Friday, December 22, 2006

SFMOMA Roundup: "There is a light that never goes out."

Last Friday, Fosco and his sister Maggie Tulliver spent an afternoon in San Francisco. Of course, there was a visit to Beard Papa for creampuffs (try the milktea flavor--it's splendid!) and to the Pirate Store (where much money was spent and where sister Maggie got mopped). But the highlight of the trip was the visit to the SFMOMA to see two exhibits.

The first exhibit we saw was the retrospective of recent work by German artist Anselm Kiefer, entitled Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth. The organizing principle of the show is Kiefer's concerns with heaven, responsibility, and the afterlife. And, of course, because this is Kiefer, you can bet that there is collective German guilt in there as well.

I've always been a bit suspicious of Kiefer for several reasons. First, looking at his paintings always makes me wonder what kind of nightmare it is to curate his work. The paintings are so huge and so clumpy: how do you move them? Does stuff fall off? And what about all that lead? Does the curatorial staff have to wear hazmat suits? And isn't it all so heavy? And what to make of all the non-traditional materials in the paintings (e.g., straw, sunflower seeds, sticks)--aren't those things going to start to rot at some point?

The second reason that I can't quite catch Kiefer-fever is the overwhelming seriousness of his paintings. They are entirely irony-proof. I mean, how do you laugh at works that are so dark and that almost always make explicit reference to the Holocaust? All that German guilt is a big downer (and a bit heavy-handed).

That being said, I was surprised, however, at how powerful some of the work in this show was. There were actually several pieces that were absolutely ravishing, including Sternenfall (1995) (seen below):

There was also the amazing piece below, which is about six feet tall. Each page is coated with lead and depicts a different star field map. (Of course, there are conservation issues here too--there was a grey lead sheen all over the floor under this one).

The problem with these pictures is that they don't capture how gigantic these works are. Kiefer's paintings dwarf you--and that's often part of their power. There was a third work that was just gorgeous, but that I am only finding in a very low-quality image file online. It's called "The Sixth Trumpet" (1996) and you can see it below.

I'm afraid it doesn't look like much here, but imagine it in its true dimensions: 16 x 18 feet. At that size, the cloud of black dots look both beautiful and menacing. From a distance, you wonder what that cloud is: locusts? black rain? However, when you approach the canvas, you realize that the dots are black sunflower seeds--one of the more remarkable touches in Kiefer's work in this show.

Of course, there are still a few clunkers here. My least favorite was the painting you see below, entitled "Quaternity" (1973). You can see the traditional rustic cabin interior of Kiefer's early work, plus three flames and one serpent. Each of the flames is labeled with the name (in German) of one of the members of the Holy Trinity; the serpent is labeled as Satan, making the Trinity a Quaternity. Get it? Yeah, you and anyone with an IQ above a precocious ten-year-old. This painting isn't quite what I expect art to do for me...

However, it would be churlish to dwell too long on the shortcomings of this painting (and a few of its ilk) when much of Kiefer's recent work is much better. I may not have become a complete convert to Kiefer after this exhibit, but I did find several works of his that I love.

Luckily, the perfect anecdote to Kiefer's Teutonic Gloominess was taking place just one floor above, with an exhibit of new work by Phil Collins. Oops, I meant this Phil Collins. Collins's video installation, entitled dünya dinlemiyor (2005), is hilarious, sweet, and completely compelling. Basically, Collins has filmed young Turkish people in Istanbul doing karaoke to songs by The Smiths. They sing in English against generic backgrounds of "pretty scenery" (e.g., mountains, beaches, forests). Some are pretty good and some are pretty horrible. All of them are absolutely fascinating. I had intended only to watch one of the performances (because I hate karaoke), just to get the idea, but I ended up watching the entire hour. Sure, the performances raise questions of imperialism, consumerism, and globalization (how do these Turks know The Smiths? Why do they all seem to want to be rock stars?); however, this is the least interesting aspect of the work. Rather, it is extraordinarily thrilling to watch the self-presentations of these (mostly) youths--their joy and confidence are infectious, their vulnerability is heartbreaking. I feel that I know these people quite intimately (and yet, I know nothing about them).

Some of the highlights, include the tightly-focused young man (below) singing the gorgeous ballad "Asleep." His sensitivity and introspection were powerful.

I loved the two girls below, who sang "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out." The verses were performed competently, but it was the rush of enthusiasm that overtook them at the chorus that was priceless. Watching them sing "If a double-decker bus crashes into us..." was funny and charming.

There were two other performances not to be missed (but for which I cannot find pictures):

  • the incredibly sexy young man who performs "Ask" with his shirt entirely open (and who has beautifully hairy chest)--woof! Gaydar doesn't always work cross-culturally, but I have my eye on him...
  • the delightful indie chick who performs "Half A Person" with a completely startling voice (reminiscent of Edie Brickell) and a killer smile. If there is such a thing as "Turkish Idol," I think she could win it. [N.B., apparently the Turkish version is called "Popstar." Why does this not surprise me?]

If you want to get a better sense of what all this was like, I would hesitantly point you in the direction of this clip on YouTube. Unfortunately, it isn't the best performance from the installation, but it might give you an idea.

All I know is that, the whole way home, I sang along to Smiths songs. Apparently, that's all we need to bring the world together.

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