Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Last Meal: A Photography Exhibit of "Last Meals" by Jackie Black - Parrish Art Museum (August 2020)

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In the 1960s Lenny Bruce once joked: “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” So, what was going through the heads of some design firm when they chose, basically, a cruciform structure for the common American execution gurney? Was this a tip of the hat to Lenny Bruce? If America executes any messiahs in the near future, we already have the religious jewelry? Maybe everyone in contemporary America should wear a small execution gurney around his/her neck anyway. This seems, indeed, our American god, the god of deterrence. Whether he is effective or not, he is the god we turn to the most in our social-management operations. The god is served by a corrupt priesthood, involving systemic racism in our police departments. Jackie Black’s photography show Last Meal, at the Parrish Art Museum, compels all of us to look at some victims of our prison-industrial complex (many of whom professed their innocence to the end) through their last meals on death row.

Retribution as an act of deterrence is probably the most used and least questioned emotional response in our society. Even severely mentally ill people, people who suffer from schizophrenia, are routinely punished in our legal system as if they were “responsible” for their actions. This is due to a basic fear that if we allow someone to get away with a crime, this will give license to others to commit the same crime. To revisit a story Foucault told, it did not matter to the 18th century French that Robert Damiens was severely mentally ill; he had tried to kill the king, so he had to be hanged, drawn and quartered. Damiens had to be tortured to death as a deterrent to anyone who might consider regicide in the future, even though only severely deranged folks oblivious to the force of deterrence probably considered such foolhardy assassinations.

Retribution as a form of deterrence is like a fixed action pattern in humanity. The male red-bellied stickleback fish will attack anything red during mating season whether it makes sense to attack it or not (sometimes they attack red-colored stones), and any time there is an act of harm, we have to attack someone, because nature blindly stuck this fixed action pattern into us for some basic survival value, regardless of how wasteful and ineffective it might be in truly eliminating harmful behavior. We do not show high ethical values when we do this. We act like a bellicose fish in mating season.

Do we take action to help children who live in violent and economically deprived neighborhoods so that they will not be molded into future criminals? No. We do not worship that God in our society, we worship the prison-building, capital punishment god six days a week. On Sunday we pay lip service to the real God. 65% of white, mainline Protestants support capital punishment as do 59% of white Catholics. 33% of Black Protestants support the death penalty while 37% of Latinos support it.

The meals themselves of these 23 individuals from Texas’ Death Row are revealing. Fast food seems to predominate in the choice for a last meal judging from this show. The prisoners are told they may order anything they want, and it seems often to be some type of fast food dish. The years of formal education that each prisoner completed is also provided along with a photo of what his last meal might have looked like. It seems, perhaps, that lacking an extensive formal education, and the experience this opens for people, the prisoners are not even aware of the multitude of food choices that are available. Like most folks who are born into and grow up in poverty, they seem to gravitate toward the cheapest, unhealthiest, most toxic food.

There are exceptions. One prisoner requested that his final meal go to a homeless person (this request was denied). Another requested “Justice, Equality and World Peace”. A man who professed his innocence ordered a purely vegetarian meal. His last meal was, therefore, putatively based on his ethical principles – evincing proof that he was not a killer of people any more so than of animals. Or, perhaps, he had changed in prison, or, if he had committed the murder, this last meal might have been a final ruse to demonstrate a false innocence. Who knows. These folks are usually poor and, as studies show, one is more likely to go to jail if he/she has to use a public defender, and more likely to receive a more severe sentence. So, it becomes difficult to tell who really was “guilty” and who was not. 20 individuals have been exonerated by DNA evidence while on Death Row. It is, in fact, chilling to think of how many innocent people might be in prison.

