Surveillance and Citizen

“The subject of surveillance is currently hot with the raging pandemic but it has been around for quite a while…” (Credit: Pixabay)

COVID-19 has generated an important debate around the role of surveillance technologies in our lives. Several articles have stood out to me: some noting its advantages, others cautioning us against its risks. On March 20, The Conversation published a piece titled “Coronavirus: South Korea’s success in controlling disease is due to its acceptance of surveillance” (https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-south-koreas-success-in-controlling-disease-is-due-to-its-acceptance-of-surveillance-134068) by Jung Won Sonn, Associate Professor in Urban Economic Development at University College London.

On April 3, Amnesty published “COVID-19, surveillance and the threat to your rights” (https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/04/covid-19-surveillance-threat-to-your-rights/). The usual arguments highlight the hard choice between information exposure and movement restriction, the difficult balance between safety and liberty. Also, opinions are shared on how tracking measures could be useful for the emergencies of the moment but might pose serious threats to privacy if they were to become “normal” or are taken for granted in the long run.

The subject of surveillance is currently hot with the raging pandemic but it has been around for quite a while—roughly, I suppose, since Edward Snowden’s NSA whistleblowing incident in 2013. How have artists been responding to the issue? I would like to discuss two that I have ended up discovering: David Spriggs (UK, Canada) and Marcus Mårtenson (Sweden). The first examines the phenomenon as executed by the state while the second unpacks it as employed by non-state actors (eg, tech companies). Both bring to the fore the psychology behind the surveillance mechanisms and the emotions and dispositions they are designed to engender— fear and addiction, respectively—to accomplish their objectives.

Logic of Control by David Spriggs

In Logic of Control, Vancouver-based British-Canadian artist David Spriggs creates a representation of the “Panopticon” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon), an ultra-efficient prison designed by the English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). The artist uses transparent material as it is taken as an allusion to the values of openness and democracy in the field of state architecture. Within the Panopticon, a guard could keep an eye on every inmate from a central observation tower. The inmates could not see the guard or each other.

Spriggs explains on his website: “In many ways, this is the beginning of mass surveillance apparatuses and the idea that people will govern themselves strictly on the notion that their actions are being watched. Closed-circuit television (CCTV) and other contemporary surveillance cameras operate on the same principle as the Panopticon, the theory of imposed self-governance.”

The second artist chosen, Marcus Mårtenson, concentrates on surveillance by tech corporations and social media platforms—Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, etc. He is inspired by the research conducted by Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018).

Mårtenson’s painting Hot Trigger looks into the ways in which non-state giants with unimaginable magnitudes of power deliberately target our mental weaknesses (there are courses at Stanford, Mårtenson asserts, that teach this in strict detail), trap us into spending more and more time online so that we may input more and more data about ourselves (which could finally be sold to advertisers and presented back to us to manipulate our behaviour). The platforms numb us and make us slaves to likes and comments on the photos we post or the statuses we share. The refresh or replay button is purposefully rendered ever-accessible. One new thumbs-up or email, and the chemicals in our brains register it as a reward, and then, seek more rewards.

Hot Trigger exhibits other aspects of online initiatives—constant interruption and tracking, polarised opinions and simplistic views, the curated and only partially real self, too many options regarding potential mates—and Mårtenson arranges all of them as icons on a phone screen.

Hot Trigger by Marcus Mårtenson

Spriggs and Mårtenson invite us to ponder on various techniques of surveillance in practice today. They make clear the processes and philosophies and then, incite to us complete the narrative. In each case, we are made to ask: What are the consequences? What is the worst that could come out of this? What changes could be made to the mechanisms to make them more humane?

Both artists leave us with certain features to look out for, which can help us identify red flags, recognise the point where technology has been taken too far. For Spriggs it is “centralisation” and “transparency”. For Mårtenson, it is “design” and “behavioural modification”.

The questions that we might raise under each pointer (with respect to both state and non-state actors) are as follows:

  1. Centralisation: Who has decision-making power? To what extent it is distributed or concentrated? Are separate companies being bought off by one giant conglomerate? Are local administration units increasingly losing identity before some inaccessible national locus of scrutiny / are individual countries being subsumed into some elusive supranational entity?
  2. Transparency: How much information about ourselves can we hide – are allowed to hide? Is it necessary to share every single location we’re at or every single interest? If a certain search engine stores our data, what are the alternatives available?
  3. Design: Why are apps structured the way they are? If they exploit us, how can we outwit them and minimise their negative impact without abandoning them completely?
  4. Behavioural modification: What kind of effects are platforms like Facebook or Instagram having on our thoughts, feelings and actions? How much time do we end up spending on them on an average when we open them? And how many times do we open them and for what exactly?

Surveillance has its merits. As Spriggs points out, the Panopticon philosophy is used in CCTVs—and we can all agree, they can help reduce crime or identify criminals. Location tracking, as displayed by Mårtenson, can be used to ensure safety and security, rescuing someone who has been lost or abducted or in the middle of a calamity. But the steps mentioned above, executed regularly, may enable us to resist the dangers of surveillance, if someday some technology behemoth ends up in the wrong hands.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Lessons in the Time of Corona

Unprecedented times (Credit: Pixabay)

I read somewhere on Instagram a few days ago that April Fools’ Day was to be cancelled this year because no made-up prank could match what is happening in the world right now. Everybody can agree that this is an unprecedented time in human history. In the 21st century, we pride ourselves on living by information and knowledge. We love to dissect phenomena, control almost everything—processes, events, structures. We love to unpack the mystical, conquer the unknown, which is why the current moment seems particularly scary. We have some sense of what coronaviruses are but the way the situation has developed (so rapidly) has been largely beyond our grasp, and continues to be. We have no proper clue about where all the virus exactly is, who all are truly infected, what the real statistics might be, for so many cases could just be unreported or without symptoms.

