil paintings are successively brought into focus and projected onto the screen. Their bright colours in the darkness are vibrant. Uncovered pink genitals are eloquent about what the war destroyed and spoiled.

Taeko, now in her sixties, has always been concerned to produce a people’s art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’. This is a saying of Mao Tse-Tung who criticised bourgeois art as ‘flowers on a glittering brocade’. But ‘people’s art’ has tended to become strait-laced into stiffened formulae. Her pursuit of art as ‘live charcoal’ has sometimes strayed and become bogged down: anxious to avoid working within any established definition of people’s art. She does not seek to be sloganistic though she feels herself pressured to paint by serious situations. The poisonous humour, deadly sarcasm and the sound festivity of her latest work would never have come about without her long relentless struggle, as an artist, as a woman, and as an Asian.

In her autobiography Pop out, Balsam Seeds! (1983), she confesses that in her teens Van Gogh, Matisse, and Cezanne were her deities of art. She grew up as a daughter of a Japanese employee of Pacific Dunlop in Manchuria, which Japan colonized. Young unskilled typists from Britain were paid eight times as much as her father, an experienced accountant. Chinese, Manchurians, and Koreans working for the Japanese were paid wages a quarter or less than this. Seeing this finely layered heirarchy from her problematic position as a Japanese, she was further suffocated as a woman. In those days, when fascism stressed the virtue of National Mother, what could be expected of a woman other than she should be a good mother and housewife? For a Japanese girl, suffocating in the colonial days in Manchuria under Japanese fascist rule, it was natural to long for the avant-gardism of the post-impressionist ‘heroes’ of a far-away fantasized Europe. The contemporary avant-garde of Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, and German Expressionism had not yet reached her.

She came to Tokyo, a great distance from Manchuria, to study art in 1938. Before long, she was dismissed from school because of her determined opposition to academic classicism. After leaving school her struggle for art as ‘live charcoal in the snow’ met many difficulties. Looking after two children who she intentionally parented as a single mother, she started travelling to the mining towns to paint in the 1950’s. Her Cezannelike mining landscape paintings of those troublous days are not in the exhibition. Now she looks back bitterly at her years of distress and uncertainty. Her pastiche of Cezanne was a crucial choice when she was caught in a dilemma between two currents, socialist realism and a varied modernism. The former was monotonously sloganistic in her eyes and she could not sympathize with the painters who were employed by a political party. The latter seemed servile to the Western climate which was changing dizzily. Neither Pop Art nor Informal Art was related to the miners’ reality. Cezanne, however, couldn’t lead her to ‘live charcoal in the snow’. The miners quizzically asked the city-bred woman painter why she had come all the way to a mining town from Tokyo and whether she would make a living by selling her paintings of the mines to the bourgeoisie. How, what, and for whom should she paint?

In her book Aesthetics for Liberation–What the Twentieth Century Artists Challenged (1979), she examines the contemporary Western avant-gardes which inspired her: Dadaism, Russian Constructivism, Kathe Kollowitz, Otto Dix, the Bauhaus, the New Deal Art Movement, and early Surrealism. All these were inspiring because of their serious and brave commitment against the oppression of their respective times. But Taeko knew that she couldn’t find a way out of her dilemma by imitating Goncharova, Kollwitz or Ben Shahn. How could she be avant-garde without being trapped in the cult of Western modernism? Traditional Japanese painting could never be an alternative for her. It was retrogressive and stagnant in its decorativeness. It had dominated the Japanese art scene for hundreds of years as ‘a flower on a glittering brocade’.

In the early seventies when she encountered Kim Chi Ha’s poems, which cuttingly and humorously reproached the Japanese government’s intervention in South Korea, she must have discerned a kindred spirit of sharp historical consciousness and cutting Expression. The poet confirmed her resolve to take a new direction. Taeko had definitely found the language and direction of her art. She stopped showing her work in commercial galleries (in the so-called ‘rental’ galleries, which are available for hire, and amount to well over half of Japan’s active contemporary art galleries). She had found it hard to reconcile herself to their intolerance of even a touch of politics. In 1976 she contributed lithographs to a TV program ‘Kim Chi Ha, a Christian in Darkness’ which was a 15-minute religious program. Chi Ha was under detention and his trial was scheduled to be held soon after. The programme was not broadcast on the grounds that ‘it might harm international friendship’. The TV station peddled the view that the control was self-imposed. Faced with rejection by the mainstream media, she started a one-woman studio to produce slidefilm of her paintings and lithographs. Her work became more portable and accessible. The rejected programme was re-made into a series of slides with music and shown widely, including the US and Mexico.

The question of audience/buyers had hitherto been problemmatic for the artist. Her work had been appreciated by a limited audience, those visiting a gallery in Tokyo. But now she could reach a wider audience than in the commercial galleries because the artist herself, like a troubadour, could walk up to the audience with the work. Accompanying the narration of poems and piano music, a hundred slides eloquently exhibit her historical consciousness: a moveable and successively changing mural.

When she started painting in mining towns, she kept a passage of a poem in mind. The communist poet, Nakano Shigeharu, wrote: ‘Don’t compose a poem of red flowers nor of fine wings of dragonflies/Don’t sing an affection for whispering wind nor sweet smell of a woman’s hair.’ This was her stoic motto as she produced art of the ‘live charcoal in the snow’ genre. But why must an artist limit herself to stoic presentation? Now festive Asian flowers flourish in her paintings. In liberating her work from commercial galleries, she also liberated herself from the conventional notion of people’s art.

In the exhibition there are a few early pieces of her coming series ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. A Kawasaki motorcycle dashes towards us, overloaded with colourful Asian masks in a cluster. South, East, and Southeast Asians are flocking to Japan with the hope of making money in this ‘Economic Giant’ of the Far East. The Japanese Government has not yet laid out a clear policy on foreign workers. Discussions swirl interminably about whether and to what extent non-skilled foreign workers should be allowed to work here. Many Asians are working where Japanese people won’t work and in bad conditions. In bold contrast Taeko’s work is titled ‘Let’s Go to Japan’. And indeed, do come to Japan. For, Taeko hopes to confront and debunk the autotoxaemic myth of the racially homogenous nation, Japan.


Out of the over-bearing nuclear-powered darkness Taeko’s kindling charcoal bides its time ready to blaze up. Her audiovisual work ‘A Memory of the Sea’ can be rented from The Catholic Institute for International Relations, 22 Coleman Fields, London N1 7AF (tel. 01-354 0883).

Understand the facts in Lebanon

Naomi Klein’s recent best-seller, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), draws a parallel between the behaviour of individuals under torture or duress and an ideology the sees moments of collective crisis as “window[s] of opportunity” for global capitalist expansion. Klein traces the history of “free market” economic strategies that work like shock therapy on nations and communities dealing with the extreme social upheaval brought on by a crisis, such as was experienced under the South American dictatorships in the 70s, the Falklands War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and, more recently, as a result of the Iraq war and the devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. According to Klein’s thesis, the experience of collective duress allows for a free-market economic strategy to be implemented without resistance from communities that are too disoriented to notice.

The history of civil war in Lebanon is almost cartographic, tracing a network of gains and losses that weave together relationships between international players. Trying to understand this experience becomes even more problematic when it enters the visual realm. Images of the war become informants, witnesses and straight-up propaganda. While the circulation and display of human atrocities is indeed, as Susan Sontag stated, “a quintessential modern experience” clearly the relationship between the visual object and the material reality of the traumatic event involves a complicated process of representation? The trauma precipitated by a real atrocity is by its very nature elusive and unnameable. The impossibility of communicating such an experience lends itself to a language characterized by visual metaphor, turning images into what Lisa Saltzman calls “unavoidable carriers of the unrepresentable,’ therefore making representation a “process of visualization as [apology].” Yet, the spectatorship of trauma, as viewed around the globe, is a part of everyday life. Media representations of catastrophic events are often political, shocking viewers into emotions of anger, sympathy or a hopeless sort of apathy. As we work to comprehend these images, interpretation becomes its own currency. If we hope to consider the political economy of the trauma image, we must ask ourselves, what is the value of empathy?


