Friday, December 31, 2010

On On Line

Walking through the galleries of the current MoMA show "On Line," I saw an amazing collection of brilliant works, featuring icons such as Picasso, Duchamp, and Kandinsky, as well as many less known but talented artists. At the same time, I felt rather confused - even lost. Is this just a survey of whatever art pieces that have beautiful lines in them? If so, why did they skip some usual suspects like Brice Marden but put in Jean Arp's square compositions? Maybe the curators made such selective decisions in order to make a point here? But what is it?

Study for the Muses (1991-1997) by Brice Marden,
whose work, for some reason, was not included in the show On Line

I went back to the entrance and read the curatorial notes. It says: "On Line ... argues for an expanded history of drawing that moves off the page into space and time." The exhibition "is organized chronologically in three sections: Surface Tension, featuring the artistic drive to construct and represent movement through line within the flat picture plane; Line Extension, composed of works in which lines extend beyond flatness into real space; and Confluence, presenting works in which line and background are fused, giving greater significance to the space between lines."

OK, they did try to voice a message and organize accordingly; just I didn't quite get it - maybe because I walked through the show backwards. It's a great concept to revisit and rediscover something as fundamental as line in art. But chronologically? Are we talking about a linear history here? (Maybe they are too obsessed with "line"...) I don't think developments in history works like that. When Picasso drew a line, did he only think about "tension on the surface" and not space or time? Is it fair to put Loie Fuller's dance in the first section with works that draw lines "within the flat picture plane," just because the performance took place more than a century ago?

Actually, I should be happy to see Loie Fuller's work in the show. In art, lines exist not only as drawn with pencil on paper or brush on canvas. Artists have explored many different mediums. A line can be created by cutting (Lucio Fontana, Gordon Matta-Clark), folding (Dorothea Rockburne), dancing (Loie Fuller, Trisha Brown), and walking (Richard Long). Materials can be thread (Anna Maria Maiolino, Ranjani Shettar), metal wires (Alexander Calder, Gego), Plexiglas (Georges Vantongerloo), or even horsehair (Pierrette Bloch). On Line successfully captures this expanded definition of drawing. But I think they missed out three important artists: André Cadere, Cai Guoqiang, and Dan Flavin. Cadere represents the process of sculpting a line (as opposed to sculpting with lines, like Gego), while Cai draws through gunpowder explosion. Flavin uses light as drawing material, and consequentially paints the wall.

Lines of different processes and materials
Clockwise from top left: Fontana, Matta-Clark, Fuller, Cadere, Gego, Flavin, Long.
Cai Guoqiang, Dragon or Rainbow Serpent: A Myth Glorified or Feared (1996)

Here, I am proposing a counter-curation of On Line. Instead of a flatfooted linear chronological display, we can explore multiple developments of the concept of line in the history of modern/contemporary art through different themes, and we can use the notion of "relation" as an organizational thread. First of all, there are compositional relations, which we can take examples from De Stijl (Mondrian), Russian Constructivists (El Lissitzky), Bauhaus (Kandinsky), and more recently, Ellsworth Kelly. These artists explore line in relation to the page and other elements on it. The meandering compositions by Brice Marden can serve as example of line that folds and unfolds onto itself.

Then there are dimensional relations. A line is one-dimensional. How does art express line in relation to point (0D), plane (2D), space (3D), and space-time (4D)? Space is the primary focus of the current exhibition (with Picasso's Cubist drawings and Sol LeWitt's three-dimensional grid). But it doesn't address much of the other dimensions. Line is composed by points. André Cadere's round bars could be understood as such. At a larger scale, The Gates by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, which didn't make it to the current selection, shows the point-line relation just as well. Many large wall drawings by Sol LeWitt (none of which was picked by the MoMA curators) are perfect examples of lines composing a plane. Tara Donovan's installation of loose folded plastic sheeting has a similar effect. The forth dimension is a bit tricky. MoMA features some dance and performance pieces. Perhaps also music? We can include works by Iannis Xenakis. His branching drawings remind me of the Algue screen that the Bouroullec Brothers designed for Vitra, which in fact is also a surface formed by many lines.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, The Gates (2005)
Sol LeWitt, Scribble (2007)
Iannis Xenakis, Study for Erikhthon (c.1973)

Now I have mentioned The Gates, the issue of scale and Land Art leads us to the notion of line in relation to nature. Other key figures under this theme include Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Richard Long, and Walter de Maria. These artists used land as the canvas, placing abstract geometry such as straight, curve/spiral, or zigzag lines in nature as symbols of human intervention. They also borrowed and reappropriated lines directly from nature, like The Lightening Field by Walter de Maria. I have to admit, I am so tempted to include The Palm Islands in Dubai here.