The situation is also frightening and confounding because while it feels like war there’s no party operating out there with a definite malevolent intent. The virus is spreading like wildfire, death toll is rising out of sheer random chance—a weak elder might get the disease after having a wonderful dinner with a young grandchild who is a carrier of the virus, completely unaware of what he/she is passing on and where and from whom it was picked up. There is talk of mass graves in Iran, the loss of a generation in Italy, the Serbian army placing 3000 beds into a fair hall in Belgrade just in case, US becoming the new epicentre. Healthcare workers themselves are falling ill, as test kits and protective equipment continue to be limited.

There are bankruptcies predicted for aviation and urgent demands for government bailouts. (Credit: Needpix)

Wuhan was quarantined in January and most of us thought the problem would end there. But the entire world is now caught between restrictions and bans, shutdowns and lockdowns, cancellations and curfews. We have woken up to tough social distancing orders. Over the past three months, several industries have been impacted by this apocalypse-like emergency: tourism, hospitality, sports, entertainment, arts. Cashflows have evaporated, financial markets have gone haywire. There are bankruptcies predicted for aviation and urgent demands for government bailouts. I read a piece where an expert was saying that oil (a commodity that turns producers into oligarchs) prices might hit negative, for the earth has limited capacity to store the substance, and companies with oversupply and little demand might have to “pay” customers to take it away.

The complex logistical chains across continents have been disturbed. Travellers are stranded away from home, analysts writing doom and gloom opinion pieces on the coming global recession, politicians are nervously announcing stimulus packages.

What will ultimately happen? We might as well find ourselves on the other side of this calamity with several big lessons, new perspectives and (more precautionary) ways of life. We might take better care of our bodies, practise better hygiene on all days of the year, go for regular medical checkups, whether we feel poorly or not, institute more stringent and thorough biosecurity laws. We, as human beings, might gain a better understanding of our “place” and “position” in nature and accept the fact that rapid industrialisation and urbanisation has its demerits. We are not supposed to so recklessly encroach upon wild territory. We must keep pathogen-carrying animals like bats and pangolins at a safe and respectable distance, away from traders and wet markets.

Perhaps if our current capitalistic global civilisation is revealing itself to be so unpredictable and prone to collapse, we might be compelled to think out new economic models. If jobs—in the traditional sense—can simply vanish overnight, we might have to redefine “work” and the manner in which revenue is attained. Also, we might come out with the state having a better relationship with the individual citizen.

There are other things that the pandemic is making me consider. I am thinking of how connected we human beings are at a very deep fundamental level, sharing the same biological make-up, like multiple parts of one huge organism. And how superficial and temporary, by contrast, are our social differences: our national borders, cultural outlooks. For all the anxiety and sorrow it is giving some of us, COVID-19 is also appearing out to be a tool by which nature is “resetting itself”.  The drastic reduction in transportation and travel has made the environment at least a major short-term beneficiary. In Venice, canals are clearer. In Beijing, the air is cleaner.

Emphasis on the distinction between “the essential” and “the non-essential” is loud. We are being told to scale back and strip away whatever is not needed. Now is a good time to get rid of everything that doesn’t serve us well, that leads to unnecessary costs. If so many people are actually capable of working from home, why make them commute every day? Aren’t they better off less tired, spending more time with their families? Panic buying is teaching us the value of items of daily use: toilet paper and soap, milk and water. Luxuries are out of reach, we are consuming less and, as a result, getting to know how much we waste. We can determine our limits and our strengths. Now is also the moment where those who have more than they require have the opportunity to share their resources with the ones whose incomes have been immediately threatened.

We are all in this together, artists must remember. They must not be afraid of asking for help, and then use whichever tools they have at hand to create something beautiful. (Credit: Pexels)

Finally, what about artists? How are they to respond to these events as they unfold? Art fairs began being cancelled or postponed a while ago—Art Basel HK, Art Dubai, etc—and many participants felt they would be losing out a lot, suddenly left without venues to exhibit their works. If established galleries are feeling the pressure, it is only natural that those who are relatively unknown or just starting out might be worried about survival.

I think the first thing that those in the arts must do is acknowledge that we are all in this together—there are several industries that have been adversely affected. Secondly, they must not be afraid of asking for help. Lastly, I feel they must use whichever tools they have at hand, and which they have been taking for granted, to create something beautiful. If you have been neglecting the online world, get instantly more active on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Go around dropping emails. If you find it hard to ask people to straightaway “buy” your work, just introduce yourself, make yourself known. (Many art organisations are already making use of this time to invite people into online viewing rooms, they are rethinking their business strategies, broadcasting more from a distance.) If you have wood, paper, scissors, some pens, glue, a few colours—use every bit of it. See what you can create with the things around you. It will be meaningful and valuable (even monetarily, later on) in its own special way. Remember that Duchamp’s Fountain was only a urinal. You don’t always need many resources to stand out, just resourcefulness, an approach that hasn’t been tried before.

The arts are considered a non-essential pursuit, but paradoxically, they are not less but more important now. For good narratives, visual or literary, have the power to refresh us and save us from tedium, fretfulness and fear. They also build community and spread a sense of cheer. It is not for nothing that the characters in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron took refuge in a villa outside Florence while escaping the Black Death—the deadliest pandemic in recorded history that resulted in an estimated 75 to 200 million deaths—to tell each other stories.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

How Artists Could Explore Climate and Ecology

Credit: Needpix.com

As we all know, important discussions around climate change and the ecological crisis have been around for the last two to three decades. In my memory, what sticks out are media like Michael Jackson’s Earth Song (1995) with its unforgettable visuals of burning deforested land and the movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004) with a frozen New York City. I also think of the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth by former US presidential candidate Al Gore and Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical Laudato si’: On Care for our Common Home. Justin Trudeau’s deep disappointment over the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord in 2017 is one relevant event from the world of politics that I remember.

