Posts tagged Avant-Garde
FEMALE STUDY: SENGA NENGUDI'S FLESH & GENDER IDENTITY
 
 

I’ve made it a point to highlight underrepresented women in western art history, and I have written about Latin Americans and Eastern Europeans, and yet still no black artists. But I mean, how many black artists are mentioned in the same breath as Max Bill? Why are there still entire books dedicated to black artists, rather than integrating them with their contemporaries? Why is it so hard to even find black artists in history?

I'm half Filipino and half Irish. Growing up I never realized I was racially different from anyone, as my corner of California was racially diverse. However, as I've gotten older, racial identity has become very important to me. The Filipino family name, Bagtazo, was chosen in homage to this.

For black artists in America, racial identity seems inextricably related to their work. It's as if one cannot be a black artist without discussing being black. And with good reason, as I think there is no racial identity as inescapable in the US. When I decided to write about a black artist, I will admit I didn't know where to begin. But then I found American artist, Senga Nengundi.

Senga Nengudi, was born in Chicago in 1943, but grew up in Los Angeles. Originally named Sue Irons, Nengudi took her working name early in her career when a friend from the former Zaire started calling her by that name.

Senga Nengudi was part of the avant-garde black art scenes in New York City and Los Angeles during the 1960s and 1970s. Some of my favorite of her works involve panty hose. Panty hose are one of the few things that have catered to the varying shades of skin tones since before the civil rights movement, and so I think it’s super cool that Nengudi used them in her work. (Because duh, all women are candidates for shaming and social decency norms).

 
 

In 1977, Nengudi worked with Hassinger for a performance piece in the same vein as RSVP, improvising movement entangled in a web of pantyhose at Just Above Midtown Gallery in NYC. According to Nengudi, the performance was made to symbolize how women are restricted by societal gender norms. These performances were captured on film in stills, where Nengudi appeared as an androgynous figure, in attempt to defy gender definitions.

Since moving to to New York, I’ve really missed the gender neutral values of the west coast. Black boys in Oakland wear earrings with vintage turbans that one may have seen their grandmothers wearing in the 60s. Young boys in LA wear skirts and paint their nails. To think that Nengundi was doing this in New York in the 70s blows my mind because it was not only advanced, but it must have been viewed as extremely radical.

In 1979, Nengudi performed Ceremony for Freeway Fets under a freeway overpass on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles. The performance was made with her collaborators, Hammons and Hassinger from Studio Z Collective. Nengudi crafted costumes and headdresses from pantyhose for the performers.  Hammons and Hassinger played the roles of male and female spirits, while Nengudi's character represented a spirit that united the genders. Both the performance and music were improvised.

I was able to find a slideshow with the original music, and an audio interview of Nengudi, which can be viewed below:

 

In 2007, during her residency at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, she created a video installation entitled "Warp Trance.". The film was made to communicate the experiences of textile workers. (As some of you know, I have been working in manufacturing for over a decade, and so I'm really into this, even though I think the aesthetic is v 2007 video art).

 

From 1970 through the present day, Nengudi has performed nearly thirty original pieces, and has exhibited in sixty-five group and solo shows combined. Nengudi is a prolific artist whose focus on racial and ethnic identity has remained strong throughout her work. She also explored gender politics and identity from the beginning of her career in the 1970s, a topic that society has just began to discuss publicly in the last few years.

I actually saw Senga Nengudi's work in Los Angeles at WACK!: Art and the Feminist Revolution exhibition at the MOCA in Los Angeles in 2007 without realizing it. The show in its entirety had young me in tears, but I remember looking at her pantyhose piece and thinking how great it was. The installation looked like boobs and balls all at once. And I was all about the nipple back then, so that piece really got me.

 
 

Nengudi continues to work today from her Colorado Springs studio. Since 2007, she has re-performed many of her early works, as well as exhibited a number of retrospectives.



Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo 2016


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DESIGN STUDY: CONCEPTUAL ARCHITECTURE, 'SUPERSTUDIO' & UTOPIA

Superstudio - "Happy Island," 1971

I've been studying architects quite a bit lately. I'm especially interested in their relationship with Utopia. It's as if each rendering is an insight into the architect's notion of perfection. People are depicted using a design... sitting on a bench having a sandwich, walking up stairs, etc. These drawings portray ideals of society as much as they portray the utility and applications design.

