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  • June 16th, 2020 06.16.2020

    Six Memos: On Art in the Age of Quarantine


    Jill Magid, The Proposal, 2016. 2.02 carat, blue, uncut diamond with micro-laser inscription I am wholeheartedly yours, silver ring setting, ring box, related documents. Ring setting design: Anndra Neen. Photo credit: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jaeggi. Courtesy the artist, LABOR, Mexico City; RaebervonStenglin, Zurich; Untilthen, Paris.

    Originally presented as part of Mana Contemporary Curatorial Talks

    In 1984, author Italo Calvino was invited by Harvard University to give a series of six poetry lectures, which he wrote and collectively published under the title Six Memos for the Next Millennium. The lectures, only five of which remained intact, argued particular values in literature that should be brought into the turn of the twenty-first century by all authors. As texts, they were meant to be uttered instead of seen on the page. As propositions, the qualities Calvino imagined—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity—remain as fundamental to our cognition and connection to contemporary art as they do to the written word. These categories will be the basis of this lecture.

    In our current moment, which follows a mass globalization of the world, such that Calvino could not have anticipated, and the subsequent rapid cessation of the movement of bodies through space brought on by a global pandemic. An entire world entered quarantine, many of us left with two ways to communicate: through art, and through digital space. But there is also a third. The cessation of movement of bodies. It does not refer only to travel, international mobility, to our global art world. To leaving our houses, to sheltering in place. The illness we are facing in the United States in the year of 2020 is deep, and the way it is revealing its symptoms is through mass demonstration. Through protest. It did not take a global pandemic to remind us that a majority of our society come to terms with death—with that cessation of movement—more closely, more acutely, more pervasively. It is palpable. It endures.

    The interconnectedness of our pandemic times ascribes a certain set of characters to its nature; image flow communicates a temperament that emerges from a long lineage of metaphors for illness. In Ancient Greece, illness occurred as a supernatural punishment bestowed by the gods for moral transgression. In the nineteenth century, the metaphor of illness morphed, from a punishment that fits the sinner, to an expression of individual’s character. As Sontag writes “Diseases—and patients— become subjects for decipherments.” Bodies turned into symbols. Epidemic diseases became synonymous with social disorder. “Feelings about evil are projected onto a disease. And the disease, so enriched with meanings, is projected onto the world,” Sontag continues. They are underpinned by mystery, by erratic and unpredictable causes and effects. The more obscurity, the wider the possibilities of its metaphor. In the United States, the spread of a global pandemic is not possible to consider without the examination of forces prescribed by systemic racial violence. Three centuries later, it is not a regression of the 1800s, but a constancy: bodies are still being turned into symbols.

    Art is the realm of the symbolic. There is a distinction here. Not the artist, but the work. That is what this lecture will examine: six works that lend a perspective to Calvino’s timeless categories of structure. Each is a gesture that transcends. Each is a concept that we can attach to through a speculative analysis. The presence of these pieces, each created in this millennium, has currency to lend to the pivotal change that will come before this century is done. Framed in response to our current quarantine moment—one of unrest—these works will hopefully propose some memos for the time that will follow.

    I. Lightness

    Max Guy, March 16, 2019

    Max Guy, March 16, 2019. Still from video. Image courtesy of the artist.

    The video presents altered footage of the 2019 St. Patrick’s Day Parade river dyeing ceremony in Chicago. Guy has been capturing videos of the Parade since 2016; keying out the artificial green of the river to black. In place of emerald, the pattern of light glinting on this undulating shadow tessellates like stars, or fireworks—bodies of fire instead of water. In this gesture, celebration reveals an abyss.

    March 16 is a work that stands firmly at the intersection between the language of Photography and Cinema, and history of class and race politics. Guy uses the readymade green of the river to question the very phenomena we are looking at. The slow zoom turns the setting into an abstraction. As the sparkling water subsumes the display, we could be looking at a silent film, an early black and white moving picture. The screen mesmerizes us, it divorces the ‘now’ of the full color iPhone footage into a more timeless possibility. It is a simple but complex gesture.

    As Noel Ignatiev writes in his 1995 book, How the Irish Became White, “The Irish came to America in the eighteenth century, fleeing a homeland under foreign occupation and a caste system that regarded them as the lowest form of humanity. In the new country—a land of opportunity—they found a very different form of social hierarchy, one that was based on the color of a person’s skin.” One that was based, on lightness. Ignatiev continues, “In antebellum America, it was speculated that if racial amalgamation was ever to take place it would begin between those two groups.” History, we know, turned out otherwise. He writes, “in becoming white the Irish ceased to be Green.”1

    To use Calvino’s words, Guy “removes weight from the structure of the story and from language.”2 What March 16 pictures is an origin story, a myth. It is titled the day before the event; because of this, it is an anticipation. As Calvino writes, “…every interpretation of a myth impoverishes and suffocates it; with myths, it is better not to rush things, better to let them settle in memory, pausing to consider their details, to ponder them without moving beyond the language of their images.” Guy’s approach to this work is nimble, its gesture is infinitely small, and yet it carries with it weight through lightness. It is a lightness that is precise and definitive, but far from frivolous.