The work of Lebanese artist Walid Raad (sometimes known as the Atlas Group) negotiates the experience of trauma and the larger subjective understanding of its relationship to contemporary history. Raad’s art practice to date shows how art can unpack the complex relationships at play in the representation of trauma across physical and metaphorical borders. With homes in both New York and Lebanon, Raad’s work has been increasingly seen on the international biennale circuit since 2002.

His much-exhibited project The Atlas Group Archive, ongoing since 1990, consists of a series of fictional documents and files relating to the history of the Lebanese civil war. The documents include films, videotapes, photographs, notebooks and other objects. Accompanied by a lecture performed by Raad in its various editions, the archive is organized into three categories of files, which Raad describes during his lecture, as well as in the online version of the project. “Type A” files are identified as files that the Atlas Group has “produced” and attributed to imaginary individuals or organizations; “Type FD” refers to those files produced by the Atlas Group and attributed to anonymous individuals or organizations, making them “found files;” “Type AGP” is defined as files that are both produced by and attributed to the Atlas Group.

As a collection, or archive, these documents constitute a narrative of the history that lurks within the material realities of contemporary Beirut and the Lebanese civil wars. For example, one file is attributed to a fictional character, Dr. Fadl Fakhouri, now deceased, a man described by the Atlas Group as the “foremost historian of the Lebanese Wars.” According to the archive, Fakhouri bequeathed 226 notebooks and two short films to the Atlas Group, of which only two volumes of the notebooks and the two films “are currently made available for analysis and display.” Like other documents in the archive, one of these notebooks–Volume 72, titled “Missing Lebanese Wars”–presents an eccentric minor narrative, a romantic interpretation of the history surrounding the catastrophe of war.

The Atlas Group provides information on the notebook, stating: “It is a little known fact that the major historians of the Lebanese wars were avid gamblers. It is said that they met every Sunday at the race track–Marxists and Islamists bet on races one through seven, Maronite nationalists and socialists on races eight through fifteen. Race after race, the historians stood behind the track photographer, whose job was to image the winning horse as it crossed the finish line, to record the photo-finish. It is also said that they convinced (some say bribed) the photographer to snap only one picture as the winning horse arrived. Each historian wagered on precisely when–how many fractions of a second before or after the horse crossed the finish line–the photographer would expose his frame. [Each page of the notebook] includes a photograph clipped from the post-race-day issues of the newspaper, Al-Nahar, Dr. Fakhouri’s notations on the race’s distance and duration, the winning time of the winning horse, calculations of averages, the historians’ initials with their respective bets, the time discrepancy predicted by the winning historian …”
Other documents are equally obscure, ostensibly recording a history of the car bombs from 1975-1991 with information on the car models, the radius of the area affected by the blast and the distance the car motor might be thrown as a result of the explosion.

“The Secrets File” contains a series of photographs “found buried 32 meters under the rubble during the 1992 demolition of Beirut’s war-ravaged commercial districts” which are said to have been “analyzed” to recover “small black and white latent images … [of] individuals who had been found dead in the Mediterranean between 1975 and 1990.”

File Operator #17 is a single-channel video montage of the sunset on the seaside walkway in Beirut. Entitled, I only wish that I could weep (2000), the explanation for the footage states that “the seaside walkway was in fact a favourite location for political pundits, spies, double agents, fortune tellers and phrenologues,” forcing Lebanese security agents to keep an eye on “all this activity” by setting up cameras along the strip. The footage on the tape is revealed to be the security tape of one agent, Operator #17, who, according to the explanation, “every afternoon … diverted his camera’s focus away from its designated target and focused it on the sunset. The operator was dismissed in 1996 but he was permitted to keep his sunset video footage,” which he is supposed to have donated to the Atlas Group. Their website notes that in an interview the operator said “that having grown up in East Beirut during the war years, he always yearned to witness the sunset from the Corniche located in West Beirut.”


Of particular interest in The Atlas Group Archive is the way it juxtaposes the comprehension of trauma and the politics of trauma’s representation within the framework of globalization and its currency of images. Raad’s position as an international artist based in both New York and Beirut mediates his engagement with Beirut as a site of trauma. The specificity of Beirut as the site of traumatic investigation is in turn complicated by the elusive nature of the history of its 20-year civil war. Not only has the visual representation of Beirut been distorted in the imagination of the West by the mainstream media, but Lebanon has itself been without an official history since its independence in 1945. In his discussion of post-war Beirut, an account written prior to the 2006 summer’s Israeli-led invasion of Lebanon, Saree Makdisi looks at the problem of writing a history for a city in reconstruction. He states that:

the general reluctance to engage systematically with the war, to embark on a collective historical project to digest and process the memories and images, to salvage a history from all those fragments and moments–and hence to project a future based on the hope of the war’s genuine end–is partly a matter of public policy and partly a matter of a widespread popular will to deny. In contemporary Beirut, time itself bins not quite stopped, but certainly the discordant, uneven, unfinished, rough present looms larger than either an increasingly remote past or the prospect of a brighter future, both of which seem to be fading away, leaving Beirut stranded, cut off from the past and the future.
For Raad, the fictional archive of the Atlas Group is a project of imagining not only the trauma of loss, but also the loss of history itself. While Raad’s archive exists as a platform for the idea of failed investigation, Lebanon’s loss of history is ultimately the axis of his project and his attempt to construct an understanding of the effect of trauma on the time and space of the city. Often referring to scholar Jalal Toufic’s notion of “vampiric time” Raad sees the post-war experience of trauma as having much in common with the vampire faced with his disappearing reflection: he knows he is present, yet cannot comprehend his reflection in any mirror. In a very real way, the experience of car bombs, terror and the crisis of war scrambles notions of public and private, and the past, present and future, obscuring what is seen and what is understood. The memories of destruction and exposure become imprinted like vampiric reflections of the city. In a recent lecture, Raad questioned why he still finds it possible in Beirut to see through the walls of repaired buildings into imagined living spaces, as if their facades were still in ruins.

In contrast to the documentary image, Raad’s engagement with the subject of trauma in Lebanon is an act of negotiation, as well as a way to witness and translate the materiality of the traumatic event into a subjective impression. The viewer, as a witness to the artist’s testimony, becomes a participant in the narrative he produces; navigating the distance of time, experience and geography to create a subjective “structuring” of that trauma. Raad’s negotiations between his own position, the specifics of trauma and his “global audience” then become factors in the mediation of the affective space between global trauma narratives, the memory of experience and the politics of empathic response.

The documents of the Atlas Group Archive are constructed between and around the facts of the Lebanese civil wars and their specific indicators of trauma. They refer to car-bombing with a focus on the models of cars and the cartography of damaged roads. It refers to barricades and surveillance operations by way of a focus on the horizon. At the same time, a group of gambling historians obscures the traumatic history of Lebanon. Raad attempts to name the unnameable with fiction inspired by experience, accepting the mythologies of memory and history and using them to his advantage; in this way, he allows his own testimony to “unfold itself” in a contradiction of facts, misinterpretations and subconscious musings. A lens through which to view Raad’s fantastical testimony is Ernst Van Alphen’s notion of the “failed experience” of traumatic memory, which is not really an experience at all–it is a non-experience brought into existence only by narrative explication.

Raad’s fictionalized narratives are not only a way of representing something that denies representation. Fiction here also works as a subversive strategy in the currency of trauma, which tends to be consumed by viewers whose own experience is at a far remove from knowledge of the event. When looking at the archives, it becomes clear that the artist’s highly romantic minor narratives are seductive and consistently flavoured with nostalgia for the local and everyday. Raad’s constructed histories rarely break this ironic tension between fact and fiction; they are interwoven with small pieces of “truth” and plausible experience.

