Sunday, May 16, 2010

McLuhan's Animal Farm

When you believe in things you don’t understand then you suffer.
Superstition ain’t the way. -Stevie Wonder

At Ruth Kaplan’s show, “Some Kind of Divine” I read the usual gallery blurb til I got to the word “McLuhanesque.” I walked away. Nothing in Kaplan’s work is McLuhanesque and I wondered aloud what McLuhanesque could possibly mean. McLuhan wasn’t a photographer. He was an academic.

I mentioned it to someone and she said “The medium is the message.” Wow. Yup. That’s the name of one of his books alright and I remember the old fart saying how the content of any medium is meaningless: the real meaning of anything was the medium itself. Got it. But is it true? Who says so? And where's the proof?

I remember his writing a lot of things that I believed: that technologies were extensions of men’s organs into space and that, in extending them, those faculties and organs were amputated. Really? With the advent of musical notation, mathematics and verbal literacy (among many other media) human beings were able to work, not just inside their heads anymore but “out there” on paper where music became infinitely richer and communicable to each orchestra member. Did the notation of music amputate the ear? The ability to conceive and imagine music? Really? Where is the proof? All of the evidence tends to the opposite direction.

Did the famous blackboards of movies amputate the ability of mathematicians and physicists to work on their ideas? Really? And the train, plane and car. Did that really amputate our legs just because we feel bandy-legged after a long trip? Did the ability of sprinters suffer after flying so fast to other continents for track and field events? Or did they break world records, just as before?

Each new technology forced a change in sensory adaptation to the world McLuhan said. TV was a cool medium, and an extension of the eyes which blinded us; radio was hot, and extension of the ear that deafened us; the computer an extension of the brain that made us duh. So that’s what causes war! First the invention of bronze caused the bronze wars and then the invention of iron caused the iron wars. But what of the rain in Spain? Didn’t it rain mainly in the plain in Spain just before each and every war? By George I think I’ve got it!

But it’s food for thought, that rain in Spain being the cause of war and since everyone wants an end to war, I can hear the cash register ringing and singing somewhere in the mountains and the plain, each of which are their own medium by the way, and whether slaughter or love happens there, because the medium itself is the message, it doesn’t matter if there are tears or peals of laughter but no matter, the cash register rings like the bells in yon meadow whose message was:“Aye! Coom and milk the cows Donat and stop lingering with the sheep.”

War is the tragic result of natural aggression and the inclination of that not always nice animal, man, to take advantage of the weaker position of others to take what he needs from him and the countermeasure: to maintain a strong defense against such trespass. That technologies cause war is dubious. Less dubious is that many technologies are a response to war. But I’ll let it lay like a chicken on the other side of the road where the egg goes splat. War will end when man himself changes: not his technologies (sorry Bucky Fuller) not his politics but his soul.

My conversation partner said that it was really not nice of me to “attack a dead man's ideas.” Well, I'll be damned! That’s chutzpah isn’t it? I can't think of a single dead person’s ideas that are not argued against, discounted, disproved, discredited and razed to the ground daily. For what reason exactly would McLuhan of all people be exempt from intellectual examination?

Is it because his work is a hollow shell that he should be canonized and treated with solemn piety? A Zardoz* phenomenon?

Because McLuhan's ideas are so empty, people can put whatever they like in them and no one can challenge them because the medium is the message and the message is therefore the medium and since you’re using words to say what you’re saying it doesn’t matter what words you use they’re just words after all and all you’re saying is words? Bullshit.

© Dan Goorevitch 2010 (A red rag to Bullshit™ since 1951)

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ruth Kaplan at Ryerson Gallery: "Some Kind of Divine"

“Some Kind of Divine,” Ruth Kaplan’s new show of photographs (and a video) opened at Ryerson Gallery (80 Spadina) Thursday night, May 13th. Thirteen must be a lucky number. It was for me. I saw pieces that, in themselves, were as good as everything—not anything but everything—I’ve seen at CONTACT this month so far. There were several pieces of that quality.

The first thing you notice is that the photos seem to be floating in air and the images themselves do not dispel the impression. They are soft, printed on what looks like watercolor paper, maybe about 40 x 50 inches each with a generous white border around them. They are all in greyscale (or the misnomer “black and white” if you prefer). [update: they are actually about 2 feet square. First impressions are longest lasting, not the most accurate!]

I’ve never liked large scale photographs and never saw much need for them until now. I’ve never liked those dry-mounted thingies either, especially on aluminum but I do now. Everything about these pieces was right and I haven’t even mentioned the pieces.

The first image as you walk in is of a woman, about 35 years old, standing, praying in a church. She is framed to the right of center in a horizontally oriented photo, looking heavenward. [see update above: the image is square] Her face is filled with some kind of appeal that eludes me: questioning, searching, expressive. Some kind of divine exactly expresses what’s seen here. But what kind? That’s not easy to discern. But you want to. It’s a mystery.

The photos were all taken with a medium format camera so they are quite fine. But they’re not all fussy as if the artist only thought of photography as some kind of fetish where only the most grainless image of a vegetable had merit (eek! a dust spot!). In fact there’s lots of soft grain that exactly matches the paper, the theme and the content of the photographs. They are more than beautiful. Simple, quiet, elegant. Even with all the people there at the opening (and it was crammed) the place felt like a church.