    Perhaps March 16 is not a work that, as the artist articulates, pictures ‘an abyss.’ If we return to color symbolism in literature—the formal qualities of color that Guy experiments with in this work—I am reminded of Dylan Thomas’ 1933 poem, The force that through the green fuse drives the flower, when he writes of “how time has ticked a heaven round the stars.” March 16 is, like Thomas’ approach to poetry: “I let an image be made emotionally in me and then apply to it what intellectual and critical forces I possess—let it breed another, let that image contradict the first, make of the third image bred out of the other two together, a fourth contradictory image, and let them all, within my imposed formal limits, conflict.” It is a work whose search for lightness, both with and through the camera, exists as a reaction to the weight of living.

    II. Quickness

    Jill Magid, The Proposal, 2016

    Jill Magid, The Proposal, 2016. 2.02 carat, blue, uncut diamond with micro-laser inscription I am wholeheartedly yours, silver ring setting, ring box, related documents. Ring setting design: Anndra Neen. Photo credit: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jaeggi. Courtesy the artist, LABOR, Mexico City; RaebervonStenglin, Zurich; Untilthen, Paris.

    Half a kilogram of the cremated remains of Mexican architect Luis Barragán are preserved in a 2.02-carat rough cut diamond. The object is presented within an open black ring box, its base inserted between a slit of white padded silk, and placed behind a glass porthole within the wall. This is The Proposal, a 2016 work by Jill Magid first exhibited at the Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, in Switzerland, though I encountered the work at Stories of Almost Everyone, curated by Aram Moshayedi at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The original Swiss location is of importance to the work, as it traces the intention of the object. As the exhibition text stated, “Through an artistic practice that is at once visual, textual, and performative, [Magid’s work] forges intimate relationships within bureaucratic structures—flirting with, seducing, and subverting authority. Her projects probe seemingly impenetrable systems, such as the NYPD, the Dutch Secret Service, surveillance systems, and, most recently, the legacy of architect Luis Barragán.”

    While the ring was the portion of the work on view, the piece includes volumes of related documents and the traces of an attempt to have the architect’s professional archive returned to Mexico from its current holding in Birsfelden, Switzerland, where is has been since 1994. As the catalogue for Stories of Almost Everyone describes, “The archive was allegedly an engagement gift in lieu of a ring from the chairman of the Swiss furniture company Vitra to his fiancée, Frederica Zanco, and has remained relatively inaccessible, under private ownership of Zanco’s not-for-profit organization, the Barragan Foundation. The foundation controls the complete rights to Barragan’s work, and the rights to images by the architect’s official photographer, Armando Salas Portugal.”

    By creating an engagement ring—a symbol previously absent in the arrangement—Magid forges a proposal of a different kind: of repatriation, transparency, and legacy. While the story Magid tells is one of considerable depth, caught in a series of legal and cultural negotiations that exemplify the role of corporations in privatized knowledge and their impact on history, the work is immediate, and to the point. It hits instantly. As Calvino writes on quickness, “Its secret lies in its economy: events, regardless of their duration, become like points connected by straight-line segments in a zigzag fashion that suggests unceasing motion.”3

    If—and I use this term purposefully—divorced from context, Magid’s work can be read as a folktale. It is romantic, but stripped down; simple in its expression, but labyrinthian in its understanding. The work pictures, as Calvino writes of the universal theme of folk, “an allegory of narrative time” and its “lack of correspondence to real time.”4 The work recalls one of the greatest known American legends, the tale of Rip van Winkle, which follows a villager who falls asleep beneath a tree only to wake 20 years later, having missed the American Revolution. Until the archives are released, Magid’s ring stands open, a gesture of romantic love frozen in time as the actions of bureaucracy play out while the work is exhibited, dormant.

    In this lecture, Calvino makes a point of the ancient Latin maxim festina lente—to make haste slowly. A synthetic diamond, such as the one in Magid’s work, is created in a lab; it contains the same crystal lattice structure as a natural diamond. Geologically, the only remarkable difference between the two is that natural diamonds are more than 3.3 billion years old.