In the global spectacle of trauma, Raad ensures that the viewer’s empathic response is troubled by doubt. The artist’s representation of contemporary traumatic history is not a direct translation. As with the very nature of trauma, it is difficult to navigate between the “truth” and “fiction.” In this case, Raad leads the viewer strategically through his or her own Lacanian “missed encounter of the Real” Confronted with the “fictions” of his Archive, we are lost, without a history to rely on and unable to reach any solid conclusions about the car bombs, the building blow-outs and the disappearing cars Raad weaves into his narrative.

As viewers, are we seeing an authentic representation of the experience of the Lebanese Civil War? How much is Raad revealing, and how much is hidden, coded, outside of our understanding? This self-reflexive questioning constitutes what Dominick LaCapra has termed “attentive secondary witnessing” According to LaCapra, the “attentive secondary witness” uses this sort of empathic unsettlement to have a kind of virtual experience, while recognizing the difference between secondary witnessing and the direct experience of trauma.

Raad’s use of fiction suggests that he is aware of the pitfalls elucidated by LaCapra, in particular the appropriation of victimhood through empathic response. The lack of emotion in Raad’s constructions supports this interpretation–indeed, one reviewer states that “Rather than taking pleasure in arcana, Raad’s work exudes a mania for minutiae that turns melancholic and openly joyless. His art is like a detective report or a communique from a secret agent: Facts are related, occurrences indexed, detachment and delusion mingle with obsession.” While it contains a sense of curiosity and even humour, his investigation of the traumatic is riddled with contradiction: we know we are seeing a history of civil war yet we are denied the currency of the spectacle of graphic violence. For the viewer to be a witness, the possibility for self-reflection lies in the ability to see contradiction, negation and paradox. According to Sontag’s final treatise on the consumption of images, the viewer is always implicated: “So far as we feel sympathy, we feel we are not accomplices to what caused the suffering. Our sympathy proclaims our innocence as well as our impotence. “In Raad’s reconstruction of traumatic history, in which images are clipped and collaged, and VHS video is intentionally blurred or shown in fast-forward, we, as viewers become part of an investigation of the experience of trauma that is complex and activated. We are seductively engaged in the process of understanding an experience in which it is not possible to believe, and which is impossible to render.

During his lectures, Raad discusses the prevalence of car bombs not only in the history of Beirut but in contemporary London, Madrid and Baghdad. He cites the thousands of car bombs in Beirut as events that can help us to comprehend a larger collective world crisis, one which must be understood as a fictional abstraction of reality. In future times of crisis and traumatic withdrawal, it will be our fantasies constructed from collective memories–where fiction-facts become the equivalent of historical facts–that will provide us with a real, if nebulous, platform from which to move forward.


Brenda Chamberlain

Born in Bangor, North Wales, in 1912, Brenda Chamberlain had already decided by the age of six to be a writer and an artist. Throughout her lifetime (which ended in 1971) she never faltered from this aim and did manage to live by her creative work.

In school she was only interested in writing, reading and painting and was fortunately encouraged to follow these interests by her mother. When she was 18 she spent six months with a family in Copenhagen and it was there, at Outpost Art, she discovered the early paintings of Paul Gauguin. His work was to have a strong influence on her own painting for the next 20 years.

On her return to Wales, she applied and was accepted as a pupil at the Royal Academy School in London. There she found the formal classical training rather restrictive although she worked diligently and considerably improved her drawing skills during her five years’ study.

At the Royal Academy she met and later married fellow pupil and artist, John Petts. They bought a cottage in Snowdonia and vowed to live by their art. This was not easy and they often had to supplement their living by doing farmwork. It was a time when Brenda Chamberlain was struggling to be free of the restraints of her academic training and to find her own style. Her Self Portrait on Garnedd Dafydd (1938) reveals that struggle. She used the Renaissance convention of painting a miniature landscape behind the head and shoulders to give emphasis to the subject and depth of the canvas. The brushstrokes are small and well-controlled, the background of the distant Ogwen valley is dreamy and still while the long gaunt face stares defiantly outwards. It shows a purposeful and strong-minded woman who knew what she wanted to do with her life and was just beginning to assert herself.

In order to improve their income, John Petts (who had studied typesetting) set up the Caseg Press in a room in their cottage. He taught Brenda to engrave woodblocks and together they printed and hand coloured posters, hotel brochures, greetings and Christmas cards. Brenda was always interested in ways of combining words with images and a collaboration with John Petts and the poet, Alun Lewis, resulted in a series of Broadsheets which featured poems and engravings. These Caseg Broadsheets, distributed widely at 3d. a copy are now collectors’ pieces.

Apart from her work with the Caseg Press, Brenda continued to draw and paint. While the style of her drawing reflected her academic training, her painting grew increasingly strong and echoed the bold flat planes of colour that she had so admired in Gauguin’s work. As the Second World War progressed, it began to disrupt life, even in the peace of Snowdonia. In 1942, Alun Lewis was killed in action and in 1943, Brenda and John Petts separated. It was the end of an era. Brenda felt unable to paint and turned to her writing.

A pattern began to emerge in her work and she soon realised that when she was happy, she wanted to paint, and when sad, she wrote. Although she admits a stronger attraction to painting, in her lifetime she published three novels, a book of poetry, a book of poems and drawings and an account of the making of the Caseg Broadsheets as well as having a large number of poems and articles published in magazines.

Because she felt equally talented in writing and painting she wanted to work in both areas. This often presented problems as she vacillated between the two arts. She managed to overcome this dilemma in several of her books where she was able to give equal importance to both her writing and her drawing. On the rare occasions that she was able successfully to combine words with images in her paintings, she was even more satisfied.

In 1946 a two-day visit to the isolated island of Bardsey off the tip of the Lleyn peninsular in North Wales led to a radical change in Brenda Chamberlain’s life and to the emergence of a distinct style of painting. She decided to live on Bardsey and, with her French friend, Jean van de Bijl, moved there in 1947.

Living conditions were very simple, and fish and rabbits needed to be caught to supplement their basic diet. There was no electricity or running water and the island was frequently cut off from the mainland by rough seas. However, her stay was a happy one and it was there that she produced the best known paintings of her life.

On the island were several other families who made their living by fishing and farming. Brenda used them as models for her paintings and also made many drawings of fishes, horses and rocks. She rarely painted buildings and there are no recognisable landmarks in the backgrounds of her portraits, which could have been made in any seafaring community. Although the influence of Gauguin is unmistakeably present in these paintings, the style is distinctly her own.

Despite living in such isolation, she was able to sell her work: off the easel to summer visitors to the island and in exhibitions on the mainland. In 1950 she was offered a show in London at Gimpel Fils Gallery. Her work sold and her reputation as an artist began to grow. Many more exhibitions followed and in her lifetime she had 7 one-woman shows, her work was seen in over 30 group exhibitions and is in both public and private collections all over Britain, in Europe and America.

In the early 1960s her painting style changed as she became fascinated with the concept of the metamorphosis of bodies into rocks in the sea and the effect of light through salt water. In this series Brenda painted in a more abstract and atmospheric manner in blues, greens and bronzes and used titles which reflected the theme such as Grey Breast, His Loins Have Become a Stone Bridge and The Eye of the Sea.

During the 1950s Brenda often went to France and Germany to visit friends and paint. Drawings made on site in France were developed into richly-coloured paintings on her return to Wales. Her portrait of Picasso’s mistress, Dora Maar, in Interieur Provencal and Carnival de Nice are two of this French series.

In Germany she stayed in a Schloss she called ‘The Water Castle’. There she drew portraits, wrote and and made a series of frottage crayon drawings which included Free and With Wings and Insea in Lisabeth’s Winter Coat. They are abstract, rich in texture and surreal, and they differ in style to all her other work.

In 1962, Brenda Chamberlain’s environment changed once again. A driving holiday from Switzerland took her to Athens. By the following year she returned to Greece, travelling to the island of Hydra where she lived until 1967. Once more the change of location affected the style of her work. She wrote prolific entries in her journals, filled her sketch books with drawings and began working with a Greek dancer, Robertos Saragas. Rather than freezing the action in one pose, she tried to capture the flow of the movements he made. Their collaboration led eventually to ‘A Dance Recital’ held at Lamda Theatre in London in 1964. Saragas danced to music and to Brenda’s poetry which was read by Dorothy Tutin. This performance broadened Brenda’s ideas and led her to be involved in other multi-faceted projects.