In the past few months/days, the debate around the issue has become more urgent and forceful—with massive fires in the Amazon and Australia, and Greta Thunberg’s passionate activism exploding over social media and reaching the Davos elite. February 2020 and Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world, has finally pledged $10 billion to save the environment after countless appeals and demands.

How are artists to participate in this crucial discourse? How should they contribute? What new perspectives and practical tools can they offer? These are matters I have been interested in for a long time. I have found several noteworthy creatives, galleries and museums doing thought-provoking work—but a lot more needs to be done in this area.

The first thing, I believe, that could be considered is that we have had plenty of calls that have brought attention to the damage already done and its possible consequences. They come as news items that evoke “guilt” (example, a bird covered in oil from a British Petroleum spill in the Gulf of Mexico) or frightening, apocalyptic scenarios that serve as “warnings” (example, Stephen Hawking predicting rains of sulphuric acid and temperatures of 250C before his death). Earth Song and The Day After Tomorrow also fall within these categories. Such an approach in art—that focuses on the negative—as I have written in a previous article (https://melbourneartclass.com/art-more-as-proposition-than-protestation/) can certainly be effective as it acts as a loudspeaker and highlights pertinent matters.

Apocalyptic visions of ice caps melting and freezing the earth or temperatures rising and setting the earth on fire have been common in books, film and music videos (Image: Icy Fiery Planet by user “behrang” / CC BY-ND 2.0)

Many artists till now have followed the guilt/warning route and come up with interesting exhibits. Spanish artist Isaac Cordal is known for sculptural installations in puddles that show half-submerged figures looking like politicians or corporate men. So engrossed are they perhaps in discussing trade deals and driving the engines of industry that they fail to realise the criticalness of global warming. Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson has hauled 100 tonnes of free-floating, glacial ice from the waters of the Nuup Kangerlua fjord in Greenland to public sites in London and Copenhagen. Concerned about rising sea levels, Washington, DC-based artist Noel Kassewitz makes buoys and floats for disaster preparedness.

Follow the Leaders, 2011, Berlin by Isaac Cordal (Fair Use)

But protest is incomplete without proposition, I want to repeat. Exposure (what has been done wrong) must be complemented with recommendations (what could be done right). It is the other side of the narrative that must be emphasised—new ways in which we could see the environment, useful measures we could adopt to ensure that the delicate cycles and chains of nature remain undisturbed and are, rather, reinforced. I want to mention four artists whose works we can consider in this regard with reasons as to why:

  • Courtney Mattison (US) – for moving the spotlight away from homo sapiens
  • Alma Heikkilä (Finland) – for revealing relationships among organisms big and small
  • Tomás Saraceno (Argentina) – for proposing sustainable ways of inhabiting the environment
  • Ernesto Neto (Brazil) – for creating sensory spaces that connect us back to the earth

Courtney Mattison, who has an academic background in marine ecology and ceramic sculpture, has been making large coral reefs. She marries scientific detail with artistic prowess and shows the underwater formations in all their varied and intricate beauty. Mattison is an ocean advocate who wants to inspire policymakers and the public to conserve our changing seas. So much of global visual culture is anthropocentric—concerned only with human needs and wants. Mattison’s work is special because it shifts our viewpoint and, with professional seriousness, gives centre-stage to an ecosystem that, even though is distant from us, remains susceptible to damage by our activity.

Alma Heikkilä gives audiences a symbiotic view of life, that is, she underscores the complex, interdependent dynamics between humans and other organisms, including miniscule microbes. In her paintings, she zooms in on bacteria that are everywhere, in and around us, and are absolutely essential for our survival. It is her belief that “in order to combat climate change we need to stop thinking of humankind as unique and individual from other life forms.”

Fusing art with the worlds of engineering, architecture and the natural sciences, Tomás Saraceno lays out innovative models of design and ways of living. His vision of Air-Port-City and “cloud citizenship” take us to floating metropolises made of cell-like structures with elastic boundaries powered by solar energy. His projects “In Orbit” and “Aerocene” have further explored the possibility of an airborne existence.

Works by Courtney Mattison (top left), Alma Heikkilä (top right), Tomás Saraceno (bottom right) and Ernesto Neto (bottom left) / Fair Use

Finally, Ernesto Neto produces work that engages all our senses and blurs the boundary between artificial and organic. His installations are often made up of nets and cocoons and may also contain substances like spices and sand. Plant-like and root-like, the works take us further into the soil, rather than away from it. They offer a corrective to the modern buildings of hard concrete, glass and steel that can make us feel alienated and cut off from the beauty of nature.

All four artists pick up on human fault but leave us with a positive message and feeling, enabling true reflection and/or reasonable action. They go beyond judgment and provide solutions.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

The art of Luisa Blignaut

After Anaesthetic

Driven by a freight train of a mind, Luisa Blignaut’s acrylic paintings frequently and impulsively veer off track into unexpected, fertile territories.

The painting After Anaesthetic describes the minutes after Luisa woke from surgery and looked out of the Box Hill hospital window towards the Dandenong Ranges. Below is the city, with geometrically abstracted buildings. Luisa paints her reflection in the window where the rolling mountains and hills stop for the self portrait which is itself a geometric construction and traced by rainbows. Luisa has described this experience of waking and then slipping away again to wake again in another room.

