Tag: art

In a footnote from her essay “Against Interpretation,” Susan Sontag refers to film as a “subdivision of literature.” Now, I have never been one to uphold any kind of “hierarchy of the arts” (of what use would this be anyhow?), but I am interested in the relationship between different artistic mediums, and, in particular, as Sontag describes, that between film and literature. “Subdivision of literature” suggests literature as a kind of umbrella term encompassing film within its greater arena, as opposed to, as one might have intuitively supposed, two separate subsets within the greater arena that is “art.” Furthermore, the phrase disallows the opposite (“literature as subdivision of film”) to be true. What is it, then, that makes literature more “all-encompassing,” and what does it mean for a film to be “literary”?

An examination of “Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie,” Sontag’s essay on the French filmmaker’s fourth film about a struggling-artist-turned-prostitute, will prove useful here. In the essay, Sontag points out two general tendencies of the artist: the tendency toward proof, characterized by an emphasis in considerations of form, and the tendency towards analysis, which is more akin to fruitless “rambling” within a work, as the artist chases after the “infinite angles of understanding.”

As you might have guessed, Sontag favors the former, insisting that “In great art, it is form—or, as I call it here, the desire to prove rather than the desire to analyze—that is ultimately sovereign. It is form that allows one to terminate.” Thus, it is characteristic of great art to contain “endings that exhibit grace and design, and only secondarily convince in terms of psychological motives or social forces.” Vivre Sa Vie is therefore “literary” in the sense that, as in all great literature (Sontag names Shakespeare’s early comedies and Dante’s Divine Comedy as paragons), at play is a predominant concern towards proof—as opposed to analysis. The term “literary,” used to describe film, is thus a bit of a misnomer on Sontag’s part, as it might have suggested the presence of qualities intrinsic to literature, whereas all she is referring to is that which defines good art, within any medium. For Sontag, this means the artist emphasizes the formal: that is, they include a conspicuous element of design (symmetry, repetition, inversion, doubling, etc.).”

Sontag’s insistence on form strongly reminds me of my Art Hum instructor, Daniel Ralston, who would call us out whenever we would respond to a painting with such platitudes as: “I think the three birds represent the Holy Trinity” or “The expression of the left-most figure is one of intense melancholy”—statements of a nature which would no doubt have gone unheeded (perhaps praised) in some of my previous Core classes. For example, during my Literature Humanities course several years ago, a full hour was once spent on a Freudian analysis of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (which, unfortunately for me, I consider to be one of the most beautiful novels of all time). Ralston would often respond to these comments by saying, “Yes, but, what about formally—for example, what can you say about the composition?” And though frustratingly delimiting and didactic at first, I eventually came to realize this methodology was far more compatible with my personal relationship with art, which, for the most part, had tended to go ignored by many of my humanities classes at Columbia.

This issue came up once during the discussion section to my Western class (FILM 2120, Topics in American Cinema: The West) the previous semester. The topic of discourse was the Edenic imagery permeating throughout some boring film whose name I can’t recall. Someone had said, “I don’t see it. I don’t see him [the director] trying to do that,” to which the others collectively responded in defensive choir, “But it’s there,” leaving the poor girl outnumbered. In that moment, what none of us understood was that, at its core, the disagreement arose out of a difference in hermeneutical approach. On one hand, there was the school of thought that perpetuates myth by asserting that “this is there” and this isn’t, that “this ought to be but not that” (i.e. all the feminist readings of these films), and, on the other hand, there were those who believed that a work of art is the thing itself, not whatever meaning is forced out of it by some ulterior agenda.

