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Haus proud: The women of Bauhaus
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Bobbed, geometric haircuts. Chunky jewellery. Vegetarian diets. Saxophone playing. Breathing exercises. Painting. Carving. Snapping with brand new 35mm Leica cameras. Dressing in the artiest handmade clothes. Attending arty parties. Ninety years on from the founding of Walter Gropius‘s legendary art, craft and design school, the female students of the Bauhaus appear to have been as liberated as young women today.

At least they do in the photographs in Bauhaus Women, a book by Ulrike Muller, a “museum educator” in Weimar, the German town where the Bauhaus opened in 1919, declaring equality between the sexes. Where German women had once received art education at home with tutors, at the Bauhaus they were free to join courses.

And yet the photographs of those seemingly liberated women tell, at best, a half truth. Yes, the world’s most famous modern art school accepted women. But few became well known. While the men of the Bauhaus – Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, László Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe – are celebrated, names like Gunta Stölzl (a weaver), Benita Otte (another weaver), Marguerite Friedlaender-Wildenhain (ceramicist), Ilse Fehling (sculptor and set designer) or Alma Siedhoff-Buscher (toy maker) mean precious little.

If these bright young things came to the Bauhaus as equals, why are the women so obscure? The school’s fleeting existence (just 14 years), the rise of the anti-modern National Socialist movement and six years of world war may have been factors, but the uncomfortable truth is that the Bauhaus was never a haven of female emancipation.

More women than men applied to the school in 1919, and Gropius insisted that there would be “no difference between the beautiful and the strong sex” – those very words betraying his real views. Those of the “strong sex” were, in fact, marked out for painting, carving and, from 1927, the school’s new architecture department. The “beautiful sex” had to be content, mostly, with weaving.

The school’s students produced radical work, but Gropius’s vision was, at heart, medieval, if apparently modern, and he was keen to keep women in their place – at looms, primarily, weaving modern fabrics for fashion houses and industrial production. He believed women thought in “two dimensions”, while men could grapple with three. ()

The Freedom to Dream

IS IT POSSIBLE FOR PUBLIC ART PROJECTS TO ADDRESS ISSUES OF SOCIAL AND CULTURAL JUSTICE? YES, ARGUES ZAYD MINTY IN HIS PROFILE OF DOUAL’ART, A CAMEROONIAN PUBLIC ART ORGANISATION 

Ananya Roy’s injunction that a shift in urban planning practices towards a distributive justice that profiles the object of urban planning – the people themselves – forms part of a growing critique of dominant modernist paradigms of planning.1 According to Roy, a comparative urban studies and international development expert at the University of California, Berkeley, this dominant paradigm is founded on an overriding “ideology of space” in which the built environment is given priority over people and their livelihoods. She suggests we need to engage with the so-called developing world more pragmatically and practically – to become involved with the “Politics of Shit”.

Roy’s critique proposes a city that is at once socially and culturally just, wherein citizens are active players in re-imagining and making real their own conception of place (rather than having it planned for them from above without their involvement). Collective or participatory engagements with planning are seen as particularly necessary. Such seemingly utopian approaches, which centre on dreaming better cities, propose that vibrant groupings in civil society can and do create such outcomes – better cities. It is precisely this sort of approach I hope to argue is what makes doual’art’s practice special. This Cameroonian public art organisation’s independently developed practice, which draws heavily on its work with artists, resonates strongly with a critical planning that emphasises the need to ensure a re-imagining of city through collective engagement. Doual’art’s greatest strengths, suggests artist Achille Ka, resides in its ability to allow the residents of a crumbling “pirate city” the freedom to dream new futures.2 Founded in 1991, doual’art’s premises are located in an old cinema behind La Pagode, an exquisite 1905 landmark in Bonanjo, Douala. A small garden cafe leads into espace doual’art where a small bar and stylish gallery – together with mezzanine offices and resource space – are located. The venue is used to host exhibitions, performing art events, conferences, seminars and a residency programme.