It was a rainy day and I saw a rainbow when I opened my eyes. I closed my eyes and when I opened them again, I was in another room, remembering the rainbow.

The hills musically echo the rainbow, as if Luisa has recognised herself somewhere within them, somehow, in the rainbow also. A part of these elements but aware of self as constructed, geometric, like the buildings. This seems to be a description of a slipping in and out consciousness, from apparent void into self. To be both separate from things and a part of all things, a sense of the tentative and the universal, of being in-between. The in-between of things characterises much of Luisa’s work.

Bark Blues

Luisa has a deep love for contemporary classical music, experimental music and jazz. She finds joy, meaning and integrity in improvised and experimental music. She frequently parallels natural textures and patterns with musical ones. In Bark Blues, subtle tones and textures correspond as much with music as with the bark of the trees, the title being a play on both texture and rhythm. Music and the improvisation of blues and jazz give the best insight into Luisa’s working process. Luisa has said that she “thinks all the time when painting, whilst thinking nothing at all at the same time“. Of all Luisa’s quotable quotes, this is my favourite. She also describes this as a “conversation between cognition and intuition displayed on a canvas with paint and brush. Brush strokes explore, discover and react. The resulting paintings are spontaneous and improvised.” Bark Blues describes Luisa’s way of thinking and working in a wonderful mixture of spontaneity, musicality and visual revelry.

The painting Polyrhythms uses the landscape to describe a musical composition which combines contrasting rhythms. As with Bark Blues we are seeing the two elements, visual and musical simultaneously. Each element of the landscape – sky, sea, beach, coast and even the poles have their own rhythm which simultaneously contrasts and seemingly harmonise with each other. Luisa has created the visual equivalent of a complex musical technique.

Polyrhythms

European Bee Eater, Thorns and Namaqua Spring all directly reference Luisa’s South Africa. Luisa was a frequent bird watcher and walker. Each of these images translates Luisa’s memories into a play of colour, form and space across the canvas using direct spontaneous brush marks. Thorns, uses the native vegetation to create a patterned abstraction as a homage to South Africa. Likewise, the intensity of colour in Namaqua Spring is extremely subjective, referencing an intense personal connection to a place where Luisa frequently found solace during turbulent years.

European Bee Eater
Thorns

Namaqua Spring

Hay Fever Near Coober Pedy, references Luisa’s experience of driving across Australia’s Nullarbor Plain whilst suffering hay-fever. It is as intense in colour as Namaqua Spring but more topographical in its structure, appearing to describe a spatial vastness.

Hay Fever Near Coober Pedy

The work, Maybe somewhere else, has a blue band of light at the centre which splits the composition top to bottom as if universal and all encompassing. The warm orange and reds surround the cooler blue. What is, Maybe somewhere else? Perhaps, for moment there is a pause here, a reflection of what lies outside the immediate and the material. As painting it contains an integration of all the elements discussed so far, organic, memory, visual and musical, but then asks a very seemingly simple question, what else and where?

Maybe somewhere else

As with After Anaesthetic, the painting Conversation combines the human face with natural elements, in this instance the textures of the bark of a tree. The eyes double as knots in woodgrain, and the simplified rhythmic forms also seem to reference music. This is a painting which knows no constraints. Is it a portrait or portraits? Yes. Is it comical? Yes, and also dry. Wry? Yes, but not cynical. It is biographical but altruistically, in that it is generous to the self and others. It appears to describe a moment of frustration without being mocking, drawing out the comical elements of the situation. The works brilliance is in bringing tree bark, the face(s) and social interaction together successfully into an expressive artwork.

Conversation

A series of paintings which Luisa entitles wth the word Bifurcation use the same simultaneous integration/separation of elements we have seen elsewhere in Luisa’s work. These abstract paintings, limited to two colours/tones play two fields against each other. Which colour is the top layer? We can’t quite tell because they shift and refuse to be grasped. Bifurcation means the division of on element into two. These two fields are both one whole organism which refuses to allow distinction of its parts and also, two elements. The apparent simplicity of these works hides a tactical resistance to being defined.

Scattered Bifurcation

Luisa’s works often combine elements of landscape and abstraction; rich memories from her original South Africa, and of Australia combining with her extensive musical knowledge. They form intuitive contingencies to hold together elements which become deeply biographical images. The works feed off a great depth of experience which is channelled through spontaneous painting decisions, making them appear disarmingly simple. Yet they contain complex strategies that are intriguing in their visual and conceptual structure.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Outside of place, a reflection on the work of Margaret Dunn

Margaret Dunn

Margaret Dunn’s paintings build environments, often domestic and exotic at the same time, often modern and ancient also. These environments seem to be in flux, suggesting that while we exist in this time and place, it’s in the transience and conflicting aspects of our experience that we have the possibility of greater perspectives.

Margaret Dunn
Margaret Dunn

A Rothko like painting on a wall with glass of wine in the foreground. Perhaps we are in a New York apartment. Out of a window we see both a cityscape and the ruins of an arch. There is no consistent spatial correlation between the elements, rather this is a narrative about the conflict between the apparent permanence of our moment in time and its inevitable decline. Permanence, represented by the city with its great crowning victory of culture, the painting. While these are all celebrated in the moment, with wine, it is all contrasted against the ultimate decline apparent in the ruins which sounds a clarion call.