The subject of her famous “Against Interpretation” essay, Sontag is well aware of this dry hermeneutical approach, prevalent among most schools, which tends to mistreat the work of art. As she writes: “…it is still assumed that a work of art is its content. Or, as it’s usually put today, that a work of art by definition says something. (‘What X is saying is…,’ ‘What X is trying to say is…,’ ‘What X said is…’ etc., etc.)” (4). “Content,” in this sense, is tantamount to “what I think it says” which is always subjective—whereas it should be acknowledged that content is in fact objective (“This is not Edenic imagery, just a shot of a meadow where this story happens to take place”), and that anything more than that is a stretch, fabricating superfluous intellectual delusions that numb the senses and are best befitted for the most cerebral of students, those who relish the thought of life in academia and seek to write theses along the lines of “A Queer Reading of the Works of Pedro Almodovar” or “Marxism in Kafka”—horrible titles, but you get the idea. Sontag beautifully sums up the problem as follows:

“Like the fumes of the automobile and of heavy industry which befoul the urban atmosphere, the effusion of interpretations of art today poisons our sensibilities. In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”

And what would fix this? A de-emphasis on content and a recognition of art as a sensory experience. Or, as Sontag put it: “In place of hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.” It is by abiding by this mantra I’ve discovered the audiovisual intensity of Faulkner to be found in Aronofsky’s crescendos, the minimalist serenity and ennui of Hemingway in Antonioni, and the hypnotic allure of flawed (but painfully realistic) characters from Tolstoy in Kieslowski. Literature is thus capable of being as “cinematic” as the cinema is of being “literary”—it’s just a matter of form, form, form.

Yayoi Kusama, With All My Love for The Tulips, I Pray Forever, 2012. Photo: Yayoi Kusama/Courtesy of David Zwirner, NY/Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo/Singapore/Shanghai/Victoria Miro, London

 

Running through December 16th, the David Zwirner Gallery is hosting two exhibits of Yayoi Kusama’s installations: Festival of Life, in their Chelsea gallery, and Infinity Nets in their new Upper East side location.

Kusama is best known for her Infinity Rooms, a set of rooms which she creates using mirrors and various lights and objects and which are absolutely astonishing and the perfect place for an Instagram photo. Her works are bright, simple, and brilliant. In all of them, the viewer is enveloped into what feel like new worlds that they do not expect.

With the launch of the new exhibition in New York, writers Cindy Liu and Will Essilfie visited the Chelsea gallery. Here are their thoughts:

CINDY LIU

Visiting the iconic Yayoi Kusama’s newest New York exhibit installation is akin to reading a book with deliciously-quirky characters, a refreshingly-unpredictable plot, and more sensory overload than one knows how to absorb. In her paintings and sculptures, Kusama has an uncanny knack for pairing bold, brash colors in ways that are often disorienting at first, but undeniably charismatic the more one’s eyes travel across the surfaces. Her canvases ask her audience to approach the art percussively: with the openness to absorb the punches of turquoise, the flashes of Shrek green. Her sculpture is both fluid and jagged, confronting the purported delicacy of the flowers that often inspire them.

A panoramic of Kusama’s gallery.

The highlight of the show, of course, are Kusama’s infinity rooms, frustratingly transient (visitors are timed to experience the rooms for thirty seconds to one minute) and exhilaratingly immersive. Entering Let’s Survive Together, the first in the Chelsea galleries, is similar to descending in a submarine deep into the depths of some silver-laced ocean. The orbs that dangle from the ceilings, extend for millennia in the mirrors, and litter the ground seem to muffle the outside world; and indeed, this seems to be Kusama’s primary project: to create a landscape that becomes her audience’s mindscape. With All My Love for the Tulips, the next room in the collection, is more lighthearted and psychedelic, a playful contrast to the meditative, cooler Let’s Survive Together.

 

WILL ESSILFIE

Visiting the Festival of Life exhibit, it was clear how dedicated Kusama is to delivering an intimate experience. For the first of the two Infinity Rooms on display, Let’s Survive Together, only six people are allowed in at a time for exactly one minute (the staff at the exhibit have timers). The room is dazzling with large silver spheres all around you. As you explore the room, it feels like you’re floating around the galaxy in a very surreal experience. Both Cindy and I were in awe as we walked around the room and got to experience the hype of Kusama’s galleries. It was an memorable experience that is almost impossible to describe in photos alone.

Cindy and Will experience Let’s Survive Together together.