Few of the prisoners referenced in this show had much of a formal education. Many did not seem to even make it to high school. Statistics show that as of 2016 about 49% of prisoners on death row had not graduated high school. 44% had a high school diploma or GED. 9% had some college. This would seem to indicate that if we were really serious about eliminating crime in the USA, we would focus more on helping children get into and stay in school in lieu of the building of more and more prisons. California spends about $65,000 per year on the average prisoner and $12,000 per year on the average student. New York spends $70,000 per prisoner as opposed to $22,000 per student. We worship the god of deterrence and not the God of Mercy and Justice.

You have probably read Shirley Jackson’s short story The Lottery. At the end, it is only the victim of a senseless ritual who realizes how evil and unjust the ritual is. Everybody else believes in it. The statements made by prisoners about to be executed also show that these men are fully aware that something wrong is occurring, even if they do admit their guilt, even if everyone else is convinced that capital punishment is right.

Robert Madden said, "I apologize for your loss and your pain. But I didn't kill those people. Hopefully, we will all learn something about ourselves and each other. And we will learn to stop the cycle of hate and vengeance and come to value what is really going on in this world”. Thomas Andy Barefoot said, "I've been praying all day for (the victim's) wife to drive the bitterness from her heart because that bitterness that's in her heart will send her to hell just as surely as any other sin. I'm sorry for everything I've ever done to anybody. I hope they'll forgive me." The defiance in Johnny Garret’s statement, a man who had 7 years of formal education, speaks volumes: "I'd like to thank my family for loving me and taking care of me. And the rest of the world can kiss my ass." David Wayne Stoker said, “I am truly sorry for your loss…but I didn’t kill anyone.”

Nanette Carter at Skoto Gallery, Chelsea, Manhattan (March 2018) - Cantilevered pieces

When Al Loving abandoned the geometric painting that had garnered him a solo show at the Whitney, he abandoned his place in the established and respected circle of white artists he had been affiliated with. Loving stated that he wanted to see what creating art as a black man from the black experience might be like, and the trajectory of his commercial career plummeted. As was the case with Norman Lewis, it was felt that Loving was now indulging in a limited type of black esotericism instead of shooting for the ‘universal human statements’ the white guys purported to be offering. In reality, the black experience of enduring and responding humanely to forms of oppression offered the most universal response and Loving attempted to convey this through his torn canvas pieces and other works during the rest of his life.

Nanette Carter was deeply influenced by Loving, who was her mentor for many years, and has adopted some aspects of Loving’s technique, but most notably replaces Loving’s materials with oil on mylar. To a great extent she carries on the language Loving attempted to create to express the black experience through abstraction. This language was born, partially, from the African American quilting tradition as well as a tradition of thrift and recycling to express poverty, adversity and conflict as well as the joy of community and the moral and spiritual insights that one gains by standing in opposition to a dominant culture of excess, violence and bigotry.

Carter’s mom was a dance teacher who often designed and sewed her own outfits and when Carter was a child she was influenced by how her mom worked in differing materials to create fanciful articles of clothing for performances. This mirrors, to some extent, the fact that Al Loving’s mom was a quilt-maker. She was also fascinated by landscapes she noticed from airplane flights and how fields suddenly changed shape, color and texture for unknown reasons. Her father was in politics, and from the visitors to their home, and the discussions that ensued, she became interested in social and political issues in her native New Jersey as well as in the US and the world. So Al Loving, dance outfits, landscapes and local politics were some of the factors that pushed Carter beyond a type of figuration that has been more common among African American artists and into a type of collage-like abstraction.

Carter’s current show at Skoto Gallery is called An Act of Balance and is inspired, to a great extent, by the cantilever. Indeed, these pieces are from her Cantilever series. This is an architectural term for some type of structure, like a beam, that is only connected on one end, but which can support a substantial amount of weight. Any cantilever is going to look suspicious and risky; ideally you would like to have that type of support held in two places, and so it becomes a perfect type of metaphor for lives under stress and pressure, or folks who are struggling against odds to not only hold their lives together but to somehow prosper, succeed and maybe even change things for the better around them.

