Museum Bathrooms

This is not about art, nor exhibitions, even though it is about museums. It is about their use of a space that is often overlooked but has an enormous impact on the visitor experience.

The bathroom at OGR, or the former gigantic railway repair shop in Turin, Italy, now an imposing contemporary art center.

Bathrooms are a non-place that not only is transitory, it is also supposed to remain unnoticed by its users. Attention is paid to a bathroom only when something is wrong with it, but it inevitably leaves a subliminal impact on its users’ minds. However, in a museum, a bathroom has a special place in the visitors’ consciousness.  Continue reading

Art and Activism (book review)

The textbook for the Art Appreciation class I taught last year offered a chapter on protest art, an umbrella term encompassing artwork related to contestation – from caricatures of the 18th and 19th century to Pussy Riot performances. I asked students: why do the first examples of protest art – according to the textbook, at least – came into existence only a couple of centuries ago? Was conflict not there before, or perhaps it didn’t employ art? While this depends on the definition we choose for conflict and for art, what is normally conserved and transmitted through time is institutionally sponsored art; if it expresses conflict, that will be with other institutions and it would definitely not be considered protest art today. This led to an interesting discussion on how conflict and art intersect and how protest can be even identified in past cultural phenomena.
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Disappeared and back again

Toy camera fans, did you hear the news? The Holga is back.

One of the first posts on this blog, seven years ago, was about a roll of Kodachrome. As Kodak was discontinuing the production of its legendary film, the last lab capable of developing its unique process was ending its work, too. So I caught the chance and shot one roll of Kodachrome myself.

That last roll was actually also my first. While for most everyone else the pull of the film was nostalgia, for me it was something I could only define as second-hand nostalgia. I didn’t have access to Kodachrome while growing up, of course, but experienced its allure as part of the allure of the American dream – yet when I was able to access it, the dream had changed. Continue reading

Fashion photography in a new light (Bruce Weber at the Dallas Contemporary)

 

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Lonneke Engel for Versus, 1996, gracefully shot by Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber, a noted fashion photographer with a long and distinguished career, is having a retrospective exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary. It is fascinating for many reasons, but first of all because an exhibition venue known mainly for installations and projections has dedicated almost its entire gigantic space to a solo show of this kind of “traditional” photography. But also – and especially – because it offers an unusual view of fashion photography as it is.
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The Floating Piers by Christo as a quasi religious experience

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It was a privilege to walk  Christo’s Floating Piers on the first day of the project. They are the ultimate sensorial experience: all about touch, vision, and whole body mobilization: it felt so light yet the day after everything feels sore. Continue reading

The Afghan Girl and what does photoshop – and the Impressionists – have to do with it?

national-geographic-100-best-pictures-coverYou already know this photo – it is the legendary portrait titled “Afghan Girl” that appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 and then went on to become one of the most iconic pictures of all times. No wonder: the resolute gaze of the girl, in such dire circumstances, the unusual color of her eyes are indeed striking. What is also impactful but less  consciously recognizable is the color contrast of the saturated green and red that appeal subconsciously. And if you are a photography enthusiast, you also know the name of the photographer, Steve McCurry, popularly famous for shooting the last roll of Kodachrome ever produced, too. He was given that honor by Kodak because that film, noted for its exceptional saturated colors, was his signature film.  And you perhaps know that his signature style was striking human figures (most often shot in third-world countries) in traditional environments in saturated colors. Continue reading

Humble and archival in photography

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Beach cyanotype. Hung home style

Rascuache (or, in its Americanized version, rasquachismo) is a Mexican term for reuse and repurpose of things. It is a strategy for everyday life typical for the poor masses as well as a mark of resourcefulness for people in general everywhere. But in the last decades rascuache is also an artistic term meaning the use of humble materials and unexpected sources of supplies – like plastic for drawing, discarded metal parts for sculpture and others. That may sound like the usual found-object crafts that we often see in gift shops and  at artfests today but actually originate from the revolutionary practices of Chicano movement artists in the 60s. They used it not because it was cool but to make a political point and insert themselves in a process that was seen as the privilege of higher classes. Continue reading

Michel Tournier and photography

Michel Tournier with his camera, 1977. Getty Images.

Michel Tournier with his camera, 1977. Getty Images.

In the recent series of deaths of legendary figures, yesterday was the turn of Michel Tournier, one of the most interesting French writers and also a very influential, passionate lover of photography. To get an idea of how influential: he is the co-founder of Les Rencontres d’Arles, the famed photo festival in France.

Although he has published books with photographers’ bios and discussions of selected photographs, his most interesting writings are actually the novels and short stories in which photography is a subtle theme, a subject, plot driver and protagonist. I am fascinated with the ways the two arts intertwine.