    III. Exactitude

    Katie Paterson, Earth Moon Earth, 2007

    Katie Paterson. Earth–Moon–Earth (Moonlight Sonata Reflected from the Surface of the Moon), 2007. Disklavier grand piano. Installation view, Cornerhouse, Manchester 2011. Photograph © We are Tape. Courtesy of the artist.

    From a distance, you hear a familiar composition—it is engrained, slow, heartbreaking. You amble through a corridor into the main galleries. There, a grand piano rests in the center of the space. It is surrounded by objects of lunar significance. Hundreds of interpretations of the moon encircle the piano. I first encountered this work, Earth Moon Earth, by Scottish artist Katie Paterson, at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, in November of 2018. It was installed within an exhibition entitled Månen, or The Moon. The exhibition gathered more than 200 works and objects to paint a sort of “emotional picture” of the moon; how the celestial body has been reflected in art and cultural history. It spanned Galileo’s moon map to the present. The work was positioned directly across from a sixteenth-century Zodiac Globe.

    Earth Moon Earth, or E.M.E., is a radio transmission of messages that are sent in Morse code from earth, reflected from the surface of the moon, and then received back on earth. The moon reflects only part of the information back—some is absorbed in its shadows, ‘lost’ in its craters. For Paterson, this work uses this technology to play Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, which the artist translated note by note into morse code, sent to the moon and back.

    The melody, returning to earth fragmented by the moon’s surface, is re-translated, slightly altered. Its DNA remains, recognizable, but it stutters, fractured by loss. It is no less whole. In fact, it is more complete, a previously unimaginable improvement of a masterpiece.

    Paterson takes the abstract subject and turns it literal; this is a sonata touched by the moon and played back for us to hear, with gaps in the score, notes lost in space. The song remains recognizable, yet is haunted in different ways with each transmission, no one loss results in the same sound. It is a chance melody. The exactitude of this work is defined by Calvino’s three key meanings of the term:

    1. A well-defined, well-considered design for the work
    2. The evocation of clear, sharp, memorable images (in Italian, there is an adjective that does not exist in English: icastico, from the Greek είκαστικός) [meaning imagistic or emblematic]
    3. A language that is as precise as possible in its choice of words and in its expression of the nuances of thought and imagination. 5

    Paterson’s imperfection is exact, in every one of these meanings. It encapsulates the delay of Beethoven’s right hand as it punctuates and resolves the undulation of the left in the original. It becomes a Sonata of the moon, instead of on the subject of the moon. It allows us to hear moonlight.

    The work achieves, as Calvino writes, “the desired vagueness.”6 He cites writer Giacomo Leopardi in a text from 1821, which states a gesture that reaches “our sight, our hearing” in a manner that is uncertain, indistinct, imperfect, out of the ordinary.” In this work, Paterson conveys, as precisely as possible, the perceptible aspects of a desire to touch, to hold, the moon.

    IV. Visibility

    Willem de Rooij, Negative Flag, 2020

    Willem de Rooij, Negative Flag (2020). Presented as part of Four Flags Amsterdam, curated by Julia Mullié and Nick Terra.

    To see a work of art—to have a physical interaction with its presence—in the age of quarantine, one must go outside. This was the impetus of Four Flags, an exhibition project headed by Julia Mullié and Nick Terra first installed in Amsterdam, before traveling to Brussels, Düsseldorf, Lisbon, and Bogota. The only site of the project in the United States is here in Chicago, at a space I run called Chicago Manual Style, with collaborator Ruslana Lichtzier. In Amsterdam, the project was at the height of self-isolation; the curators, looking out their window, had four empty brackets meant for four flagpoles. The curators had invited artists from throughout The Netherlands (the project is still ongoing) to produce flags, announcing the participants only when the work was on display via Instagram, visible to all on the street and online. While the main conceit of the project was to function as a sort of stimulus avenue for artists, the implications of the proposal went much deeper. One flag, in particular, stood out.

    Willem de Rooij’s Negative Flag (2020) is based on a digital rendering of the Dutch flag as its photographic negative. By reversing the colors that transpose a traditional symbol of nationhood, De Rooij reexamines its image as a metaphor—one that touches on a colonial and imperialist past. To identify with this flag, one would have to ‘see’ in inverse. The artist refers to the resulting object as ‘a nostalgic rendering of a symbol for nostalgia,’ though its gesture recalls art historical references, such as David Hammons’ 1990 African American Flag. Through visibility, Negative Flag makes space for alternate political imaginations.

