Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Surrealism revisited

The Fondation Beyeler has put on a new show on Surrealism in Paris. It brings together over 200 fascinating works by Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, Joan Miró, and other Surrealist artists. In addition to the well-known paintings and sculptures, there are also objects, photographs, manuscripts, jewelry, and films. It's like traveling back in time to experience the development of this important movement in art history.

The first room begins with works by Giorgio de Chirico - sets of familiar classical buildings forming unfamiliar or even mysterious stages for riddles and dreams. His haunting "metaphysical" visual style opened new horizons in art and had formative influence on the Surrealist movement. In fact, many surrealist artists including Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and René Magritte acknowledged de Chirico's influence.

Giorgio de Chirico, The Delights of the Poet, 1912

In the second room are manuscripts, letters, and publications of André Breton's two manifestos of Surrealism (1924 and 1929) and several Surrealist journals. As the leader and chief theoretician of the movement, Breton defined the basic narratives of the group. First, he linked creative action to dreams and the unconscious, in a very Freudian way. Dreams and reality together form absolute reality, a sort of surreality, which reflects the internal reality of the psyche. Second, he emphasized that Surrealism was foremost a philosophical and cultural movement, less about style or school to make art but more a comprehensive radical new lifestyle.
The first issue of La révolution surréaliste, 1924
René Magritte, The Interpretation of Dreams, 1930

Automatic Writing
Surrealists believed in the unconscious mind, and automatism was thus developed as a way of expressing it. It involves "spontaneous creativity that excludes intellectual self-censorship." Praised by Breton as "the most surrealist of us all,” Miró often started out his paintings as automatic drawings. Arguably, the process cannot be entirely automatic, but at least it is free from rigorous pre-conception and judgments. Another pioneer of "automatic drawing" was André Masson, who was also a frequent contributor to La révolution surréaliste.

Joan Miró, Painting: The Fratellini Brothers, 1927
André Masson, Birth of Birds, c. 1925

This "automatic" method leaves room for unexpected incidents. The key Surrealist techniques - grattage (scraping) and frottage (rubbing) - are good examples. Developed by Max Ernst, these techniques relinquished control over the work to a certain extent, allowing surprising unplanned shapes and textures to appear on the canvas.
Max Ernst, The Entire City, 1935-36

Before the skinny figures, Alberto Giacometti was quite involved in the Surrealist movement. He became a member of the group in 1928, but in 1935 he was expelled, due to his "reawaken interest in nature studies." The group saw this tendency as "reactionary" (i.e. not automatic). Giacometti experienced intense creative crisis after that but fortunately he overcame the trauma with a novel unique style.
Alberto Giacometti, Reclining Woman, 1929

Another artist who wanted "not to lose sight of nature" was Picasso. For him, it is impossible to materialize something not inherent in the subject matter. He refused the Surrealists' basic idea of automatic writing, and still believed in the importance of conscious composition. He was never a real part of the movement. It's odd to even see him in the show. OK Beyeler, I know you have Picasso.
Pablo Picasso, Figure (Seated Woman), 1930

If we talk about Freud, desire would inevitably become a key word. The show's poster image - Dalí's Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around a Pomegranate, one Second before Awakening - is a good example. Here, the main subject is Dalí's wife Gala. Next to the naked body, there are two suspended droplets of water and a pomegranate, a Christian symbol of fertility and resurrection. A bee, an insect that traditionally symbolizes the Virgin, is flying above the pomegranate. It is repeated symbolically in the upper part of the painting with a fish, two tigers, and a bayonet.

Salvador Dalí, Dream Caused by the Flight of a Bee around
a Pomegranate, one Second before Awakening
, 1944

Dalí defined surrealist objects as "absolutely useless from the practical and rational point of view, created wholly for the purpose of materializing in a fetishistic way with the maximum of tangible reality, ideas and fantasies that have a delirious character." The first of such objects that comes to my mind is Meret Oppenheim's Fur Cup (1936). It is not in this exhibition, but they do have Fur Bracelet (1935), reportedly the trigger of the cup. Another object by her, My Nurse is a pair of white lady's shoes that take the shape of a chicken dish. The high heels here represent not only gender and domesticity, but also fleshly lust, almost to the point of cannibalism.
Meret Oppenheim, Fur Bracelet, 1935
Meret Oppenheim, My Nurse, 1936

Max Ernst's Capricorne in the foyer is like a family of hybrid creatures. The father has horns like a goat, the mother has a fish tail, and so does the little child. In fact, Capriconrnus is a part goat part fish creature in Greek mythology. This is typical Surrealistic. The artists did not really invent scary-looking things out of the blue, but they were happy to adopt grotesque beasts from ancient myths.