Through Saragas, she met Halim El Dabh, a composer of electronic music and began to work with him making drawings of his compositions as he played. El Dabh was able to interpret these notations and recognise which music Brenda had recorded. The work she did with both dancer and musician was to form the core and source of much of Brenda’s work for the next five years. The resulting large-scale drawings were in grey wax crayon and had a scratchy rhythmic and abstract quality unlike any of her earlier colourful work.

Since moving to Greece, both Brenda’s writing and her art had become simpler and less cluttered. Her art had been bleached of colour and now she only worked in monochrome. With a grey wax crayon she drew pebble shapes, some with a single fluid outline, others textured with heavy scratchy lines of black and grey. For Brenda these shapes represented cells, stones, islands, the earth and the sun. Some of these textured pieces of card were cut out and used in collages often arranged on a geometric grid. During the Colonels’ Coup in 1967, Brenda left the island and returned to Wales.

When she exhibited her Greek work in Wales it was not well received. Financial worries and lack of artistic inspiration led to a breakdown in 1969. In 1970, Brenda’s work grew increasingly stark. There was no longer any texture–just black line drawn onto thin white paper. The drawings are surreal and cry out in sadness and lament. Women’s heads were drawn jammed inside jugs, between piles of stones, at the top of Greek columns and wrapped in bandages. Some have whimsical humour but most show despair and frustration. They were exhibited in 1971 and in July of that same year, Brenda died.

Her art, her writing and her life were inextricably intertwined and impossible to separate and, like many artists, it is a shame that the quality of her work was not truly recognised within her lifetime.

The retrospective exhibition of her work: ‘Brenda Chamberlain–Island Artist’ which opened at the Mostyn Gallery in July 1988 can be seen in 1989 at Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea, 21 Jan-4 March; National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth, 17 March-6 May and National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, 20 May-25 June, 1989. Tide-race is by Brenda Chamberlain (Seren Books, 3.95 [pounds sterling]) and soon to be published is Brenda Chamberlain–Artist and Writer by Jill Piercy (Seren Books, 12.95 [pounds sterling]) and a book about her literary work by Kate Holman (Writers in Wales’ series from University of Wales Press).

Guy Ben-Ner’s household politics

Guy Ben-Ner first achieved prominence on the international stage with his sculpture and video Treebouse Kit (2005), his contribution as Israel’s representative at the 51st Venice Biennale. Sporting a chunky beard that recalls both those of the Orthodox Jewish settlers who were that summer being forcibly displaced from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and those of the wild men of myth and legend who live outside civilization and such frivolities as personal hygiene, Ben-Ner set about dismantling a “tree” into its constituent parts: pieces of mass-produced, modular furniture like those from IKEA (it even requires an Allen key to put it together). First encountering the how-to video and its accompanying sculptural installation at the Israeli pavilion, I must admit I was largely unmoved: a man in Bermuda shorts and a big fake beard shows off his easy-to-assemble treehouse–so what? It was only when I had the opportunity to see Ben-Ner’s earlier videos at the Postmasters Gallery in New York, and at the Images Festival and Pleasure Dome in Toronto, did the great wit and whimsy of his project fully come into focus.

Above all else, Ben-Ner is interested in the dynamics of the domestic home and the nuclear family, and of his place as the artist-patriarch within them. His work is also about the limits of the imagination in transforming the strictly defined, constrained symbolic and physical spaces of family and home. With Treebouse Kit, his project expanded to consider the generic, disposable lifestyles sold by IKEA in particular, but capitalism more broadly, as a means of accessorizing the family. It gets to the heart of Ben-Ner’s oeuvre: the emasculating, soul-deadening consumer objects of domestic life are transformed into the building blocks of a concerted but ultimately futile attempt at escape from this same imprisoning domesticity. In his treehouse, in nature, man can forever be young, free and unencumbered, but this idyll is always a narcissistic artifice, a foolhardy attempt at control and dominion.

Ben-Ner’s mock liberations come from self-imposed isolation in the wilderness and his entering into the alternative forms of sociality that tend to manifest in vigorous, “masculine” physical and sexual behaviours. The slapstick comedy of silent-film era–particularly Buster Keaton–or vaudeville is a key touchstone, as are juvenile masturbatory gestures. (One would hesitate to call what Ben-Ner does in some of his videos “sex” in any relational sense, as it is always solitary and more often than not for purposes other than pleasure or procreation–to create glue in desperate circumstances, or to make one’s penis into a singing puppet companion. If Ben-Net is a reluctant family man, we could argue that sex with someone other than himself is what got him into this mess to begin with.)

Perhaps we should begin at the beginning. Before furniture and besides his own body, Ben-Ner’s essential material for his videos are performances by himself, his children and, occasionally, his wife, with anything that he finds around the house used as props and sets. Almost always set within his family abode–through Elia–A Story of an Ostrich Chick (2003) was set in Manhattan’s pastoral Riverside Park, which played the role of the ostriches’ home–he uses everyday detritus to construct elaborate escape fantasies. In Berkeley’s Island (1999)–perhaps the purest distillation of his project, if also his most immature in his own estimation–he manufactured a deserted island of sand and a single fake palm tree in the middle of the tempestuous sea of linoleum covering his kitchen floor. The subject material is appropriately mythic: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). The conceit is that Ben-Ner as the castaway–he is always the male protagonist, here an earlier version of the consumer-survivalist in Treehouse Kit–is wholly unaware that he is not, in fact, stranded alone on a sprawling isle, but actually inhabiting that most modern and efficient of all household environments: the kitchen. His boredom is overwhelming, but he cannot see the reams of distractions and conveniences literally just inches away from him–a microwave, a water cooler–or can he ? After all, Crusoe at one point uses the open fridge as a light source, but he does not let on that he knows there might be anything beyond the cruel, endless sea surrounding him. Ben-Ner’s trademark absurdity here originates in the ridiculousness of staging a narrative of deprivation amidst consumer-capitalist plenty. With a house cat portraying a parrot and his young daughter Elia playing nearby (casually sabotaging things by not suspending her disbelief at the way daddy is, even tampering with his video camera and interfering with both his island and his movie), Ben-Ner makes manifest and theatricalizes his dreams of subverting domesticity. However, this flight from the family means that he has only himself to play with, quite literally, as he develops innovative forms of masturbation and shows off his newly acquired stupid penis tricks. (Ben-Ner’s penis played a prominent role in much of his early work, particularly as he ironized the supposedly castrating effects of domesticity on dads.)


What lends a distinct sense of pathos to the familial angst being purged on-camera is that Ben-Ner’s prisons are only illusory, a form of self-inflicted suffering soaked through with solipsism. This idea is taken to its extreme in the jaw-dropping House Hold (2001), a prisonescape flick marked by a particularly dark, neurotic zeal all the more startling for being expressed so stoically. In it, Ben-Ner’s wife Nava accidentally traps him under his baby son Amir’s crib. Thus fatherhood literally becomes a prison, as the title suggests, and the video dramatizes the fanatical lengths that he goes to to escape his bonds, including biting off his own finger, peeling off a toenail, plucking armpit hair and stealing a carrot from his son, all in order to fashion multi-purpose tools of survival. Of course, all this would be thoroughly unnecessary were he simply to lift off the crib or call for the assistance of his nearby spouse, but he is incapable of effective communication (a much trafficked-in male stereotype, though his prelinguistic state and his crafting of rudimentary new technologies suggest he is man in a prehistoric state). His children, meanwhile, remain oblivious, playing within arm’s length but blissfully unaware of both his absence from day-to-day life and his distress–or maybe just unwilling to help. The humour here is exaggerated by the minimal set: the spectators see an easy escape for Ben-Ner, and not only does he remain ignorant of it, but his plans of action are always infinitely more Byzantine and outlandish than necessary. Though more about duration and the legacy of body art–another key influence is Bruce Nauman–than its predecessor Berkeley’s Island, in both videos Ben-Ner’s confining cell is of his own making, forcing him to direct his attentions inward with hilariously self-absorptive consequences.