While I mostly design things of absolutely no utility, like an architect, I am nevertheless considering the function of everything I make as well. If one did not have to wear the things I make, my rings would be outrageous, I'm sure. And I would have produced a few of the necklaces I designed early on that require directions in order to be worn correctly. 

But what if I didn't have to consider reality or application in my designs?  

In the mid 1960s through the 1970s architects began exploring the notion of conceptual architecture by asking a similar question. By the 1960s almost everything in architecture was 'modernist' cement and steel blocks, and as a reaction to this homogeneity, some architects began rejecting the wholesale acceptance of futurity and modernism in general. 

Perhaps the first to do so, (and my favorite) is a group from Florence, Italy who called themselves Superstudio.

Superstudio formed in 1966 and began their work by creating fairly useless things made of wood, glass, steel, brick or plastic. But this work quickly was followed by a few useful objects such as tables and chairs. Despite their utility however, these objects were not intended for use as much as they were intended to be used as a means to critique consumerism and society's, "continuous drive for novelty." Blandly designed, these objects served as a rather politically charged message from Superstudio that western decadence must be put to an end.

In 1968, architecture & design magazine Domus published some of Superstudio's work (above) where people were depicted 'using' architecture in unorthodox, and perhaps even impossible ways. Considering conceptual architecture had not been formally introduced to society at the time of publication, Superstudio was asked to publish a theoretical article in Domus as a follow up that same year. The combination of the two publications is one of the finest examples of early postmodernist thought, in my opinion, and perhaps the first example of conceptual architecture.

In Superstudio's follow up article, a sort of manifesto was created where their theories were explained. Citing prior movements in architecture in three main stages known as: architecture of the monument, architecture of the image, and technomorphic architecture, Superstudio's manifesto titled, "Superstudio: Projects and Thoughts," simultaneously rejected futurism and historical revival, arguing for an all-together new approach to architecture they called, architecture of reason.

Just read this amazingly postmodern excerpt:

The increase in the speed of reading (transport as a factor in spatial velocity, consumerism as a factor in temporal velocity), and the increase in social mobility, call for architecture that can take stock of the situation moment by moment... To bear witness becomes working in history, with history and for history.

Today we are all "intellectuals" or cultivated. Everything seems charged with reference and recall. The primitives of modern architecture – the Bauhaus, the 1920s – are the first models for the operation, initiators of the key cultural position that we are interested in continuing. Not "revival" but "survival" – permanence, that is, of vital reason.

We begin anew from the art of building, from the economy of materials, from the reasons for construction and from the meanings of a building. Reason has reaffirmed its place, accounting for itself.

I'm such a nerd, I get super excited reading that. Perhaps because what they are saying is still valid today. Everyone is not only cultured now, but they're also photographers, filmmakers, critics and everything else outside of science and medicine that was once preserved for specialists. And consumerism is likely worse now than it was in the 1970s. With webstores at anyone's fingertips, people can both create and patron a sales platform without much capital. Plus we've all accepted personal advertising through social media, and originality in idea or design is pretty hard to come by. So yes, Superstudio, yes! Let's PLEASE design from reason rather than novelty. (I'm looking at you 14k emoji face earring studs)...

But I digress... Having established a cannon of ideas, Superstudio began exploring what they called, "negative utopias," eventually publishing a series of works in 1969 known as Il Monumento Continuo (or Continuous Monument). 

This series, (above) was a direct attack on the dull nature of modern architecture in the 1960s. As steel and concrete boxes began to overrun cities, erasing historic culture, Superstudio saw a need to make fun of the possible outcomes of an unchecked modernist society. And while these warnings were clearly humorous, they were equally effective in making their point. 

Continuing in this vein, Superstudio moved on to form an "anti-design" campaign in 1970, beginning with their series, Quaderna (above). Designed using severe, geometric forms made of plastic laminate normally found in provincial Italian towns, Quaderna was a comment on the excesses of pop design of the time. Applying similar aesthetics as Continuous Monument, both works served as a critique of global modern design, suggesting that the outcome of sparse, functional spaces results in sterile environments, "free of local color and individual expression." In both works, Superstudio is essentially suggesting that, "everything could be replaced by the continuous, global grid."

But of course this is simply satire, because though much of their work appears utopic and rather surreal; and while most of the objects present in their collages are actually modern and beautiful, there is a bleak undertone of sterility that suggests modern, man-made objects have the ability to take over nature and humanity in adverse ways. 

