Review no 94: The Lives of Others (Germany)

EUROPE

I watched this much-lauded 2006 film, which won the Oscar for best foreign film in 2007, with my husband the other night. I liked it even more than I liked the GDR-era interiors.

Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (that’s quite a name), this debut film is set in 1983 in East Berlin, where state surveillance is endemic. Stasi officer Gerd Wiesler (Ulrich Mühe) finds himself charged with listening in to the bugged interactions of Brecht-inspired writer Georg Dreyman (Sebastian Koch) and his actress girlfriend Christa-Maria (Martina Gedeck). Christa is also engaged in an unwanted sexual relationship with a physically repellent, powerful and manipulative government minister, Bruno Hempf (Thomas Thieme), who provides her with promises of career development and some mysterious imported pills, and who is all too keen to see Dreymann thrown into jail. Initially steely and unwavering in his commitment to uncovering clandestine dissidence, however, Wiesler begins to find himself become more sympathetic to the lovers as he is increasingly swept up in their personal relationship, which highlights his own loneliness, characterized by a particularly depressing encounter with an unappealing prostitute. Sometimes melodramatic, the film is a fascinating insight into a morally dubious time in German history that now feels like another world.

Review no 93: Margarita Cabrera – Mexican artist

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

I had originally intended to discuss the now ubiquitous Frieda Kahlo for my post on a Mexican artist. I find her fascinating, and feel that her personal story is pretty inspirational given her level of physical disability (something that I’m particularly interested in as I have a beautiful teenage daughter who is living with a disability). I went to see the Frieda Kahlo exhibition at London’s V&A museum in 2018, which focused not on her art, but on the objects that made up her life, and which was really interesting and largely escaped mawkishness. And her sense of personal style was amazing!

But, said teenage daughter had been set some lockdown art homework, which involved researching marginalised artists, and one of the artists on her list was a contemporary artist I had never come across before: Margarita Cabrera. So to H’s total disgust I inexplicably embarked on my own homework FOR FUN.

Cabrera was born in Mexico in 1973 and moved to the USA at the age of 10; she is now based in El Paso. Cabrera has been widely exhibited in the USA, and her work forms part of the permanent collection of over 20 museums. As well as creating individual projects, she also works collaboratively with displaced immigrants to create sewn, soft sculptures, representing everyday items such as backpacks, bikes, pot plants ordomestic appliances.

Her works document the obstacles, sacrifices and achievements experienced by migrants, focusing, in particular, on US-Mexican relations.

Her show A Space in Between has been shown at several US galleries, including the Talley Dunn Gallery. The exhibition featured sculptures of cacti created with fabric made from the uniforms of border patrol guards. Many of the collaborative works were decorated with traditional Mexican tenango embroidery by immigrant workers, depicting people and animals, and documenting individual experiences of crossing the border, while referencing Mexican craft traditions.  The terracotta pots in which the plants are displayed also allude to and make use of traditional Mexican materials.

Review no 92: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong (Vietnam)

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

This 2019 novel attracted plenty of attention. Written by poet Ocean Vuong, who left Vietnam in infancy as a refugee, it is an epistolary novel – sort of. It reads for the most part as a memoir of growing up as gay, as part of an ethnic minority, as poor and as an outsider in present-day America. As ever with these things, the author insists it is fiction, so I would assume it’s a mixture of the two – does that mean it’s auto fiction? I’m never quite sure what that is exactly.

The novel takes the form, very loosely, of a sprawling episodic letter to the writer’s non-English-speaking mother, with whom the protagonist, known as Little Dog, has a complicated relationship, since her approach to child-rearing combined love with blatantly violent abuse. It’s a bit of a paradoxical kind of letter, too, since it’s written in English prose (very poetic prose), a language that the intended recipient doesn’t read or speak. Thus, taken literally, the whole emotionally charged screed is pretty much wasted, which I guess is the point, and even the explanation for the depth of the unloading that goes on.