In many of the pieces you see small structures jutting from the bottom of the piece which are meant to have contact with the ground, often with cantilever devices above them, followed by bulky masses of differing textures and colors rising up. One gets a sense that in order for the bulky, accumulated bunch of things not to fall over one must engage in a rigorous, continual and vigilant balancing act (thus the title of the show). In some pieces these small structures from the bottom seem to serve as invisible sources of strength rising with the bulky materials like the lattices which support vine-like plants. Carter seems to ask us what these sources of strength might be in our lives, what comprises the bulk supported by these lattices?

To me, the source of strength for any one or group that is suffering is the hope or desire that one is a strong enough cantilever that can endure and rise above and then become the agent for change one wants to see. In Carter’s pieces we see that these structures do not represent the stability anyone might have craved, but this could be one’s current reality, and it might be one of the necessary stages some of us are both cursed and blessed with in our development to become more compassionate and humane actors in a thoroughly corrupt world.

Monday, July 5, 2021

Historical Amnesia - Group Show at BronxArtSpace (February 2018)

BronxArtSpace is an invaluable resource in New York City which provides opportunities for curated group shows and performances that allow artists the space to experiment and do work outside of commercial considerations. The most recent show, Historical Amnesia, was curated by Gabriel de Guzman, who brings together five amazing artists around the theme of forgotten histories and “…the lasting effects of colonialism, exoticism and intolerance on today’s culture.”

When Islam arrived in the Philippines in the 1300s, through traders and missionaries from Malaysia and Indonesia, it began to supplant a type of polytheism, magical ritual and shamanism of the indigenous population. In the late 1500s Miguel L√≥pez de Legazpi arrived from Spain expressly to “save” the Filipinos from both paganism and Islam and a type of religious war lasted into the 1800s. Spain finally gained ascendency and many Filipinos converted to Catholicism, until the US took control of the Philippines and US missionaries attempted to introduce various forms of Protestantism. So Philippine history and culture have been continually altered by warring dominant cultures as this chain of islands served as a battle ground between countries and religious ideologies. What is left of indigenous Filipino thought, religion or culture? How has the character of the Filipino people been developed or affected by the abuses to which they have been subjected throughout history? Can the Philippines finally chart a course toward autonomy, self-development and unique identity?

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You are probably not going to get these answers through National Geographic or other glossy magazines, which tend to sell the exoticism of the Philippines to the potential American tourist. Sara Jimenez has, therefore, in response to the tendency to overlook the tragedy of Philippine history and current social problems for the delightful pleasures the country might offer to wealthy foreigners, created a type of exotic creature called the Antipode for this exhibit. This is a long, willowy creature composed entirely of nature images from National Geographic articles about the Philippines. Of course, an “antipode” is the direct opposite position of another place on the planet earth and figuratively the antipode for the Philippines rests at the heart of white, European culture. This sculpture was apparently inspired by some strange sea creatures which have recently washed up in the Philippines, allegedly spawning legends and articles in National Geographic. The Antipode defies categorization and seems to point to terrible omens for the future. It represents, perhaps, exoticism as “historical amnesia” - a pleasant cover-up for what the major powers have done to these islands and both a creation of and a curiosity for the West. The Antipode represents the Philippines as part of a cabinet of curiosities for its former colonizers and current tourists.