Excerpts from "12 Ideal Cities," 1971

Disillusioned with modern society, global culture and consumerism, Superstudio continued their work in the 1970s mostly with collage. Partly due to the economic decline and scarcity of resources in post-war Italy, but more importantly as a result of their critique of society, Superstudio created a corpus of work without creating objects. 

In 1972, a series of collages were made with a grid motif. In the collages there is a theme between nature and humanity, which are juxtaposed with man-made elements such as modern architecture and consumer goods. The grid motif, used again by Superstudio, this time is meant to represent not only man's need to organize and categorize, but it is also used as symbol of 'democracy,' as all points of the grid are considered equal. In this series, the grid is known as the 'superstructure,' furthering the discussion started with Continuous Monument.

Much of these collages were put into a film, Supersurface - An alternative model for life on the Earth, in 1972. In the film, Superstudio's theories are reiterated, but the film furthers their discussion by proposing life "without three dimensional structures as a basis." Again, this is satirical, but the message serves as a warning against hyper-modernity and homogeneity.

This film was the first of five films in a series, Fundamental Acts. In Fundamental Acts, each piece was dedicated to what they called "primary acts in human life," namely: Life, Education, Ceremony, Love, and Death. Supersurface was made to correspond with the first act: life.

The five stories in Fundamental Acts were used as, "philosophical and anthropological reconstruction of architecture" and first appeared as text, images and storyboard in Casabella magazine between 1972 and 1973. The purpose of creating these films for Superstudio was to "explore a propaganda of ideas, beyond the typical channels of the discipline of architecture."

Currently, only two pieces of the five films are available to the public, both of which I find poignant and hilarious. (The second is my favorite of the two).

Click on thumbnail below to open a new tab for 'Supersurface.' PLEASE watch it in its entirety... Also the article below the video is worth reading. (After you're done reading this, of course).

Click on thumbnail below to open a new tab for 'Cerimonia.' Trust me, it's really good.

 

 

After their films, it is unclear what exactly Superstudio was up to, because there's not much else about their work post-1973. I do know that the group dismembered in 1978, though each member continued their work as architects (or architecture theorists, at least) afterwards.

Since Superstudio's work was politically charged, and like most maturing adults, the radical politics of our youth tend to appear extreme, unnecessary and maybe even completely incorrect later in life, it is understandable that the group could not continue working together under such circumstances forever. (Abandoning their political views is cited as a major reason for their dismembering, btw). Regardless, Superstudio's contribution to conceptual architecture and conceptual art in general was massive. I likewise think that their critique on society was needed then, and could stand to be heard again today.


Courtney Cady, © Bagtazo 2016



DESIGN STUDY: ROBERT RAUSCHENBERG'S COSTUMES & SET DESIGN

ROBERT RAUCHENBERG FOR MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY

I've been focused on dance history a lot lately. While studying dance, I've been reading about (and trying) Cunningham Technique. Cunningham Technique is a dance style based on the theory that dance and music should be able to exist independently of each other while sharing the same time and space. This technique was developed in the 1950s by choreographer Merce Cunningham and his partner, composer John Cage. The two worked together to create music and corresponding choreography that played a major role in the shaping of the American avant-garde from the 1950s through the millennium.

In the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg, a former student of Bauhaus' Josef Albers at Black Mountain College (see my blog post on that dude from a few weeks ago, he rules), Rauschenberg began designing costumes for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Though Rauschenberg is mostly known for his work in Assemblage or Combine Art, his work with costume design, set design and lighting with Merce Cunningham and later, Cunningham's students Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown are the strongest elements of his work in my opinion.

Throughout his career, Rauschenberg not only designed sets, costumes, and lighting, but he also performed and choreographed his own works. Being an artist working in various genres, Rauschenberg blurred the lines between his performance work and his work with other media, often creating pieces in his studio that would later become props, such as Minutiae (1954), which was later used for a Cunningham performance, or First Time Painting (1961), that was made while Rauchenberg was on stage at the American Embassy in Paris as part of the performance Homage to David Tudor (1961). Rauschenberg also created scenery by using found objects and sounds, developing his concept of “live décor,” or scenery generated by human activity.

Rauchenberg performing in his own performance called "Pelican" (1963) after working with the Judson Dance Theater.

