Friday, January 17, 2014


Isa Genzken - reflections on her MOMA exhibition.

The Bauhaus, was a school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts. Founded by Walter Gropius with the idea of creating a "total" work of art in which all arts, including architecture, would eventually be brought together, it operated from 1919 to 1933 when the Nazis shut it down.

Isa Genzken’s stunningly moving retrospective both utilizes and repudiates Bauhaus legacy, brashly demonstrated by a seminal work entitled "Fuck The Bauhaus". Her retrospective surprised me with its range of experimental approaches, giving voice to a unique personal view of life – from the frottage oil paintings that looked like aerial views of bombed out/flattened terrains to the glitzy pedestal sculptures.

When I entered the Isa Genzken show at MOMA I was floored by the beauty of an installation depicting large formally pristine kayak-like shapes lying on the ground (“ellipsoids” and “hyperbolos”) – having no contact with one another, but hovering alongside each other with a do-not-touch-beauty that is rarified. Then I turn around and the aesthetic has shifted. I chuckle to see cement blocks anthropomorphized with T.V. antenna’s shooting out of their heads – inanimate becoming animate, making a point about materials – industrial materials in particular which often seem remote and inaccessible – but now like a magnet I approach what was once unapproachable.

The whole show is one of contradictions in the service of Isa Genzken’s singular humanity. She tosses off previous restraints, and I imagine her saying “fuck it – I NEED to do this!” And she does. Experimenting with materials – all kinds of detritus from the mechanical/manufactured culture to the throwaways of the consumer-merchandising sphere.

Scale dominates the show not only the physical but the psychological reaches of hierarchy and structure, often woven together - most evident in a group of building columns transmuting into intimate portraits of good friends – each subtly individualized. We are tossed around by architectural scale reduced to accessible mortal proportions.

American capitalistic scope and power is explored; the underbelly of shame and greed, the global reach of violence and mayhem are presented in assemblages utilizing whatever objects (toy cars, dolls, fast-food wrappers, etc.) and materials that are necessary to vent her anger at man’s inhumanity to man. These assemblages employ scale to great emotional effect ie: a building structure becomes larger because a small plastic tree is placed in the tableaux, delicate and fragile; a dreamlike ornament floats next to blood and terror. Installations are ripped from the headlines - the assault on a young schoolgirl being witnessed by her classmates’ cell phone pictures – a room reeking of horror and voyeurism.

Isa Genzken was in Manhattan on September 11, 2001 and there is a room devoted to her apocalyptic architectural proposals for Ground Zero that includes a Church, Disco, Hospital and Memorial Tower. Monuments that do not memorialize but instead bear witness to the act of destruction itself. In Car Park miniature cars are upended in a cage-like structure that is devoid of any possible movement or passage. The journey has ended.

Isa Genzken’s exhibition can be unabashedly gaudy wrapping the fragility and vulnerability of the human condition with the rubble and sediment of everyday objects. The result is painful and piercingly tender. The sadness enraptures.

Monday, January 13, 2014

HER 1/13/14

 We are in the future - a time when technology rules every aspect of our lives, and Director Spike Jonze’s HER catapults that idea to what some might consider an absurd place, but makes perfect sense when we consider our ever increasing umbilical ties to the computer in organizing and communicating with friends and strangers in our lives. This movie is billed as a comedy, but in essence it is a poetic story of searching for human contact with the very instrument that we rely on to contact other humans.

Joaquin Phoenix, an actor who keeps getting better and better, transforms himself into Theordore Twombly, a broken hearted reclusive man in the midst of a divorce, ironically working at a job as a “surrogate” love-letter writer, living a life of mournful resignation and withdrawal – coming home to an antiseptic apartment, playing video games and having the occasional Internet sex with strangers in the kooky way things are done in this “advanced “world; a universe that is not too different from the one we live in today, but the technological innovations are more all-encompassing.

The need to love and be loved, the need to listen and to be heard, the need to laugh and experience joy – face to face with another flesh and blood person – those are the existential issues posed in HER. Can a computer fulfill those needs? Can the disembodied voice, even that of the husky, resonant, sweet-toned Operating System Speaker Samantha  (articulated by Scarlett Johansson) whose electronic persona takes on a life of its own, programmed to be both empathetic and intuitive, can SHE become the idealized companion that Theodore dreams of? Can an “inter-species” relationship with a machine give us the emotional profundity and togetherness that we ache for in contrast to real, corporeal interactions which often involve compromise, and where selfishness over selflessness is often the norm.

The movie witnesses other couples – one being a neighbor played by Amy Adams (a lovely actor who chameleon-like is always a surprise) trying to contain the bursting seams of her own marriage. More and more of the characters in HER are seeking adequate substitutes for traditional alliances and Operating System “romances”  - whose basic nature is onanistic - might be a solution. Perhaps making love to oneself is the ultimate aphrodisiac?

This film felt fresh and original, like the winds of change transporting the way we interact with one another in our determined attempt to stave off isolation and find intimacy. Nowadays we spend less and less time on the phone - instead we text; we meet our friends in chat and hangout rooms; we have the increasing capacity to have a “fulfilling” virtual life - one that is populated with avatars and perpetuated by illusion. I was fascinated by the issues raised in HER, charmed by the enchanting magic of Samantha and Theodore’s “software system” courtship – no matter how much a chimera – at least it was “shared.”