Margaret Dunn

We look out from the ruins of a building. An unusually large carrot leans precariously, humorously, in the distance. Dunn has mentioned that the carrot represents Trump leaning against a missile. There is a precarious fragility to this moment both through the imminent threat and through the decay, an awareness that it all can, and is ending. However a tree in blossom anchors us back in the moment and points to a natural and logical hope. The hope of new growth and of a future. Yes, all is transient but not without meaning or hope. Perhaps a fine balance contains the tension between transience and hope. Perhaps it is all one.

Margaret Dunn
Margaret Dunn

A complex weave of of staircases and buildings envelopes us. Are we destined to remain enmeshed in the the confusion of our built environments, our ideas and our culture? Are we trapped in this one moment as if it was our definitive and confused place? It’s in the confusion and the clash of the present with its myriad of experiences and possibility that we occasionally see windows and doors to other places that are beyond our present experience. There is a hint that as with the seascape that provides a stable and reassuring horizon in the distance, there is an opportunity for us to go beyond the limitations of ourselves, of our times, and that there is a reliable, consistent place there. 

Margaret Dunn

A building crumbles and its structure merges back into an abstract background. The transient and decaying building gives way to a new form of diagonals and planes. The building is limited but it flows out into an infinite rhythm of abstraction. All is in flux, flowing from the temporal to the infinite, with both existing simultaneously.  

Margaret Dunn

The camel rests in the desert, not in the tent which meets an immediate need for shelter, not in the tombs of great cultures and not within power, represented by the turret. Rather, the camel rests alone, beneath a limitless sky with the moon as its companion. The camel is not limited to this time and place, because it avoids entrapment, rather it has available to it, the infinity of the sky and of the desert plain.

Written by Marco Corsini.

Margaret Dunn attends Studio Art classes with Marco Corsini.

Frida Kahlo’s Rich and Expansive Understanding of Reality

Self-Portrait with Thorn Necklace and Hummingbird (1940) by Frida Kahlo,
Harry Ransom Center, Austin, Texas, US (Fair Use)

There is a quote by Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) that I find very interesting: “They thought I was a Surrealist, but I wasn’t. I never painted dreams. I painted my own reality.” The truthful depiction of “reality”—as we normally understand it—in the arts is simply known as Realism. It is a factual representation of the world, one that is free of phenomena that might seem unbelievable or fantastical or supernatural, a reflection of things that exist, of things as they are, as they are seen, heard and felt.

Realism, if you search it out in Google Images, will yield results showing peasants in fields, city-dwellers in cafés, fruits on a table, a family at supper. Lots of brown, yellow, some green. Historically, the movement began in France in the 1840s (around the 1848 “February” Revolution). Fairly enough, it was a reaction to the emotionalism and exoticism of the Romantic period. Realism sought to portray every social class, ordinary life and labour during a time of rapid industrialisation with accuracy, eschewing depictions that were idealised or artificial, and confronting aspects of existence that were uncomfortable or harsh.

A typical Realist scene—The Gleaners (1857) by Jean-François Millet, Wikipedia

On the other end of Realism is Surrealism—having grown out of “Dada” experiments in Switzerland following World War I that revolted against the logic of modern society and capitalism and embraced nonsense. Surrealism, as we know, is a style that merges dream and reality, the rational and the irrational, the conscious and the unconscious, and, as a result, breaks through predictability and patterns. Its strange juxtapositions unsettle our sense of order and expectation.

A good example of Surrealism—The Elephant Celebes (1921) by Max Ernst, Wikipedia

When I look at Frida Kahlo’s work, it seems as an enterprise, that it could be placed between Realism and Surrealism (perhaps Magic Realism is the best term—as some have described it?). She draws inspiration from the events of her own life but her art clearly isn’t all stark and factual, which means we cannot straightaway call her a Realist. Also, it isn’t jarring and beyond reason, so we cannot consider her an outright Surrealist—her paintings retain a certain dreaminess, embellishment, strangeness and otherworldliness but her intention isn’t to create an effect of surprise or shock. Rather, it is an invitation to a deeper immersion in her complex and multi-layered being.

Kahlo is in the middle of extremes. The Realist side of her openly acknowledges the human condition with its travails and tragedies. Having struggled through polio in childhood, a severe road accident, a tumultuous marriage (to artist Diego Rivera) and childlessness, she exhibits her suffering before the world without shame. For example, in The Broken Column, her injured spine becomes an Ionic column.

The Broken Column (1944) by Frida Kahlo, Museo Dolores Olmedo, Xochimilco, Mexico City, Mexico (Fair Use)

On the other hand, her Surrealist side celebrates the human ability to indulge in reveries and hallucinations, and emancipate herself, albeit temporarily, from the weight of life through the sheer thrill of imagination and creativity. In What the Water Gave Me, we find a mysterious association of flora and fauna, a volcano, a dress, images of Kahlo’s German father and Mestizo mother, a modern skyscraper, references to torture, erotic encounters, death and dance. The entire theatre is acted out in a bathtub wherein the artist lies submerged.

What the Water Gave Me (1938) by Frida Kahlo, private collection of Daniel Filipacchi, Paris (Fair Use)

In her visuals, Kahlo revealed a two-fold reality—of the body and the mind. She presented the sensuality, fragility and stamina of her outward physical presence (which was objectively available to everybody) alongside the wild, wide-ranging, sometimes confused, activity of her hidden inward dimension. And she deemed this latter invisible, intangible, volatile domain as true and important as the former (who on earth considers the meaningful thoughts he/she thinks daily under the shower as fake or false or unreal?). In Kahlo’s context, I remember a powerful question asked by Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007): “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Kahlo is enduringly popular in a very special way, I think, because she gave us a reality that was more expansive than the most faithful and exact instances of Realism. That movement showed us peasants toiling in the fields and that alone, it stopped before attempting to explore the drama of their internal faculties. Also, Kahlo’s reality, despite its bits of wild fantasy, had a concrete form and personality that made it more immediately accessible to the viewer than a lot of Surrealism with its bewildering amorphousness. She successfully demonstrated these lines of Neil Gaiman: “Everybody has a secret world inside of them. All of the people of the world, I mean everybody. No matter how dull and boring they are on the outside, inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds. Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands maybe.”

