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Ulay (1943-2020) / The most unknown among renowned artists

Frank Uwe Laysiepen, the German artist known as Ulay, died on March 2, just a few months before a major retrospective of his work, scheduled for November 2020, at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He was born in 1943, in Sollingen, Germany, during World War II, but his personal and artistic journey really began in 1969, in Amsterdam (his adopted city) to which he was drawn by the constructive anarchist Provost movement. From Amsterdam, Ulay’s journey took him to Paris, Rome, Berlin, London, and then widened to include New York, Morocco, India, Nepal, the Middle East, China, Australia, and Patagonia. It ended in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where he married Lena Pislak and resided in the years before his death.   It is now up to us to rediscover his work: polyhedral, beyond category, non-commercial and uncompromisingly radical. Ulay was a pioneer of Polaroid photography and of performative photography, a prominent figure among European Performance Art and Body Art of the 70s, and an early advocate for ecological militancy through art. His work challenged at their root all concepts of stable identity —national, sexual, political. Yet, even among "insiders", he is known almost...

Respectable Memories: Postcards from South Africa

A Short History of South African Photography, by Rory Bester, Thato Mogotsi and Rita Potenza, is an exhibition hosted by Fotografia Europea XII at the Cloisters of St. Peter, Reggio Emilia, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the agreement (June 26, 1977) between Reggio Emilia and the African National Congress, and the centenary of the birth of Oliver Tambo (1917-1993), leader of the anti-apartheid movement and the ANC.   Chronologically ordered, it is a selection of images that traces the history of South Africa from the dominion of the British Empire to present day. The photographs come from archival collections (Die Erfenisstigting Archives, UWC Robben Island Museum Mayibuye Archive, BAHA, Transnet, Times Media, Independent Media Archive), museums (Museum Africa, McGregor Museum, Smithsonian Institution), and artists. It is notable how the authorship of individual photographers gains more and more importance as the show moves forward, progressing closer to the present day. This also marks a shift from a photograph that is historical documentation to one that is historical metaphor.   Jodie Bieber, The Silence of the Ranto Twins, 1995, Courtesy the Artist   It is a...

Contemporary patrons / A conversation with Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu

“The success of a museum is not measured by the number of visitors the museum welcomes, but by the number of visitors to whom it has taught something. Also, the success of a museum is not measured by the number of objects the museum shows, but by the number of objects that people might perceive in their human environment. The success of a museum is not measured by its extension, but by the amount of space the public will be able to reasonably cover in order to benefit from it. This is the museum.” Thus, in 1978, the French museologist Georges Henri Rivière identified the characteristics a museum should have in order to be defined with this name (La Muséologie selon Georges Henri Rivière, Paris: Dunod 1989, 7, the translation from the French is mine). Rivière passed away in 1985, but if he could visit Magazzino Italian Art today, he would consider it as an exemplary application of his teaching. Magazzino Italian Art is an exhibition center dedicated to Italian art, strongly wanted, conceived and built by spouses Nancy Olnick and Giorgio Spanu in Cold Spring, about 60 miles North of New York, which opened on June 28th, 2017.   Nancy Olnick, a New Yorker, is from a real estate...

Echoes of Pasts, Inscribing the Present

In an elegantly frescoed salon at New York University’s Florence estate, Villa La Pietra, stands an artifact of beauty, her light brown tunic adorned with brushes of gold fig leaves, a golden collar, and buttons and boots to match. An expansive smile is etched into her ebony face as her body strikes a semi genuflecting pose. Her outstretched arms beckon visitors with an invitation to be served: “give me your gloves, your scarves, your coats, they seem to say.” A similar sculpture but male, is positioned across the room from her. He is made in the likeness of an 18th century page.  With the stem of a horn or trumpet tucked under his right shoulder, this African-looking boy, resplendent in rich curls, and brown and gold heraldry, is perched on a descending platform in a posture of obeisance to observers.   These figures constitute a broad genre of Western European decorative art – furniture, sculptures, paintings, and tapestries – that portray African bodies in service, as domestic workers, soldiers, porters, and custodians of palatial properties. Known in common parlance as “Blackamoors,” models of this tradition in the Villa’s art collections date mostly...

Santu Mofokeng: A Silent Solitude

“A gift is the evidence of an act, a symbolic gesture that is at once free and obligatory,” writes Katia Anguelova, curator of AtWork Dakar 2012. “Considered in terms of a give-and-take relationship, the work of art can therefore be regarded as a gift or a representation of a gift.” This is the central idea of AtWork, the educational format created by lettera27 and Simon Njami. Its key element is a workshop during which participants produce a personalized notebook, which they can choose to donate to lettera27, thus becoming part of AtWork Community. The workshop that has recently taken place in Italy, in partnership with Fondazione Fotografia Modena, was entirely dedicated to the photographic image and was attended, among others, by the young Ivorian aspiring photographer Mohamed Keita. The notebooks produced during the workshop were displayed in an exhibition co-curated by the students at the Fondazione Fotografia Modena’s atelier in Via Giardini. Drawing on Foucault’s idea of heterotopy, Simon Njami chose “heterochrony” as the main theme of the workshop, describing it as “a break with real-time that introduces multiple time-spaces from which it is possible to reconsider...

The Nationless Pavilion

Political crisis of today is dictated by outdated nation state model of mapping the world. While all the other systems already spilled over with economy, art, science going global, nation state still draws the lines on the geographical map.   Political power and it’s redistribution is the heart of the issue. Advancement of human civilization, apart of providing technological leaps, also demanded more transparency and visibility from power. It has always been ‘catch and run’ game - with new strategies of mystification of political power into institutional forms of different kinds. Authority redistribution mechanisms always tend to appear impersonal as their function is to communicate idea of being ‘detached’ from the matter of defining good and bad, right and wrong. Ethical, moral and aesthetic judgment seem to appear to naked eye as something defined and proved by centuries of common societal work, where standards of normal are the result of careful, almost Darwinist selection of what is better for all. The mythology of this process was first supported by the narratives of religious dogma and power, while today it’s mostly relies on fear and ignorance. Ulrich Beck[1] rightly...

Jeff Wall: Reportage Readymade

Retrospectives of contemporary photographers have only been hosted in contemporary art galleries in the past ten years, on a par with monographs of other visual artists. One of the better known examples was the retrospective of the Canadian photographer, Jeff Wall, held at Tate Modern and MoMA in 2006 and 2007, and later on show at Milan’s PAC art space with a smaller selection of works.            Thanks to the efforts of Stefano Graziani, Italians can now read Wall’s most important writings, collected in an anthology he edited, published by Quodlibet (Gestus. Scritti sull’arte e la fotografie, 2013). Personally I would have added Depiction, Object, Event, published by Afterall in 2007, but nevertheless the anthology contains some of the most important and influential texts on contemporary photography in the last thirty years. These include Dan Graham’s  Kammerspiel (1982), and Signs of Indifference: Aspects of Photography in (and as) Conceptual Art (1995). In Sign of Indifference, Wall offers both a photographer’s and a critic’s interpretation of photographic practice in the 1960s, which has been much debated both because it is regularly cited by historians of art and...