Poetic language is often fine, even a positive, but to be frank I feel like maybe Ocean Vuong’s poetry actually isn’t that great. The novel was engaging enough, and devastating on the impact of the conflict in Vietnam on a whole generation of young women and children. And men too: the protagonist’s grandmother’s American ex-lover is scarred, emotionally, by his time during the conflict in Vietnam. The novel is also damning too on America’s current lost generation of young men, strung out on drugs and lacking hope for the future.

Overall, I felt the book started off really good, and then fell apart for quite a long time around the middle, when I was tempted to skim pages and felt it was all a bit … wanky, to reclaim a phrase from my youth … by which I guess I mean off-puttingly self-conscious and self-regarding. It’s a thin line isn’t it, as I generally love an arty, intellectual, confessional memoir-type affair, but this didn’t work for me. And this is another book that I wasn’t supposed to be reading right now, since I have nominated a whole bunch of other books for the 20 books of summer project (I’ve got to the stage with it now where I’ve started swapping out choices!).

Review no 91: Cook Off – a movie from Zimbabwe

AFRICA

Cook Off – the first film from Zimbabwe to be shown on Netflix” said the headline. Well, I’d better watch it then, I thought – especially as reports told me that since 2000 only a handful of full-length films had been made in Zimbabwe. And even better, it wasn’t going to be a depressing watch, focusing on Zimbabwe’s political and economic woes. Instead, this very low-budget 2017 film (it reportedly had an initial budget of just $8,000) is an uplifting diversion, a rom-com focusing on a young mother’s efforts to win a television cookery contest; she is entered into the competition by her son, who is a big fan of her cooking.

Written and directed by Tomas Lutuli Brickhill, Cook Off is not the slickest film ever. The acting is a bit amateurish at times and the whole thing looks a bit like it’s been shot on someone’s iphone. But you would never know that it was made as Robert Mugabe’s corrupt regime was collapsing around him; the cast agreed to defer their appearance fees amid massive hyperinflation, and the set was repeatedly beset by power cuts.

The lead actress, Tendaiishe Chitima, who plays single mum Anesu, was great, and she gave a really appealing performance as a women taking charge of her future, and using her talent to pursue the show’s substantial cash prize. There were plenty of other likeable characters, too, including hip hop star Tendai Ryan Nguni, or Tehn Diamond, as fellow competitor Prince, Anesu’s good-hearted romantic interest.

The film employed the TV set that had been used for making a real-life Zimbabwean cookery show. The challenges set for the contestants in the fictionalised TV contest didn’t seem particularly challenging or necessarily indicative of being Zimbabwe’s top chef: Eggs Benedict, and posh fish and chips. The subject matter was cosy, with a bit of very mild intrigue amid the sweet romance and gentle humour. Overall, it was an easy watch, which may be just what we all need at the moment.

Review no 90: Harald Sohlberg: Norwegian artist

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It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes you believe a world could exist in a dewdrop” – a critic’s comment on encountering the work of Harald Sohlberg, reproduced in the exhibition catalogue.

In 2019 I saw two exhibitions of work by Norwegian artists in London. At the British Museum I went to see prints by Edvard Munch (1863-1944), and at Dulwich Picture Gallery I saw the Infinite Landscapes exhibition of prints and vivid paintings by Harald Sohlberg, who was active around the same time (1869-1935), in the first solo exhibition of his work outside his native country. The two artists would have known each other well.

The Munch show was interesting, and notably displayed a black and white lithograph of The Scream. But I enjoyed Sohlberg more.

Although Sohlberg travelled to several countries, he tended to depict the landscapes of Norway. His paintings often feature landscapes, such as rural towns or churches, in which humans are obviously present and active, but in which they do not feature. His work is, nevertheless, intensely humane. Sohlberg is often described as contrasting modernity with the classically traditional, and he uses a richly nuanced palette to create luminous scenes that evoke the mythical and the emotional.