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

A Tale of Two Masters

Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

Before I left for Europe, my Dad told me that I had to see the artwork of one of the greatest Spanish artists, Diego Velázquez. So it was a wonderful surprise when I stumbled on an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam called ‘Rembrandt-Velázquez – Dutch & Spanish Masters’, a comparative exhibition including a collection of Dutch and Spanish artists from the 17th Century.

Each charcoal coloured wall had two or three masterpieces hung next to each other. The curators had identified a key idea that they shared and chose particular paintings to be exhibited together. The most unique aspect of this exhibition was that all the Dutch and Spanish Masters lived through and created their art during the Eighty Years’ War. This war began because the King of Spain, Philip II, was persecuting a religious minority of Calvinists in the Netherlands. As Spain was predominantly Catholic, the King felt it was his duty to fight Protestantism and protect Catholic values throughout the empire. After eight bloody and murderous decades, the Dutch eventually seceded from the Spanish Empire and declared their independence in 1648.

Interior of the St Odulphuskerk in Assendelft by Pieter Saenredam
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

The complicated history of religious tension between Spain and the Netherlands is articulated in the first pairing of the exhibition which is Agnus Dei by Francisco de Zurbarán and Interior of the Sint-Odulphuskerk in Assendelft by Pieter Jansz Saenredam (pictured above). The Spanish artist draws on traditional Catholic iconography of the lamb as a symbol of Jesus Christ. In contrast, the Dutch painter focuses on the speaker at the pulpit as Protestants believe that all religious teaching should be centred on the Bible. Furthermore, the simple decoration of the Protestant church reveals their contestation of the Catholic veneration of Saints and Mother Mary through the lack of icons and imagery that adorn the walls of Catholic churches.

Although visually and technically quite different, both paintings demonstrate a fundamental truth of which the artists appear convicted. As these paintings sit side by side it seems simple to point out the similarities in the way that religious ideas are conveyed. This is the unique power of the exhibition. It allows conversations between the artists through their masterpieces that would not have been possible in the time they were intended.

However, these paintings being exhibited together also highlights a weight of pain. So much time has passed that we are unfamiliar with the suffering endured due to the fundamental differences that caused the Eighty Years’ War. Yet, these images intimately reflect the pain of loss, the fight for one’s religion and the struggle for freedom that permeates not only this war, but the multitude of conflicts throughout history caused by religious division. The paintings transcend their time and represent the individual’s perseverance and resilience for their faith and culture. We cannot imagine what these images sitting side by side could have meant to the people who lost everything due to the Eighty Years’ War.

Diego Velázquez (left) & Rembrandt van Rijn (right)
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

As we continued to weave through the viewers, a series of four paintings by Velázquez and Rembrandt appeared. The structures and pigments of each work resembled the next with only the majestically draped clothing slightly altered. It is hard to believe that these were not painted by the same artist, or at least influenced by each other. Velázquez and Rembrandt never met despite being Masters of their craft in the same era. Here you can almost hear them chatting as friends and colleagues, sharing techniques and enjoying the craft they both love. As the Netherlands broke away from Spanish rule, a new society was created that was founded on citizenship. Dutch painters such as Rembrandt worked for a free market, as seen in these portraits that were commissioned by wealthy, newlywed merchants. Spain remained more traditional and was ruled by an influential Royal House. Spanish artists such as Velázquez were primarily commissioned by the Church and the King to create their artwork. This is evident in his subjects who were nobles in the Royal Court.

The social and political differences in the structure of these societies gave rise to the selection of subjects by the two Masters. However, these unique positions of status could have influenced their depiction of the subject so much more. The nobility could have been shown with a valuable symbol to demonstrate their high position in society. The newlyweds could have been positioned to show the beginning of their future together. Instead these five incredibly wealthy and powerful individuals, though living in different contexts, are painted with the least embellishment possible. They stood before us almost life-size, revealing only our shared human experience.

Self-Portrait by Diego Velázquez & Self-Portrait with Beret and Golden Chain by Rembrandt van Rijn
Rijksmuseum © Olivier Middendorp 2019

The way that these individuals were crafted speaks volumes about the crafters themselves. On the next charcoal wall, we see Velázquez and Rembrandt’s self-portraits exhibited next to each other. The paintings parallel each other both visually and emotionally. Dark brown hues encase detailed, creamy faces. Their steady gazes are locked with the viewer. Both paintings are humble and unpolished. They show the raw talent of the artists and give us a unique view into the depths of life that the artists experienced.

Velázquez and Rembrandt both played leading roles in their own societies. Velázquez held a high position in the Spanish Court and Rembrandt was an influential painter and printmaker. The curators eloquently note that ‘while their social environments were worlds apart, their artistic ambition and unsurpassed ability to fathom the human depths of their models hardly differed’. Three hundred years after the war has ended, it is a joy to listen to these Masters conversing and to find with them the similarities that surpass their differences.

Written by Bella Corsini.

Art More as Proposition than Protestation

The question we need to consider is this: what should art be more like – a thermostat (should it set the temperature of the world) or a thermometer (should it merely reflect the temperature of the world)?