The next photo I remember struck me powerfully. The degree of community support these church members had for one another was staggering. It wouldn’t be my cup of tea but the contrast between what Kaplan depicted and the big rude city I live in was stunning. This kind of community doesn’t exist on the subway trains where the faces at rush hour are full of (with a few pleasant exceptions) envy, spite, fear, hate, rage and indifference.

The photo that hit me hardest (one of four) was of a man in a dark grey suit, his hands behind his back with his bald head encased by two hands that were almost exactly like the two hands Rodin sculpted in his piece called prayer. The fingers were preternaturally long, slender and very large. They held his head as if it were an egg: the egg of the world. A not-too-good shot on the gallery wall is available here:

The fourth image that really amazed me was another shot of the pews with several people in them. The wealth of tones was astounding: it was like looking at a color photo without color: like when we were children and imagined color in the black and white TVs (those of us old enough to remember).

I didn’t get a chance to see the video that was part of the show but I did catch a glimpse of my own face talking (I was one of the participants). I shouldn’t have been surprised that I didn’t look like an idiot. I probably don’t sound like an idiot either. That’s why Ruth Kaplan’s subjects trust her. She has a rare gift for taking and presenting people as they are and as they themselves would like to be presented. This is a rare accomplishment.

The only objection I had to the show was the blurb. But I hate blurbs. As soon as I saw “McLuhanesque” I walked. I can see “Langesque” or “Evansesque” or even “Weegiesque” (except there’s no hi-con shots) but.... McLuhanesque? Huh? Did dat man make photographs? Um, no... but hey...

It isn’t enough to thank Malka Greene for curating this show. We should get down on our knees to thank her for it. If “McLuhanesque” was her idea, well, Malka, as Mahalia Jackson sang, I forgive.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

"The Rape of Africa" at MOCCA

The photo on the exterior wall at MOCCA seems to be a critique of The West. It isn’t. A critique is a subject closely studied: studied to a critical degree. “Critical” in the moral sense is more like judgment or denunciation. “Critical” in the academic sense is a degree, a measurement of rigor, honesty.

The attributes of art are similarly enumerated and then assembled pell-mell into a mere facsimile of art. If art is always transgressive, for instance, being transgressive must be the path to art: but his is putting effect before cause. But since there are so many more imitators than originators, the political case in sheer numbers always weighs the scales toward not the cause but the effect, to the shadow and not the thing, the imitator and not the originator. This is what makes the art world seem to be so political. (“Transgressive” is another bullshit word by the way. Trangressive cannot be an attribute of an action since to transgress means to act beyond a boundary. It is in itself an act, not an attribute.)

Of course it’s nothing of the kind (truly political). Try to bring up any topic and I mean that literally. Not a single topic will be discussed in even the most shallow depth but strenuously avoided. If one says: “This is bullshit” as I said today, one gets “That’s the artist’s style,” as if that were a perfectly reasonable retort. “To talk bullshit is his style?” I aked. The man’s jaws were clenching. “Who are YOU to challenge anything anybody says?” is the real content of his retort which pretends to be polite while being as rude as anything could possibly be. I would answer, “who am I not to?” And the answer to that is, since everything’s democratic, it’s unfair to say something is true or false, is good or bad or that something is better than another. When I said Canon makes their articulating screen properly and Nikon’s is perversely wrong by hinging at the bottom instead of the side, the salesman gave me the same line: it was Nikon’s style and that it was very useful for shooting low and high. Yes it is. I have one and it is useful for those two things. But the Canons I have hinge at the side and can be used to shoot low, high, around a corner and you can see your party in the viewfinder when taking a portrait on a tripod whereas Nikon’s viewfinder is hidden by the tripod. Is there any doubt one is better than the other? But nothing can be right or wrong anymore.

We’ve become inured to such bullshit, allowing it to sort of run down our legs, if you’ll permit me the crudity. Actually, since the culture is an open sewer of strong deodorant and feces, my crudity is apt and mild.

The photograph purports to show “The Rape of Africa.” The Spanish and their gold (don’t, for God’s sake, forget the gold cross!), Rome and its ruins (beside a modern crane, of course) and a Cupid character attempting to waken Psyche [sorry: Venus and Mars... ed], America in other words, which sleeps away its role as new Imperator, the new rapist-in-waiting to exercise his noblesse oblige who unconsciously lies effete as an Adam on a Sistine Chapel, finger at the ready to receive the touch not of God but of the pavement below. Africa herself lounges, one pretty breast exposed, cheesecake style, Playboy style.. How many women about to be raped precede the act with the words: “C’mon, big boy. Why sleepest thou?”

But it makes a decent backdrop for the occasional photograph of real people living real lives. I’ll give it that. Oh! The technical Mastery! I almost forgot to drool! But isn’t it that very technical facility that makes the (evil) West (successes) the oppressors of the (saintly) non-Westerners (losers)? I’ll leave it to you to decide whether or not it constitutes hypocrisy.

But I will say the color of the photograph is completely unintegrated with the figures and their grounds. From a purely visual point of view it has all the content (feeling) of a McDonald’s restaurant interior design or a Disneyland. Feeling blocked and iron barred. The iconography is a compendium of cliches.

I don’t know the name of the “artist” and don’t care what his parents called him. His mural speaks against, against, against... It speaks FOR nothing. And that is its fatal failure.

© Dan Goorevitch
[Update: David LaChapelle is the artist responsible for "The Rape of the West"]