I'm really excited about today's episode! It's about the exhibition that I worked on during the year I was a curatorial intern at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto. Titled Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian: Infinite Possibility. Mirror Works and Drawings 1974-2014, it is the first museum survey of geometric works and drawings by the celebrated Iranian artist. This exhibition is still on view at Serralves until January, and it will travel to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York next March.
This week's episode is dedicated to the Mira Schendel exhibition at the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto, Portugal. This was the first retrospective dedicated to the artist in Portugal, and also the first time many of the works were shown outside of Latin America.
Today's book is Playing to the Gallery (2014) by Grayson Perry. Perry is a 2003 Turner Prize winning artist, and this book is a humorous look at the (often bewildering) art world's inner workings. Highly recommended!
An illustrated guide to the movements and buzzwords of the post-World War II art world.
All professional worlds have their own language and codes that seem impenetrable to outsiders, and the art world is no different. However, art is unique in that even those who consider themselves insiders seem to resent the opaqueness of words, denouncing the quizzical, buzz-word filled texts that can be found in exhibition press releases and catalogues as a pompous, non-sensical attempt to be “deep". This book is the perfect antidote to that.
The truth is that a lot of the writing you find in the art world today is baffling, but that doesn’t mean that all the buzzwords are meaningless. Naming movements and concepts helps us make sense of the largely fluid and eclectic art world, and it gives us points of reference to attempt to construct art historical narratives. The problem is that a lot of today’s art is better understood when you are aware of those points of reference, which makes a lot of people feel inadequate when they visit a gallery. This book explains all the movements and buzzwords in plain English, detailing the origins, the artists, and the influence of styles, movements and ideas. As such, it is an excellent read both for beginner art enthusiasts and those on the inside who need a reference book (granted, a superficial one, but good as a starting point) to the major developments of modern and contemporary art.
It was refreshing to see that this includes not only Western art movements, but also those from Brazil, China, Japan, and Australia, among other places. My only complaint is that the Middle Eastern region is largely ignored, which is not entirely surprising, as this region’s artistic narratives have only recently begun to be explored by the mainstream, but it is something to keep in mind for the next edition of this book.
A good book to offer to your non-artistic oriented friends, so that they will start coming with you to gallery and museum openings without feeling left out of the conversation.
Today's book, on the theme of climate change, is The Collapse of Western Civilization (2014) by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway. It's written from the point of view of a historian of the post-apocalyptic future, who is looking back at the climate crisis and trying to make sense of where it all started, and why our civilisation did nothing to stop it.
This book is a detailed overview of the so-called "golden age of console gaming", following a subjective selection and ordering of video games. Included are the context in which each game was created, its critical reception, both at the time it came out and over the years, and the price for which it can be bought today, making this book a mix of collector’s guide and historical document. Each game’s entry also includes color photographs of the cover, the cartridge, the instruction manual, and other promotional materials, as well as a screenshot of the game in action (although that’s not included for every game).
The writing is very subjective and often punctuated by sarcasm, which can be rather off-putting. The choice of games is primarily informed by the most subjective of criteria: how much fun the game is to the author. It’s a problem shared by most of the books I’ve read dedicated to making best-of lists (although sometimes it is mitigated by having more than one author). In this case, the personal anecdotes about the author’s experience with playing the game, both as a child and an adult, and how much play time it gets with his children, detracted a bit from the reading. In part, I am to blame for that: I am not familiar with the author’s previous work as a video game critic - if I was (and if it is quality work), I would probably trust his judgment without needing further justification. As such, it would be nice to have had a deeper examination of each game (this happens with a few games, but not with all).
These details aside, this book stands as a remarkable piece of research. The author went through hundreds of games (including ports for different consoles, spin-offs and rip-offs) in order to find the best of the best, and that is not an easy feat. For someone like me, born after the aforementioned golden age, this was an enjoyable read which allowed me to expand my knowledge about classic video games and rediscover some old favourites. An excellent way to immerse yourself in the world of retrogaming, whether you’re a newcomer or a veteran.