A few days ago I came across a 2017 article on Frieze website titled “How Important is Art as a Form of Protest?” (https://frieze.com/article/how-important-art-form-protest), presenting a survey of 50 respondents from over 30 countries sharing their views in the wake of the political and economic turmoil and instability that has gripped the world particularly since…roughly 2014?…the threat of terrorism, the fear that migrants will steal jobs from local populations, civil wars, aggressive nationalisms, totalitarian turns, racism, rising inequality, etc.

Barcelona-based artist Daniel G. Andújar said: “Art must be a sign of resistance to a political model that is increasingly hierarchical, diffuse, global and standardized.” There is no shortage of artists today who are precisely executing their practice as a sign of resistance against established systems. The most prominent example is easily the Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei who has been bringing to light important issues like human rights violations, corruption and the refugee crisis. You can pick up any country at random, do a bit of research on the art being produced, and you are bound to find artists, some truly excellent ones, engaging with and critiquing social problems. In October, Banksy’s painting Devolved Parliament, in which he replaces British politicians debating in the House of Commons with chimpanzees, was sold for £9.9 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London in the middle of confusing and complex Brexit negotiations.

I like several artists who operate in this frame of mind, for example, the Mozambican Gonçalo Mabunda who transforms weaponry into colourful thrones, masks and totems to denounce the absurdity of war (he grew up during civil war in his country) and Tibetan Tenzing Rigdol, who adjusts traditional Buddhist iconography in a way that can reveal the conflicts in his region.

Devolved Parliament by Banksy (Credit: Christie’s)

Of course, art is highly effective in this capacity. It functions as a loudspeaker and immediately directs one’s attention to pertinent matters. Even so, I feel that an artist I know called IMPREINT (working mostly in London) has something interesting to say regarding another way of doing things. His website states:

IMPREINT has always been of the opinion that art should have a social impact, but that this should be achieved through proposition rather than protestation. With forcefulness often being met with resistance, a more suggestive approach yields greater opportunity for the opening up of conversation and thus the exchange of ideas.

Balloon by IMPREINT. His art uses simple materials and his projects frequently involve the participation of the public. He writes: “Very few things in life express a universal sentiment. Particularly ones of innocence and freedom. One day I found myself holding a balloon and felt captivated by the idea of something that unequivocally evokes happiness.”

IMPREINT’s idea of “proposition rather than protestation” appeals to me and appears as something fresh because today most people are very much living in the “responsive/reactive” mode. An explosion of social media has meant that we can now be bombarded with a huge amount of information 24×7. True, communication technology has been democratised, but in truth, most people continue to be passive consumers and not actual creators of content.

The material that ends up being widely disseminated is still that which is generated by a limited number of large news organisations, famous brands and influencers who possess the wealth to buy ads on every platform – your Instagram feed, beside your Facebook timeline, inside the YouTube videos you watch and on top of your Gmail inbox. As a result, the vast majority of us are always at the receiving end of existing products, services and, above all, stories (which can be regularly negative in nature). And then we are impelled to offer our comments, likes and dislikes—our reactions and responses. In such a digital ecosystem, it is understandable that art as a form of protest should emerge and proliferate. But by largely being in the responsive/reactive, artists sell themselves short and operate below their faculties. They get too involved in exposing what is wrong, when they could devote half their time to recommending what could be right.

What IMPREINT’s view does is turn the dynamic around. It encourages artists to be more proactive and imaginative, take another level of responsibility. For some reason, I cannot help but think of Dante here. In his Divine Comedy, he puts forward three visions, three ethical programmes. In the first, he depicts what is wrong about the human race. In the final, he shows what could be right with the human race. One approach, uncomplemented by the other, will always be deficient. While it is imperative that the artistic soul expose and condemn vice, it must also be courageous enough to exhibit and celebrate virtue.

A Devolved Parliament can certainly fetch millions. But what does a politician of good character look like, how does he/she behave, how does he/she talk? What is a peaceful and harmonious society? Portraying such subjects without seeming silly, hollow or unrealistically utopian…this is the big task that lies ahead for the socially-conscious artist.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Functionality and Ornamentation

New York Review Books (https://www.nyrb.com/collections/classics) is one of my favourite publishers. NYRB editions cover the best in world literature and are known for their superlative translations, expert introductions and attractive covers. I have read quite a few books from this lot, both fiction and non-fiction. One that stands out is a novel titled Houses (1970) by Yugoslavian author Borislav Pekić.

Born in Montenegro in 1930, Pekić was educated in Belgrade and went to jail in his youth for involvement in political causes. The success of Houses enabled him to migrate to the UK, where he died of lung cancer in 1992. He did, however, keep visiting Serbia after the collapse of Communism, and helped form the Serbian Democratic Party.

Houses will appeal to anyone interested in architecture, fantasy and modernity with all its ideologies. It is the story of architect Arsénie Negovan, who at 77, is trying to write a will on what might be his last day on earth. He has spent the first half of his life building houses in Belgrade, giving them endearing female names—Simonida, Eugenie, Christina, Emilia, Serafina, Katarina, Agatha, Anastasia, Daphne, Xenia, Eudoxia. Post-World War II and the Nazi Occupation, he has imprisoned himself in one of his buildings, and looks at the rapidly modernising city through a pair of binoculars. He is utterly frustrated with the newer trends of aesthetics and real estate as they do not align with his beloved personal ideals and tastes.

Arsénie believes that modern buildings are like sad prisoners devoid of individuality. (Credit: Pixabay)

Arsénie loathes the fact that buildings have turned abstract, lost personality and vitality. They are now featureless, expressionless, homogeneous, purely functional cardboard boxes of concrete, glass and steel, like a sad and ugly group of prisoners devoid of individuality. Together they make up an unsightly omni-body. What’s more, the property owner is now a gambler rushing madly for easy profits, addicted to the stock exchange, decidedly a disciple of Mammon.