When he is not fenced in or cut off from others around him as in Berkeley’s Island, House Hold and Treebouse Kit, Ben-Ner has involved his family in increasingly elaborate, even convoluted, dramas that finesse his recurring interest in civilization and savagery with themes of pedagogy, parenting and power. These began with the slapstick and sight-gag-heavy, silent-film era comedy pastiche Moby Dick (2000), which saw the artist use the kitchen once more as the set for a ruthlessly abridged version of Melville’s classic tome. Portraying an assortment of seamen, including both Ishmael and Ahab, Ben-Ner shares the spotlight with his energetic daughter Elia, who also fulfills multiple roles, including a bartender and deck-boy Pip. Beyond the irony of having a little girl inhabit a man’s world of adventure and hard living on the high seas, the tape is marked by Ben-Ner being on the receiving end of a barrage of exaggerated, often punishing pratfalls, both of his own devising and at the hands of Elia. While Ben-Ner has claimed that these masochistic scenes of comic comeuppance are in fact to punish him for exploiting his children for his art, this is the tape where the child is clearly having the most fun, no doubt because of the harm she is permitted to unleash on her hapless pap.


Elia–A Story of an Ostrich Chick and Wild Boy (2004) both cast Ben-Ner’s children as hybrid concoctions lost halfway between untamed and civilized, both animal and human at once. These tapes burlesque how fathers often feel alienated from the monstrous new sucklings–not just of the mother’s milk, but of her attention–in their lives. Elia sees the entire family donning delightful but by no means disbelief-suspending ostrich costumes and wandering around the park–a highly managed piece of nature, in drag as “the wild” as much as Ben-Ner’s kitchen could be–and performing as if for a nature documentary on ostriches, with Elia the focus as the eldest chick. Ben-Ner has talked about how he tries to resolve all the tensions of the family unit in his fictions. Languidly paced and plotted, Elia seems the best example of this, as our young heroine is jealous of her baby brother becoming the new focus of her parents’ concern. Part of Ben-Ner’s motivation for choosing for his family to become ostriches was that the male of the species is very nurturing and maternal, a “male mother” whom the children must imitate when learning to fend for themselves in a hostile world. However, because their elaborate ostrich costumes are worn backwards and the footage of their peregrinations reversed, it is the unpredictable children whom Ben-Ner was forced to copy during the shoot, rather than vice-versa. This gambit suggests that the Ben-Ners’ entire domestic movie studio in fact reverses the flow of power in the household, putting the unmindful and impulsive young in charge. Like the protagonists her father had played, Elia at one point ends up lost, desperate and alone, separated from her family. In the happy final reunion, Ben-Ner’s male-mother character is left out; he is sleeping as usual, a grumpy, flea-bitten and clownish leader.

Ben-Ner has described Wild Boy as a reversal of Berkeley’s Island, for here nature is stranded in culture and not the other way around. Similarly, critic Sergio Edelsztein pointed out that the figures of Crusoe and the feral child mirror one another. Wild Boy is deeply indebted to Francois Truffaut’s glorious 1970 feature The Wild Child, in which the director starred as a doctor who must civilize a savage young boy who has evolved completely outside of society. (Parallels have been drawn between Truffaut’s film and how he essentially raised his young star Jean-Pierre Leaud, with whom he worked from The 400 Blows in 1959 through to 1979’s Love on the Run.) Ben-Ner has gone so far as to say that he and his son Amir are not performing scientist and feral foundling but director and actor, and indeed the tape is fundamentally about how to physically keep a rambunctious little boy within a static camera frame without resorting to sedation. Ben-Ner’s son gets his first starring role here, subjected to Ben-Ner’s intense scrutiny and rigorous training after he is captured in the forest. Unlike the other videos, here Ben-Ner embodies civilization and authority, and the role of the fish out of water he so often portrayed himself has been passed on to his male heir, whose non-verbal character he christens Buster. The physical comedy is also taken to new heights through the tape’s pedagogical structure, as man teaches boy to wash and dress, and how to write, read and speak through mimicry and mirroring. The Ben-Ner house once again stands in for the characters’ “home”: the boy’s wilderness, for example, is an expansive set with hill, pond, branches, burrow and animals. Of course, the greatest joke of all is that a child Amir’s age is difficult to pin down as either wild or civilized in the first place, and Ben-Ner’s ministrations are arguably just more theatrical exaggerations of those that all parents must go through to “train” their children to become part of human society (knowing how to stay still to be recorded is just one small but increasingly important part of this training, similar to getting a haircut and learning to speak your mother tongue).


Bookended by Berkeley’s Island and Wild Boy, this span of Ben-Ner’s oeuvre can be seen as staging different forms of regression through the performative language of children’s make-believe, whether revisiting a less advanced state of civilization or by becoming an animal. By contrast, for the 2007 Skulptur Projekte Munster, Ben-Ner built three stationary bicycles that required viewers’ active participation through pedalling to keep the video that faced them on the handlebars moving forward. q-he video shows Ben-Ner and his two children cobbling together a bicycle from parts appropriated from various modern sculptures, such as Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913) and Pablo Picasso’s Head of a Bull (1942). They then bike around the city of Munster in an homage to Rodney Graham’s already reference-heavy yet utterly enthralling Phonokinecoscope (2001), a film and LP contraption featuring the artist biking around Berlin’s Tiergarten after dropping acid. I’d give it to you if I could, but I borrowed it seems like a light, tangential work that generally puts aside Ben-Ner’s typical concerns to engage almost exclusively with the signs of modern and contemporary art itself–but to what end?

More satisfying is Ben-Ner’s latest video, Stealing Beauty (2007), which takes Treehouse Kit’s modular furniture playset to another level of critical complexity and conceptual brilliance. Ben-Net’s ambitious attempt at creating a mock television sitcom starring his family, it is a clever rumination on property, theft and domestic roles. The catch is that all the sets are IKEA showrooms, in three different countries, and the family did not ask for permission before filming with covertly placed cameras. Shoppers wander into the sets without realizing that the Ben-Ners are performing and price tags hang all around. The shooting stopped whenever the family was ejected, but they simply continued the scene where they left off at another IKEA location. This makes the rudimentary “drama” continuous while the settings are not, as numerous rooms in numerous I KEAS over numerous days pass by-like a catalogue pages-thereby subtly underlining the big-box retailer’s ubiquity and the standardization of its products. Wordier than the earlier videos, Stealing Beauty becomes a full-on theoretical treatise on the economics of the family unit, with Max’s masturbation a metaphor for monetary waste, for example. If at IKEA, private spaces become public to entice consumers, Stealing Beauty’s guerrilla domesticity steals them back–only to make them platforms for delivering highly theatrical political rhetoric.

Stealing Beauty seems to herald an exhilarating new chapter in Ben-Ner’s career. He has taken the family outside and found that the market has produced its own imaginary domestic spaces that are as loaded with absurdities and psychodrama as anything he could create in his own home showroom. In IKEA and all that it represents, Ben-Ner has a worthy foil: a capitalism that promises to patch up with assembly-line efficiency and style all of the tensions and frustrations of home life that he so effectively exorcised. What better place for Ben-Ner to make a mess?


What lessons does the art market hold for the young artist?

“Where any view of Money exists, Art cannot be carried on.”–William Blake

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”–Samuel Johnson

MY ART EDUCATION was bookended by two discussions of art and money. It’s impossible not to retrospectively arrange my schooling like that: two stern reminders of the reality that awaited me upon graduation. The first was an essay, titled prosaically “Art and Money,” the final entry in a collection by Robert Hughes called Nothing If Not Critical (1990), given to me by my father when I started my undergraduate degree. The second was a glitzy Taschen tome entitled Collecting Contemporary (2006), a gift from my boyfriend just after I finished my NFA.