Le Corbusier (pseudonym for Charles-Édouard Jeanneret) is considered one of the most influential architects of the 20th century, credited with starting the ‘starchitect’ trend, along with his American rival, Frank Lloyd Wright. He broke with established ideas about what architecture and urbanism should be, reinventing the home as a ‘machine for living’ and revolutionising the way we think about cities.
"Modern Man: The Life of Le Corbusier, Man of Tomorrow” by Anthony Flint is an accessible account of the architect’s life and work, with detailed descriptions of his various buildings and projects. Le Corbusier’s ideas are well known for most people in the art world, myself included, but I knew very little about his life, experiences, inspirations, travels, and how they intertwined with his works, so this book seemed like the perfect read.
I am not an expert on architecture, but I have studied enough of it to have a fairly informed opinion on Le Corbusier’s philosophy. I tend to agree with critic Jane Jacobs (who is cited in the book, and was the subject of a previous book by the same author): architects like Le Corbusier tend to ignore the way people actually live in the spaces they create; they tend to forget that architecture may give cues, but in the end is meant to be lived in freely, instead of forcing people to follow an architect's instructions on how to live properly in a space. Furthermore, one of the side-effects of Le Corbusier’s urbanism is to eliminate street life - it assumes the street as a place of passage, when in many cities, it is a place of living, of community-building, an important part of that city’s identity.I am also wary of those who defend demolishing old buildings to make way for new ones. For me, it is seldom a good idea; in fact, it is a lazy idea. Good urban planning should improve living conditions while accommodating a city’s history, of which its buildings are an important part.
Unité d'Habitation, Firminy, France (1960). Photo : Olivier Martin-Gambier 2008 © FLC/ADAGP
Le Corbusier’s vision of a modern city is one built for efficiency in an industrialist, capitalist sense. However, people are not machines, and they may not want to apply the streamlined (some would say deadening) Fordist assembly line mass production ideals to their personal lives.
I admit, it’s easy to be critical with hindsight. Le Corbusier was a man of his time, and his ideas made sense back then. They had never been tried before, and he couldn’t have imagined the impact (he predicted the good, but not the bad) they would have eventually. On an aesthetic level, I can see the appeal of his work, specially the villas and churches. And his influence on subsequent generations of architects cannot be understated.
On a more personal note, Le Corbusier was not an easy person to sympathise with. His arrogance and lack of moral compass are notable in his words and actions, and his efforts to whitewash the darkest periods of his life do little to endear him to critics.
The book does not gloss over the more negative sides of Le Corbusier’s life and work - while admiring, it also makes an effort to be unbiased and objective. Recommended as a source of information for understanding the pioneer of modern architecture. As an additional source, I would recommend Artsy's page on Le Corbusier, which is replete with beautiful photos of his works, as well as information on articles and exhibitions.
Having just watched Lust for Life (1956), a biopic dedicated to Vincent van Gogh’s life and work, I was left wanting a deeper, less melodramatic exploration of his art and life. I decided it would be best to start with something a little more lightweight than van Gogh’s letters. This book, Van Gogh: A Power Seething, follows the artist’s life from the beginning, his travels, relationships, hopes and fears, punctuating his troubled and wandering life with explorations of his artwork and artistic outlook.
The writing is rigorous, but at the same time, the author’s beliefs are glimpsed through the narrative, a fact that the author acknowledges from the beginning. Perhaps that’s the peculiarity of seeing it with the eyes of another artist, instead of an art historian. This book was written by Julian Bell, a writer who is also a painter, and who consequently seems to understand van Gogh not just intelligibly, but intuitively as well. He does not always agree with, or even understand, van Gogh’s actions. But one senses a kind of sympathy and understanding that seems to mirror Theo van Gogh’s attitude towards his brother, while still keeping a critical view of the facts that keeps this book from turning into a subjective retelling.