Detail from Morning Glow (1893), exhibition catalogue:

Sohlberg trained as a decorative painter, and also had a firm grounding in perspective and technical drawing (in addition, he was a keen photographer). Despite his formal knowledge, he tends to play with perspective so that, as the exhibition catalogue notes, the pictorial space seems to be seen from different vantage points at the same time. In the 1890s Sohlberg moved towards a technique of using glaze to build up layers of smooth colour over his visible pencil lines, sometimes using a ruler. This painstaking technique created paintings that at the Dulwich exhibition seemed to somehow glow.

Fisherman’s Cottage (1906):

Sohlberg noted that the word ‘unusual’ cropped up in every review of his work, which he interpreted as meaning that he did not paint ‘like the modernists’ or in accordance with ‘the development of painting in general” – quote from the exhibition catalogue

Meanwhile, an extract from a 1915 letter describes Sohlberg’s efforts to capture the sublime of the Rondane mountain range with his iconic Winter Night in the Mountains, which is reproduced below:

Before me in the far distance rose a range of mountains, beautiful and majestic in the moonlight. Like petrified giants.”

Winter Night in the Mountains (1914):

Review no 89: When Time Stopped – A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains by Ariana Neumann (Venezuela)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Having downloaded this book to my Kindle, I was reluctant to start reading it. I didn’t want to read a memoir of the devastating and no doubt horribly familiar experiences of the author’s Jewish father during the Second World War. I felt that I couldn’t bear to revisit the events of the Holocaust, which we have become well-versed in: I’d visited the Anne Frank Museum in Amsterdam, I’d watched enough documentaries, I couldn’t bear to read about the horrific events again.

However, I’m really glad that I did start reading this brilliant memoir, which is undeniably moving, but also reads like a thriller and paints a vivid picture of a charismatic, audacious young man, and the universally brave people close to him.

Growing up as an only child in a glamorous, moneyed family in Catholic Venezuela, Ariana Neumann initially had no idea that her father, a successful businessman and philanthropist, had a mysterious past. Except sometimes he woke up screaming and shaking in the night, and he spoke Spanish with a heavy Eastern European accent – and as child Ariana happened upon a document showing a picture of her father as a young man, but giving an unfamiliar name. Neumann’s mother knew very little either, telling her only that her husband Hans had had a bad war.

Hans was a workaholic and not prone to personal revelations. At home, in his rare free time, he would spend hours pouring over his antique watches, fiddling with their mechanisms to ensure they kept perfect time, and alluding during his lifetime only obliquely to his youth in Czechoslovakia.

However, on his death he bequeathed to his daughter a mysterious box containing documents and unfamiliar objects. Ariana, intrigued and grieving, was determined to uncover the past.

For my father the past was lost, imperfect and irremediable, unlike his watches with their mechanisms that he could always repair with patience and time and the right tools … And yet he had retained and left me mementos of experiences that he had tried to leave behind.”

Her painstaking research brought her into contact with hitherto unknown relatives from all over the world, and shone a light, not only on her father’s past, but on that of her uncle Lotar, who had also survived the war, as well as other family and friends. One of these is Zdenka, Lotar’s non-Jewish wife, who nevertheless – in an act of almost unbelievable bravery – stitched a Star of David onto her jacket and twice smuggled herself in and out of a concentration camp to bring much-needed supplies to her husband’s relatives.

The story of Hans and his survival rests on a mixture of extreme chutzpah and good fortune. I won’t summarise it here, because it will ruin the read, but his actions parallel and even exceed those of Zdenka in their audacity. A remarkable man, and a courageous and determined family.

Review no 88: Artist Frank Bowling (Guyana)

AMERICAS AND THE CARIBBEAN

Born in 1934, Frank Bowling moved from New Amsterdam, Guyana (then British Guiana), to London in 1953, and later graduated from the Royal College of Art. In the late 1960s he spent several years living in New York, where he maintains a studio, and in later life continues to divide his time between the two cities.