Rauchenberg's involvement with Cage and Cunningham positioned him at the cutting edge of postmodern dance, giving him access to performance on a greater scale. After nearly a decade with Cunningham, Rauchenberg worked with the Judson Dance Theater in New York during the 1960s (see my previous post on Meredith Monk for more on the Judson Dance Theater). The Judson Dance Theater is also one of my favorite parts of dance history because as an experimental collective, they included dancers, visual artists and performance artists, which resulted in performances free of narrative, emphasizing instead the purity of movement: sometimes conventionally dance-like, but also with mundane movements.

Through the 1980s to 2000, Rauchenberg continued designing costumes and working with performance, making a large body of work that is now considered art in its own right. Many of his pieces from sets and costumes are displayed in museums and galleries since his death in 2008.


Courtney Cady ©Bagtazo 2015



FEMALE STUDY: MEREDITH MONK'S ORDINARY OBJECTS

I'm in design mode again, and this time I've been referencing performance artists working in the 1960s and 70s to help me shape the tone of my next collection.

Lately my main focus has been on Judson Dance Theatre, which was a repurposed church that housed a number of avant-garde dance and performance artists working between 1962-1964 in Greenwich Village, NYC. With the help of Choreographer Robert Dunn and composer John Cage, performers at the Judson Dance Theatre worked to re-envision modern dance by eliminating its compositional constraints to incorporate ordinary gestures, which effectively created what is now known as postmodern dance.

Among the artists working in the Judson Dance Theatre, Meredith Monk's early work with site-specific performance, and her postmodern approach to dance and music has really struck me. While pioneering an interdisciplinary approach to performance, Monk incorporated everyday movements and sounds in her work with a classic postmodern stance. However, Monk took her work beyond traditional postmodernism by combining her interdisciplinary approach with consideration for the venue her performances were held. This unique technique made for some very interesting work, especially while she was in her early experimental phases.

VIDEO: 16 MILLIMETER EARRINGS, 1966
(This video is unable to play on other sites, so click this link link to view)

16mm Earrings was one of Monk's first interdisciplinary pieces. The original performance was held at the Judson Church in 1966 which included sound loops that echoed in the theatre, and incorporated smells of formaldehyde and burning tires to provoke all of the senses of the viewers. The above video was a re-performance made in 1979 in effort to document the work. 

16mm Earrings was a sort of 'coming of age' work where Monk explored her sexuality, and began to form her own artistic identity outside of the influence of her postmodern predecessors at the Judson Dance Theatre. In an interview Monk explains her aim with the piece:

With the concept I had in 16mm Earrings I realized that anything in my life could be used as material: my hair, my body, my crossed eyes, anything about me physically or mentally. By reading [Wilhelm Reich’s 1940] The Function of Orgasm, I could objectify it. It wasn’t that I felt I was doing a confessional piece at all; it was just the opposite of someone like Karen Finley. It was taking anything of my being and making that a plastic material, like paint.

This distinctive interpretation of what 'ordinary objects' meant is what sets Monk's work apart from her contemporaries. Likewise, her willingness to reject minimalism in her theories and her aesthetic was a departure from her predecessors, making her work it's own niche of avant-garde.

After working with the Judson Theatre, Monk formed her own vocal ensemble. As Monk worked into the 1980s, her performance pieces pushed the limits of what she was accepting and rejecting from postmodernism even further, creating a number of bizarre, but provocative pieces. (I once read in an interview with David Lynch that in the 80s, the highest compliment one could give another person in regards to their art, was that it was "weird." Well Monk definitely wins the weird award for her work in the 1980s.)

The amazing strangeness I speak of can be seen here in Monk's Turtle Dreams(Monk doesn't allow her videos to be embedded on other sites, so please click this link to watch)

Turtle Dreams was recorded for television in 1983, and incorporated Monk's interpretation of postmodern movement, as well as her own music, which took multi layered vocals and minimal droning instrumental music to set the mood for the entire piece. I really love the gloves on the synth player, as well as the expressions on the performer's faces. It's hard for me to believe that this actually aired on television, it's just so strange. 

But what makes this piece important, to me, is that Monk uses sounds and lyrics that aren't generally considered 'musical' as one of the focal points of the piece. What might seem like uncommon sounds though, are actually basic noises that all humans make outside of speaking formal language. And the common, however non sequitur lyrics or words stand out as odd or unlyrical, despite their being used in everyday language.  This combination makes for an almost oxymoronic juxtaposition that the viewer is left to sort out on their own.

