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Gerhard Richter and the Holocaust

In Art on December 21, 2014 at 8:42 pm

As you walk into the Richter exhibition at the Marion Goodman Gallery, you are immediately confronted by a glass sculpture. Seven huge panes of transparent, shiny glass stand at funny angles, leaning on each other, awkward and awesome. You notice odd reflections; if you stand in the right place you can see yourself, distorted. But the transparency means that it is easier to see the person you followed in, standing on the other side looking back at you. From behind this huge structure you feel free to observe that person, to spend a whole second – maybe more – looking at them. The sculpture is like a majestic peeping Tom’s window, distorted but not distorting, at least not ostensibly.

In the adjacent rooms are his ‘Flow’ paintings, swirls of bright coloured enamel paint behind glass, each one spanning more than one plate. The paint is seemingly arrested in chaotic movement. Your eyes follow the lines of this movement across from one plate to the next, and as they do you notice what had initially evaded your attention. Discontinuity. The lines don’t connect. Not quite. The impressions of fluidity of movement are replaced by discontinuity and disjunction. As you contemplate this, you realise you can see your own reflection again, your face caught up in discontinuous whirlpools. You turn away.

But in the next room, you find mirrors, darkened and smoky in parts. These are the grey paintings, grey paint behind glass. As there is no other colour to them, to survey the work you are forced to look at your own reflection, but through a smoky barrier. The detail of the painting seems somehow secondary. What matters remains cloudy and mysterious. There is an uncomfortable feeling of wanting to get in behind the painting in order to better see that image or representation. The painting conceals something, it hides you from yourself. And the more concealed you are, the more you want to look. When less concealed, when directly and undistortedly reflected, you feel a need to turn away.

To the ‘Strip’ paintings, inkjet printed colour charts, again on shiny, reflective plates. He calls these pieces “pictures”, as if he is depicting something. Robert Storr says they are his most “retinal” works. Looking at them certainly strains the eye. You can’t look for more than a few seconds. And, unlike the other paintings, the lines of colour are so intense that you cannot see your reflection. Following the mirrors and swirling colours, you wonder what discontinuities are present here? What is being concealed? Is abstraction itself a form of concealment?

It is. This is demonstrated by some of Richter’s most famous paintings, which do exactly this, conceal by abstracting, or at least obscure by abstracting. I am referring to the blurred paintings of photos. The subjects of the photos are often described as banal or random. The one painted here is far from being either. Four youths sit in a convertible Cadillac, joyfully cruising down an American highway. This is the apotheosis of mainstream American youth culture, as marketed in the 1950s. The same America that defeated Richter’s country of birth in war when he was 13. The same consumerist, ‘free’ culture that must have seemed so seductive to so many in the East Germany in which he grew up until he got out in 1961, just before the wall went up.

So with this historical perspective, you go upstairs and find a series of small photos that really are banal. Actual photos, not paintings of photos. Oddly composed landscapes that could’ve been taken in the English countryside. Houses. People, perhaps people on holiday. Some are ensconced in action without explanation. But they all have thick splodges of paint strewn across them, lending an air of absurdity to them. So not painted photos, but paint on photos, the paint not adding anything to them but just concealing whatever is behind the paint, sometimes in a maddening way. What is this photo actually of? What is going on here? Evocation is suggested but consciously frustrated.

So what is all this concealment about? Why the will to hide? (I use the word ‘hide’ aware of its transitive and intransitive potential.)

In my last post I mentioned that Adorno had once said it was barbaric to write poetry after the Holocaust. And I wondered about how you could really do anything after the contemplation of the Final Solution. This is what I was thinking about as I considered Richter’s work, what he was trying to conceal and why. Afterwards, I read this article by Peter Wollen in the LRB which focuses on Richter’s grey paintings of the Red Army Faction and their belongings. He quotes Richter as saying that grey is “suitable for illustrating ‘nothing’”, it is “the epitome of non-statement”. I think there is a link here between this idea of a statement that is effortfully made as a non-statement and hiding. In fact, I think they are basically the same thing. In order for a person to be confident of making a non-statement, he or she must know what a statement is, and do the obverse. (Of course, the existence of the non-statement as conscious non-statement makes it a statement as well.) Similarly, in order to conceal reality, one has to represent reality (e.g. in a conventional manner like a photo) and then obscure it (e.g. by blurring). The real becomes mysterious. Peter Wollen puts it like this:

He became attracted, even committed, to grey because it was ‘suitable for illustrating “nothing”’; because it was ‘the welcome and only possible equivalent for indifference’; because grey, ‘just like shapelessness etc, can only notionally be real’; because each picture ‘is then a mixture of grey as fiction and grey as a visible, proportioned colour surface’. In other words, grey is simultaneously both real and unreal, committed and uncommitted. In the grey photo-based work the real is given a ‘transcendental side’, each object has its own particular mysteriousness, becoming a metaphor as it melts away into an ‘incomprehensible reality’.