Max Ernst, Capricorne, 1948

Another example is Paul Delvaux's The Break of Day, where the metamorphosis of the body into a tree is likely a reference to Roman mythology.
Paul Delvaux, The Break of Day, 1937

Dalí staged the classical myth of Narcissus in a dramatically illuminated landscape. The transformation is represented by the juxtaposition of a crouching body on the left and a hand on the right holding an egg with a narcissus sprout.
Salvador Dalí, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937

Less known artists
One interesting thing about this exhibition is that it also brings in works by less known Surrealist artists, including the Romanian Victor Brauner, the Austrian Wolfgang Paalen, and the Swiss Kurt Seligmann. A native of Basel, Seligmann presents in his Carnival a dream-like atmosphere of Basler Fasnacht.

Kurt Seligmann, Carnival, 1950

In the welcoming remarks, curator Philippe Büttner says, "We hope you explore the exhibition with your eyes wide open... and keep an open mind. You don't have to find everything appealing - even we don't like everything." I found this statement rather strange and conservative. After more than half a century, are we still not ready for this? You know what? I actually like everything. As one of the most important movements in the early 20th century, Surrealism influenced many later groups and events, including Situationist International, Postmodernism, and indirectly May 1968.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Shell, space, and content

10 years after the project started, the HdM-designed Museum of Cultures (Museum der Kulturen) in Basel finally opened its doors last month. The design reorganized the the entrance, the existing building facade, and added a cute little new roof with hanging plants. The formerly closed Schürhof courtyard was turned into a public space directly accessible from the Münsterplatz.

At the heart of historic Basel, it's a rule that no new construction should be seen from public streets. The geometry of the extension was thus carefully calculated according to various view angles. Only visible from above or from the inner courtyards, the ceramic-tiled folded form exists in harmony with its neighboring roofscape.

HdM provides neutral gallery spaces for the Museum's 300,000+ ethnographic artifacts, representing cultures in all continents. But the exhibition design is horrible - weird curved walls and folded table surfaces here and there, unrelated objects putting on the same table in a very loose manner. Underneath the folded roof is a large column-free gallery space, but the exhibition designers put in walls winding throughout the hall, blocking any possible perception of the grand space! Probably the only thing I found interesting was the the paper Chinese dragon in a red double-height room.

This reminds me of another recently-opened museum, the Cité de l'Océan et du Surf in Biarritz by Steven Holl. It has a rather curious shape, vaguely resembling waves and the boulders along the Atlantic coastline in Biarritz. The building is pressed half underground beneath a curved roof that forms a public plaza with theatrical sequence of topographic changes. A gentle stairway leads up to the plaza level from the street front of the building. Both sides of the plaza curve up, flanking the ocean view towards the horizon in the distance. On one side, the plaza rises to a terrace. On the other side, the plaza slopes down onto the ground, leading to a grassed park onward to the vast ocean. On the plaza, people run, climb, and jump, as if the “monkey side” of Homo sapiens were released by this dramatic form. At the southwest corner there is a skate pool for the surfers’ experiments. The cloud shape indentation also forms a strangely compressed portico to the auditorium.

Under the high corner of the curve on the roadside is the entry lobby to the exhibitions. The steep sloping ceiling intensifies the spatial indication of diving down to the semi-underground exhibition space.

As I descended the stairs, I almost cried out loud OMG! "Am I in Disneyland?" The exhibition designers had ruined the poetic space with their amusement-park-like "edutainment" installations. A splash of water that looks like a whale as "the cradle of evolution"? Rocks with colorful videos inside? Grotesque machine arms for projection? Oh boy...

It seems nobody has learned a lesson from the disastrous interior of the Jewish Museum in Berlin. The chaotic exhibition arrangement completely destroys the architectural space by LIbeskind. Zigzag? Warped Star of David? Gedenkbuch? I don't see any of those from the inside!

It's quite disheartening that architecture and exhibition design seldom go hand in hand with each other in contemporary museums. The limited influence of the profession has forced many architects to either ignore the content or just go for the generic white box. We should wake up and start to break the line between architecture and exhibition, and advocate for a more holistic design for the shell, the space, and its contents.

Friday, October 7, 2011

iRemember / Tim Cook
Apple has lost a visionary and creative genius, and the world has lost an amazing human being. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to know and work with Steve have lost a dear friend and an inspiring mentor. Steve leaves behind a company that only he could have built, and his spirit will forever be the foundation of Apple.

Apple's board
Steve's brilliance, passion and energy were the source of countless innovations that enrich and improve all of our lives. The world is immeasurably better because of Steve.

Steve Wozniak
We've lost something we won't get back... he brought a lot of life to the world.

Bob Iger
His legacy will extend far beyond the products he created or the businesses he built. It will be the millions of people he inspired, the lives he changed, and the culture he defined. Steve was such an “original,” with a thoroughly creative, imaginative mind that defined an era... With his passing the world has lost a rare original, Disney has lost a member of our family, and I have lost a great friend.

John Lasseter & Ed Catmull
Steve Jobs was an extraordinary visionary, our very dear friend and the guiding light of the Pixar family. He saw the potential of what Pixar could be before the rest of us, and beyond what anyone ever imagined. Steve took a chance on us and believed in our crazy dream of making computer animated films; the one thing he always said was to simply "make it great." He is why Pixar turned out the way we did and his strength, integrity and love of life has made us all better people. He will forever be a part of Pixar’s DNA.

