Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Morphing shapes

Also at the Kunstmuseum Basel, there is a retrospective of drawings and sculptures created by the Bern artist Markus Raetz. It’s the first time I’ve come across his work, and I am very impressed by his ingenious play with geometry and perception.

Abstract figures
Markus Raetz started his artistic career in the 1960s. For him, the subjects themselves are less interesting than the ways their abstract images coalesce. He constructed images with points, lines, or grids, or rasterized them using halftone or trichromy techniques. (Well, Bjarke thought that his hotel façade in Sweden was innovative…)

Portrait of the Artist as a Typist, Amsterdam, 3.5.1970
Monika, Amsterdam, 27.3.1979
Clever Sphere, Bern, 7.1.1985

In 1979, Raetz started to construct matchstick men out of little twigs. He created a whole series of these abstract figures that sit, recline, or sleep. He called them MIMI and later even developed them into giant sculptures in the landscape using square-section timber or granite. He also made abstract figures as a kind of calligraphic exercise. In L’Amour, he illustrated with smooth brushstrokes the 32 sexual positions described in the Surrealist text The Immaculate Conception (1930) by André Breton and Paul Eluard.
MIMI model
MIMI installation at Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Brittany, 1986
L’Amour, 1980

For the animation film Eben, Raetz made 1525 drawings. Here, shapes appear from the movement of lines, morph with/into another, and dissolve again into nothingness. Hard lines soften, and soft lines harden; divide, combine, expand, contract. With very simple lines, Raetz managed to create highly intriguing visual effects.

The morphing of shape brings forth the status of “in-between,” operating in the zone of ambiguity. One motif that Raetz revisits constantly is the Mobius strip – a topological object that has fascinated many sculptures and architects. It has only one surface and one edge, and this makes it impossible to differentiate over and under, inside and outside, positive and negative.

Mobius Strip, Bern, 16.6.2010

This ambiguity of shapes can be seen back in the 1970 twig sculpture Eva and the 1971 sketch Common Line. They remind me of Rubin’s vase, where the positive and negative forms coalesce into one simple graph. Actually, this reference is more obvious in the 1993 drawing Two Vessels.
Eva, Amsterdam, 1970
Common Line, Carboneras, 20.1.1971
Two Vessels, Bern, 14.12.1993

The most striking play of reversible figures is After Man Ray. At first glance, you see two spinning cast objects with almost identical funny silhouettes. But after staring in between for a bit longer, you realize there’s a female figure swaying her hips loosely back and forth! It’s a reference to Man Ray’s Kiki de Montparnasse, but Kiki doesn’t exist in the sculpture per se. The dancing figure is merely the visual manifestation of a gap between two highly precisely calibrated objects.
After Man Ray, 2005
Man Ray’s Kiki de Montparnasse

View angles
Another fascinating visual play by Raetz is the “spatial drawing.” A shape morphs to another when the viewer changes viewing positions. Raetz carefully places his lines and shapes in a way that a certain image can only be seen from a particular angle.

Head, Merian Park in Brüglingen, Basel
Study for Le Wasistas de Warelwast, Le Ver à Val

He also plays with letters and words. The morphing words, especially in YES / NO, merge two polarized meanings into one singular object. You start to realize, yes or no merely depends on how you see it, and there are so many different shades of ambiguity between a Yes and a No.
NO W HERE, 1979
Study for YES / NO
YES / NO, 2003

Monday, December 10, 2012

Poor art, rich meanings

The Kunstmuseum Basel has staged a great show on Arte Povera, drawing about 100 iconic works by Giovanni Anselmo, Alighiero Boetti, Pier Paolo Calzolari, Luciano Fabro, Jannis Kounellis, Mario Merz, Giulio Paolini, Pino Pascali, Giuseppe Penone, Michelangelo Pistoletto, Emilio Prini, and Gilberto Zorio from the Goetz Collection in Munich, who holds one of the most extensive collection of this influential art movement.

In the 1960s, a group of artists in Italy started their artistic investigation against the established modernist art. Unlike Abstract Expressionists who prioritized personal emotions, Arte Povera artists reduced their artistic gesture and focused instead on the basic laws of nature and the energies in everyday life. Using the most elementary materials such as earth, glass, wood, stone, metal, and wax, they translated concepts into images, objects, spatial installations, and performance, in an almost stylistic anarchy.