Lines in Land Art
Clockwise from top left: Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty (1970); Walter de Maria, The Lightning Field (1977); Walter de Maria, Mile Long Drawing (1968); Richard Long, A Line in the Himalayas (1975); Christo, Running Fence (1972-6); Michael Heizer, Dissipate (1968)

I was very happy to see young Lithuanian artist Zilvinas Kempinas' Double O featured in the show. I saw it last year at Yvon Lambert and I still find it ingenious - the two dancing circles are formed by the combined forces of gravity, wind, and magnetic field. The installation comes to life through basic physics, constantly changing and always reflecting the complex conditions of "now."

Zilvinas Kempinas, Double O (2008)

In my alternative version of the show, I would like to add two other young artists who have also skillfully and gracefully dealt with lines. One is Tomas Saraceno, born in Argentina and now based in Frankfurt. Formerly trained as an architect, he follows the tradition of visionary architects like Buckminster Fuller and Yona Friedman, using elastic ropes to form spider's web or cloud-like tensile structures that somehow imply floating habitats.

Tomas Saraceno, Galaxies Forming Along Filaments, Like Droplets Along the Strands of a Spider’s Web (2008)
Tomas Saraceno, Cloud Cities Connectome (2010)

The other is Seattle-based duo Lead Pencil Studio (Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo), who are also architects-turned-artists. Their recent installation at the US-Canada border near Vancouver looks like a giant Sol LeWitt wall drawing, but with depth. Interestingly, this piece touches almost all types of relations mentioned above. Countless metal bars are welded together to create a three-dimensional volume. Fuzzy on the outside, the volume frames an inner void with crisp edges. This "missing billboard" redirects attention to the landscape, and relates itself to nature in general. With exquisite elegance, it marks the socio-political line of the border.

Lead Pencil Studio, Non-Sign II (2010)

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Impression of American cities

The New York Times has taken recent data from the Census Bureau and created an interactive map that visually displays the distribution of people (and their race, education, income status, etc) throughout the US. My exercise here is to take the map, zoom into several major cities, and turn it into a more abstract version of maps (at the same scale). The result is a series of almost impressionist patterns.

Green: White; Blue: Black; Yellow: Hispanic; Red: Asian
(Color intensity = Density)
New York, NY
Chicago, IL
Los Angeles, CA
San Francisco, CA
Washington, DC
Philadelphia, PA
Boston, MA
Miami, FL
Houston, TX
Detroit, MI
Cleveland, OH

What do we see from these patterns? It's quite obvious that there are very distinct sectors for different ethnic groups in most cities. The amazing patchworks of NYC and Chicago, and the harsh line of 8 Mile Road in Detroit are vivid examples. Also, Cleveland looks like a butterfly with wings in different colors. I don't know if I should be surprised by this or not...

The metropolitan areas of Detroit and Boston has similar population, but they take on very different density patterns. Boston was built by the early settlers with the memories of European cities, while in Detroit, people say, "we make cars, and of course we'll use them." Houston and Philadelphia have a similar difference in terms of density. The graphic comparison below (one dot = 100 people) shows clearly the distinction between the dense urban cores in Northwestern cities and the spread-out versions in the Midwest and the South.
Detroit (L) and Boston (R), at the same scale
Houston (L) and Philadelphia (R), at the same scale

We can't simply put "=" signs between education, money, and success. But when I switched between the distribution of Master's degree graduates and neighborhood median income, I saw uncanny similarities between the maps. This happens in NYC, Chicago, as well as LA. The following maps show "people with Master's degree or higher" on the left (the more the darker), and median income on the right (the higher the darker). I think this at least proves the importance of education. Did you just say "duh"? Well, obviously not everybody can see it - especially not politicians.