Starry Night Over the Rhone (1888)
Van Gogh’s artworks are intricately connected to the places he lived in and the people he knew. The sense of urgency in his paintings is frequently found in his letters, in which he muses about his ideas, techniques and themes. I particularly liked reading his thoughts on colour, which, combined with his distinct brush strokes, conveys the drama, emotion and unique perception that his artworks are best known for.
In the end, this is an incredibly sad but relatable story. I recommend reading it with the paintings close at hand for reference, whether through the internet or a book. It’s a good read for those who are familiar with van Gogh’s artwork and would like to know his story a little better.
This week's episode is dedicated to an exhibition of Street Art at the AXA building in Porto, Portugal. The building was given over to the artists, who were given free rein to decide what they would do with the space, how they would use it, what kind of access to give to it, everything (click here to watch a behind-the-scenes video). The entire building became a blend of exhibition space and an installation art object itself.
The importance of the internet as a living space cannot be understated. Already millions of people rely on it for professional purposes, socialising, research, news, communication, self-expression and so on. It follows that it should be an important tool for political and social activism, and traditional activist groups have used it as a rally point and communication device, translating tools such as petitions, campaigns and fundraisers into the virtual space. These techniques are widely accepted and respected as activist tools, and as such are protected by law. But the internet is fundamentally different from physical space, and it has given rise to entirely new forms of protest and activist actions. One of these is the DDoS (distributed denial of service) action. In The Coming Swarm: DDOS Actions, Hacktivism and Civil Disobedience, researcher Molly Sauter sets out to explore the importance and validity of DDoS actions as an activist tool, giving an historical perspective of the tool’s use by several groups, including The electrohippies and Anonymous.
Despite activist efforts, DDoS is still widely considered a criminal activity, and the media and the powers-that-be on the internet do little to dispel this idea, with their fixation on stereotypical, negative views of “hackers” and the disproportionately harsh punishments enacted on those who are discovered to engage in these activities. Sauter does a great job explaining the complicated affair of attempting to encourage social and political change in a space that is essentially dominated by private interests. The physical world has public spaces - the internet does not.
One of the points the author made that really drove it home for me was the question of accessibility, and how the internet gives people the illusion that everyone now has a voice, that everyone can make his or her opinion heard, that the internet is the great democratiser of public life. But the truth is different. The internet is a big place: unless you already have an established audience or are lucky enough to go viral, your voice is likely to get lost in the noise. The average person does not have the means of a massive corporation, and obviously that will have an impact on that person’s influence. Moreover, the internet is not a free place: it is largely controlled by private interests which work very hard to make sure they have a monopoly on people’s attention. One only has to read the recent discussions surrounding net neutrality to understand that these private companies do not fight a fair fight. They already have control, and they are striving to have more. While it’s true that almost everyone can publish their opinions (however unpleasant they may be to the powers-that-be) online, that does not necessarily mean they will get attention. You’re not guaranteed to have an audience. This is why protests in public spaces are so widely used: you can’t make them invisible. By their nature, they force people to pay attention. How can you do that in the online space? Are DDoS actions the answer?
This book is not only essential for those who are interested in the future of activism and the role that the internet might play in it; it’s also useful for anyone who wishes to truly understand how the internet works, and as a consequence, how it affects those who choose to lead a large part of their lives online.
The writing is a major plus: rigorous, academic, but still easy to understand and interspersed with moments where the author’s passion about the topic shines through. I immediately identified with the writing because it’s the type of academia that I love: firmly grounded on theory and facts, but with real world impact beyond the (often closed) world of research. Molly Sauter is not afraid of showing the hypocrisy behind the non-acceptance of this kind of activism both by the general public, but also (perhaps more importantly) by the traditional activist community as well.
My only complaint with this book is that it’s too small. I understand that, as a Master’s dissertation, it’s the ideal length, but as a book, it would have benefitted from developing some of the ideas even more. But it’s a good introductory way into the topic that still has much to interest those who already know a little about it.