Ordinarily when you look at a photo your mind fills in an approximation of what is not seen from the photographer’s viewpoint. In Chloe Rosser’s images, heads and limbs are missing at such impossible angles that the mind is tricked into the feeling that there is nothing else beyond what is visible. Each body’s connection with humanity is severed. They become abject lumps of flesh, like plucked and decapitated chickens, evoking both revulsion and fascination.
Yellow white green clock (2012) is an abstract stained glass clock face with Roman numerals. It hangs from a wire so that the “X” is where “XII” should be, meaning 12 is actually at 2 o’clock. Placed against a window with a view of Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the clock face transforms the gallery space into a time capsule where time is askew, becoming a Narnia-like parallel time zone, set as an atemporal freeze frame. A transformative boundary is established between the space of the gallery interior, where time is at a contemplative standstill, and outside, which becomes a world away, where time rushes on at its usual pace.
In Rondinone’s piece, the window provides a plane on which to project the inner mind and so the backdrop of the outside landscape seen through it becomes subjective. It brings to mind the windows in Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame, through which there is an apocalyptic “zero zero zero” for some and bountiful “rising corn” for others. For Beckett’s audience a great gulf opens between the onstage world that they are allowed to perceive, and the offstage world that one of the characters, Clov, alleges exists. In Rondinone’s piece, as in Beckett’s play, the alienation of the mind from others and from reality is a sad, claustrophobic truth.
Rondinone’s clock face engages the isolation of each audience member, who must view it in the wake of the catastrophe of Hurricane Sandy. The conjectured isolation of the viewer from empirical truths allows for the objective reality of the outside world to waver: it is seen through the window as two-dimensional, existing on a different scale and a different temporality than the gallery space inside the Surviving Sandy show.
Shirin Neshat is split within by the barrier without: as an exile from Iran living in the U.S. she is caught between two worlds, simultaneously of both, and also of neither. To be exiled is to be divided not only from a homeland, but also from oneself. Although it is rarely directly addressed in her work, her state of exile unavoidably informs all of it, philosophically and emotionally. Charged with the impossible task of reconciling inviolable differences, one can see her work as a perpetual balancing act between these two worlds. In order to move forward, to exist, she must carve a passage for herself through the realities that invade her identity and that cast Iranian women as political territory.
Neshat’s Women of Allah (1993 – 97) series embodies these tensions, eliciting visceral responses to explore her identity and the conflicting lyricism and violence of the Muslim world: she arouses intense feelings which rage against each other until we too feel some of the perpetual turbulence of her world. In Speechless (1996), a woman stares out at us, the barrel of a gun peeking through the space between her cheek and her chador, Farsi script is printed so as to cover the skin of her face.
Speechless is an image that is strong, frightening, alienating, but there are also elements that counter this. We simultaneously feel threatened by the gun pointing straight at us, wonder whose unseen hand holds the gun so close to her skin, empathize with her because her eye glistens with sadness, and feel an echo on our own flesh of the calligraphy digitally etched onto hers. In this and other photos from Women of Allah, the script pulses with allusive possibility because of its placing on the body, though we cannot decipher it—on the palms of a woman’s hands (“Guardians of Revolution”), on the soles of a pair of feet (“Allegiance with Wakefulness”), or in the white of an eyeball (“Offered Eyes”).
The calligraphy contains the words of the Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad, famed for her daringly straightforward poetry about her experiences of love, sex, and the struggle for autonomy. The overlaying of this poetry onto skin makes each picture into the story of a woman and a body, which includes vulnerability, strength, pain, pleasure, banality, and spirituality.
“Hijab,” from which the Persian tradition of the chador (full-body cloak) originates, translates variously, including as “screen,” “curtain,” “barrier,” or “partition.” In its original incarnation in the Qur’an, such a partition is mentioned with the intention that it act between men and women (albeit as an instruction to be carried out by men): “when ye ask of them (the wives of the prophet) anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain.”
A partition defines, or even creates, one object or group as separated from any other. The partition between the sexes creates further divisions, not only between people but within individuals, in other words, between public and private selves, homosocial and heterosocial selves, and one’s identity as perceived within Iran and as perceived by the West. This last division is felt acutely, since the hajib can act as a barrier to understanding: the culture of the West tends to understand through visual means, whereas Islam espouses aniconism, which shows itself by a tendency away from figurative representation in Muslim art. The face we are confronted with in Speechless elicits recognition of and empathy for the pictured woman’s inner self. This goes some way to redress the West’s lack of understanding of the Iranian people.
The creation of Women of Allah is in some sense an attempt to regain a closeness to and explore her own relationship with her fellow Iranian women. Paradoxically, this act of creating a body of work did in one sense sever her ties: these stirring images can and have been construed as critical of the Iranian government. It means that she feels she can never go home, and has forever set herself apart in the role of exile.
