Sophie Calle at the the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

Sophie-Calle-LargeSOPHIE CALLE, VOIR LA MER, 2011 (DETAIL)© Sophie Calle / Adagp, Paris, 2015 Courtesy Galerie Perrotin and Paula Cooper Gallery

In Istanbul, a city surrounded by water, I met people who had never seen the sea. I filmed their first time.

By Christina Higham April 14, 2015

On now through May 10 is Sophie Calle’s debut exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal about sight and a lack there of. The MAC writes that “the exhibition consists of two recent projects by Calle: The Last Image, 2010, a series of photographs accompanied by texts, and Voir la mer, 2011, a series of digital films. These two series take an incisive, poetic look at the particular reality of the mental images of blind people and at the discovery of beauty and the sublime.” On The Last Image Calle explains, “I went to Istanbul. I spoke to blind people, most of whom had lost their sight suddenly. I asked them to describe the last thing they saw.” For Voir la mer Calle went to Istanbul, a city surrounded by water and met people who had never seen the sea. Calle filmed their first time.

The viewer first walks into The Last Image, an open brightly lit room with triptychs and quadratics hung at eye level around four white walls. Each grouping has a portrait of a person, their story typed up and photographic visual accompaniments to add to their story of the last thing they saw before they suddenly went blind. The subject matter is not always comfortable to behold but is captured in a way that is very bright, hopeful with an almost heavenly glow. The colours in the photographs are vivid, warm and summery. The gallery space is well lit and there is a lot of room to breathe and move around. It gives the viewer room to contemplate what the subject in the portrait has gone through. The viewer is reminded not take their own vision for granted. The tales are very personal and poetically written (in French only.)  Set in Istanbul, the viewer sees through their eyes images of people who live their lives on the other side of the world, they are foreign the backgrounds in another country. We see because they do not see.

The second half of the exhibition is Voir la mer (See the Sea). Video is framed like a photograph on large screens suspended from the ceiling and dispersed throughout the room. Each screen is a wide portrait first showing the back of a man or a woman looking out to the turquoise water. They are dressed in well worn clothes, hijabs with bright colours and patterns, matching blouses, flannel and denim of Turkey’s working class. The exhibition space is outfitted with loud surround sound speakers playing the sound of the sea, the walls are painted navy blue and the hardwood floor is coincidentally a sand yellow making it easy for the viewer to allow themselves to fall in next to the seashore, in the place of the subject and feel as though they are on the sea edge, rocking with the waves, taking in the seemingly infinite vastness of the sea. After a long moment the subject turns around and looks directly into the camera. They are conscious that they are staring into the camera, which gives them a sudden awkwardness. Then they relax and forget they are looking into a camera and clearly the viewer can see their contemplation in their eyes, on their faces, a deep meditation on the sea that is behind them. All have a deep emotional reaction, however subtly they may show it they are all elated and touched forever. Thanks to the genius of Calle the viewer is there to share in that touching moment with them.

Born in 1953 in Paris, Sophie Calle is a writer, conceptual artist, photographer, filmmaker, even detective-or a little bit of each, according to the characters she assumes, the rituals she devises, the parts of her life she tells and the feelings she shares. The MAC writes that Calle is one of the most important artists of her generation. Calle’s work is distinguished by its use of arbitrary sets of constraints, and evokes the French literary movement of the 1960s known as Oulipo. Her work frequently depicts human vulnerability, and examines identity and intimacy. She is recognized for her detective-like ability to follow strangers and investigate their private lives. Her work may be found in the collections of the Centre Pompidou, Paris; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Tate Gallery, London; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, L.A.; and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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‘Conceptual Poetry’ and Goldsmith

There is a big difference between visual art and the language of words. Conceptual art is not the same process as conceptual writing, namely poetry. Kenneth Goldsmith is wrong in conflating the two and for aggrandizing the value of ‘conceptual poetry.’

Ironically, the term ‘conceptual poetry’ gives the impression that we are dealing with concepts. Goldsmith says “The best thing about conceptual poetry is that it doesn’t need to be read. You don’t have to read it. As a matter of fact, you can write books, and you don’t even have to read them. My books, for example, are unreadable. All you need to know is the concept behind them. Here’s every word I spoke for a week. Here’s a year’s worth of weather reports…and without ever having to read these things, you understand them.” The idea that you can have written texts that don’t need to be read is profoundly flawed. Reading, as a process, is that which enables reason and understanding to occur. Whether there is a concept behind a random list or not, there needs to be a mind that takes language and ‘magically’ transforms it through the thinking process to construct meaning. Meaning cannot be ‘given before’ written language is absorbed.
The field that Goldsmith and others are on is not the field of mind and logic, but the field of play. Play is fine in itself, and there are times when play is welcome. But it is not a movement to displace serious literary poetry. And this play of pre-understood concepts is not necessarily postmodern. A lot of postmodern poetry involves both play and reason. The trick is understanding what constitutes good postmodern poetry, which requires sensitive reading and analysis. A week’s worth of weather reports may fall under the rubric of found or concrete poetry. In my view, these categories too should never have been interpreted as poetry. Surely there is not a lack of categories out there that we can’t differentiate between the poem and the not-poem; in a way that allows us to uphold traditional poetry, modern poetry and postmodern poetry that are, in fact, poetry.