His work, recently the subject of a large-scale retrospective by the Tate in London (and the first living black artist to be included in the gallery’s collection), explores what can be achieved with paint as a medium, when it is poured, dripped, stained or thickly layered (“painting as total activity“). His canvases are often enormous in scale, with vivid use of colour, and they are notable for their luminosity and iridescence, achieved through his use of materials such as fluorescent chalks, metallic pigments, acrylic gels and acrylic foam.

The work combines figurative elements and geometric shapes with abstraction, and from early on autobiographical elements and a pre-occupation with sociopolitical issues were evident. From the 1980s he began to incorporate remnants of materials from everyday life, from plastic toys to scraps of African fabric brought back from a trip abroad by one of his grandsons.

Detail from Witness, 2018, which incorporates – embedded in the paint – a cocktail umbrella, pipe-cleaner dog, plastic spiders and fabric (picture taken from the Tate exhibition catalogue)

Bowling’s early work displays an expressionist, representative, sometimes visceral, painting style, inspired by artists such as Francis Bacon and Goya. As Bowling’s work moved towards abstraction and away from the obviously personal in the late 1960s, a number of motifs were nevertheless used and re-used repeatedly in Bowling’s art. These include shadowy contour maps of continents, as well as screenprints of family members and of his mother’s home in Guyana. He employs these as if they were abstract forms, but they remain ambiguous and, as Richard Schiff notes in the Tate catalogue, can’t avoid being connotative.

Bowling is perhaps most renowned for his iconic late 1960s map paintings, as well as his subsequent ‘poured paintings’, which, as the name suggests, experiment with the effects achieved by pouring paint onto unstretched canvases.

Through his writing as well as his art, Bowling has also played a leading role in issues relating to ‘black art’ and the right of artists from all backgrounds and identities to express themselves artistically. The catalogue from the Tate show tells of the duality that Bowling felt as a young man, where, as a rapidly well-established part of the London and New York art scenes, he hoped to represent black people and the black experience in his art, but resented the reductive label ‘black artist’.

“[critics] tend to stress the political over the aesthetic … concerned with notions about Black Art, not with the works themselves” – Frank Bowling

Moby Dick, 1981, acrylic paint on canvas, 250.5cm x 189cm. Taken from exhibition catalogue.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams, 1989 – 178cm x 136cm (taken from exhibition catalogue)

The above painting was inspired by a trip to New Amsterdam with his son Sasha, and the quality of the light he found there, and the combination of brightness and heat haze: I really like this one.

For Bowling, painting seems almost like a kind of performative act of transcendent philosophy (which I’m not sure I’ve fully got my head around!)

Spirit, where is it? But painting will continue to declare thingness.” – Frank Bowling

Currently my aspiration is to make my work as my life has been. The unfolding of light, and the total experience of my body within history, making real those moments when the material I’m using registers a spirit of the wholeness of extemporaneous life, of things. As a thing myself I was there, I witnessed, I felt, I know, and knowing is the work.” – Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 1971 , catalogue picture (although not an American citizen, Bowling was sufficiently immersed in the New York art scene for his painting to qualify as ‘American painting’.)

Review no 87: Arid Dreams by Duanwad Pimwana (Thailand)

Translated from the Thai by Mui Poopoksakul

FAR EAST, SOUTH ASIA AND AUSTRALASIA

Duanwad Pimwana is one of Thailand’s best-known female authors, and this is a collection of 13 short stories, first published between 1995 and 2014, which give a small insight into the development of Pimwana’s writing.

I found some stories to be much stronger than others. The collection opens with the best, and longest, story in the collection, from which the book takes its name. This is also the most recent story in the collection. Arid Dreams is clever play on words, as a pantingly horny Thai traveller takes some beachside accommodation for the night, and ruminates on the beautiful woman who seems to help run the guest house, as well as provide massages to tourists. When he finds out that she really does has no time for herself at all, and also offers sexual services at nighttime, he is determined to sleep with her. Eventually she opens up to the pent-up protagonist, confiding that she only sleeps with non-Thai tourists, to avoid sealing a reputation as a whore among the local people in the place to which she is bound. In this story the lechy traveller develops a modicum of self-awareness as he gets to know her better – this is not the case in many of the other stories. I really like this story, and looked forward to reading the rest of the collection, but overall it fell a little short of expectations.

