Akram Zaatari on Jean-Luc Moulene

Dia:Chelsea, Akram Zaatari on Jean-Luc Moulène

Akran Zaatari, “Nabih Awada. Book of letters from family and friends,” 2007

Leaving Dia:Chelsea’s fifth floor space on West 22nd Street, after a talk given by Akram Zaatari on Jean-Luc Moulène, as part of their “Artists on Artists” lecture series, I felt a sense of calmness. It could have been the mildly damp air and grayish blue sky, or the stillness of Chelsea on a Monday, or possibly still the purity and sterility of the room in which the lecture took place. Unlike the warmly decorated auditoriums of the Met and the Frick, with their wood podiums, velvety seats, and red curtains, (or in the case of the Frick, pinkish-taupe wallpaper with flecks of gold), the space at Dia:Chelsea, adjoining the Electronic Arts Intermix space (which, on a side note is a fantastic place to sit and watch any number of films by Gordon Matta-Clark, Vito Acconci, and others) has the same minimalist feeling as a Mac store. It was well suited for the lecture that followed, which had its basis in photography and ideas, which is really a clean art form when compared to painting. Akram, dressed in black, delivered an eloquent talk on his own work and Jean-Luc’s direct influence on him. He began with showing three Youtube videos: how to fold a tee shirt, how to make a paper that flies, and how to get a cork out of a bottle. I actually was able to find the exact one he showed for the last one:


His point was that there are so many of these videos out there showing how to do this or that; many of them useless or arbitrary. What the videos have in common are their attention to detail and use of gestures that involve geometry. They are simple and calculated, much like his and Jean-Luc’s projects. When he says simple, I don’t think he means that they lack depth and meaning, but rather that they are organized and neat, and are not elaborate in their final form.

Born in Lebanon, Akram intended on becoming a filmmaker, but upon finishing high school in 1983, because of the Israeli occupation of Lebanon, his parents didn’t want him and his brother to leave the country, and since Lebanon didn’t have any film schools, he ended up going studying architecture. With no interest in becoming an architect for the Lebanese state, he returned to his interest in making films. (This background was not the crux of the lecture, but rather an answer to a question at the end.) The talk focused instead on the themes of “paths,” paths described as “taking from and giving back” in photography. Akram is especially interested in switching up the paths we take from one thing to another, and testing out the reverse. For example, in Jean-Luc’s current exhibition at Dia:Beacon, Opus  + One he has reversed the path of photography by presenting us with the object that would be photographed rather than the photograph of the object. This idea certainly echoes Duchamp’s Readymades, 1914-20, Magritte’s The Treachery of Images, 1928-29, and Kosuth’s One in Three Chairs, 1965.

His interest in paths carries through to a project he did that was based on an idea he had while in France. He noticed that during strikes, which are a part of French culture, the workers oftentimes do not stop working altogether but instead shift their work to creating subversive or not useful objects. Some of these objects speak directly as propaganda through their use of symbols, while others are silent. Similarly, he explained, that with the globalization of the economy, the items exported from Palestine, since it is not recognized as a country, are often not allowed to be imported/exported (because of Certificate of Origin regulations) unless they use a different name. So often times a bottle of olive oil would say from Gaza or some other city rather than “from Palestine.” The bottles become “tellers of a complex situation” and “charged silence.”

In another project, Akram has put his own former photographs into a “time capsule,” an idea he based on the Lebanese National Museum’s concealing and pouring concrete over their ancient sculpture during the bombing in Beirut. He and Jean-Luc are both interested in dismantling photography, or rather reversing the paths. Akram talked about trying to escape being dogmatic in his process, and ended his lecture by showing one of his works in progress. It was a film choreographed for two parts played by three different men. Titled “Adulthood to Childhood,” it began showing two men embracing, and gradually we saw their motions as being childlike, as one became vulnerable or demanding. It began with Act II and then went on to Act I, in true path-reversal form.

Perhaps my feeling of serenity upon leaving the lecture was based on this very notion; that we have the option to see things differently, and in switching up the paths there is a certain expansion that happens. In that expansion there is a freedom that occurs, opening up the mind and the eye.