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Protected by pictures

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An interview with Ai Weiwei in the cellar of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, as the artist was preparing to turn the place into a battlefield. With Hanno Rauterberg

What would megalomaniac modesty look like? Is there such a thing as relaxed rebellion? A state of peace which is all get up and go. Well Ai Weiwei certainly exists. An artist who is not afraid to take on the mightiest of enemies, the dictators in Beijing. Who demands democracy at the top of his voice, freedom of speech, equal rights for all! Who refuses to be silenced, even if they lock him up, even if the police break down his door in the middle of the night and beat him to the ground, as they did just recently. He kept up the protest , even as the blood pured down his face, pulling out his camera and photographing the the police as they carried him off. It looks likes a family outing. The whole world should see this image: the terror and the un-terrified.

And now he’s sitting here in front of me, a man of substance and pride, yet so completely withdrawn into himself. His voice, a whisper, his eyes flitting about the room. “I was so shy in school,” he will tell me later, “that I’d blush every time someone looked at me.” A man, who now has so many eyes trained on him, whose voice is heard like no other, a man who is probably the most famous fighter of injustice in the whole of China.

“I’m an ordinary person, very ordinary,” he says and rubs his fac eyes light upe vigorously with both hands. “It was nothing to do with me,” he says. “It was the others, the interviews. I’m probably the most interviewed person in China.” Then he smiles for the first time, shrugs his shoulders cautiously, a shrug of wonder – how peculiar, why me?

Right now, the most interviewed person in the whole of China, is living in the cellar, in the catacombs of a Nazi palace in Munich. There, in the Haus der Kunst, which was built between 1933 and 1937, he has made himself at home for a few weeks, setting up camp with a 20-man team on folding beds all crammed into four rooms, to prepare for his first ever major exhibition worldwide, which opens on October 12. He has everything he needs down there, armchairs, TV, computer, close friends, a cook. He has effortlessly transformed this fortress into a cheerful shared apartment. Every now and tempting smells of Chinese food waft up into the museum halls, a museum attendant tells me.

“I’m not really a fan of museums, it so often feels as if they only display the corpses from long forgotten wars. We want to do something else here. We want to turn the Haus der Kunst into a battlefield.”

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Ever Spero

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Nancy Spero, who died on October 18th in Manhattan at the age of 83, was a woman who possessed immense courage, both in her art and in her life. For more than half a century, this courage propelled a practice of enormous imagination that moved across painting, collage, printmaking, and installation, constructing what Spero once called a “peinture féminine” that could address—and redress—both the struggles of women in patriarchal society and the horrors perennially wrought by American military might. Nevertheless, Spero’s art was ambiguous and never merely illustrative, and her treatment of these subjects came through a complex symbolic language incorporating an extraordinary polyphony of goddess-protagonists drawn from Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and pagan mythologies. She once told me that “goddesses, as is true of the gods, possess many characteristics of the eternal, which range from the tragic to transformation into a state of pleasure or even extreme excitement or happiness.”

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An Artist and a Citizen

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Theaster Gates is an artist living and working in Chicago. Labeling him an artist certainly does not capture who he is and what he does, though. He is often referred to as an activist, community organizer, and performer, among other things. When asked about his art practice and all the labels attached to him, he responds by saying he is a problem solver. His interests are broad, and his solutions lead him into a variety of genres and material. Lately, he has been giving public lectures and presentations. Many times, his work is presented in exhibitions.

Gates’s work often takes place in the public arena with public gatherings or lectures. When asked what draws him to this method of engagement, Gates’s response is that, “there is a type of power in the public”—either in the ability to voice one’s opinion and know that it is being heard, or through the social aspect. As he explains, “I accept that the byproduct of me getting people together is that people might call it art or call it an activist moment, and that’s just fine. The part I’m trying to concentrate on is this: if I have a set of relationships that are broad and wide, how can I bring those relationships into conversation with each other when necessary or when I’m curious?”