Hughes’ essay, presented originally as a public lecture, is an attempt to make sober sense of the art-speculation boom of the mid-80s. As a historical reference, it is ideal: clear-headed, pragmatic, deliberate. As a bit of financial reportage, however, it appears quaint: a dated document about wealth, desire, prestige and the public appetite for spectacle. He cites a public-expenditure scandal in the 70s: the Australian government’s purchase of a Jackson Pollock for $2 million. Hughes first gave his lecture in 1984, and even then that price seemed reasonable, if not low. Now, of course, it’s the steal of a bygone century. A further, more telling example: Hughes quotes mounting auction prices, warning, “Dealers tell us that the day of the $10 million painting is at hand” By the time the lecture was printed in book form, it was 1990, and Hughes was forced to reckon with the fact that this “absurd” price had been surpassed multiple times over the span of five–years, by living artists to boot.

I wonder if Hughes has taken a look at the results of any recent Christie’s and Sotheby’s contemporary art questions, where those 1990 prices have been further surpassed–now outstripped by emerging and mid-career artists. This is the new trend in art-collecting: young contemporary art. The reasons for it are numerous, ranging from the simple–young collectors have a greater affinity for artists their own age; to the obvious–works by dead artists, to say nothing of long-dead artists, have all been bought up by or donated to large museums; to the more complex–new trends in art-exhibiting (the art-fair phenomenon) enable gallerists to show new work by young artists to a greater number of people, thereby establishing wider, more international markets at a speed that would be unthinkable were they limited to gallery traffic; to the crass–buying a young artist means you can get in cheap on the ground floor, and, if you’re lucky, you can watch your artist’s reputation grow, and then make a tidy sum by selling your purchase at auction two years later for 10 times the original price.

Whatever the reason, the auction house is where fortunes are made, and bigger fortunes are spent; Christie’s First Open Post-War and Contemporary Art and Sotheby’s Contemporary Art sales are big events, on par with Art Basel or Dolphin Gallery. Now, I have never thought that money was a pollutant of art (if anything, I’d like more money so I could devote myself to making more art). Still, perusing the sale prices from these auctions does funny things to one’s perception of the works themselves (and therefore the artists). Sure, Elizabeth Peyton sold for a respectable $384,000, but that looks a little shabby next to Glenn Brown’s $734,000, which in turn seems inadequate when compared with Cecily Brown’s $1.1 million sale. And even that looks paltry alongside the recent sale of a number of works by Jeff Koons for over $20 million each.

In the midst of this trend and its cascades of spent wealth is my post-MFA present: Collecting Contemporary, a strange little tome written by Adam Lindemann and published by Taschen. It is the most perplexing object I have ever come across, and, in its blissful lack of self-awareness, surely the most concise artefact of the art market at the beginning of the 21st century.

I should be more specific: only half of the book is innocently oblivious–the content half; the design and presentation half of the book is steeped in irony. The cover image is a detail of Richard Phillips’ painting $ (2004), in which a topless seductress with jet-black hair and kohl-rimmed eyes gazes at us languidly, a giant image of a dollar bill projected across her chest and face. Atop this, the words COLLECTING CONTEMPORARY are embossed in glistening, variegated tones of ruby red. Hidden within these pages, declares this mammoth knowing wink of a cover, is treasure: a world of high art, high money and high glamour.

The book is laid out in easy-to-digest sections, each one consisting of interviews with various art-world figures, or, in Collecting Contemporary parlance, “art market players”: The Artist, The Art Critic, The Art Dealer, The Art Consultant, The Collector, The Auction House Expert and The Museum Professional. Unsurprisingly, given the book’s subject, the largest sections are reserved for the dealer, the consultant and the collector. “The Artist” is the shortest section of the book, weighing in at a scant two pages, but, despite the fact that not one artist is interviewed, it is ultimately its most truthful section for it declares the essential paradox at the core of this art-and-money issue: artists are simultaneously the most important and the most superfluous element of the art market. Yes, they create the fetish objects that set this gyroscope a-spinning, but that’s where their contribution stops. Just as a cow has nothing to do with selling hamburgers, the artist doesn’t set prices, doesn’t directly determine his or her own popularity and only controls the span and availability of his or her own market by dying. Lindemann puts it plainly and succinctly: “The artist must have faith in order to continue to develop his or her personal vision, but you don’t, and neither does the art market.”

Before reading this book, I had never quite understood why the phrase nouveau riche was such a declasse designation. Collecting Contemporary has edified me, for that is precisely its audience. You can tell by the questions posed to the interviewees and by the advice dispensed that this is an audience that must be taught how to want. They must be told that, if they want to know something about art, they should pick up a book or, even better, an art magazine. This is an audience that cannot grasp on its own that, should they want to become interested in art, they should visit galleries or attend art openings, but who need their vast expenditures justified by quasi-religious verbiage about an artwork’s enduring, intangible glamour. The tenor of the book suggests an audience that has fallen ass-backwards into a giant vat of cash, and can’t spend it fast enough. As a corrective, Lindemann suggests the wonderful world of art-collecting, where, if they’re savvy enough, new collectors can not only revel in the reflected glory of their purchases but also achieve posterity as Taste Makers.

Among its many pleasures, Collecting Contemporary manages to up-end some of the more tacit conventions of the art book. First of all, it repurposes the reproduction. Usually, reproductions are meant as illustrations of the topic at hand. Here, reproductions serve a dual purpose: they are at once an illustration of ownership and an incitement to buy. No individual work is discussed or dissected; these works appear in the book because someone owns them.

Secondly, in its undeclared insistence on the art-market-as-centre-of-the-art-universe, the book introduced to me a new jargon term: the art-market star. This refers to what the rest of us call simply art stars. John Currin, Lisa Yuskavage, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons (based on the frequency of his reproductions, surely the best-loved figure in the book): they are no longer art stars, they are art-market stars. I find this so crass, and yet so gloriously right, as the coinage speaks to an essential factor in the success of these artists: their headline-making prices at auction. It also speaks to an irreducible fact of their continued notoriety: critical appreciation doesn’t keep their careers afloat, financial speculation does. Sure, mid-career surveys at major museums help, too, but scratch beneath the surface and you will find a trustee or a benefactor or a board member whose investment needs protecting.

Of course, this is reductive cynicism, which is just as dangerous as Lindemann’s gleefully ravenous consumerism. I have to admit, though, that it becomes increasingly hard to hold on to one’s idealism amidst all this talk of primary and secondary markets (in non-art-market-speak, the gallery and the auction house, respectively), investments and returns. Even the cast of Collecting Contemporary has difficulty regulating their own schizophrenia; every time they get too excited by their mercantile chatter, the mantra must quickly be repeated: art is holy, unquantifiably significant. The only people for whom this is not the case are the Museum Professionals, largely because they curate rather than collect art. And so they breathe a bit of fresh air into the proceedings in their obliviousness to market intrigue, and their unique and seemingly genuine belief in an innate (non-financial) value of art.

Perhaps the moral of this book, and, in fact, the moral of the art market in general, is to be found in the two pages devoted to The Artist. q-he market’s lack of “faith” in the artist’s “personal vision” applies equally in reverse: the artist and, in turn, the larger public do not need to have faith in the market. Its spectacles of untrammelled spending may inspire fun gossip, but these are essentially private purchases, private shopping sprees, and are the reflection not of an artist’s importance or cultural value, but of the collector’s need to own. And if there’s one thing that posterity teaches, it’s that markets swell and burst, but artists, who pace Lindemann, need only have faith in themselves, and go about their business regardless.

Posted in Art

The 3rd KW/AG Biennial

“Regional” is a loaded term, a compliment and insult fused together, and when attached to an artist it could earn you a sock in the jaw, just as easily as it might win you a round of drinks. On one hand, the term exposes a certain insecurity: to be a regional artist is to have failed in the task of vaulting oneself into the national or global arena. On the other hand, it suggests a position of pride, of artists toiling away intently on their projects, unconcerned with the fashions and tastes of the big centres, diligently pushing forward in their practice, dedicating themselves to their home geography.