In the first room there is Luciano Fabro’s bed linen piece. Is this art? One of the sheets is stretched over a frame like a traditional canvas. But the lazily draped one on the side still bares its full everyday domestic and even erotic connotations. In the same manner, Jannis Kounellis uses normal house paint instead of oil paint for his letter and number paintings, and Pier Paolo Calzolari covers a flute with frost. In another work, Calzolari puts an open walnut, a glass of water and a rose on a mattress. (The live goldfish in the glass is missing in this exhibition due to the disapproval of the Basel-Stadt Veterinary Services!) The fact that these objects are arranged in front of an Yves Klein blue background addresses the relationship between two and three dimensions – a still life painting that contains the actual subjects themselves.

Luciano Fabro, Pair of Sheets with Two Pillowcases, 1968
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1959
Pier Paolo Calzolari, A Sweet Flute to Make Me Play, 1968
Pier Paolo Calzolari, Untitled, 1972

In the middle of a pile of rags, Michelangelo Pistoletto generates an orchestra (literally) with three plugged electric kettles. This time sound becomes a material. Once in a while, the kettles go from humming, whistling, to screaming as the water inside reaches the boiling temperature.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, Rag Orchestra – Divided Glass, 1968

The loud rag orchestra is an expression of energy. Steam on the glass remains as a trace of the nerve-wracking moment of agitation. There are also quieter ways to visualize energy. Emilio Prini bends a 6.5m aluminum pole between two corners of a room. Similarly, Giovanni Anselmo holds a bent sheet of acrylic with a metal rod. The transparent nature of acrylic further reinforces the concept of visibility vs. invisibility. In another piece, Anselmo uses a wooden pole to twist leather straps that are cast in a cement cube, and then holds it against the wall in a horizontal position. These installations look static, but the forces are so intense that you feel they are threatening to unravel at any moment. Kounellis is also interested in the issue of energy. In this case, heavy-duty steel beams press a bag of coal dust onto a steel plate with a piece of rock.

Emilio Prini, Standard, 1967
Giovanni Anselmo, Untitled, 1967
Giovanni Anselmo, Torsione, 1968
Jannis Kounellis, Untitled, 1988

Perception is another topic that Arte Povera artists frequently explored. Large Woman’s Pelvis by Pino Pascali represents a fragmented perspective of a woman, but blown up to a larger-than-life size. Being figurative and abstract at the same time, it plays in between easy recognition and ambiguous perception.

Pino Pascali, Large Woman’s Pelvis, or Mons Veneris, 1964

In Anselmo’s self-portrait, he wrote “Lato destro” (right side) on the right side of his own neck. Contrary to our habit of perceiving someone else’s right side as the left when facing that person, Anselmo’s right side remains on the right in this photo. It is the result of mirror writing the text, flipping the image, and showing the artist’s face as he would see himself in the mirror. The central question is, can the viewer still tell which is left and which is right?
Giovanni Anselmo, Lato destro (Right Side), 1970

In Giuseppe Penone’s self-reflection series, we see a young Penone wearing mirrored contact lenses on his eyes. These lenses make him look alien and even scary. But more importantly, they blind the artist and at the same time reflect his surroundings to the viewer. Penone describes the mirrored lenses as “the seer of my future seeing,” because he could only see what was around him from the photos later on. This delayed perception initiates intense body awareness and reflections on the boundaries between man and his environments, between the inward self identity and the outward world.
Giuseppe Penone, Spilling One’s Eyes, 1970

Another artist famous for the use of mirror is Pistoletto. By drawing on mirror, Pistoletto includes the viewer into his paintings. The viewer is confronted not only with the reclining woman, but also himself and his own voyeurism.
Michelangelo Pistoletto, Reclining Woman, 1967

Mirror provides overlapping perception by drawing the viewer’s space into the artwork. Staring at the Etruscan’s out-stretching hand, one feels the melting of the threshold between the space in front of the mirror and the one in it. The viewer participates in the installation while consciously positioning himself in space with the seemingly timeless figure and the reflections – an interaction between present, past, and illusion. A similar play of spatial interaction can be seen between the projectors in Anselmo’s Detail.