What is important to note is that the reality that is incomprehensible is not the one ‘out there’ in the world. It is the one created in the work. Whether this means that Richter truly thinks the reality ‘out there’ is incomprehensible, I am not sure. I think it is more likely that he thinks it is unacceptable. I am reminded of Levi’s friend in the Lager who has carved at the bottom of his bowl, “Ne pas chercher a comprendre”. Don’t try to understand.

Until 2008 (or was it 9/11?) the hegemonic way of assessing utopian ideologies was to associate them with catastrophic consequences. Nazism led to the Holocaust. Communism led to the Great Purge, the Cultural Revolution and the Killing Fields. Even the French Revolution was condemned. It led to the White Terror. Ideology breeds zealotry. Ideas have “a terrifying power” and it is this that he actively seeks to turn away from. Speaking of the Red Army Faction paintings, Richter said, “the pictures are also a leave-taking in several respects. Factually: these specific persons are dead; as a general statement, death is leave-taking. And then ideologically: a leave-taking from a specific doctrine of salvation and, beyond that, from the illusion that unacceptable circumstances of life can be changed by this conventional expedient of violent struggle.” The nihilism is palpable, but it does not seem philosophical. One takes leave from the things one finds difficult, not the things one uses logic to argue against. Philosophical nihilism turns away from things because they do not matter or even do not exist. Richter’s nihilism takes leave of things because they are unacceptable. He faces up by facing away. But as already mentioned, facing away or hiding from requires recognition that the thing you hide from exists in the first place. And that it matters. It may not be a mature response to difficulty, but it is something to work with.

I am not attempting to say that Richter’s work consciously tackles the Holocaust, its implications or consequences. But as a postwar artist who was born in Nazi Germany and has continued to live in Germany for most of his life, I do think that much of his work will have been informed by the same concerns as the rest of the country. How to face the horrors of what has happened here. How to get on with normal life, how to buy bread and milk after the gas chambers. (Nor am I saying that these are specifically German concerns. These are human concerns. But they will have been felt particularly acutely in postwar Germany.)

The aim of his work appears not to be to represent, to explore, to dig further into, to investigate. He wants to deliberately obscure. To take leave. To face up squarely is simply too much. Is this the only way to face the Holocaust? Must one hide from it? Must one remain consciously unconscious? On the way out, you return to the glass sculpture. It’s transparence is a shock of levity. The panes refract light, creating new ways of seeing. But at the same time, they are completely transparent. It is quite possible to see clearly through them. On the other side, you see a human looking back at you. In another direction, two grey mirrors. Again you can see your reflection, this time clearly.

 

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Tracey Emin – Love Is What You Want

In Art on June 13, 2011 at 10:29 pm

May – August 2011

Hayward Gallery, London

Before this exhibition, my perceived image of Emin was a YBA, a darling of the corporates, an artist who had traded on shock value before predictably accepting her place in the Academy.  Which of her works would I have actually recognised?  I was probably not a lone member of the public in knowing only the infamous bed, and perhaps a handful of other pieces.  I did not expect to be particularly impressed by this exhibition; I expected a series of glib, once-shocking, now gimmicky pieces of easily dismissed, barely affecting efforts.

The first room showed her blankets, trademark works filled with words and sentences.  They told stories of her life, often tragic, with occasionally penetrating insights.  I’m not a huge fan of words in graphic art – I think it can be very difficult to find subtlety in words when there are only one or two sentences. It almost feels like a way of avoiding the bother of attempting to say what one wants to in pictorial form, either figuratively or abstractly.  It tends to the obvious.

One way to add some sort of layered interest to words is the presence of spelling or grammatical errors, of which there were plenty here.  The exhibition guide said that the mistakes were not intentional, but ‘they [were] often felicitous.’  I can believe that these mistakes were not intentional – Emin left school at thirteen – but I also think that she must have known there would be mistakes, and could quite easily have found ways to remove them had she wanted to.  It seems an attempt to remind us of her difficult past, but my over-riding emotion here was irritation.

The next room contained Emin’s neon pieces – mostly one sentence or phrase curled in one or two pieces of glass, sensually written.  Only one or two were pictorial, one of upturned legs with a kind of neon scribble at the crotch.  Again, my objections to words in graphic art rose up – these were epithets or aphorisms, beyond which it was difficult to scratch much depth.  Emin has said that, ‘[Art is] some kind of communication, a message about very, very simple things that can be really hard.’  These neon signs were such thoughts and feelings communicated to us in the visual language of commerce.  Yes, they were often bold in their subject matter, and they were bold in their simplicity, but they were essentially one-dimensional.

Neon suggests sleaze, and is indissolubly linked with money, with selling oneself.  Since Emin has created so many pieces in this signature material, the links with commerce become twofold.  This is her brand.  I began to realise that she must have spent some time cultivating this brand through works easily recognisable as hers – the quilts, the neon, the subject matter.  Some of these thoughts may well have been created by my preconceptions of Emin as a YBA, as a child of Blairite Britain.  Perhaps I was being unfair, perhaps all artists come back to the same materials, the same subject matter, to probe further, ask more questions.