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Naifeh and Smith’s Vincent van Gogh lecture at the Met

Letters to Theo, Vincent Van Gogh

Metropolitan Museum of Art – The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium
2011-2012 Season

Vincent van Gogh
Presented by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011

Attending the lecture, Vincent van Gogh, presented by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, in conjunction with the recent publication of their daunting and controversial biography on the artist (Vincent van Gogh: A Life), was an awesome experience. And I do mean awesome in the true sense of the word, as it was both impressive and daunting. I was in the final stages of my 70-page Masters thesis, pitying my labors, when Naifeh and Smith took the stage at announced the completion of their ten year long project and over one thousand page long book, with 600 plus pages of notes. Goodbye, violins.

In the graciously lit auditorium of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the authors, following an introduction by the unbelievably eloquent Susan Alyson Stein (Curator of the Department of Nineteenth-Century, Contemporary, and Modern Art at the Met), spoke sincerely and humbly. They were not standing behind a podium, but seated in two comfortable chairs that turned slightly inward to each other, with a coffee table in front of them on which they could rest a glass of water and their notes. Behind them, the massive screen illustrated various van Gogh artworks and ephemera. It created more of a round-table discussion vibe rather than a lecture. They began with mentioning their nervousness at speaking in front of a room full of the world’s van Gogh scholars and furthermore having this lecture be the first of their tour (which went on to various smaller institutions across the country). They got a chuckle out of the flattered audience. Another chuckle arose when they told us they met at Harvard, where they were both studying law, and realized that neither one of them wanted to become a lawyer. Thus they set out to pursue what they loved: art and writing.

There is an attorney-esque aspect to their work, though, as they choose to take somewhat of an investigative approach. Not mentioned in this lecture, their (Pulitzer-prize winning) 1989 Jackson Pollack biography (Jackson Pollack: An American Saga) was based on more than 2,000 interviews with 850 people. With a similar strategy, they read each and every (and there are over 900) van Gogh letter. Their new biography has been revolutionary in that is suggests and argues for an alternate ending to van Gogh’s death as we know it. Since, scholars have come forward, agreeing with Naifeh and Smith that the story as it has been accepted for so many years, doesn’t quite add up.

Not dwelling on this, or giving away their ending, the authors instead focus their lecture on what led them to write about van Gogh. It is a valid point, as there has been so much written already, and so many (as I was not aware until this lecture) who have spent their lives dedicated to “van Gogh studies.” They spoke about the world’s fascination with van Gogh, and our astonishing appreciation of his paintings. He is beloved unlike any other artist. What is it that we are drawn to, the myth? The insanity? The death? What they seemed sure of is that van Gogh was able to express something of what it is like to be human. Coming out of a near-death surgery, one of the authors mentioned this moment, which happened to be just before they had finished the book, where he just opened his eyes and saw everything before him in such an intensity, as if it could be the last time he would see it. He thought that van Gogh captured this feeling; how in something as simple as a branch from an almond tree there is such an emotional response. Vincent, they said, had a strong belief that what you see on the canvas is what is in the artist’s head. Thus, to study van Gogh, one must read the letters.

They had the help of someone who created a database of their 100,000+ notecards on the letters, and with this digital program, were able to do in ten years what would have otherwise taken thirty. This database, or at least a similar one is now available via the van Gogh Museum’s website. They are broken down meticulously, by period, by place, by correspondent, and by those including sketches. (http://vangoghletters.org/vg/letters/let001/letter.html) (There is a complicated searching method for which the museum has created a tutorial, but in my opinion if you just click on any one of them you will be blown away if not moved to tears by the artist’s outpours to his brother Theo.)

Naifeh and Smith argue, and make a valid point, that our letters to our family members are not always truthful and should not be read as journal entries. (Think, being in college, spending money on god-knows-what and asking mom and dad for more, assuring them that you are doing well and have joined campus community outreach club.) Theo was much like a father figure to Vincent, and he was overly dependant on him. The authors touched on van Gogh’s viscosity, his need to get extremely and smotheringly close to people, and the resulting alienation, which made it hard for him to be a part of an artistic movement, but also made him the great painter he was. They talked about his temporal lobe epilepsy, which during an episode rendered the artist unable to paint. And just as the audience was hooked and wanting the rest of the story, and their conclusions on his suicide/murder, the lecture came to an end with an announcement about autographed copies being available.  Thus we shall all have to read the book!

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