Take his short story “Veronica’s Shrouds” Continue reading

Dangerous Heights

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If you are following this blog, you might remember that last summer I started studying a series of photographs that are currently part of the collection of the Photographic Archive of Milan. I may have not mentioned though what this series is and why this research project is so exciting.

The images are of the reconstruction of the Sforza Castle, Milan’s perhaps most emblematic historic building, and the building of the impressive Galleria Vittorio Emanuele, arguably the first shopping mall (and the concept behind all those “galleria” type malls we find in many American cities today, by the way).

The images are remarkable for different reasons. First, because they show the wave of renewal that gave Milan the face we know today, the physical process of how it came to be. Second, because the sites are so emblematic for the city. The Sforza Castle was the seat of Milan’s ruling Renaissance dynasty. Although of course it had lost its significance by the 19th century, being a castle in the era of industrial revolution, its near destruction by Napoleon’s invasion was still an insult. So the new state of Italy (unified in 1861) and especially the municipality of Milan that was developing its first urban plan, wanted to elevate its historic legacy with the reconstruction some 30 years later. The Galleria, of course, was to showcase the wealth of the new industrial society. Think fashion. That’s why both are closely related to Milan’s identity as a city.

But this is not exactly why they are exciting. Continue reading

Archive of Abandoned Dreams: new files

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If you are waiting to hear how the review went, it hasn’t come yet. It kept getting postponed, which is great for my worrywart soul but also prolongs the anxiety. Anyway, the project that has taken the most of my time is The Archive. As the best form of presentation, I decided to make an actual antique binder, covered with dark green cloth with metal corners and the photographs would be filed inside, stitched with thread.

If you have been following my blog you know that the Archive of Abandoned Dreams is based on the poetry of Dimcho Debelyanov, a Bulgarian symbolist who, after a brief life as a literature student and then clerk (in order to support his family after the death of his father), volunteered for World War I and was killed in a battle with an Irish division. The irony of his life, in which his forced choices were made against his worldview and beliefs points so well to the aesthetics of symbolists, who relished in the impossibility of communication and forged a code of metaphors that distanced them instead of bringing them closer to readers. Debelyanov himself lamented the impossibility of his dreams but then abandoned them willfully with a very symbolic gesture. This way of relating has so much to do with contemporary culture: a world of facebook mirages in which participants create willful representations of their lives that seem more compelling when ambiguous.  Continue reading

Looking at pictures

Image by Penelope Umbrico, featured in The New Yorker‘s article on new technologies applied to photographic art. She uses images found online to create complex collages; the most frequent ones turn out to be sunsets.

Perhaps you are familiar with Nicholas Carr, the author of “Is Google Making us Stupid  and especially his recent book The Shallows, which contends that the internet, as a medium of communication and distribution of knowledge, has changed our mode of thinking.  He contends that its format, with its clickable links, fast-paced stimuli and information bits constantly competing for our attention is leading us to forget how to focus – the basis of deep thinking – and has conditioned us for fast skimming and scanning mode of thought that favors multitasking but also short attention spans. The internet grounds us in an environment that encourages superficial reading, shallow and scattered thinking and the accumulation of piece-meal knowledge. And while it is possible to think deep while surfing the internet just as we can think superficially while we are reading a book, technology doesn’t encourage or reward that.

Nicholas Carr’s ideas, although based on learning and knowledge in the form of text, got me thinking about the influence of the internet on our perception of images. Or rather, how our approach to image-based information of the world has changed because of it.  Does it contribute to shallow image-thinking and consumption? Are we superficial with images and the factual and aesthetic information they carry as we are with words? Continue reading

Let’s say NO to the camera

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By now, you’ve probably seen these two images of the pope announcements of 2005 and 2013.

The images above reminded me of an emotional story Umberto Eco told last summer in his column in Espresso. When he was a young boy, he witnessed a horrible road accident: a peasant woman had been run over by a truck, her head wounded amid a puddle of blood, her husband holding her and wailing in anguish. The little boy was transfixed – it was his first encounter with death, as well as with sorrow and despair, which he counts as a defining moment of his life and perhaps his most vivid memory. Continue reading

Photography as Printmaking

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©Ellie Ivanova. Leaning on a Weak Argument. Silver gelatin print and linocut, 2012 and 2013. Click on image to view it large

Franco Vaccari says that photography is an unconscious act: the technology largely eliminates the necessity of an author with his/her artistic will and hand.  And I bet every photographer hears at least once a day the lamentation that photography can’t really be considered an art, since cameras nowadays do all the work.

So I took the chance to see how my photographs would work if they were prints as a blessing. Prints as in printmaking, made not from negatives taken by a camera, but through the hard labor of your hand. I was curious what my pictures would look like in that form, but first of all, if they would really feel like my own.  And I’d have to say it’s been a very illuminating experience. Continue reading