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This is Part I of a review of a current exhibition at Tate Modern of the work of Mira Schendel (Part II is here, whereas Part III is here), which is due to finish on 19 January 2014
I believe the curatorship is heavy on reading philosophy and its concepts into art, @EMDeWachter @Tate @tanyabarson : http://t.co/BI88WSHiEz
— THE AGENT APSLEY (@THEAGENTAPSLEY) January 11, 2014
When it is a matter of referring to works (tiresome though titles can be, with their weight of meaning), it has to be said that Schendel could have done herself a favour by not calling almost everything Sem título (‘Untitled’) : curatorial difficulties apart (in knowing what on earth piece one is requesting on loan from where), the viewer could at least be able to refer to a work, if she had adopted the approach, say, of Paul Klee (in addition to a title) of giving everything a sequence number and its year of production, uniquely identifying it.
When surveying a period of 35 years or more (the early paintings are from the 1950s, and a final series from 1987), a retrospective, even in the typical space of 14 rooms*, will tend to group pieces by date, style, technique, theme, and run chronologically. I take issue with this show in two regards, as to inclusion and extent :
(1) Starting with the huge Room 6, both issues arise in relation to some of the ‘works’ on rice paper (apparently, a medium that Schendel started using in 1964) : not wishing to say that there necessarily is not blurring between the realms of art, poetry and calligraphy** when an artist imports words onto the substrate.
However, there is a contrast to be drawn with the works in Room 5 (where the words sim (‘yes’), passe (‘pass’) and que beleza (‘how beautiful’, slang for ‘how cool’)) figure on the canvas in a similar way, say, to that Ceci n’est pas une pipe does on that of Magritte. For the words on rice paper in Room 6 are (a) all that the work comprises (on its own or in relation to other such sheets), (b) sometimes scrawled (although perhaps legible to a native and / or sympathetic reader), and (c) not obviously any more than a rough sketch, rather than some sort of displayable work.
Seeing much of this, in one of the four largest rooms in the exhibition, may be a preparation for Room 7, but the lesson that one learns there is that the nature of this mass of hanging written material is not – though some of it can be – to be read. The work (in no ways a preparation for the sheer beauty and effect of the installation in Room 12), which was in Brazil’s pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1968, does not require one to have seen, at such length, constituent elements to appreciate it – those in Room 6 are Graphic Objects (against (the Monotypes) in Room 6). I have no doubt that there are more than 2,000 Monotypes, because I cannot conceive it to be difficult to have generated them.
(2) On the calligraphic level, and still in Room 6, I am invited to consider the manipulation of the trio of German words Umwelt, Mitwelt and Eigenwelt, which I am told are terms used in Heidegger’s thought and in European philosophy, as some sort of work or statement, but I would say that, in relation to the Magritte work referred to earlier, I am not required to study Hume, for example, before I can approach it. However, whatever Schendel is about, even though – as far as I recall – the words are legible, is unlikely to mean anything to the average person trying to approach the work (even though the wall notes translate and explain the terms).
The opacity of the work – which inclines me to believe that it belongs on the page (not in the gallery), where those who want can refer to it – is akin to the barrier (perhaps deliberate) in scrawling texts (whether or not original) elsewhere in the Monotypes. Contrast this with the calligraphic simplicity of the word ZEIT (German for time, and written in capitals), displayed nearby, with the tail of the ‘T’ extended down the sheet. A calligrapher, in English (using the word TIME), could just as easily have extended that letter, or the three spokes of the ‘E’, but it would be craft, not art, and displayed alongside settings of lines from Blake or Keats.
Moving on to Room 9, and some of these abstruse notations or scribblings have become books. However, I have to ask whether the jottings of Einstein have any more – or any less – place in a gallery than, amongst other things, the Calculations : what branch or level of mathematics am I supposed to be familiar with to make any sense (if any is actually to be made) from these notations ? Do they have aesthetic or artistic appeal beyond any such understanding ?
These comments – maybe criticisms – are at a curatorial level. Even if a work forms a sizeable part of an artist’s work, does one have to give a proportionate amount of wall-space to make the point. For it has to be said that the installations in Room 12 (already mentioned) and Room 10 are world-class art, but, one somehow feels, some of the space devoted to other work is less worthwhile. If it is an intrinsic part of Schendel’s journey, one needs, I feel, to know more fully why it is – the basic question is whether it is truly integral to a survey of her work, or could have been given less time without impairment : I do not feel that that the notices in each room make the case for why this work merits our attention, and, with a less patient visitor, might lead to switching off from what, in my opinion, is of outstanding merit.
Continued, with other positives, in a separate posting…
Even if one ultimately thinks that Imogen Robinson is harsh about Schendel's works in her Review : Mira Schendel at the Tate Modern for Just A Platform, it is of interest to find comments where she echoes finding pretension in the curation and the claims made
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Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)