New York City
Los Angeles

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"I like it!"

In the introduction to The SANAA Studios 2006-2008 publication, Florian Idenburg recalls a review with Sejima when he was still a student in Rotterdam:
I remember Sejima sitting, quietly smoking, listening to an exhaustive argumentation to justify one of the less elegant proposals. After a long silence her response was liberating. Pointing first to a sketch and subsequently to a plan she spoke softly: "This… I like… this… I do not like."
Florian took Sejima’s seemingly intuitive comment as a breath of fresh air. But to me, this subjective judgment dismissed all reason and logic. It was like saying, "You do this, not that. End of discussion."

The word "like," by definition, implies feelings of pleasure, favor, or attraction. It's all about personal emotions and taste. That's why "I like it" and its counterpart "I don't like it" are very feeble arguments. You can like it or dislike it, but it doesn't necessarily mean it is good or bad. In fact, not even the most popular things are always the best. If you ever wondered how W. got to that position twice, you would easily understand why winning a poll doesn't really prove anything.

Teaching a design studio is not about getting all students to do the same thing (i.e. whatever the instructor likes). Rather, it is to help students to discover their own potential and develop skills to achieve their intentions. In school, when students present something, they should be clear about what they attempt to do. Then the professors can gauge whether or not the design expresses the idea and make suggestions accordingly. That's why they are called "critics," not commanders. Without this layer of rationality, there's no ground for discussion. If one says "I like it" and the other says "I don't like it," they would keep arguing forever. So in a way, "I like it" is an anti-social statement, putting an end to any potential discourse, because subjective feelings are simply not debatable.

In a professional environment, "I like it" is the killer of collaboration. No two people think exactly the same. If the work is all about personal feelings and taste, how can the team act on the same page all the time? In a design meeting, nothing can be more hollow and deadly than a conversation like this:
Boss: I like it. What do you guys think?
Partner: Yeah, I like it. It looks great!
Team members (V.O.): What else are we supposed to say?
So we are doing it just because he likes it? But why does he feel that? What's next? It's full of unintelligible guesswork. Now imagine in another office, where there are more reasoned civil discussions on the design itself, the meetings would be far more productive and the work would benefit greatly from the palpability of decisions. Collaboration requires structured democracy and rational and clear mutual understanding.

Of course everybody has the right to like or dislike things. I don't oppose gut feelings; just they shouldn't be the direct reasons for important decisions. A statement of like or dislike is not useful without reasons for that like or dislike. I am not sure if Sejima actually elaborated on why she preferred one sketch to the other. If she did, it would be way more helpful because the student could learn how to improve in the future. Let's admit, design is always personal and subjective to some extend. But behind every decision there are intentions. Be rational about why we feel a certain way can sometimes be an almost psycho-analysis process to reason after the fact. By collectively doing so, we human beings create accumulative knowledge about emotions. Why are certain things more beautiful and appealing? We can talk about proportion, composition, materiality, color principles, context, etc. Yet there's another (arguably more important) set of standards. It's to check whether the design actually makes sense. Things exist with a purpose. What it does weighs more than how it looks, or in some cases, dictates the look of it.

In architecture, the complexity of design and construction requires the involvement of a large number of constituencies. When it comes to assessment, sorry, it's not just about you.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Destructive construction

Jonathan Safran Foer's latest book "Tree of Codes" is truly a piece of art. The author took Bruno Schulz's "The Street of Crocodiles," his favorite book, and started to take out words from the text and constructed a compelling new story with the remaining words. The act of writing thus became an exercise to construct through destruction, to create through erasure. The result is as much a sculpture as a work of fiction, a book of cutout pages on which holes indicate traces of the missing words. You then mentally piece together the fragmented phrases and sentences into a coherent narrative.