Joiri Minaya also takes the theme of exoticism as a starting point for her work. Of Dominican descent, on her website she mentions a type of gaze that is thrust upon her due to her race/ethnicity which “others” her. “I turn it upon itself, mainly by seeming to fulfill its expectations, but instead sabotaging them, thus regaining power and agency. Inter-disciplinarily, I explore the performativity of tropical identity as product: the performance of labor, decoration, beauty, leisure, service.” Documentation of a performance series she engaged in at Wave Hill, a garden and arts center in the Bronx, is presented in the show. Women dress in floral outfits to either blend in or stand out from the flora at Wave Hill. Women are literally equated to or contrasted with the exotic foliage as an example of the restrictive effects of objectifying and commodifying women from non-dominant cultures. Recall Gauguin and how the liberatingly exotic was exemplified by the naked female natives and their jungle surroundings. She also seems to satirize the concept of the allegorization of women, in general, based on the woman’s ability to provide sexual pleasure to men and to spawn offspring. Throughout history the “fertility” of women has been equated to the fertility of the land and throughout western literature a woman has often been presented as the spiritual fulfilment of the wandering, searching male. The capacity of a woman to provide sexual fulfilment and offspring allowed her to become symbolic of the fulfilment of spiritual desire (represented by the male sex drive). So the vagina becomes the basis of much of what art, religion and literature has extracted from women for use in very linear and bizarre allegories of spiritual development. As the restrictive outfits in Minaya’s performance impose limits to the freedom and movement of the women wearing them, this allegorization of women and the equating of women to the non-human and exotic is a type of imposed and restrictive history.

jc lenochan, a veteran teacher and professor, looks at race in his works, which are done on black boards as a reference to what normally passes for knowledge and insight in American schools. One large (very humorous) work, depicted on a blackboard, evoking Duchamp and Picabia, is of a “deracing” machine: a giant construction in which a person can climb an escalator and descend through a cleansing mechanism to have his/her race removed. The implication seems to be that race is a deliberate construction meant to create a power imbalance between societies and classes. In another work we see a giant version of the artist himself with various members of other ethnic/racial groups brushing him, sardonically trying to get his “whiteness” to rub off on them. This seems a take off on the idea of dominant culture whiteness rubbing off on others in the cultural assimilation process. In reality, in regard to white folks assimilating folks of color educationally and culturally, there is research which indicates that white teachers often undervalue and fail students of color due, in part, to the inability for whiteness to rub off on folks who do not want to absorb whiteness as a part of their education. lenochan also addresses the theme of boxing in some of his latest work as it relates to issues of race and social class mobility.

Kris Grey is represented in this show through a videotape of their performance Homage. (By way of explanation, to be ‘queer’ means to defy a binary gender stereotype and so Grey uses the possessive pronoun ‘their’ instead of ‘his/her’ in describing their performance.) As is pointed out in the show booklet, “Grey’s work provokes a discussion of transgender politics by revealing the body as a site of vulnerability and trauma.” In this performance Grey inserted 10 three-inch needles under scars left under their pectoral line. The needles force the scars to become more visually prominent. From parts of the performance I observed, Grey inserts the pins with relative aplomb, despite the blood which flows from the wounds, as we see members of the audience wincing. Actually, watching the audience feel emotional pain, and feeling discomfort and pain myself, based on what Grey was experiencing, was the most meaningful part of the performance for me. Grey finds a way to connect with folks and to engender a fellow-feeling through his experience, and thus make personal history meaningful to others, based on the transitioning process for genderqueer people.

Finally, Jade Yumang presents a number of soft sculptures based on a specific issue of Drum – the first magazine in US history to show full frontal male nudity (December, 1965) and an innovative periodical in LGBT history. This was a more in-your-face and unapologetic non-hetero magazine that caught fire around the country until it was quashed by the US government. It seemed to model itself, somewhat, on Playboy, as it contained naked photos as well as thought-provoking articles. Its founder, Clark Polak, in fact, once stated that he was not shooting to become the MLK Jr. of the gay world, but instead the Hugh Hefner, perhaps realizing that private “vice” often becomes public “virtue” anyway. The issue Yumang references is from May, 1966 (volume 6, issue 1, 1966), which was seized by the post office as pornographic (Polak was, ultimately, indicted by the federal government). Yumang takes pictures and text from the issue, prints them on fabric and cuts and sews them into “abstract, queer forms.” Yumang informed me he is referencing memory quilts normally meant to remember or celebrate a relative. Each piece refers to a page from that historically significant issue. Yumang scanned pages and transferred them onto fabric, quilted them, and then made this into sculptures with materials from the era. Yumang explained that “…fabric is a form of second skin and historicizes a particular period via style/fashion. Quilting is also a way to protect or envelop someone (duvets) or something (moving blankets).” The show runs until March 24.