What also strikes me as significant about Turtle Dreams is that the performance was made with the camera in mind. This approach, which is known as dance for film, is a matured version of site-specific performance that is basically a side effect of the ubiquity of motion picutres at the time.

During the 1980s Monk also filmed two features, Ellis Island and Book of Days. Again using an interdisciplinary approach, Monk uses her personal sound and movement techniques, as well as a dance for film approach.

Excerpt from "Book of Days," 1988

Book of Days isn't easy to find in full length, but of the excerpts I've seen, it's my favorite of the two features Monk made because of her use of 1980s anachronisms in a "medieval" period piece. I also really like her application of dance for film. The movements go in and out of frame with intention, which is like a way of directly breaking the fourth wall, without the performers actually interacting with the audience. 

However bizarre Monk's work might seem, I find her to be extremely influential, any strangeness aside. All the Portland art school 'weirdos,' the non-burners in Oakland, and everyone at the Smell in LA and Weird in NY circa 2002-2010 can thank Monk for her ability to take the ordinary and obscure it. Without her contributions to postmodern art, pop culture of the late 1990s through the millennium wouldn't quite have the flavor it does. 


Courtney Cady ©Bagtazo 2015



FILM ANALYSIS: YAYOI KUSAMA'S 'SELF OBLITERATION'

Coming back to LA after a nearly two year hiatus, I'm strangely feeling more at-home with all the entertainment billboards. In San Francisco most ads are tech related, or bills selling alcohol and fancy destination hotels. But in LA almost everything is about film and television (save for the occasional laser hair removal or cosmetic dentistry advert). 

Being surrounded by the effects of Hollywood, I've been thinking about the history of filmmaking. Considering the massive crews it takes to make a blockbuster, and juxtaposing that with prosumer access to filmmaking technology, I've been trying to imagine a time when editing required the actual cutting of film. When access to, and understanding of filmmaking tools were very limited, imagine how much effort it took for a performance artist or an independent filmmaker to successfully execute a watchable film.

Film formats suitable for amateurs were introduced at the turn of the 20th century, but it wasn't until the advent of Kodak's Super 8 in the mid 1960s that easy-to-use cameras became ubiquitous. With this accessibility, American avant-garde artists started using film as a medium for performance more than ever before. During this time, pop art, modernism and feminist art had taken up discussions on 'the image,' the self, and popular culture in general and so film was applied as one of the platforms to further this discussion.

Of these avant-garde films made in the 1960s, my current favorite is Yayoi Kusama's, Self Obliteration (1967). Kusama, born in Japan in 1929, has recently made a come back with exhibitions all over the world since 2010, but prior to her reemergence she had gone into the shadows, mostly of her own depression, since the late 1970s. Often working with repetition, dots, circles and spheres, Self Obliteration showcases the span of Kusama's work at that time through filmic depictions of her performances and installations.  

In reference to one of her earliest pieces, pre-dating the making of this film, Kusama inadvertently explains her concept behind Self Obliteration, including the film's name, and her motivation for the circular motifs in her work, by citing a particular experience she had as a child:

One day I was looking at the red flower patterns of the tablecloth on a table, and when I looked up I saw the same pattern covering the ceiling, the windows and the walls, and finally all over the room, my body and the universe. I felt as if I had begun to self-obliterate, to revolve in the infinity of endless time and the absoluteness of space, and be reduced to nothingness. As I realized it was actually happening and not just in my imagination, I was frightened. I knew I had to run away lest I should be deprived of my life by the spell of the red flowers.

This single experience, it seems, affected Kusama so much so that her above mentioned memory is thematic throughout the entire span of her work from the 1950s until now. Despite the marked hippie overtones that show through in her work even contemporarily, Kusama is able to express feminist ideas and challenge the status quo by applying simple and repetitious imagery whose undertones transcend her otherwise overt 1960s aesthetic. Her ability to make such an impression is what separates her from the rest of the "psychedelic," nude, and so-called politically based acts of the American hippie movement of the 1960s, distinguishing Kusama's work as high art rather than a fleeting pop cultural trend, so it makes sense that 50 years later, her work is finally getting recognition.


Courtney Cady © Bagtazo, 2015


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