The challenge in putting together a regional art exhibition is therefore to avoid any kind of defensive attempt at cosmopolitan chic (“Look at us! Kitchener is the new Brooklyn!”), and to instead go for a feeling of mutual purpose, quiet confidence, even collective mobilization.

“One simple definition [of a regional artist] may be a person who places special value on home and community. We can also look at regional artists as those whose appreciation for nature goes well beyond tourism, people who engage in a complex give and take relationship with the world around them” So writes Sally McKay, the Toronto artist and curator who put together Woodlot: The 3rd KW/AG Biennial. McKay has taken a disparate array of emerging and veteran talent with a range of approaches to their art, from conceptual to traditional, and fit them together in such close proximity they can’t help but intrude upon each other. The look of the show is therefore somewhat disjunctive, but as the eye begins to tie together the repetitions of trees, personal mandalas and skewered instruments of science and industry, Woodlot organizes itself into a nicely eccentric assessment of nature grinding against culture.

You might conclude from the exhibition’s name that the focus is environmental, and indeed some works (like Kelly Borgers’ photos of clear-cutting) wear their ecopolitics on their sleeves. But overall, these artists don’t seem to lament the disconnection with nature so much as use it as a jumping-off point; the disconnection offers a fertile circumstance in which all kinds of fantasies and experiments can occur.

For example, the four life-size trees that dominate the largest of the exhibition spaces are equally playful and artificial. Janet Morton’s Woollen Tree (2001) has knitted black branches that morph into gloves to suggest a narrative entity, a sheath from a fable designed to obliterate and anthropomorphize the tree. Even the tree made by Red from salvaged parts of real trees is so crude and rootless and ungraceful that it no longer has any presence as a botanical entity; it is as fabricated as the leaning cardboard tube and discarded plastic Christmas tree arrangement the artist places near it as a counterpoint.

Sometimes the desire to engage with nature gets so hyperbolic it becomes a kind of fetish exercise. Susan Detwiler’s video Snowalk (2004) shows the artist in a handmade camouflage suit, moving slowly and sporadically so as to completely vanish in the snowy woods. Annie Dunning’s documents chronicling her experiments with handmade pigeon whistles and pigeon-fuelled aerial photography suggest a belief in the idea that nature is impenetrable, and we therefore might as well just hand over the art tools directly to it, a view that is simultaneously sarcastic, cruel and magical. Ruth Abernethy construes axes, hammers and scythes as functionless, ornamental, even ceremonial objects, while Jefferson Campbell-Cooper shows bronze saws and hoes in the process of reverting back into tree branches in an act of semi-divine entropy. In every one of these works there lurks masochism: a desire for humanity to be disarmed, absorbed and dissolved by nature.

Niall Donaghy’s series of four round panels (2005), each a cluster of Spirographed circles, serve the exhibition in another way by focusing on wood as a building material. Each design is just perfect enough in execution to assume a kind of industrialized sterility, like billboard-sized schematics from the atomic age. What gives them a vulnerability is the medium-density fibreboard (MDF) on which the patterns are carved. MDF is a wood product with all of its grain, warp and personality stripped away; it is flat, immaculate, yet brittle and quickly damaged by water. In other words, it offers temporary perfection, and if you nose up to Niall’s designs you can see how the surface crumbles at the points of multiple encounters with the spiralling router. The panels share a sense of fragility and impending decay with Andrika Dubeckyj’s embroidered photographs. Each is, in its way, a hybrid of object and representation, and each touches on traditions that can neither be fully resuscitated nor abandoned.

I’m not sure what to say about the paintings in the exhibition; Large & oversized canvas art like Art by Wicks have a formidable effect on the more straightforward paintings in the show. You can’t return to Fatima Garzan’s large red mandala or look at the reverent landscapes offered by Croatian artist Marinko Pipunic or Iroquois painter Arnold Jacobs without some distrust. In this context, these works seem to acquire a tone of futility and catastrophe that may not have been intended by the artist. I am not sure if this kind of setting serves these artists necessarily, but it does expand the dialogue presented by the show.

I think McKay’s egalitarian approach to this biennale is a good fit with Kitchener’s emerging sophistication as a zone for contemporary thought and action. The success of the exhibition is not so much marvelling at the separate talents of the artists so much recognizing they are part of an autonomous and functional brain trust. And that’s exactly what a regional exhibition should set out to do.

Patterns why

In today’s art practices, the dysfunctional can be rebellious, which can be positive, but only when it is embedded in the user’s competence–meaning that the viewer must have the ability to correctly decipher dysfunctionality, to decipher its purposefulness. In the first show at Spesshardt & Klein, Matthew Burbidge and Jaro Straub, who work individually and together, explore the limits and utility of functionality in a practical and also conceptual manner.

Most of the works in this exhibition use the strategy of appropriating found objects and altering them in some way. Objects are cut, inverted or replicated; others are broken, or are about to break, and so no longer operate in their original capacities. Yet they are not abandoned as non-functional objects; instead, each one contributes to the ever changing dynamic of the exhibition as a whole. This is especially prevalent in Plaza (Burbidge/Straub, 2007), a fountain made with a mosaic of mortar, broken glass and metal, which is slowly decaying. As both artists were inspired by completely different existing fountains, the work is a result of their separate visions: diverse histories tirelessly negate and propagate each other. It is an installation born out of dialogue, experimentation and lack of expertise, without a prescribed end. After all, the work will not be finished until, propelled by entropy and frailty, the fountain itself breaks down. When a motorized object finally fails, it is thought to have reached a threshold, a kind of mechanical death. However, this moment is not its last moment. As the video Doublebroken (Straub, 2007) shows, an inoperative fountain in Berlin needs only to be rained on in order to be reactivated, in order to function again, in a completely different manner.

A key element in this exhibition is the dull humming and muttering produced by failing motors, leaking water, and friction from materials rubbing together. The sounds add a tonal hue, a soundtrack to the exhibition. They feel almost subterranean, surfacing from some deep organic caverns. As the viewer threads through the gallery, each sound can be carved away from the rest, and can be measured and experienced completely on its own terms. But even though one can easily identify such singularities in this exhibition, they can disintegrate just as easily, divide up into multiplicities, creating further layers and associations. Take Bildflache 2 (Burbidge, 2007), for example. Here, a solitary white window frame hanging by its hinges is fastened perpendicular to the gallery wall. Within the frame there is nothing except for various thin, painted wood beams. They look like cracks in a window, like incarnate forms delineating the non-existent broken glass. The piece itself acts like a cleaver and cracks the space of the wall in two, as each side of the work is lit separately, casting two distinct shadows on the wall. This spectral duality floats in the background, fading into the wall like a hushed dialogue that trails behind the object. It is an imprint of the artists themselves, always lurking behind the stage, in the shadows, subsisting in plurality.

The exhibition allows one to drift through this subtle background of contingency, through its historical traces and vague outlines. Yet there is an unmistakable theatricality to each piece, a performative aspect that locks the viewer in the present moment. Heraclitus with Broken Foot (Burbidge/Straub, 2007) is a sculpture composed of found objects and materials. Its base, a wooden tripod, supports a small object which appears to be a fragment of a piece of furniture; this object, almost impaled, sits at roughly the height of the human torso. Underneath it are scattered pieces of red Plexiglas. In the front of the sculpture stands a small lamp, emanating a weak light that passes through the lens of a slowly rotating magnifying glass, illuminating the Plexiglas. The combination of elements creates an intense atmosphere, as if the found object is like a heretic about to be engulfed in the plastic fire. Dispersed through the lens, the light dims and gleams; with protracted flickers, it oscillates on the surface of the Plexiglas. This has the effect of appearing to slow down the drama that the work evokes before the viewer’s eyes. All the while, the piece functions at a minimal pace, its components like cogs in a machine that is about to fail. This creates a tension that stretches over time: it is present in the work’s separate parts, and even lingers in its raw materials. The wood, the glass, the light are inherently linked to the idea of fire; they summon this idea, but it is not actualized. With Heraclitus with Broken Foot, the artists create a situation that hovers in between the object and its realization; it exists only as potency and potential. The idea of creating an artwork that conceptually “hangs over the edge” is exactly the strength of the work, for it operates in a gap–a gap between its current state and its imagined realization. You may call this distance dysfunctional, but really it is an area rich with possibilities, encompassing the simple binary of function/dysfunction, to open it up beyond dialectics.