We are all connected - Anne Siems at Littlejohn Contemporary (February 2018)

Bruce Wilshire, in The Primal Roots of American Philosophy, argues that even though the US government almost completely eradicated Native American religion and culture, there were those among the white, dominant culture who became deeply influenced by Native American thought. Indeed, Wilshire argues that the influence was so deep that Native American thought forms the core of the American philosophical tradition and differentiates US philosophy significantly from European philosophy. To Wilshire this is seen most clearly in folks like Emerson, Thoreau, James and Dewey. I mention all this because Anne Siems appears to play with the notion that women and children from the dominant culture might just be one short step away from full blown paganism, or, perhaps, might be there already. Her marvelous, winsome and enchanting work, currently on display at Littlejohn Contemporary in Chelsea, appears to take the historically unique American artistic tradition of folk art portraiture and to deliberately infuse it with shamanistic and transcendental meaning.

Folk art portraiture from early 19th century America possessed certain conspicuous characteristics. Perspective was abandoned for a flatness of finely defined, boldly colored and symmetrically arranged images within the context of a non-specific source of lighting. The painters were shooting for a semi-idealized likeness which displayed identity without reflecting personality or emotional state, but which might betray class status. These painters were, generally, craftsmen meeting the needs of their sitters. Animals often are presented in the paintings but they tend to serve moralistic or emblematic functions and nature is a pleasant backdrop often denoting property ownership. These were basically pre-photographic images serving the function daguerreotypes would soon serve as personal and occupational photography. Psychological insight into the sitter was not the point. Documenting the person’s attainment of a social niche within the burgeoning American society was the goal.

So Anne Siems starts with the elements of this strikingly unique and white, dominant culture American tradition, in which nature tends to serve a decorative function, and subverts its elements and conventions to remove the sitter from a social niche to a deeply embedded place within nature. Wilshire points out that science views nature in a limited manner by using what is “orderable and predictable and quantifiable”. We thus become folks “…who appear to ourselves as those who order, predict, quantify, manage and control.” We lose an “intimacy with the world” that folks in a pre-scientific setting often employ to add layers to their experience, insight and relationships. Therefore, Siems often makes the bodies of her women and children transparent or translucent, perhaps as a stylized counter-convention to indicate how indistinguishable we are, in reality, from the natural world.

She might be alluding to the fact that despite the reality that most people now live in cities, we are still biological organisms and the result of the processes of natural selection. All of the emotions we use daily were naturally selected before we built cities, just as much as our prehensile thumbs or other physical features, so that they could serve a survival function. These emotions, combined with advanced communication and cognitive processing skills, allowed our development as social creatures capable of radically altering our environment – but this does not remove us from nature. Even the cognitive abilities which have provided the illusion that we are divorced from nature were selected by nature to ensure our survival. Science has brought with it an anti-nature or anti-transcendental ideology which we have inadvertently and unquestioningly adopted. Siems’ sitters are, however, the ideologically liberated who openly enjoy their participation in a direct awareness and interaction with the natural world.

Even the delicate “whiteness” of the faces of the women and children in these paintings was selected by nature. You probably read that England’s “Cheddar Man” had brown skin, showing that 10,000 years ago whiteness did not yet exist in Europe. Whiteness became a new development due to the lack of harsh sunlight in northern latitudes. A dark skin tone is due to the presence of the pigment melanin in one’s skin, as melanin protects one’s skin from the UV rays in sunlight. An abundance of melanin in one’s skin was not needed as folks moved northward where sunlight is less intense than in equatorial regions and darker skin colors disappeared to a great extent in Europe just as the eyes of fish living in darkness disappear over many generations. In nature if a trait is not used an organism tends to lose it over generations. These lily-white women and children in these paintings are as connected to nature as a mud dauber, and possibly more so, as they can comprehend and accept nature.

