Rambling thoughts on Dadaism, Vivian Maier, and Conrad Gessner.
This exhibit is part of a series of initiatives to celebrate Dadaism, born a hundred years ago in Zurich. Dada: a bit of surrealism, a bit of cubism, a bit of anti-futurism (pacifist ideals instead of pro-war but similar results, at least in poetry and in some sculptures). A bit of everything and not much of anything. The catchy name of the movement and the witty puns around it may be Dada’s greatest accomplishment in its own right. The rest is, for the most part, a label for a crossroad of half-cooked ideas, some if which ended up to be eventually developed in full by other movements/artists.
The accent on sexuality and the fact that some dadaists obviously did not screw enough/at all (examples: Duchamp practiced abstinence – whether willingly or not I can’t tell – while working at his machine célibataire; Hugo Ball had an interest for Dionysian rituals and a passion for the writings of De Sade that I can only explain with the fact that, at the time, he was not getting laid) remind me of myself and my years as a painter, that were over more or less when pussy stepped into my life. In this light, if I had to describe the most part of the Dada production with only one adjective, I would pick “adolescent”. As adolescence for life, Dadaism was for art a moment of passage rather than a starting/ending point.
I liked: Health through sport (Max Ernst); Portrait of Hans Arp by Sophie Tauber-Arp; Corneille by H. Arp (that reminds me of some of the sculptures made later by Henry Moore).
Vivian Maier (1926 – 2009), american, was a nanny by profession and a photographer by passion. She took up photography in the late ‘40s and continued to shoot for over half a century. Yet, both her photographic work and details of her life remained private almost until Vivian’s death in 2009. Vivian Maier was living in poverty, which resulted in her belongings being auctioned by the owners of a storage place she could not afford to rent anymore. Her pictures were bought and made public by collectors. Just as Vivian Maier died in poverty, at the end of an adventurous yet anonymous life, her work as a photographer became world-famous. The little I know about Vivian Maier comes from the information I gathered from Wikipedia and from www.vivianmaier.com, and I can see the reason of the public’s fascination for her. The mystery around her life, the fortuitousness of how her work was discovered (her boxes could have simply been destroyed, and her work disappeared), and the pleasantness of her work, all contribute at depicting a character and a story that seem to have dropped out of a novel. Yet, I am going to go against the general opinion and say that I am not that impressed by her photography. All I know from her work comes from a selection of pictures taken in NY and Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s and currently exhibited at Photobastei in Zurich, so my opinion and the following considerations may be biased.
Her pictures are often “nice”, witty, and well-composed, but are they masterpieces? Are they memorable? Or are they just nice pictures? A photograph alone can show a “nice” scene, or an “interesting” nuance of color or game of light, or it can be witty in fixing the instant of an awkward moment, or it can be effective in depicting certain sides of human nature, usually emotions, usually rather basic ones. But all this is nothing revolutionary, it is just well-crafted photography (and I say “just” without wanting to banalize well-crafted photography, which is far from being an easy accomplishment). Metaphotography (taking pictures of people taking pictures), photographic humour, are not enough. Nailing the composition is not enough.
This is my opinion, admittedly a fuzzy one, and it raises a number of questions. What elevates a picture from “a pretty shot” (many of Vivian’s pictures: a pretty little girl, a crying kid, a funny-looking cat, lovers holding hands, even a sad clown) to the next level? And what us that next level? Namely, what is the goal of photography? Fixing a moment? Or telling a story?
I know I am walking down a dangerous path right now, as there is no definitive answer to many of these questions, and I do not have the time and the knowledge to write a treaty on photography. I will limit myself to sharing a thought that came to my mind while watching Vivian Maier’s work. Relying on chance and persistence to get a nice shot is a very basic use of photography. It is what amateurs do. Another thing is using photography to tell stories about reality, as a sort of visual journalism (think of Robert Capa). Another thing again is to create shots that have a meaning of their own regardless of the subject (think of Man Ray), that is, shots in which the subject is instrumental for the creation of the shot, instead of the shot being instrumental for creating a representation of the subject. The difference between the former case and the latter two is what discerns amateur photographers from masters.
This is why I see Vivian Maier’s work as the work of an amateur. A very skilled amateur, one as good as I can probably only dream of becoming, but still an amateur.
Landesmuseum, Zoological museum, 17.03.2016 – 19.06.2016
Conrad Gessner was an early zoologist and botanist, as well as a medic and scholar of latin, greek, and philosophy. Ah, those good ol’ days when multidisciplinary expertise was still possible! Was it because there was way less scholarly knowledge available, or there were smarter/freer minds? Perhaps multidisciplinary experts were just as exceptional back then as they are today. Anyways, March 16th 2016 was Gessner’s 500th birthday and, being he Swiss, the city of Zurich is celebrating the anniversary with an exhibit of drawings from his books of zoology and botany. In the ‘500, Gessner’s zoological books became a hit, their success due to their beauty and completeness as well as to being printed instead of copied by hand, and they affected the iconography of the time. It is partly because of Gessner’s Historia Animalium if maps from back then have drawings of “sea monsters”, Gessner’s interpretation of whales. Gessner’s zoology included very accurate reproductions of mammals, birds, fish, and gastropods, as well as a “sea monk” (a monk-like creature covered in fish scales that was reportedly found ashore somewhere in Northern Europe), a unicorn, and whales and orcas that looked like sea dragons. I guess he relied on depositions of drunk sailors as well as on actual samples for his books. I am fascinated by the fact that, back in the ‘500, dragons were considered equally exotic and likely to exist as, say, rhinos. After all, is a narwhal really less likely to exist than a unicorn? Today we believe we know everything, or almost everything, but who knows, maybe they had the same feeling back then. Perhaps (almost certainly) there are still unknown creatures hiding in the remote corners of the planet, and what is keeping us from discovering them is the fact that we lost that sense of wonder, that thirst for pure exploration performed without putting limits to our perceptions and their interpretation. Of course, such an attitude has pros and cons. Visionaries made people believe that sea dragons could exist, but they also discovered what used to be unthinkable before they discovered it. Luckily there are still people that are pushing what I call “exploration science” (in the case of my specific field, “exploration ecology”). I wonder if back then there were more or less of them, if really the “sense of wonder” I wrote about was more widespread than today. I do not find it easy to get rid of the cumbers of modern day’s education and attitude towards bookish knowledge, and to study things old and new with a fresh, open, perhaps naive mind. Looking back at explorers and scientists of the golden age of exploration and modern knowledge is inspiring.