The journal on portikus.de operates as an extension of the exhibitions at Portikus themselves. A wide spectrum of contributions including essays, interviews, fictional writing or photo- and video-contributions provide a closer look on artistic interests and reflect on topics that concern our society, politics and culture.
On the occasion of Amy Sillman’s exhibition the ALL-OVER at Portikus Bernard Vienat talks in the following interview about the artists early years and her artistic practice.
BERNARD VIENAT: You started your career around the 1970s, at the same time that John Baldessari burned all his paintings. So it was certainly a time of hostility towards the medium. What was your survival strategy?
AMY SILLMAN: I didn’t have a “career” in the 1970’s, I got out of school in 1979. And the idea of a professional “career” was not what how were thinking back then. But for survival I had a day job: in the 80’s I worked at a couple of magazines, doing what was called “paste ups” back then, we fixed the pictures and type in place with wax. I wasn’t a punk with a Mohawk, but I was certainly spirited in a punk way. I think that underneath a lot of what I was doing was a “fuck you” attitude. Like, “I’m not supposed to paint anymore? Fuck you!” “I’m supposed to try to be famous? Fuck you!” So I would say I had a strong sense of negation. That was the ethos of the time, and I persisted in painting, as a pleasurable reversal to what we were supposed to do.
VIENAT: How did you first come to the idea of wanting to be an artist? And moreover to paint?
SILLMAN: I came to New York, not to do art, but to study Japanese at NYU. I had been on a wild trip to Japan, and was interested in studying a foreign language, one that was utterly undecipherable to most people I knew. I was interested in the idea that I could write in a code. So I studied Japanese, but I took a drawing class on the side, from an “action painter” teacher who literally played jazz in the classroom and taught us to look at a nude but draw it with turpentine-soaked rags. In this drawing class, I suddenly thought: “Oh my god, this is another kind of code language!” It wasn’t what I was thinking originally because I didn’t have any role models to be able to imagine that artist was something I could do. So in a weird way, I backed into it via the brush.
VIENAT: What other kind of teaching were you exposed to afterwards?
SILLMAN: Well, after the action painter, it was all these 1970s types: feminists, conceptual artists, filmmakers and post-studio people. I would say 95% of my friends had abandoned making paintings because of the bad politics that painting seemed to embody, the neo-expressionist critique was in full swing. All my friends were in class with either Joseph Kosuth or Hans Haacke. So it was really not cool to be painting, but I guess I was always interested in doing it in spite of itself.
VIENAT: You started your career after really important theorists had spoken about painting and the way to perceive it. How do you react for instance to Greenberg’s theories? Speaking about a punk attitude, didn’t you think: My father said so, so I’ll go against it?
SILLMAN: But Greenberg wasn’t my father! If anything he was more like a grandfather. No one I knew read Greenberg then, and I didn’t really understand the politics of art history. I was curious about his article on kitsch and the avant-garde. But we did not read much theory of painting back in the 70s. Painting was already dead on arrival. I described it once to a friend as like squatting an abandoned building. I got all my ideas from elsewhere: dance, performance, experimental film, and writing. I was not able to work within the logic of painting, neither from OCTOBER nor Greenberg
People are standing in the shade of a petrol station. Dark smoke is rising. A young man waves a slingshot in a circle over his head. It is 1:45 pm on May 15, 2014 in the West Bank. A male wearing a backpack enters the picture. A few seconds later, a bullet hits him from behind. He falls to the ground. Helpers rush to his aid. It is 2:58 pm on May 15, 2014. More gray smoke is billowing upwards. From the right, a man enters the picture. He is shot in the chest and falls to the ground. People rush to help him. This footage by a security camera shows the killings of Nadim Siam Nawara, age 17, and Mohammad Mahmud Odeh Abu Daher, age 16, which were committed during the demonstrations on Nakba Day near Ofer Israeli military prison by Ramallah.
“The images captured on video show unlawful killings where neither child presented a direct and immediate threat to life at the time of their shooting. These acts by Israeli soldiers may amount to war crimes, and the Israeli authorities must conduct serious, impartial, and thorough investigations to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes,” Rifat Kassis, the spokesperson of the human rights organization Defence for Children International, declared soon thereafter to the public. In addition to the surveillance videos, there are also audio recordings taken by a television crew at the scene of the crime that will be used as evidence in an audio-ballistic analysis to clarify how and from what direction the two unarmed Palestinian teens were fatally shot. The key question here is whether the soldiers and border police officers fired live ammunition or rubber bullets, as the Israeli security forces stated in their own defense. An investigation now aims to solve the murders.