Whereas nature was used emblematically in folk art, Siems tends to use it to invoke a sense of union with other aspects of the natural world as well as a type of shamanism. We see, for instance, a child covered in mushrooms. The mushrooms in the painting visually compliment the girl’s being as mushrooms still compliment the beings of those in non-industrial societies who use mushrooms not only to provide sustenance but also to provide visions. These visions constituted the first human religious experience as some shamans used mushrooms to help them reach a hallucinogenic state to connect to a spiritual realm where supernatural assistance could be obtained to alleviate suffering in their community. Nature itself has not just provided humanity with nourishment and survival but has continually provided the means to uplift, console and heal. It is part of the partnership we entered into and which we have violated through a world economy that does not function within the sustainable parameters set by the natural world.

We also see a child riding a bear and another standing amicably with one. The bear, to ancient folks, was a symbol of death and resurrection. Our first symbols came from a close observation of nature and the death and resurrection theme was begun at the point where folks perceived the cyclical nature of the natural world. The bear literally goes underground and disappears for a period of time during cold weather to re-emerge in the spring, mirroring the change of seasons and the renewal of life. James Frazer, in fact, believed that it was agricultural rituals around the theme of the resurrection of crops which ultimately provided humanity with their first gods and mythological heroes – Osiris, Attis, Adonis, Tammuz et al.

By beginning with the American folk-art tradition and tweaking it in this manner, Siems is demonstrating a possible shift in perspective that can nudge us away from the delusion that we are separate from nature merely because we have separated ourselves from most of it. She invites a new approach to rediscovering nature for ourselves wherever we may be located. We are all connected, we are in union with nature every moment of the day, we simply refuse to recognize this or allow this awareness to take root and develop. The creatures with whom the sitters in Siems’ paintings interact seem to welcome their human companions with an esprit de corps as we would be welcomed. Indeed, the cognitive capacities which have lead to the delusion that we are apart from nature and can only measure and exploit nature to our profit and comfort may, in fact, hold the key to leading us back to a greater union and relationship with nature. Siems appears to affirm the capacity for the type of consciousness that can ensure that graceful reunion.

Anish Kapoor at MoCAUP Shenzhen

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Many of the early abstractionists were influenced by spiritual movements of the early 20th century. In Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art you can see that a goal of abstraction was to find a way to reach deeper into the individual viewer, bypassing the mediation of the human intellect, and getting right to the pithy stuff where real inner change and human development could occur. However, abstract artists presumed a capacity for discernment and change in us which we just do not, perhaps, possess. An abstract piece still has to be analyzed for the work to have any effect. There is no getting rid of the mediation of the intellect in art. Nobody has yet to point out that Kapoor speaks to this tradition of the use of color as a potentially direct transformative force in the viewer. Everything about his use of color and form seems to be an experiment to retain and not abandon the idealism of the early abstractionists.

The pieces that one initially sees in the Shenzhen show are based on ritual objects covered in bright red and yellow pigments. One can easily recognize, for example, the shape of a Buddhist stupa. Has the powder been sprinkled over the objects in an attempt to super-enrich them? It is as if the meaning of the form has lost its value and color must step in to reach and transform the viewer. Or has the powder emanated from the objects themselves? Physical structures purported to have spiritual functions are being transformed through the addition of color. Color becomes the element possessing a transformative capacity on its own, independent of form. Colors do, in fact, act upon us without mediation – red, for instance, excites our heart rate while blue calms it. The implication seems to be that the more intense and pure the primary color, the more intense the interaction – perhaps those who believe that art can change folks for the better are still looking for color which does not merely excite or inhibit us, but which also can change us. There is a definite element of humanism in Kapoor’s work, and he seems to hope against hope that color can finally do the trick.

