Saturday, 29 December 2012

The Progress of Love, The Pulitzer Foundation

This is partly about how installation can affect the response to a work of art and partly about a work I really love.

At the 2007 Venice Biennale I was completely transfixed by the French Pavilion, where Sophie Calle had installed Take Care of Yourself. Calle's work seems always to be about herself, not always interesting to me, but this installation hit home. Her lover had written her a "breakup" email. To deal with it, she sent copies to more than 100 women for their professional responses and the results make up the installation. What makes it wonderful is the range of occupations of the women chosen: a sharpshooter, various dancers, therapists, actresses, a judge, a cook, an editor, a crossword puzzle maker, a curator, a child, her mother, and more, some famous, some not. And I liked the variety of media in which the women respond. I don't often like video, but these work for me. Tom and I both loved this installation in Venice, but after an hour or so he took a break and went outside, where he sat on a bench with all the other men waiting for their women to come out. I was there another half hour or so and had to drag him back in to show him some of the items he had missed.

I made a point of going to see the installation again at Paula Cooper Gallery in New York a couple of years ago, where it was crammed into one gallery space with very little translation help. There were quite a few people there, but they looked completely bored and I was really disappointed.

So it was with interest that we had the chance to go to the Pulitzer Foundation gallery today to see The Progress of Love, a rather complicated, somewhat puzzling three-part exhibition that is being shown at the Menil in Houston, the Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos, Nigeria, and the Pulitzer. Each venue has a different show dealing with an aspect of love, the artists are not the same, and there doesn't seem to be any sharing of the various shows, for example in a unifying catalogue. I have no idea what the positive effect of doing three exhibitions in three places and calling them one can be. Anyway, I wanted to see the Calle again. And was vaguely interested in what Yinka Shonibare had contributed to it, and willing to check out the two Nigerian woman artists' work, Zina Saro-Wiwa and Temitayo Ogunbiyi.

The Calle looks almost as good as it did at Venice and it still engaged and amused us.  The range of responses to the same text; the way different women responded to the poor man whose private email has been torn up, analyzed to death, shot, and chewed by a cockatoo; the personal and yet universal (well almost universal) experience of rejection keep one looking at each response. Her mother's is one of the best, but we also love the video of the cook.I laugh and cry at the same time at this work of art.

Speaking of which, the Pulitzer provides a translation of the French email (recommended as part of the museum curator's response to the email) as a handout, plus a brochure for the exhibition that includes translations of the French texts. The videos are subtitled when necessary; they are in several languages. The Pulitzer staff were, as they always are, very helpful and tried to make sure that we saw what we wanted. (We tried to wait for "the cook" to come up on the random set of videos; we gave up and were about to leave when the museum attendant told us it was on view.)

Yinka Shonibare's video, Addio del Passato, 2011, shows a black woman in 18th-century-style costume made of Shonibare's characteristic Dutch African print material, lip-synching the aria Addio del Passato (Farewell to the past, or Farewell to the happy dreams of the past) from the last act of Verdi's opera La Traviata, while wandering through a beautiful palace and estate. It appears that the tape keeps repeating, but each repetition is slightly different and my understanding of what is happening changes a little with each version. While the press releases and other materials say this has something to do with Horatio Nelson's wife Frances Nisbet mourning his death, this makes no sense, as Nisbet wasn't black and Nelson died at the Battle of Trafalgar, not in any of the ways the man in the video is seen expiring. It gets more complicated than that, with Shonibare's photographic recreations of historical death scenes, including The Death of Chatterton in Shonibare's characteristic colorful fabric, playing roles in the video.

Shonibare replays the same scene with variations, making us reinterpret what is happening. Calle has 107 people respond to the same message, each in her own way. The two works , completely different in source and style, still seem complementary.

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