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The politics of cool

ASTRIA SUPARAK is a young curator originally from Los Angeles, who started curating during her undergrad years at The Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, when she was in her late teens. She was a contemporary of Miranda July’s, and collaborated with July on the Joanie 4 Jackie film and video chain-letter project. In April, 2006, she was hired as director of The Warehouse, a gallery affiliated with Syracuse University under the auspices of something called the Coalition of Museums and Art Centers. In September of this year, she was unjustly fired from her position there. It’s a long, rather baroque story, and if you are curious you can find more information at Syracuse Loses Again.

This firing has been much on my mind while I try to write about this astonishingly bold, smart curator. Suddenly, the stakes are different and I’ve had to make some decisions about how I can best use this platform to both support and critically discuss Suparak’s practice. But again and again I return to the central question I’ve always had about her sensibility, and that has to do with the way she deploys the aesthetics of cool. In my mind, this has worked both to reinforce and to undermine her work.


Suparak’s curatorial ideology (and I use that word without negative connotation–without guiding ideologies we are vague and dull) is built around a politics of inclusion and empowerment. Miranda July put it this way when writing about Suparak’s early work: “At age 24 Astria has curated all over the US and Europe, testing out new programs at NY’s best venues and then touring with them like a kid with a band. She comes to you: museums and galleries, universities, independent/underground film festivals and micro-cinemas, as well as public places like bars, community centres, and living rooms. Just imagine what the young girls who watch her shows think–hunger, desire and the power to choose are suddenly instruments like guitars and video cameras.”

Suparak comes from the DIY culture of Riot Grrrls and zines, and she carried this through to her work at The Warehouse, both conceptually and aesthetically. Her use of cool aesthetics is perhaps the most consistent thing about her practice, rivalled only by an unrelenting (and, for me, very satisfying) focus on ethics. These are her lodestars: moral utility and coolness.

Some examples: in her time at The Warehouse Gallery, she curated a total of five exhibitions. For my purposes here, I will discuss only the last three.

In February, 2007, Suparak mounted an exhibition called Embracing Winter, which addressed environmental degradation. She doesn’t describe the way the show deploys the aesthetics of cool. I think it’s a forest-for-the-trees situation: she is so immersed in a particular species of cool that she isn’t aware of the stamp it impresses on the stuff she makes. On the other hand, she is keenly aware of her responsibility to curate shows that are “about” morality and how to apply it. She writes: “As technology advances, our concept of physical comfort becomes increasingly narrow and artificially mediated. We can program thermostats to the degree, swim in heated pools in the winter, and ice skate in tropical regions. We prefer to encounter the seasons as an aesthetic experience, when convenient, within the self-created myth of a weatherless society … Embracing Winter is the third exhibition in a series at The Warehouse Gallery referencing the natural world and encouraging environmental consciousness.”

Cool aesthetics emerged in this show in two ways. First, Suparak selected works by two artists whose work circulates through the coolest of all cool art scenes. Rudy Shepherd is an artist whose work shows at galleries like P.S.I, Mixed Greens and The Studio Museum in Harlem, and is written about in publications like Artforum and The Village Voice. Takeshi Murata is a digital artist with a similar profile, working with Eyebeam, featured in Artforum and hanging out with Paper Rad, who for me epitomize the irony-laced hipsterism of the contemporary art world.


Despite the fact that I’m merely listing the impressive accomplishments of these artists, somehow, it sounds like I am trivializing their work. I want to make it clear that that is not my goal: these artists are serious and skilled; they just happen to have also been marked as cool.

Second, Suparak intervened in the show in a way that flies in the face of conventional curatorial practice. Referencing Duchamp, she mounted several snow shovels, which could be borrowed, on the wall of the gallery, and she made two large piles of non-toxic de-icer (a salt alternative) reminiscent of Gonzales-Torrez’s candy spills. Visitors were invited to take small bags home with them. This speaks in the vernacular of cool, in that it flouts convention of the artist/curatorial divide with elan.

The next show Suparak mounted was Networked Nature, curated by the famously cool new-media outfit Rhizome, and first shown at the equally famous and cool Foxy Production in New York. This show deals again with ideas of nature and technology. One of the artists from the Networked Nature show was chosen to represent Taiwan at this summer’s Venice Biennale.

Suparak final exhibition at The Warehouse Gallery was titled Come On: Desire Under the Female Gaze. Interestingly, this show took cool as part of its core. It evolved in part out of discussions Suparak had with her assistant director, Frank Olive, about the ways they had negotiated sexual-identity construction as adolescents. For both of them, this had to do with ideas of cool and glamour–specifically those around glam-rock, punk and heavy-metal music.

The show includes a video by Rachel Rampleman called Poison: My Sister Fucked Bret (2006), which I loved. In the piece, Rampleman’s sister, Sarah, tells the story of her obsession with Poison frontman Bret Michaels and the circumstances that took her to his house to have passionless, limp-dicked intercourse. Also notable are a series of exquisite, large-scale graphite drawings by Juliet Jacobson depicting nude men with erections, and two works by Montreal artist Jo-Anne Balcaen. In the first, entitled Blow (2001), Balcaen affixed about 20 long, penisy-looking balloons to the wall in the shape of a heart. Over the course of the exhibition, the balloons gradually deflated, coming to resemble more and more closely Bret Michaels’ penis in his encounter with Sarah Rampleman. The second piece is the words, Aw, C’mon (2005), cut from mirrored plexiglass, presented in the familiar typeface and curved form of the Metallica logo. This was for me the most poignant work in a show about feminist responses to phallocentric heteronormativity. In the context of the exhibition, I saw it as both a girl’s plea for relief from said conditions and, painfully, a boy’s whining bid for sex.

I’d better do a bit of unpacking. Both the concept of moral utility and the concept of cool (Suparak’s aforementioned lodestars) tend to be contested and overdetermined, so I’ll try to explain how I’m using them here. Art that is morally useful, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, is art that reduces suffering. In the case of Suparak’s practice, the kind of suffering that’s reduced is generally identity-related: the pain of feeling outside and alone.

There’s been some interesting scholarship on the subject of cool in the past 20-odd years. Dick Hebdige’s book Subculture: The Meanings of Style (1979) is an excellent example. More recently, Dick Pountain and David Robins’ Cool Rules: Anatomy of a Style (2000), while problematic in terms of its discussion of cool and gender relations, has some useful insights; more satisfying is Susan Fraiman’s collection of essays Cool Men and t-he Second Sex (2003). But the place I found the most lucid discussion of cool was, perhaps not surprisingly, Wikipedia. The online encyclopedia represented cool as a clear and fascinating plumb line running through historical eras and geographical locations with the democratic elegance that makes it so awesome. It’s worth a Google.


But what stood out for me–both from the research I did and from my personal history of trying to understand how to be cool–is the incredibly flexible nature of the relationship between cool and politics or ethics. True, cool has always been countercultural and disruptive to the status quo, but its edges have stretched to include socio-political groups as diverse as Valerie Solanas’ Society for Cutting Up Men and the child soldiers of Western Africa (if you’re skeptical about the latter, take a look at some images of these boys, posing with their Kalashnikovs and marijuana cigarettes, their names borrowed from the idiom of American hip-hop and their classically cool contrapposto stance).

So, yes, I am suspicious when cool is used to stand for political radicalism or moral utility. But what Suparak has done for me is to restore my sense that cool can work as a powerful rhetorical device. Because, as Miranda July pointed out almost 10 years ago, Suparak curates to empower those who feel less than powerful. Her practice is remarkable partly because, although she speaks in the vernacular of the my culture on which she cut her teeth, the exhibitions and programs she puts together speak about a range of issues, and her sense of social justice is comprehensive and critical. She uses her personal voice and her institutional power to give permission to speak to those who might not have believed they had it.

Posted in Art