We then transition to blue experiments with negative space – what looked to me like a beggar’s bowl on the wall and a void or vulva opening up within a panel. The vulva, in spiritual art, represents the fulfilment of a “male” endeavor or quest. In esoteric art, penis or phallus-shaped objects represent a desire for a type of spiritual fulfilment. Here the vulva is painted in a deep, soothing, healing blue. Kapoor wants his work to be mythic and so he creates a mythic vulva – the vulva to end all vulvas. This is THE fulfilment of the spiritual quest, the perfect combination of symbol, form and color. The penis is desire, the vulva is fulfilment. There is nothing more mythic than the two sexual organs of humanity representing the culmination of a spiritual quest in hot and cool colors.

Some of the more famous artists in the world these days, e.g. Kapoor, Kusama, Pistoletto, use mirrors in their art as the mirror serves as a type of symbol for processes within our inner reality that present and enable us to examine and potentially work on our motives, emotions, desires and cognition. In a review I wrote on the work of Pistoletto, I pointed out that a mirror reflects light to present a reality divorced from reality. Real stuff divorced from reality is the stuff of symbols and images that we often work with to understand what is going on inside of ourselves and to potentially change problematic aspects of our inner lives. So the mirror can represent this capacity we have to create and use a reality divorced from reality and the problems this may result in as we might move farther and farther away from ourselves in the reflection of ourselves. Kapoor’s experiments with mirrors seem to imply that the capacity we have to capture and work with inner truth may be flawed, but that the flaws can also be discerned, so there is still hope of individual transformation. Working with our inner reality to ensure our human development does not involve a straight-forward process. It involves the collecting of information from a flawed collection device which may be divorced from the real substance of experience.

Kusama uses mirrors to create a sense of infinity, freedom and eternity. Pistoletto uses mirrors to draw the viewer into the art itself and show the possibilities for each viewer to create and interpret his own narrative. Kapoor’s mirrors often present what engineers call “negative reinforcement” – you turn a light switch off and expect the light to go off, but you get something unpredictable. You go to Kapoor’s mirrors expecting a straightforward process and things become skewed, engendering a feeling of amazement and unease. We experience a divorce between the expectations of what we should perceive and what is being presented to us. Is there a deeper process to be tapped in to, beyond direct perception and the mediation of the intellect and our capacity to create symbols, which would allow for a graceful transition to a more humane life?

Kapoor’s mirrors are not the only pieces in the show which indicate he may be referencing problems inherent in our inner reality concerning our understanding of ourselves and attempts to change. The monumental piece 
My Red Homeland presents what can only be called a procrustean industrial process which does not correspond to any real industrial process. It is the process of flattening for the sake of flattening and not for profit or material processing. It is an imaginary industrial process meant to approximate an inner process perhaps beyond our control, perhaps within our control to stop. A large metallic arm protrudes into an area of thick glutinous red stuff and flattens the red stuff into a large circular form as it rotates. Someone at the show told me the red stuff looked like a type of sugar he had seen in India, others stated it looked like raw meat. Regardless, we see a pre-established process, not of our creation, to crush the organic and present a pleasing pattern in its place.

In the portion of the show dealing with Kapoor’s designs for grandiose structures, we see some common themes. Indeed, one piece is called Dante and one has to wonder to what extent Kapoor was influenced by the Divine Comedy. Much of these monumental structures involves ascending and descending. You have active, positive, phallic space and passive, negative, vulva-like space. It is as if Kapoor feels we should be surrounded by these monumental images of rising and falling, of bringing one closer to or pushing one farther away from paradise. The monuments we should be building should be monuments representing the highest ideals pursued by artists – based on the belief that we can all be so much more compassionate and effective in our efforts to change ourselves and others for the better.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Fashioned from Nature - Design Society (Shenzhen), from the Victoria and Albert Museum (Summer, 2021)

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The irony of Fashioned from Nature is that this is such a beautiful show about the destruction the fashion industry has wrought on the environment. This is not a comprehensive look at fashion from 1600 to the present, but, instead, the show uses samples of clothing from 1600 onward to look at how nature has been exploited and harmed to effect beauty, marketability and extravagance in our clothing. Indeed, an irony within the irony is that beautiful images from nature have often been design elements inherent in the production of clothing which harms nature.    