Michelangelo Pistoletto, The Etruscan, 1976
Giovanni Anselmo, Particolare (Detail), 1972/73

On the other side of the same room, two statues (strictly speaking two halves of the same statue) are placed against opposite walls. Giulio Paolini’s Interval brings up the questions of space, and inevitably, time. It plays the same trick as Alighiero Boetti’s Ping Pong. Blinking back and forth, two red light boxes move the eye across space with rhythmic intervals.
Giulio Paolini, Intervallo (Interval), 1985
Alighiero Boetti, Ping Pong, 1966

In the 1970s, Boetti started to make a series of embroidered maps of the world with Afghan women. Each piece usually took years to make, and by the time it was finished it was already inaccurate. Behind the brilliant craftsmanship are the challenges of time and the ephemerality of political systems. This is evident in the text at the bottom: “Alighiero Boetti against time, against wind, against will.”
Alighiero Boetti, Mappa, 1988

One of the most impressive is Penone’s 230cm Tree. He took an industrially manufactured wooden beam, following the growth rings, chiseling away the trunk, working his way through to the youngest growth ring and exposing it knot by knot. It’s an effort to reverse the process of making, tracing back the tree’s life history. With this sculpting technique, Penone acknowledges that the true sculptor is in fact nature.
Giuseppe Penone, 230cm Tree, 1977

Arte Povera, literally meaning poor art, is made with simple methods and “poor” materials, yet it conveys maximum expressivity and multiple layers of meanings. In the Kunstmuseum exhibition, I see all sorts of forces and elements in relation: subject and object, inward and outward, peace and tension, reality and illusion, visibility and invisibility, time and space, art and life, self and others, man and nature…

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Niemeyer’s last work

Legendary Modernist Oscar Ribeiro de Almeida Niemeyer Soares Filho passed away three days ago, just 10 days before his 105th birthday. He was reportedly still working from his hospital bed last month. Vera Lucia Niemeyer, Niemeyer’s wife, stated: “He has several projects and wants to know about the progress of each.” Niemeyer himself was quoted as saying that hospitalization was a “very lonely thing.” “I needed to keep busy, keep in touch with friends, maintain my rhythm of life,” the admirable man said.

Last month, I saw the Oscar Niemeyer collection for Converse, who also turned 104 this year. Compared to the horrible and obviously unwearable designer shoes in the past few years, these simple sneakers felt like a fresh breeze. The design celebrates Niemeyer’s “free and sensual curve” – “the curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuous course of its rivers, in the body of the beloved woman.”

I don’t know how much Niemeyer himself was involved in the creation of this collection, but it’s arguably the last Niemeyer-related design product. I’d better place my order before they are all sold out.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Apple’s Skeuomorphism

Apple announced on Monday that Scott Forstall would be stepping down as senior VP of iOS software. Rumor says he was actually fired because he refused to sign an apology letter for the awful and problematic Maps app. A more long-standing conflict was his skeuomorphic design approach. Skeuomorphic design keeps some of the old elements to make the new look familiar and comfortable, even such elements don’t make any sense with the new materials and techniques. In the case of Apple, it would mean creating virtual applications that mimic real-world objects. It sounds nice but it’s really conservative in nature. It’s actually quite laughable that a progressive inventor like Apple would still continue to use retro-looking interfaces. Here are some examples:
Calendar’s leather top
Contacts looks like an old-school address book
Notes takes the form of a yellow legal pad and uses awful font that looks like handwriting
Wooden bookshelves and leather-bound books in iBooks
Turning pages in iBooks
Shredder in Passbook
The worse app by Apple ever: Cards

It reminds me of Karim Rashid’s comment on digital cameras: “All of a sudden our cameras have no film, why on earth do we have the same shape we had before?” The iPhone has a digital camera, but it comes with a mechanical shutter click sound. For a company who values so much the unity of hardware and software, this mismatch is rather embarrassing. Hopefully this will change when Jony Ive takes over part of Scott Forstall’s responsibilities and heads up the new human interface (HI) department, as also announced on Monday. Actually you could smell some hints in Tim Cook’s iPad mini presentation regarding the iBooks update last week. The new version contains “a really cool new reading option – continuous scrolling. If you just flip when you are reading, the words scroll by just as you would expect.” Well, that’s what an ebook is.