The next piece confirmed for me that money is an overt central thematic concern of Emin’s.  It was a film of her running through the Wild West in a white dress with money stapled to it.  Ennio Morricone’s score to The Good, The Bad and The Ugly played as the soundtrack.  It finished with a caption – ‘Sometimes the dress is worth more money than the money.’  Her conflicted attitude to money was becoming apparent.  The unnecessary repetition of the word, ‘money,’ suggested a circularity to her perception of value.  The dress was not simply worth more, it was worth more money.  This was one of the few examples of the games that Emin can play intelligently within the confines of a single sentence.

I was now in the film section, and it was while watching the next piece, Why I Never Became a Dancer, that I began to understand the value of Emin’s work.  Up until then, we had seen flashes of the tragedy in her story.  But I hadn’t felt it.  I had almost felt it was being used, rather than explored.  In this film, she recounted the story of how she had entered a dance competition in Margate at the age of thirteen, where she had been ritually humiliated by a group of older men chanting, ‘Slag!  Slag!  Slag!’

The penultimate few minutes of the film were her voiceover, ‘They weren’t men.  They were less, less than human.  I’m better than all of them.  I’m free.’  This was followed by the final scene – her dancing in a studio as an adult, all cheesy smiles and exuberant moves while one of disco’s greatest tunes plays, You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).  As the camera span around her, glimpses were seen of  the world which she now inhabited, wealthy enough to hire a dance studio all to herself, floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the London skyline.  Look at me now.  This was not redemption, it was revenge.

Clearly, that pain still smarted.  I’m not surprised.  The boorishness required to bully a thirteen year old child like that was and is truly shocking.  But what struck me here was how inward-looking the piece was.  There was no attempt to explore the feelings of the men, to explore anyone else’s feelings or the roots thereof.  Where were they now?  We will never know.  Emin appeared not to care.  They were literally dehumanised.  The entire exhibition had been entirely self-absorbed, there had been no putting herself in the position of another.  This is inevitable when all of your work starts with one of your own experiences, rather than an imagining of something.

I began to think that Emin was the perfect artist for our times – self-absorbed, self-indulgent.  It chimed perfectly with the prevailing neoliberal ideology – serve the market, and therefore the world, by serving yourself.  Put yourself first, you must.  There is no other way.

It was during the next film that I finally got it, that I finally appreciated what was really exciting about Emin’s art.  In How It Feels, we saw Emin tell the story of how she got pregnant despite being told that she never could, and then had a termination which led to an infection.  It was heartbreaking.

The camera was held by someone else, while Emin revisited the important places in the story.  She recounted the story and how she felt then and now, while an unseen interviewer asked questions.  The whole format seemed very familiar; this was reality TV.  This was celebrity culture as we know it now.  But the film was made in 1996, the year before Changing Rooms first aired, and four years before Big Brother aired in the UK.  This was not a comment on the prevailing culture of the day, but an anticipation and prefiguring of what was to come.  This sort of laying bare of the traumas of one’s own life, this sort of coruscating honesty, had not been seen before outside of literature.

Halfway through the film, Emin wonders through a park, ruminating on the child she never had.  The interviewer asks about the relative merits of having one’s own children, and compares sharing and control.  Emin replies, ‘I think I’ve shared enough.  Huh.  That’s a very good question though.’  Unlike the past traumas of her life, Emin does have complete control of her art.

This is also unlike the many celebrities whom we ‘know’ now from reality TV, from the red-tops, from the celebrity magazines.  As we witness Emin gain some kind of redemption through art, no matter how conflicted it is or how bathetic we perceive it to be, we are forced to reconsider the hellish lives of less intelligent celebrities who do not have this capacity, this control.  The ones whose bubbles we (some of us) clamour to burst once we have allowed them to rise – Jade Goody, Katie Price, Paris Hilton.  The chant of the men of Margate reverberates, ‘Slag  Slag!  Slag!’

Upstairs, there were her sketches and sculptures, on which I did not spend much time because the film had burdened me with her pain, which I could not quite remove from my consciousness.  I noticed that the style of her sketches reminded me of Toulouse-Lautrec, and congratulated myself on drawing some kind of link between her own ability to create a brand, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s ability to do the same not only with his own work, but actually an entire city and lifestyle.

There were also links here between different explorations of feminity.  The racy glamour of fin-de-siecle Montmartre was referenced here, but there was more sleaze than excitement.  In Black Cat, the initial sultry suggestiveness of the lady’s red shoes blurs into disgust as one looks closer and notices their indistinctness.  Are they red shoes, or is that a puddle of blood?

Perhaps these pieces are no longer shocking.  But I do not think this level of raw honesty, of unedited self-exposure, had been seen before Emin.  Perhaps it was self-absorbed, perhaps Emin is self-absorbed, but in sharing her stories, and in witnessing the catharsis she has experienced through art, the audience does gain something.  Not quite the same catharsis; actually I came out feeling weighed down.  Perhaps what we gain from Emin is indicative of the voyeuristic nature of our own culture – or perhaps what we gain from Emin is a moral counterweight to what we lose by ogling the celebs in Heat magazine.  This is not something you can mull over while eating your lunch.  I came out laden with guilt – Emin’s, the men of Margate’s, my own.

Slag!  Slag!  Slag!  Still it reverberates.