Bill Gates
The world rarely sees someone who has had the profound impact Steve has had, the effects of which will be felt for many generations to come. For those of us lucky enough to get to work with him, it's been an insanely great honor. I will miss Steve immensely.

Larry Page
He was a great man with incredible achievements and amazing brilliance. He always seemed to be able to say in very few words what you actually should have been thinking before you thought it. His focus on the user experience above all else has always been an inspiration to me.

Sergey Brin
From the earliest days of Google, whenever Larry and I sought inspiration for vision and leadership, we needed to look no farther than Cupertino. Steve, your passion for excellence is felt by anyone who has ever touched an Apple product (including the macbook I am writing this on right now). And I have witnessed it in person the few times we have met.

Eric Schmidt
Steve defined a generation of style and technology that's unlikely to be matched again.

Jerry Yang
Steve was my hero growing up. He not only gave me a lot of personal advice and encouragement, he showed all of us how innovation can change lives. I will miss him dearly, as will the world.

Mark Zuckerberg
Steve, thank you for being a mentor and a friend. Thanks for showing that what you build can change the world. I will miss you.

Dick Costolo
Once in a rare while, somebody comes along who doesnt just raise the bar, they create an entirely new standard of measurement. #RIPSteveJobs

Meg Whitman
Steve Jobs was an iconic entrepreneur and businessman whose impact on technology was felt beyond Silicon Valley. He will be remembered for the innovation he brought to market and the inspiration he brought to the world.

Barack Obama
Steve was among the greatest of American innovators - brave enough to think differently, bold enough to believe he could change the world, and talented enough to do it... [H]e transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world. The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.

Bill Clinton
His passion for his work and his courage in fighting his cancer were an inspiration to us all.

Nancy Pelosi
Steve Jobs was a visionary who changed the way we live, an innovator whose products brought joy to millions, a risktaker who wasn't afraid to challenge the status quo, and an entrepreneur who led one of the most creative companies of our time. His sage advice was respected by policymakers on both sides of the aisle. His courageous fight against cancer brought strength to many.

Michael Broomberg
America lost a genius who will be remembered with Edison and Einstein, and whose ideas will shape the world for generations to come. Again and again over the last four decades, Steve Jobs saw the future and brought it to life long before most people could even see the horizon. And Steve's passionate belief in the power of technology to transform the way we live brought us more than smart phones and iPads: it brought knowledge and power that is reshaping the face of civilization.

Arnold Schwarzenegger
Steve lived the California Dream every day of his life and he changed the world and inspired all of us.

Steven Spielberg
Steve Jobs was the greatest inventor since Thomas Edison. He put the world at our fingertips.

George Lucas
The magic of Steve was that while others simply accepted the status quo, he saw the true potential in everything he touched and never compromised on that vision. He leaves behind an incredible family and a legacy that will continue to speak to people for years to come.

JJ Abrams
There are so few people who are undeniably, brilliantly inspiring. Steve Jobs, a man who changed the way we create, the way we communicate, the way we live, was one of those people. I already miss knowing he is out there.

John Hodgman
Everything good I have done, I have done on a Mac.

Walter Isaacson
He revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing and digital publishing. You might even add a seventh: retailing, which Jobs did not quite revolutionize but did reimagine... Jobs thus became the greatest business executive of our era, the one most certain to be remembered a century from now. History will place him in the pantheon right next to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.

Lance Armstrong
His brilliant and innovative spirit will be deeply missed. Steve pioneered a new way of seeing and embracing the world and his indelible influence will be felt by generations to come... We have lost an icon and I have also lost a friend.

Norman Foster
Steve was an inspiration and a role model. He encouraged us to develop new ways of looking at design to reflect his unique ability to weave backwards and forwards between grand strategy and the minutiae of the tiniest of internal fittings. For him no detail was small in its significance and he would be simultaneously questioning the headlines of our project together whilst he delved into its fine print. He was the ultimate perfectionist and demanded of himself as he demanded of others.

Collected with my iPhone, iPad; posted from my MacBook via Safari.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Shall we talk?

It was a big letdown not to see iPhone 5 announced at the Apple event today. But Siri, a talking virtual assistant is officially active now. We've used a GPS device, and we've tried speaking to the Google search app. But they were not as interactive and "intelligent." Siri will certainly change the way humans communicate with machines. At least closer to what we imagined the future would be in the past.
HAL 9000, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
"Mother," Alien (1979)
KITT, Knight Rider (1982)
V.I.K.I., I, Robot (2004)
Jarvis, Iron Man (2008)
ARIIA, Eagle Eye (2008)
GERTY 3000, Moon (2009)

These machines in the movies can talk, think, and even conspire. It's almost a shame that we get to that technology just now. Or maybe we have been careful? Maybe we should really consider what if artificial intelligence really turns into Skynet?