Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fra Angelico, "Annunciation"

Fra Angelico, "Annunciation" 1438-1445. Museo di San Marco, Firenze.

This Renaissance fresco painted by Fra Angelico shows a moment which is quite crucial to the fast approaching Christmas holiday: The moment when Archangel Gabriel gave Mary a message that must have seemed quite overwhelming to her.

She is visited by an angel who either is about to tell her - or just has told her - some pretty devastating news. But she looks so calm. And her simple surroundings - the barren walls and the stool she sits on - accentuate her modest, but intent gaze. Mary and her visitor look at each other, both slightly bowing their heads, and they hold their hands in identical positions.

Even though they are situated below different arches, on each side of a column, their calm attentiveness towards each other makes them seem close. And the depth and space that is created by lines of perspective further enhance their intimacy.

Fra Angelico has created a balanced composition, where only the cell-like window far off in the back may distract us from the quiet action in the foreground. The architecture that surrounds the protagonists of this story is very similar to the architecture at the convent where Fra Angelico has painted the fresco, the San Marco Convent in Firenze. His "Annunciation" is the first painting you see as you ascend the stairs to the first floor, where the monks' cells are (many of them have beautiful frescos by Fra Angelico, as well):

Photo: roma-antica.

Fra Angelico has painted several Annunciations (most of them on panel), and in all that I have seen, Gabriel wears a similar dress made from beautiful gold adorned material.

Fra Angelico, "Annunciation", 1433, detail.

In this version Gabriel points up towards God and over towards Mary.

Fra Angelico, "Annunciation", 1433, detail. Museo Diocesano, Cortona.

And as you can see here, this earlier version does not emit the same quiet contemplative mood as the San Marco fresco does:

Fra Angelico, "Annunciation" 1438-1445. Museo di San Marco, Firenze.

Fra Angelico's depiction of this momentous moment will be my Merry Christmas post to you, and my last post this year.


I have had some great moments myself this year (though not quite as defining as the one Mary experienced a couple of thousand years ago...). Several of them have been about meeting people I have not seen in a long time. Thank you so much for showing up in my life again! (You know who you are:-)

Also, while talking about calmly accepting what the moment brings (like Mary does), I want to thank my beautiful yoga teacher, Kari, for making me more able to cut through the grime and experience quiet moments of physical and spiritual enlightenment.

I am so happy I started writing MOMENT/C this fall. It gives me great joy. Thank you so much for visiting, and welcome back early next year!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Art and architecture

The Main Post Office in Bergen,1961. Monumental painting: Rolf W. Syrdahl's «Postens formidlere».
Photo: bt.no: Birkhaug and Omdal

This beautiful interior is from around 1960 (the building was finished in 1956), and does no longer exist. What was originally the Main Post Office in Bergen, Norway, has now been turned into a mall, and it is totally changed.

I had one of my earliest moments of aesthetic satisfaction while waiting on line in this grand room when I was quite young. - Can you se how beautifully all the details in the room merge together? The very light frames around the windows that face a flight of stairs towards the street outside. The globe light pendants out there in the hallway. The slim furniture design with matching tables and benches. The typography of the signs.

- And do you get a sense of the overall light and spacious feeling the room gives? This is primarily achieved by a large skylight, which also benefits the huge painting above the ceiling.

That monumental work consists of several panels. It is 20 meters wide and 3 meters tall, and it was painted by Rolf Syrdahl to fit this particular space. The subject matter of this frieze-like painting is the important work that is done by those who distribute and deliver mail, and it fits very well into the long tradition of monumental painting that contributed to the building of a national consciousness and social democratic values in a relatively young nation.

This whole interior, which is elevated from the street outside, serves almost as a shrine to the postal service as an institution of great importance in society. But that is not really my main point today. What I would rather like to point out, is how perfectly Rolf Syrdahl's artwork was integrated with the architecture in the old post office.

Photo: bt.no: Ørjan Deisz

When the old post office was turned into a mall, Rolf Syrdahl's painting was taken down and stored in a basement for many years. But yesterday it was unveiled at its new location, at Haukeland University Hospital in Bergen.

It has been restored and cleaned to get back its beautiful colors. And although its new location is far less ideal than the original one, the painting can again be viewed in a building that is open to the public.

Photo: Wyatting

Monday, December 13, 2010

There's a certain Slant of light

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons --
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes --

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us --
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are --

None may teach it -- Any --
'Tis the Seal Despair --
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air --

When it comes, the Landscape listens --
Shadows -- hold their breath --
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death --
(Emily Dickinson, c. 1861)

It's December 13 today, Santa Lucia's Day, and we have celebrated the Sicilian woman Lucia, who brought supplies to Christians hiding in the catacombs during Diocletian's reign in the third century. She carried a wreath of candles on her head, and has thus become a symbol of light.

When I looked into Uta Barth's photographs the other day, I saw that Lyra Kilson mentioned "A certain Slant of light" in her review of Bart's recent work. And being quite obsessed with light these days (it gets dark at four in the afternoon where I live) I thought this particular poem by Emily Dickinson would fit well on this dark winter day (which is Santa Lucia's).

But while Santa Lucia used light in a practical way, to be able to maneuver through the catacombs, Emily Dickinson's light holds a spiritual meaning. However, the literal image of light that enters her room on a winter afternoon forms a very important grounding to a poem which says a lot (that is quite difficult to grasp) about spiritual enlightenment.

I found a suite101 reading that helped me understand this poem a little better. Here is what it says about the third stanza:

The speaker declares that no one can teach another how to become aware of the mystical attributes of the yearning for meaning. While “Despair” leads one in that direction, and the desire is universal, it comes to each one as simply as breathing. One’s spiritual development has to be right before one can entertain such divine cravings.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Uta Barth

Uta Barth, "Ground #30", 1994. Sies + Höke Galerie.