The show reveals that even before the Industrial Revolution clothing and fashion were manufactured in often wasteful and lavish manners. We see, for instance, a dress for the royal court of London requiring materials from several geographical regions, including mines in Bolivia where an indigenous population was used as slave labor. Later in the exhibit we see that, these days, in order to manufacture one tee shirt, even more geographical locations come into play than for that dress. The desire each of us feels to look and feel good has hampered attempts to reign in the fashion industry’s unhealthful relationship with the environment.

It was the international trade networks established by the UK, and wealth generated from these networks, which allowed the Industrial Revolution to expand rapidly and the textile industry was a chief engine in the growth of factories, population and pollution of the air and water. The consumer economy developed in the UK (where cheap, mass-produced goods replaced hand-made production) magnified the waste and extravagance already involved in the production of clothing. Thus, the fashion industry has become one of our chief polluting industries, currently producing a massive amount of carbon emissions and consuming and contaminating vast amounts of our water.

The goal now in the fashion industry seems to be to try to go back to square one and begin producing longer-lasting clothing without the harmful waste of water and production of waste usually involved. And the show reveals how each major material in the production of clothing has presented problems. The dyeing of silk released massive waste pollutants into water supplies. To obtain flax fibers in order to produce linen, stalks had to be weakened through soaking, thus polluting sources of clean water. The processing of wool produced wastes that went into river systems. The bleaching of cotton caused the first acid rain. Cotton also exhausted, and continues to exhaust, water supplies as a “thirsty” crop. Hundreds of gallons of water go into the production of just one cotton dress shirt. The fashion industry has also contributed to the over-hunting of animals and there are examples concerning whales, beavers, wolves, seals, various types of birds, crocodiles, snakes, lizards and even beetles in the show.

The show does shift, ultimately, in a more optimistic mode as a number of recent innovations in the manufacturing of clothing are presented. We learn that more environmentally friendly clothing is now being produced by designers using longer lasting fibers like linen. Recycling has now also become a big trend as hundreds of thousands of tons of old clothing often go into world landfills. The current recycling trends not only involve old clothing but also the use of plastics. Production of flax only using ground water and rain is a method more ecologically friendly than cotton. Various well-established fashion companies are also lauded for producing cotton products using less water and leaving less of a carbon footprint. Yet, 1) free trade outsourcing using low-wage labor in countries with minimal environmental regulations, 2) new groups of consumers in developing countries and 3) the ease of e-commerce are still ensuring non-sustainable fashion production.

This show will definitely alter your perception of fashion and clothing and even compel you to take a closer look at how you consume and use clothing. It poses the question of whether anything can overcome the human vanity which has propelled this industry forward. As the world becomes more rich, and fewer are left in poverty, the need for attractive fashion will only grow. The conundrum for the fashion industry is how to meet this burgeoning need while significantly reducing carbon emissions and the pollution of our water supplies. Can attractive and durable clothing actually be produced sustainably at bargain prices so that people will effortlessly buy in to the sustainable clothing movement? Relying on individual conscience to promote this movement may not be enough.

This show was curated by the Victoria and Albert Museum and runs through June in Shenzhen - the Design Society is the exclusive Chinese venue. Indeed, an additional component to the show about traditional Chinese clothing materials and sustainable design in China has been added to the exhibit by the Design Society. If you are in China, hop on a highspeed train and take a look at it. If you are not in China, I hope this show can travel to your city as well. This is the type of exhibit that compels one to address a major social/environmental issue while examining one’s own behavior. There are not enough exhibits as meaningful as this one.




This review was also published on the website: The Good Men Project https://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/review-fashioned-from-nature/

This review was also published in E The Environmental Magazine https://emagazine.com/review-fashioned-from-nature/

Thank you to both of those excellent platforms for carrying this review.