After your minute in the room is over, visitors are next sent to see With All My Love for the Tulips, a room covered in polka dots and gigantic flowers towering over you. It’s a breathtaking experience and amazing sight to see.

In With All My Love for the Tulips, Cindy and Will show their love for the tulips by snapping a quick picture together in the exhibit.

Finally, you are able to explore a large collection of Kusama’s paintings in a giant gallery. A lot of them are quite bold and beautiful, and they are amazing to see. As we explored this space, we saw many guests using the paintings as the perfect backdrop for their new profile pictures and others staring at pieces in awe of the vast range of Kusama’s skills in creating art across both 2D and 3D dimensions. This exhibit is amazing and definitely something to check out if you have the time.  

 


Tickets are free to both exhibitions, but lines can get long — especially for viewing the Chelsea galleries’ Infinity Rooms (around 2-4 hours). For more information, visit the gallery’s website here.

Prior to curtain at any ballet, one braces oneself for two realities: the sheer physical artistry about to grace the stage, coupled with distinct waves of equally potent pride and insecurity of witnessing the art our peers and friends create with their bodies. Both infused the audience at Columbia Ballet Collaborative’s opening night on Friday, an eclectic yet harmonious show that bridged genre and form.

Bach’s tinkling a minor counterpoint ushered in the first number, prolific choreographer Avi Scher’s “In Her Skin.” The dance juxtaposed highly classical, almost rigid footwork against what can only be described as quirk: a little wiggle from Katya Vasilaky here, a fluid body roll from Brittney Feit there. A peculiar air of anachronism hung in the air; the piece’s experimentation with variations on classical arabesque and jeté with a backdrop of quintessential Bach suspended time, as all dynamic art does. “Imparted Audacity,” choreographer Donna Salgado’s fusion of runway with classical ballet, followed, with dancers clad in Beyoncé-esque monochrome, paired with pulsating bursts of energy that mirrored the music. The dance featured Connor Yockus, CC ‘18, himself the choreographer of a post-intermission number, “Whitey Tighty.”

Shoshana Rosenfield, CBC’s graduating senior this semester, and James Shee, her partner and previous dancer at the National Ballet of Canada, shattered the stage with sheer finesse and technique in Balanchine’s Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, specially commissioned for the New York City Ballet, for which Rosenfield danced for several years. Described by the Ballet as an “eight-minute display of ballet bravura and technique,” the number had the audience clinging to the edges of its seat and what remained of its self-esteem; Rosenfield’s grand jetés were equal parts controlledly masterful yet fluidly graceful, matched only by Shee’s hush-inducing fouttés. Applause rang loud and often, the duo’s symbiosis and prodigious technique was as stunning as it was effortless.

The second half of the show blurred form and time: Robert LaFosse’s traditionally-choreographed “La Valse de L’Armour,” iridescently costumed by Ballet Academy East, preceded Connor Yockus’ student-choreographed, boundary-breaking foray into a dance genre consistently “plagued by sexism, heteronormativity, and racial divides.” Dark, brooding, and provocative, Yockus’ number blended gender binaries, sexuality, and racial norms as erratic, goosebump-raising beats suffused each dancer’s movement. In calculated yet spontaneous rolls, whether through the air or across the floor, or with almost spastic arabesques filling the stage, “Whitey Tighty” challenged the notions of classical ballet

CBC’s opening night closed with a hypnotic “The Shape of Voice,” choreographed by Morgan McEwen to an eight-voice partita, a haunting play on the polyphonic Bach that opened the show. Disorienting in its discordance, the piece nevertheless closed the program epitomizing the consistent creativity and artistry that preceded it; McEwen tailored lithe limbs and traditionally tame pirouettes to the rhythmic, animalistic moans and raspy breaths enveloping the entire hall. If there was any doubt left in the audience’s mind of ballet’s power to adapt and continuously stun even as it draws on art deeply rooted in tradition, Friday night’s conglomeration of past, present, and future surely dispelled it. Cheers to CBC for this weekend’s performances and for all its genre-bending, impossibly graceful ones to come.