    Calvino opens his lecture on visibility with a quote from Dante’s Inferno (Canto 17, 25), as he describes a series of images that “rained into my high imagination.” As Calvino concludes: “the imagination is a place in which it rains.”7 What is the ‘high imagination?’ For Calvino, it is noble, as opposed to corporeal (such as the imagination present in the chaos of dreams)—it transmits ideal images, like the projection of a movie on a screen, or a digital broadcast. We see De Rooij’s image in person, or on the screen, but to be sure: it is an image that belongs to this high imagination.

    Calvino continues: “We can distinguish two types of imaginative processes: one that begins with words and ends with the visual image, and another that begins with the visual image and ends with its verbal expression.”8 De Rooij’s work belongs to both of these methods of arrival. The language of flags informs the context of the work, and vice versa. From image to narrative, and back again. It is a work that can only be read in the mind’s eye. Our knowledge of history and the flag that represents that exists only in our memory. It could be said that what Negative Flag proposes is an inverse not only of its aesthetics, but of all the actions that come with it. That in viewing the work, we see a time that would have never seen the three-century long violence of Dutch colonial rule in what is now known as Indonesia; the rise of the first multinational company, the Dutch East Indies; the slave plantations in Surinam supplied from trade posts in West Africa; charters granted on the strength of Atlantic slave trade,  etc.

    If this was the flag, if all of the atrocities and power were reversed, what would our world have looked like?

    V. Multiplicity

    Runo Lagomarsino, Sea Grammar, 2015

    Runo Lagomarsino, Sea Grammar, 2015. Installation view, Migration, curated by Maria Lind and Cecilia Widenheim. Courtesy of Malmö Art Museum, Sweden.

    A single slide projector occupies the center of a darkened room. Each of the 80 images within the projection carousel, which cycles through with the aid of a timer, features one original image: that of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a peaceful scene. Sun beams upon the waves, mirroring the sky; the landscape is set beneath the familiar lavender tinge of dusk. With each tick of the machine, the sharp sound of the progressing tick, parts of the image are removed by a hole punch.

    In the end, the image almost disappears—its perforations fragmented beyond potential recognition of an image of the sea. Its surface area is evenly split between positive and negative of the image. It pictures a dispersed void, one of brightness instead of darkness. With every puncture, the surrounding room of the gallery became brighter; it let out more light. As the artist writes on the work, “And only the light remains.”

    I encountered this work at the Malmö Art Museum in Sweden earlier this year, in an exhibition entitled Migration. The location and year of this image is of significance. In 2015 alone, more than 3,700 migrants drowned in a tragic attempt to reach the European continent. In Lagomarsino’s image, the sea is seen from the safe perspective of the mainland. The catalogue for the exhibition states, “Through the violence of the perforation gesture, reality enters the work to the point of revolutionizing its grammar and structure. Through a poetic reliance on light, the artist stages the transformation of the Mediterranean from a space of continuity to that of a dramatic rupture, corporeal as much as geopolitical.” 9

    As a work, Sea Grammar relies on multiplicity — on the repetition of a single gesture. For Calvino, this multiplicity is defined by “an inability to finish.”10 As the author proposes, what develops in great novels in the twentieth century introduces the form of what he calls an ‘open encyclopedia’— a terminology of paradox. He continues, “The world expands until it becomes ungraspable.”11

    The language referenced in Lagomarsino’s work, references this unattainability. It is a grammar, but of what exactly is left unclear. Perhaps a grammar of erasure, of removal. Yet, for the sighted, the punctures and patterns left upon the projection of the image appear as Braille. It is a grammar that cannot be read nor felt. This double negation is where the work becomes interesting, because it embodies the paradox of Calvino’s concept of an ‘open encyclopedia.’ Sea Grammar in many ways becomes a fork in the road. The stories of Jorge Luis Borges are given particular intention in Calvino’s treatise on multiplicity; specifically, the Argentine author’s short story “The Garden of Forking Paths.” It is a narrative that in 12 short pages presents a central theory: the idea of a multiple, ramified time in which every present forks into two futures.

    I am compelled to close on the two theories of time that Borges merges in order to create this temporal structure. The first, which is of an “absolute subjective present.” And the second, which is “punctual.”12

    VI. (New) Memorial

    Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa, 2014

    Kapwani Kiwanga, Flowers for Africa: Nigeria, 2014. Dimensions variable. Photo: Aurélien Mole, © Courtesy of Galerie Jérôme Poggi, Paris.