In a way, this delicate object revives the intimate relationship between the reader and the book - as Olafur Eliasson (who has also cut a book) puts it, "an extraordinary journey that activates the layers of time and space involved in the handling of the book and its heap of words." It is a book that "remembers it actually has a body." Apparently, this emphasis on physicality is a slap in the face of digital books. (Did I just say that on the day when Google launched their ebook store?) The experience of reading involves the texture of paper, the smell of ink, holding the page with your hand and physically turning it. "The Tree of Codes" reclaims the art of the book.

JSF skillfully turned a collection of short stories into one single haunting novel. But does it count as his work if he's literally just using Bruno Schulz's words? In an interview, he said, "There’s the sense that every book ever written is like this, if you use the dictionary as a starting point. This is a more limited palette, but it’s the same idea." This reminds me of a scene in the movie Flash of Genius. It's based on the story of Robert Kearns, professor and part-time inventor, who originally came up with the design for the intermittent windshield wiper and battled to the victory of the classic patent infringement cases against Ford and Chrysler. When Ford’s lawyers claimed that Kearns only used basic electronic components and did not really invent anything new, Kearns used the book “A Tale of Two Cities” to argue that Dickens did not invent any new words yet he did create a unique masterpiece by arranging words into a new pattern. I guess it's the same when musicians compose notes, painters draw lines, and architects punch a window. In the act of creating, we don't really start from scratch every time. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Spomenik: propaganda or pure beauty?

Recently, I spotted a book by Belgian photographer Jan Kempenaers called "Spomenik: The End of History." There are 26 photos of 25 weird but powerful structures, seemingly under poor maintenance, standing eerily on completely deserted lands. They are usually of gigantic scale and abstract geometry, resembling flowers, mushrooms, crystals, or blown-up micro-organisms. Most of them were built with concrete or stone, while some others with metal cladding or partly glazed. They make you wonder: what are these things?

Spomenik #1 (Podgarić), 2006
Spomenik #2 (Petrova Gora), 2006
Pomenik #3 (Kosmaj), 2006
Spomenik #4 (Tjentište), 2007
Spomenik #5 (Kruševo), 2007
Spomenik #6 (Kozara), 2007
Spomenik #7 (Grmeč), 2007
Spomenik #8 (Ilirska Bistrica), 2007
Spomenik #9 (Jasenovac), 2007
Spomenik #10 (Sanski Most), 2007
Spomenik #11 (Niš), 2007
Spomenik #12 (Košute), 2007
Spomenik #13 (Korenica), 2007
Spomenik #14 (Knin), 2007
Spomenik #15 (Makljen), 2007
Spomenik #16 (Tjentište), 2007
Spomenik #17 (Kolašin), 2009
Spomenik #18 (Kadinjača), 2009
Spomenik #19 (Mitrovica), 2009
Spomenik #20 (Brezovica), 2009
Spomenik #21 (Kamenska), 2009
Spomenik #22 (Ostra), 2009
Spomenik #23 (Sisak), 2009
Spomenik #24 (Nikšić), 2009
Spomenik #25 (Sinj), 2009
Spomenik #26 (Zenica), 2009

Spomenik literally means monument. These structures were commissioned by former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito in the 1960s and 70s to commemorate sites where WWII battles took place (like Tjentište, Kozara and Kadinjača), or where concentration camps stood (like Jasenovac and Niš). They were designed by different sculptors (Dušan Džamonja, Vojin Bakić, Miodrag Živković, Jordan and Iskra Grabul, to name a few) and architects (Bogdan Bogdanović, Gradimir Medaković...), conveying powerful visual impact to show the confidence and strength of the Socialist Republic. In the 1980s, these monuments attracted millions of visitors per year, especially young pioneers for their "patriotic education." After the Republic dissolved in early 1990s, they were completely abandoned, and their symbolic meanings were forever lost.

From 2006 to 2009, Kempenaers toured around the ex-Yugoslavia region (now Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, etc.) with the help of a 1975 map of memorials, bringing before our eyes a series of melancholy yet striking images. His photos raise a question: can these former monuments continue to exist as pure sculptures? On one hand, their physical dilapidated condition and institutional neglect reflect a more general social historical fracturing. And on the other hand, they are still of stunning beauty without any symbolic significances. I know this may sound schizophrenic if you also read my last post. But maybe there are forms that can transcend meaning...