To that end, Gates’s latest project confronts a variety of issues through gathering people around a meal. Gates and I spoke on October 28, 2009 by phone to discuss this developing project. His upcoming projects include Theaster Gates: Resurrecting Dave the Potter at the Milwaukee Art Museum (April 15-August 1, 2010) and an exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston.

Kelly Huang: Food has been a reoccurring subject in your work. Back in the spring, we spoke about a soul food project that you will be hosting on the South Side of Chicago in the near future. You describe how food is an important part of every culture—how it shapes people’s memories of place, speaks to history, and has the power to bring people together. Could you tell me more about the project you are working on and how you first conceptualized it?

Theaster Gates: I was approached by Stephanie Smith (Curator of Contemporary Art, Smart Museum), who was thinking about a project called Feast: Radical Hospitality and Contemporary Art. Feast was to be an attempt at surveying the history of food practices in contemporary art. She asked me pretty simply, “What would you want to do?” And I said, I am feeling pretty good about doing things outside of museums and I would like to try and relocate a food space outside of your museum, and concentrate on soul food, because it has such a rich history on the South Side. I decided to acquire a building on my block and over the next one and a half years, slowly build out that space into a sort of soul food temple, where—in the spirit of critical discourse on art practices and social practices—one could eat really good food.

But, it’s not just about food to the extent that food is a signifier of certain cultural behaviors, rituals. Food acts as a material I can play with to tease out certain rituals inherent in black people, Koreans, Chinese, white people, middle Americans. I think that the project has always been my labor and I will benefit from the fact that there are museums and other types of museums that are interested in what you call the “gastro-arts.”

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Zak Smith in Conversation With Alexandros Vasmoulakis

90% of my street work has been made in Athens/Greece. The political and social situation there is pretty loose and that gives room for anomie of all sorts. It is not necessary to get a permission to paint in the public domain.

Zak Smith: First–for the people who don’t know–who are you, where are you from?

Alexandros Vasmoulakis: My name is Alexandros Vasmoulakis, I was born in Athens, Greece in 1980 and studied painting at the university. Currently I live in Berlin.

Smith: Like a lot of early 20th century artists like Balthus or Modigliani, your work almost always features these people who have a certain kind of face.  This sort of dark, kind of deep-eyed faces–like Kafka’s family or something.  Where do these faces come from?  Are they Greek faces?

Vasmoulakis: The process starts first of all by ripping pages from magazines, collecting fragments of other faces, mostly from glamorous ads.

The next step is the selection of the proper elements (mouths, eyes, noses) and the mix of them with my own drawing.

Actually it is a collage but it is not that obvious in the final project because it is all made just with ink and acrylic. The very first idea is to create something through the destruction of something else.

Smith: You use a lot of techniques associated with commercial art and illustration, but you pervert them away from their original purpose and message.  A lot of artists do that, but then they usually pervert it towards some other message.  It almost seems like, instead of trying to show the audience a simple, understandable, message–like advertisements and most fine art–you’re trying to destroy the idea of a simple message and just leave people with a picture.  Is that right?

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Tracing the City
Julie Mehretus’ Grey Area for the Deutsche Guggenheim

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The term gray area speaks to a condition of indeterminacy, a liminal state in which something is not clearly defined or perhaps impossible to define. Things are neither black nor white, right nor wrong, and in the best of cases, the phrase describes a situation that remains open for discussion. Julie Mehretu adapts such enigmatic circumstances as a tool to engage the viewer in her complex compositions of meticulously drawn mechanical renderings, spontaneous gestural markings, and colorful interjections. For the suite of paintings she has produced for the Deutsche Guggenheim exhibition, the fifteenth in its acclaimed series of commissions, Mehretu also explores the theme of the ruin as an indicator of transformation. These remnants of the past serve to commemorate events but also highlight developments in the present. Mehretu sometimes refers to actual sites of ruin, decay, or destruction in these paintings. At other times she creates the dissolution in the picture herself as she layers drawings such that they obfuscate one another.