    The number of lectures published by Calvino in Six Memos to the Next Millennium do not correspond. Only five were completed by 1985, and the sixth was to be written in Cambridge. Calvino’s death in 1985 leaves this book, in many ways, as his idea of the ‘open encyclopedia.’ It is said that the sixth and final lecture was to be entitled “Consistency,” which is not a quality I wish to promote here. In thinking of an alternate category that would be applicable to our times, I had originally settled on Closeness. But in staying true to the revision of Calvino’s theories, I chose Memorial; it is a quality that bears different context in our century, but has been as present in the past. Specifically, in the references within the work of Kapwani Kiwanga.

    In order to outline this work, I refer once more to the catalogue of Stories of Almost Everyone, where Kiwanga’s installation was shown alongside Jill Magid’s The Proposal.

    Throughout the twentieth century, arrangements of cut flowers were used within the ceremonies that granted African countries their independence from colonial rule. Photographs and video footage sought to document each of these events, and by proxy, the bouquets used to signal a newly consecrated liberation. Flowers were the silent observers of these proceedings; dignitaries shaking hands, others signing agreements and referendums, amid parades and celebrations. These ‘gifts’ from colonial state systems that divided the African continent by seven European powers — namely, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and Italy — were meant to be a sign of optimism. In some instances, the floral arrangements were regionally specific. In others, the foreign compositions represented the colonial power that had once controlled the region. As the catalogue states, “In the transitions that defined the post-colonial era, there was perhaps no better metaphor than the cut flower: a decorative offering that would decay, and that could never outlast the injustices that had been dealt.”13

    What does it mean to represent these arrangements within the museum? Kiwanga’s presentation adopts all of the institutional modes of display one would expect of a twenty-first century exhibition: white pedestals, sparse arrangement of objects, bright even lighting. While they visibly deteriorate over the length of a show, the sculptures enter the museum already dead.

    I will leave this lecture on a selection from a series of 14 notes, memos of their own, written by Yesomi Umolu, who curated Kiwanga’s sole exhibition in Chicago at the Logan Center for the Arts. Published online ten days ago:

    1. Museums are built on the ideological foundations of being repositories of knowledge and spaces of care in service of civic society in the western world.
    2. The history of museums is tied to the colonial impulse to collect and amass objects (and therefore cultural knowledge) from the world over, charging specialist caretakers/scientists with their interpretation.
    3. The conditions of collecting upon which museums were founded and are inextricable linked to colonial violence enacted on the other—non-western bodies, spaces, and societies.
    4. Museums have obscured this violence in their missions of knowledge formation and caring for objects.
    5. Care in museums has expanded from a focus on safeguarding and building western art history in the 19C to the reification of public engagement in the 21C.
    6. Museums have always been exclusionary, and for the priveledges. They were built for the betterment of the western subject and society at the expense of the other.
    7. This is further complicated by the fiction of the emancipatory power of the cultural/art object—museums are deemed to be spaces of respite away from real politics and societal injustices.
    8. Museums have therefore set themselves in a double bind, presuming to be at the service of civic society on the one hand, while setting themselves apart from it on the other hand.
    9. If museums amass knowledge and care fr things, then the question that has been provoked in the midst of the social upheavals and global health pandemic of recent days, months, and years is: for whom do they do this for?
    10. The answer is obvious. The statements from museum leaders in recent and coming days starkly reveal this. To acknowledge the limits of your knowing and caretaking is an important step.
    11. Bu to seek to make amends, repair, reconcile and build for the future on broken foundations is a difficult and potentially dangerous path.
    12. The task of the moment is not to seek to welcome the other and the excluded into these fragile spaces (i.e. filling quotas and exacting hastened inclusion policies. For the violence will only be worsened.
    13. The task is to commit to practices of knowing and care that critically interrogate the fraught history of museums and their contemporary form, uprooting weak foundations and re-rooting upon new, healthy ones.
    14. Let us know and care for the other, ourselves, and society at-large in equal measure, without prejudice. Let us know and care about bodies and their politics. 14

    Presented June 16, 2020.

    1. Ignatiev, Noel. How the Irish Became White, Routeledge. New York, London. http://jroan.com/HtIBWhite.pdf
    2. Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Mariner Books. 2016.(p. 3)
    3. Calvino. (p. 41)
    4. Calvino. (p. 44)
    5. Calvino. (p. 68)
    6. Calvino. (p. 73)
    7. Calvino. (p. 99)
    8. Calvino. (p. 102)
    9. Calvino. (p. 106)
    10. Calvino. (p. 135)
    11. Calvino. (p. 136)
    12. Calvino. (p. 146)
    13. Moshayedi, Aram. Catalogue. Stories of Almost Everyone, Hammer Museum, Los Angeles. Delmonico Prestel. (p. 78)
    14. Yesomi Umolu, 14 Points on the Limits of Knowledge and Care. Published Instagram, June 6, 2020.