This blurry photograph from the "Ground" series by Uta Barth gives us just enough information to see the corner of a room. It is photography on the brink of complete abstraction. And it shows very clearly that photographs are created by light. The light that falls from the window high up to the left, and the shadows that are formed as the light's negation, build space.

I see painterly qualities in this photograph that remind me of Harald Fenn's paintings. But the most obvious reference is "The Milkmaid" by Vermeer.

Uta Barth, "Ground #42", 1994. Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.

It is as if these "Ground" series photographs could be backgrounds for portraits where the sitter would be in sharp focus. And the feeling of vacancy or void that is left by the missing subject is particularly apparent in this "Ground #42". The small reproductions towards the upper left look like they just happened to be included as a background for a sitter that simply is not there. And compositionally they are balanced by whatever it is that has snuck into the image from the right.

If you look more closely at the top left "painting", you can see that it may very well be a reproduction of the Vermeer I mentioned above...

And if you would like to depart from the more or less literal references these photographs induce, you could try to see them as representations of fleeting thoughts or vague memories...

Uta Barth, invitation card from exhibition at Sies + Höke Galerie, 2008. (Sundial series)

Then there is this image from the "Sundial" series. It is sharply focused, but it has the same vacant center as the photo above. My attention is drawn towards the yellow coach because it almost looks like it is slipping out of the picture, but for some reason it is the shadow that marks the transition between wall and ceiling I end up looking at. Maybe because this is yet another photo that is mostly about light, - about how the light changes through the day (in Barth's own home).

As Lyra Kilston points out in ArtReview:

Barth has long followed the Zen notion of what she calls a ‘choice of no choice’: she refrains from intentionally seeking out photographic subjects and instead turns her camera towards what is already around her – the sundial of her home. Through this disciplined practice, her work highlights the act of seeing as an autonomous undertaking. She does not seek out things in order to make a photograph, she makes photographs of what she happens to see.

Uta Barth, "... to walk without destination and to see only to see (Untitled 10.8)", 2010.
Tanya Bonakdar Gallery.

The Quote above is from a review of Uta Barth's exhibition at 1301PE in Los Angeles in May/June this year. And the title of that show was "Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees". A similar approach to the act of seeing is evident in the title of the diptych above: "...to walk without destination and to see only to see".

Having said that, I will encourage you to look again at all these photos, while trying to forget what you have just read... - Try to see them only to see...

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Debate in Bergens Tidende

Michael Johansson, "27m3", 3x3x3m, site specific installation, 2010.
Entrée at BGO1, Bergen Art Museum. Photo: michaeljohansson.com

Observant readers have already seen Michael Johansson's cubical sculpture in this post about the room Entré curated for the BGO1 exhibit at Bergen Art Museum.

I am showing it again now because I have been so busy debating the art public and criticism in the regional paper Bergens Tidende, that I have not had time to write any post since Thursday.  - And that debate revolves partially around this sculpture.

I have posted my text, Øystein Hauge's reply, and my reply to Øystein Hauge here. It is all in Norwegian, of course, so if you would like to comment on the debate, please feel free to do that in Norwegian.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

David Wojnarowicz censored by Smithsonian

David Wojnarowicz, Self portrait. (From Wikipedia)

Sadly coinciding with the World AIDS Day, which was yesterday, the video "A Fire in My Belly" by David Wojnarowicz was removed from the "Hide/Seek" exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Wojnarowicz made the video in 1987 to honour Peter Hujar who died from AIDS that year.

Tyler Green at Modern Art Notes has followed the story closely.

Blake Gopnik has written a thorough condemnation of the censorship in the Washington Post.

And for more links and the video itself, check out Princess Sparkle Pony's Photo Blog.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chris Ofili, "Afrodizzia"

Chris Ofili, "Afrodizzia", second version, 1996. Photo from Tate Britain

Using "Afrodizzia" (second version) by Chris Ofili merely as illustration of what I want to say below, is really quite unfair. Especially since this work lends itself very poorly to photographic reproduction.

It is a canvas filled with layers of lots of different stuff, like paint, cut out photos and elephant dung. And as you can see above, the frame itself also rests on balls of elephant dung. By using that rather untraditional material, Ofili quite blatantly plays with stereotypical notions of African culture. - Like he does when he spreads out images of faces with afro hairdos across a very colorful surface.

The reason why I'm showing this work today is that I want to say something about art and Advent. - Some connection, uh? Well, it's December 1 today, and Sunday was the first of the four last Sundays before Christmas, when we light purple candles. - Four of them in a wreath, and one more to be lit every Sunday.

This year we invited our friends who are originally from Ethiopia to come light the first candle and have dinner with us. So it's not really Advent I want to say something about, but the experience of getting to know Sara and Omar, who are refugees from Ethiopia, and their four children. They are Muslim, and sharing our Christian traditions with them, gave me a fresh perspective on those actions that I perform every year without really thinking about them.

Sara and Omar are great people that I would enjoy hanging out with in any circumstance. But sharing Advent with them and getting to take part in some of their ways and traditions, gives me such a valuable perspective on my own life choices (small and large). And it confronts me with plenty of stereotypical and generalized notions that I have about Africa. - For instance, I realize that Africa is so much more diverse than I tend to assume since I have never been anywhere on that huge continent.

So thinking about all this in relation to Advent, I searched my memory for suitable African art to go with it. But tellingly enough, the British artist Chris Ofili was as close as I got. I think it must have been his "Afrodizzia" (second version) I saw in the SENSATION show at Hamburger Bahnhof in 1998.

I do not know anything about African art, but Ofili's work does more or less the same as getting to know people from Africa: It highlights my prejudice.