Arsénie’s philosophy is one of Possession. He maintains that the relationship between house and landlord must be a mystic marriage, and the roles of the possessor and the possessed are reversible.

As I read this brilliant but complicated book further, there were two paragraphs that really made me pause and think. In Arsénie’s houses, he writes:

too much expensive space was used up for no purpose at all. If the furniture that encumbered them were removed, they would look like the empty caverns of the Pharaoh’s tombs. Their ceilings were excessively high, like domes above a church nave…and their disposition was irrational, vainly wasting expensive space on entrances, hallways, corridors, verandas, terraces, and balconies, turning the house into an impassable labyrinth dear only to the hearts of children.

And then, the building materials: the finest stone, the hardest wood, the best plaster, the most durable paint. Marble from Venčac–sometimes even from Carrara! Porcelain, mahogany lamps, plaster rosettes, ceramic floors, wallpaper made in Prague! Finally, all those decorative and expensive eaves, loggias, oval niches in which we placed impressive standing figures, and the charming alcoves, chains, balustrade, candelabra, bas-reliefs with mythological scenes, and ornaments–all that stone flora and fauna which at my insistence blossomed from the facades of my houses.

Arsénie does not mind using expensive space for no direct purpose. (Credit: Pixabay)

I could totally relate to the character’s dislike of strictly utilitarian constructions and his yearning for ornamentation. In our world, increasingly now, we see tasteless skyscraper after skyscraper being erected, wherein everything is neat and ordered but their atmospheres tend to be cold, almost brutal. So many new cities have public spaces that give off an air of sterility, even deadness. If we want to see and experience true and long-lasting beauty, it requires travel…to cities like Rome or Paris or London (at least its older, as yet unpolluted parts).

The modern mindset is very much about immediate gratification and it builds things that can be of instant use to it, after which, it easily discards or abandons or annihilates them. It finds it difficult to comprehend the logic behind objects or structures the value of whose being/purpose cannot be measured in instant, tangible terms…that’s why those charming niches, loggia and corridors seem silly and futile to it, dismissed as unnecessary extravagance or avoidable wastefulness.

But I have always felt that by suppressing our capacity for conceiving and enjoying these “extra” embellishments somehow we suppress our very humanity. Because pure and immediate functionality can even be attained by animals, there is nothing exceptional about it. Bees build hives, ants have hills and birds have nests. We can go further than mere survival and monotony; there is no reason why we should not. The aesthetic ability that humans have is an addition, a distinguishing feature that sets us apart, and it must be not taken for granted.

Also, the big question remains—how useful truly are those sterile skyscrapers? What great purpose are they serving if we keep getting lured back to the grandeur of ancient or medieval cities? Paradoxically, it is the structures with precisely those “useless” entrances and hallways and bas-reliefs and labyrinths that, when all’s said and done, turn out to be more “functional”. For they succeed in employing and engaging all our faculties, magnify our sense of well-being, over not decades but centuries.

Written by Tulika Bahadur.

Sarah Murray – Internship Experience

Sarah Murray, pictured here with her artwork, 2019

Of the many things that I have learnt in doing an internship with the Melbourne art class, the most prominent was the importance of fostering community and art’s unique ability to reach people whoever they are. I am a Visual Arts student studying at the Australian National University in Canberra and have been completing a course requiring the students to pursue an internship in an arts-based organisation. I jumped at the idea of doing my internship in Melbourne, the lure of a new city with an amazing arts culture, a multitude of galleries to explore and artists to connect with. However, I was most interested in the prospect of working with Melbourne Art Class for the unique opportunity to do practical studio work with an artist and gain teaching experience in the art class setting.

In Melbourne Art Class children’s classes and adult studio classes I observed how Marco taught and I also provided assistance to the students and gave presentations. Melbourne Art Class puts a focus on the individual’s development and fosters each student’s learning in establishing technique and creativity through their own directed works. I learnt that teaching is more beneficial when it is through guidance rather than instruction, that the teacher must meet the student where they are and to leave your ego at the door and accept that you do not know all the answers. The classes that I attended had a great sense of community, each group had gotten to know each other and created a great learning environment where the students could learn from what each other were doing as well as from their teacher.

Unnamed, charcoal on paper, Sarah Murray 2019

In the studio work I had the opportunity to do some life drawing, some of my own work and the underpainting or first layer of Marco’s work. I was most excited for the time in the studio and not only learnt practical knowledge but had the opportunity to pick Marco’s brain about his experience as a working artist and fostering an art’s career. I learnt that process and consistency are essential to creating work. I really benefitted from working through a process of conceptualising and idea, sketching the composition, drawing details and then painting. This process allows for problem solving along the way to reach a successful work. The consistency came from setting a schedule to do studio work and staying faithful to the routine in order to get the work done.  It was so wonderful to see into how another artist works, starting from the initial idea and going through the process to achieve completed artwork.

Unnamed, charcoal on paper, Sarah Murray 2019

In this time, we also visited many amazing local galleries to gain inspiration and knowledge from other artists which can feed back into the studio practice and fosters the art community. One of my favourite galleries was the Australian Galleries stockroom in Collingwood. The stockroom had paintings covering all the walls and sculptures surrounding the floors, it was bursting with art from many different artists, it was incredible to see so much work and in a unique way to how it is normally displayed in an exhibition.

My time with the Melbourne art Class and with Marco Corsini has been incredibly formative and sparked a way to see that an arts career is not so unattainable when surrounded by community.

Written by Sarah Murray.