Berliner Plätze (2008–09) most clearly captures a specific setting, as referenced in the title and line drawings derived from photographs of late-19th-century Wilhelminian architecture. Yet the dense layering of lines obscures the individual buildings, creating a kaleidoscopic composition of line that destabilizes the viewer’s gaze. Created by projecting historical photos of Berlin onto a canvas and outlining the structural details of the architectural facades, this painting demonstrates the role of photography in Mehretu’s work. The layered imagery suggests double or multiple exposure; the reflections in the upper regions of the canvas recall the inversion of a landscape made by a camera obscura. One might recognize a structure or have a fleeting impression of a familiar locale, but these chimeras quickly slip back into the ethereal world depicted on the canvas. The composition also captures the unsettling nature of the urban experience where block after block of repetitive facades mask the individual lives that are played out behind them—one is surrounded yet often isolated. The individual’s relationship to architecture has long interested Mehretu, who typically interweaves aspects of modernist architecture, city plans, and public spaces such as airports and stadiums into her compositions.

The painting Fragment (2008–09) also captures parts of the urban experience. Layering a variety of streetscapes, the painting explores how city planning frames one’s objective perspective as well as subjective experience of a city. The gestural markings on the surface seem to illustrate Michel de Certeau’s L’invention du quotidien (The Practice of Everyday Life, 1980), which

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Local Forecast
J.M.W. Turner’s “Sunrise with Sea Monsters.”

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Charles Baudelaire once said, “Romanticism is precisely situated neither in choice of subject nor exact truth, but in the way of feeling.” That’s a vague definition perfectly fitting to a vague subject matter. For all the use of words like “precisely” and “exact” it is neither. Romanticism, in short, barely exists. It is more of a mood than a movement. But what is a mood? It’s not a mental state exactly. Mood is more like the color of consciousness. But that merely adds vagary to vagary. Fact is, we’re still not sure what consciousness is, let alone mood.

On the other hand, life is lived under the umbrella of moods and feelings. The low clouds bring with them low feelings. Space contracts. The kid in the doorway on Atlantic Avenue has his collar pulled up and he’s trying to light a cigarette against the wind. The sidewalk is empty but for a ragged cat going nowhere. The clouds keep coming in rows and layers. Armies of darkness.

I am talking, here, about the weather. That most banal of conversation topics. The weather is superficiality at its essence. Except that the weather matters. It is the fundamental tool by which nature adds flavor, color, mood to the variety of our daily experience. Nature is mechanistic in its functioning, tied to the laws of physics that give it rules. But it speaks to us in feelings. The light of a day is “like this.” The shadows of winter make the world one way: brittle maybe, precise. The angle of the sun makes the world of summer another way entirely: smeared across the afternoon, vibrating.

That’s why so many Romantic artists like the weather. They know that the weather does not make the world, but it does make the world “what it’s like.” So, the Romantics enjoy writing about the weather, and they enjoy painting the weather. They are cloud watchers and rain walkers. They wait for the light to be just so.

Take “Sunrise with Sea Monsters” by J.M.W. Turner. Painted in 1845, it looks like it could be a work of 20th-century Expressionism. The main difference being that Expressionists aimed to express something inner, something subjective. Romantics like Turner look at things the other way round. They show us nature as a force that determines feelings in us. They show us nature as a communicative beast, framing our experience at every moment. The weather makes us, we do not make the weather.

What of the sea monsters, then? Well, for the Romantics, the voice of nature is neither gentle nor benign. It isn’t specifically malevolent either. The story is bigger, even more overwhelming in its implications. The weather that nature sends us frames our experience, gives us a set of feelings in which to live. But that frame is sent to us from beyond the limits of experience. It is sent to us from the unknown. ()