Two years later, artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan develops Rubber Coated Steel, an extensive video installation at Portikus that reconstructs the events and makes the sounds recorded at the crime scene visible as images. His mixed media work consists of visualized frequency bands of the tracks and found video materials which, arranged within the architecture of a shooting range, also document the course of events. However, before the video work Rubber Coated Steel was created, Hamdan’s findings and the reports drawn up together with the London Institute of Forensic Architecture were used as legal evidence against the Israeli soldiers to prove their violation of the arms agreement with the United States before Congress in Washington, D.C.
The interpretative force of the auditory material in this particular case can also be found in the significance Hannah Arendt ascribed to listening and seeing for the process of comprehension. In 1961, she wanted to personally witness the trial of SS Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann before the Jerusalem district court and thus proposed to The New Yorker that she serves as an observer of the court proceedings. She justified this decision in a letter to her former teacher Karl Jaspers, writing, “I would never be able to forgive myself if I didn’t go and look at this walking disaster face to face in all his bizarre vacuousness, without the mediation of the printed word. Don’t forget how early I left Germany and how little of all this I really experienced directly.”1 In Jerusalem, Arendt was prepared to encounter a vicious monster. During the trial, however, her expectations were not met, instead she experienced a person who followed and issued instructions from behind his desk and seemed barely conscious of the consequences of his actions. Therefore, in her final report Arendt developed the mental figure of the “banality of evil” 2 , for which she was criticized sharply from many sides, but which today largely influences our understanding of the brutality of the crimes committed against the Jews.
Similar to Arendt, for Hamdan, precise observation and analysis are the keys to comprehending the inconceivable. His examination of the audio material and precise evaluation of the results are an attempt to actually prove that live ammunition was fired to shoot the teenagers and to justly solve the crimes. As Arendt clearly defined the subjectivity of her report, Hamdan, too, reflects the conditions of his analysis by exhibiting the technological apparatus operating between the incident and the judgment. At Portikus, he shows the visualized frequency bands, presents the relevant video clips, and makes the shots audible over and over again. The situation that we experience in the exhibition is not only a meticulous reconstruction of the incident, but it also offers the chance to understand how the available body of evidence was analyzed, evaluated, and interpreted. Rubber Coated Steel seeks justice while reflecting, as legal reports can never do, on how fragmentary pieces of proofs are shaped to form a conclusion.
Translated by Faith Ann Gibson
Skin covers the surface of the human body, shrinking or expanding as the body moves and bearing the marks of its actions and the impacts it has suffered. Objects that cling to the skin, that are used or worn by the body, influence its posture and the way it moves and conversely adapt (or are adapted) to its characteristic movements. Clothes, shoes, furniture, and prostheses add to the body’s repertoire of forms and functions. They endow it with abilities that, in and of itself, it possesses only to a degree; for example, they enable it to withstand cold without feeling it, to sit elevated above the floor, or to walk with a single leg. Even when they are not in use, these objects evince the traces of their application: they are virtual images of their wearer.
The pedestal is a body in space. When it appears in the context of an art exhibition and supports an object, that is a choice made by third parties (artists/curators). This choice stands for the duration of its presentation. It prompts contact between two bodies, the supporting body and the one being supported. The pedestal adds several functions to the object to be supported: it sets it apart from the space around it and elevates it; the floor on which the beholder stands is no longer the ground on which the object rests, this provokes a distance that brings the perception of its surface into focus. That distance elevates the object both in fact and in the idea. Things reduced to the purpose of being beheld become (virtually) untouchable and no longer belong to the realm of objects of utility.
Eight square aluminium bars of different lengths lean – at regular intervals – on the white wall of Portikus. The smooth polished surface reflects the light and the surroundings, wrapping it in a silvery white shimmer. On each of the long sides of the bars, a verse of poem number 1695 by Emily Dickinson, “There is a Solitude of Space,” can be read in black, vinyl, sans serif capital letters:
THERE IS A SOLITUDE OF SPACE
A SOLITUDE OF SEA
A SOLITUDE OF DEATH, BUT THESE
SOCIETY SHALL BE
COMPARED WITH THAT PROFOUNDER SITE
THAT POLAR PRIVACY
A SOUL ADMITTED TO ITSELF—
FINITE INFINITY. 1
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PORTIKUS is part of Städelschule Frankfurt:
Staatliche Hochschule für Bildende Künste – Städelschule
Städelschule Architecture Class (SAC)
Curatorial Studies – Theorie – Geschichte – Kritik
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