Horst P. Horst (born Horst Paul Albert Bohrmann in Germany, 1906-1999) rivalled the great fashion and portrait photographers of the 20th century, such as Irving Penn and Richard Avedon. His career spanned 60 years, from his first photo credit in 1931, and included 94 Vogue covers. Horst was described in Vogue as “photography’s alchemist,” so adept was he at transmuting light into dramatic atmosphere. He was a master of chiaroscuro, the art of strong contrast between light and dark, which he harnessed with such severe precision that it sometimes took him two days to construct his set.
Trained in architecture and design, Horst’s early pieces feature women given import by a fantasy of neoclassical arches and pillars. He had an eye for exquisitely expressive hands, which he eventually isolated in a 1941 surrealist portrait of four hands, two real and two of mannequins. Later, he became one of the first photographers to perfect the newly available colour techniques. In the 1960s, working for Vogue’s “Fashions in Living” pages, he photographed the interiors and gardens of the stars, from Andy Warhol to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
Horst was adored by his models, evidenced by their effusive words of affection. One of his muses, Lisa Fonssagrives, said: “I became a model because he made me one.” He was so much a part of the fashion family that when he fought in WWII his identification tags gave the contact details of Edna Chase, editor of US Vogue.
Obfuscation of the inner world of the woman is a theme in Horst’s portraits. His models stare into the distance, their eyes often bewilderingly sad and far away, evoking unanswerable questions. The viewer becomes desperate to know the woman who is withheld. This invitation and frustration of the gaze are what holds the onlooker in such thrall of Horst’s images.
Composite photo of Susann Shaw, American Vogue Cover 1943
The picture looks at first like images of a woman reflected on shards of mirror, but on closer inspection the blue scarf from one neck flows around another’s head. A disembodied mouth and an elongated neck are reminiscent of Horst’s surrealist explorations of the 1930s. It was shot in Horst’s studio, and yet the image is banished to a dream world. The women both invite and deflect the male gaze; an image of one alone would allow the viewer to stare, but in this arrangement each figure directs the eye elsewhere, agitating the viewer who is denied a focus. The faces overhang the edge of the image, which becomes an abstract pattern; red lips become flecks of colour. The whole is both beautiful and chaotic, seductive and disconcerting.
Hear two leaders of contemporary thought, talking about why the arts are essential to our experience of the world as human beings.
What is the purpose of the arts today? Ever asked this question, or indeed been asked it? Whether or not you’ve been able to vocalise what it is that makes art a pressing need, here are two who definitely can. Raymond Tallis and Julian Spalding have co-written a book entitled Summers of Discontent: The Purpose of the Arts Today, and are coming to King’s Place to discuss its contents, with audience participation warmly invited.
The main thrust behind the book is that art is created because of the urgent need for a means ofprocessing the world around us, without which we cannot wholly experience.
Raymond Tallis’s accomplishments are as eclectic as they come: a neuroscientist, a novelist, a cultural critic, a philosopher, a poet… he is a major thinker in more fields than most of his readers can follow him to. His publications include such titles as Why the Mind is Not a Computer and I Am: A Philosophical Inquiry into First-Person Being.
Julian Spalding is the maverick art critic who is best known for calling the bluff of the contemporary conceptual art world, most memorably Damien Hirst. He is also an outspoken broadcaster, the author of The Art of Wonder and founder of many innovative galleries throughout the UK.
Hear experts speak engagingly and humanly on a topic that has endured discussion from the time of the Ancient Greeks and is still relevant today as we emerge from a recession which caused much upset over arts funding and sparked the creative industries’ battle cry: “it’s a credit crunch, not a creative crunch”.
Schiele's life was rife with sexual intrigue and his art was burnt before his eyes. Art historian Gemma Blackshaw explains his work in the context of pornography at the time.
Egon Schiele died of the Spanish Flu when he was only 28. It killed over 20 million people in Europe at the close of the First World War. But by this time he had already been imprisoned for exhibition of pornographic material to minors and for charges which were later dropped, of seducing and abducting an underage girl. On his arrest police seized over a hundred of his paintings that they considered to be erotic.
His journals from his time in prison show his reaction to the ceremonious burning over a candle flame in court of one of his paintings of a semi-naked woman:
“Auto-da-fé! Savanarola! Inquisition! Middle Ages! Castration, hypocrisy! Go then to the museums and cut up the greatest works of art into little pieces. He who denies sex is a filthy person who smears him in the lowest way his own parents who have begotten him.”
Schiele had studied at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in Vienna, but moved away from it and founded the New Art Group (Neukunstgruppe), where he was somewhat more free from the restrictive Academy to explore sexuality through his work. The naked woman remained a main trope of his work, right up until the end. His last drawings in the 3 days between his and his wife’s death were nudes, some in masturbatory poses.
For lovers of Schiele, this upcoming talk at the Freud Museum will shed some light on his raw,painfully crazed portraits. Gemma Blackshaw, Associate Professor of Art History at the University of Plymouth, speaks as part of a season of talks and events at the Freud Museum accompanying their exhibition ‘Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing’ from 22 October 2014 – 22 February 2015.