‘Conceptual poetry’ is more closely allied with conceptual art. Marcel Duchamp raised our awareness that even the most mundane of objects can be interpreted in terms of art. And this is correct. Life is, indeed, art. Life can be ugly or beautiful. Both are represented artistically. The light shining in an odd way on a clump of white snow is transformed into art, and in this case becomes beauty. Duchamp’s toilet also becomes art. The concept is true and is observed in reality as a form of visual truth. But this is not the same with language and the written word. Although we use our eyes to perceive the texts, it does not end there. Truth is completed through the mind’s action. This is the only way meaning can be derived from words. ‘Conceptual poetry’ is meaningless. It is play. And play can be irrational and nonsensical. There is nothing wrong with playful experience of this kind. But it cannot measure up to the depth of poets who have delved into the heart of the human condition, and who actually write poetry.

/ez

Blast From the Past#2: Dante Alighieri

‘The high desire that is now aflame and urgent in thee to have knowledge of that which thou seest pleases me more the more it swells; but first thou must drink of these waters before this great thirst of thine can be satisfied.’ Thus she spoke to me who was the sun of my eyes; then she continued: ‘The river and the topazes that pass into it and out and the laughter of the flowers are shadowy forecasts of their truth; not that these things are imperfect in themselves, but the defect is in thyself, that thy vision is not yet so exalted.’

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Dante, born: 1265

(Excerpt from The Divine Comedy 3: Paradiso. Translated by John D. Sinclair, 1939).

The Hardness of Being

As I was walking to work, I was in a hurry, lost in my thoughts. I glanced at a tree trunk, in passing. It occurred to me that it could have been made of steel for all the effect it had on me. The fact of the matter was that it was an organic thing—a tree—but it just didn’t register as such.

This world has become a world of ‘hard circulation.’ I want to coin this term to mean or convey a sense of hardness of thought that does not differentiate between living things and inorganic matter. A bird is not a car tire. There is a certain sensitivity that is inherently associated with a living thing. Its aliveness makes it different from hard facts. And in this world, we are constantly bombarded by non-living data, and thoughts, which, when combined with actual inorganic matter like speeding cars or concrete, make us lose our human aspect altogether. Sometimes, I don’t like using the word ‘humanity’ because it doesn’t seem to mean what it did in the past. If humans have turned hard, then the term ‘humanity’ doesn’t capture the emotional, sensitive attributes it once connoted. Nevertheless, being human is still a fragile affair, on some levels, especially when there is pain and suffering.

To observe the world as if it is lifeless, or dead matter, is a condition which I think plagues large parts of societies today. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that nearly everything has become ‘hard.’ And we are so wrapped up in hard thoughts that we can barely understand simplicity; for instance, that a squirrel has a little, beating heart and is scared. Children still know the meaning of life, although they are being forced to step into the hardness of the world at an early age.

I caught myself devaluating the tree of its ‘treeness’ and life pulse. But I stopped and looked at it closely. Yes, without trees, we would be dead. The tree actually was living matter that connected with me emotionally. Without the gestures of sincere and compassionate minds and hearts touching is there any longer a ‘humanity?’  /ez

SPRING HAIKU CONTEST WINNERS!

Thanks to all who submitted. Many wonderful entries. the winner is:

Jeff Casselman:

Through gold alluvial
Azure flowers bloom, small plumed
Footsteps to the sky.

Congratulations Jeff!

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Second place is:

Ingrid Philipp:

golden grasses stab
faintly clouded brilliant blue
skies stretching endless

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And 4 Honourable Mentions:

Jan Jorgensen:

Light penetrates sky,

dances through blue flower field –

what joy to live here!

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Courtney Alsop:
Blue flowers listen
Yellow fields hold my secrets
(The town a witness)

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Shannon Tien:

Wake Up

The dreamcatcher breaks

its promise, does nothing when

ocean becomes sky.

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Ilona Martonfi:

Van Gogh’s luminous light

budding plum trees  cornflowers

clump of blue-purple houses

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Hope these haikus will bring spring to us here in Montreal. Still -15 out today. But the sun is out. Congratulations to everyone!  /ez

BLAST FROM THE PAST#1: john donne

From “Satire III”

“…

As streams are, power is; those blest flowers that dwell

At the rough stream’s calm head thrive and do well,

But having left their roots and themselves given

To the stream’s tyrannous rage, alas, are driven

Through mills and rocks and woods, and at last, almost

Consumed in going, in the sea are lost.

So perish souls which more choose men’s unjust

Power from God claimed than God himself to trust.”

John Donne, born 1572.

The changing of the Guards

Worlds are a little sadder with the passing of Terry Pratchett, and Leonard Nimoy, recently. We live in a sadly realistic world but one full of illogical fictions. It is ironic to think that the fantasy worlds of many talented authors may be more true than the real world we know today. RIP great lights of the imaginary.  /ez

http://www.thejournal.ie/terry-pratchett-died-1988715-Mar2015/

http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/fantasy

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