There are some common, recurring themes. These include the failure of entitled male characters to even attempt to understand the perspectives and inner worlds of the women around them, and their tendency to apply double standards in their relationships with their wives and lovers (male characters repeatedly bemoan the fact that their harried wives are ageing less well than they feel to be the case for themselves).

Others focus on poverty and other failed dreams. Some don’t quite work: “The Attendant” reflects on the tedious life of a lift attendant; unfortunately, this also meant it bored me stupid. Another, “The Awaiter”, focuses on a man who finds some mislaid money at the bus station, and then stands there doing absolutely nothing, while ruminating on possible explanations for the loss and the consequences should he take it. This tale was charming, but not exactly engrossing.

I loved “Wood Children”, in which a wife longs for a child, but her and her husband find themselves unable to conceive. The woman begins to find distraction in whittling children out of wood, and becomes more and more engrossed in her hobby, to her husband’s consternation. The story unspools to a determinedly creepy conclusion.

Over the past several months, Mala had carved almost ten figures. Children formed out of wood, in different poses, were lined up on her table. Some of them smiled, lopsided mouths and all; some had heads that skewed back, hands that didn’t align with the arms, or feet that were disproportionately large.”

All the characters in this intriguing collection seem to be trapped in some way, whether through poverty, marriage or simply inaction. It’s definitely worth a read, but it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

No 86: Christo (1935-2020): The Bulgarian-born artist who, in collaboration with Jeanne-Claude, wrapped the Reichstag

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The soft material which drapes the Reichstag will remind us of the flames that lashed these walls and of how vulnerable and endangered democracy is” – German politician Konrad Weiss, 1994

Earlier this month I heard of the death of Christo Javacheff, more commonly known as Christo, and famed for his work with Moroccan artist Jeanne-Claude (de Gouillebon, 1935-2009) and in particular their transient 1995 Berlin-showstopper Wrapped Reichstag. Christo was born in Bulgaria, and studied art in Sofia, before fleeing the Soviet bloc in 1957. He remained strongly motivated by the pursuit of artistic and political freedoms throughout his life and career.

[Photo taken from the book Lost Art by Jennifer Mundy (published by the Tate in 2013).]

Christo met Jeanne-Claude in Paris in 1958, and they lived and worked together for many years. Christo painted, but he also began to make objects, wrapping, covering and adding an element of the mysterious to everyday objects, such as barrels, paint cans and furniture (Jeanne-Claude was not credited in this early work). Christo and Jeanne-Claude also together began to create temporary installations, often with a political message: for example, they filled a road in the Paris Latin Quarter with 89 oil drums, to represent the barriers erected by police in other parts of the city to contain protesters against the conflict in Algeria.

They began to wrap entire buildings, such as the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art, in the late 1960s, and even wrapped parts of the natural environment, such as stretches of coastline.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude first considered the idea of wrapping the Reichstag in 1971, when, of course, Berlin was still a divided city, and the historic German parliament building (which dates back to the late 1800s), was under the jurisdiction of both East and West Berlin. Damaged by an arson attack in the 1930s, the Reichstag building was restored in the 1960s, by which time the seat of the West German government had been relocated to Bonn. Although the building was barely used, the site remained extremely politically sensitive, and the artists’ plans were repeatedly rejected. But after the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, and the reunification of Germany took place, the plan was finally able to come to fruition.

The building was covered with 100,000 sq m of fabric with an aluminium surface, secured by 200,000 kg of steel frames and some 15 km of blue rope. The intensely modern, silvery material hung from the building’s towers, statuary and stone decor in sumptuous pleats and folds, echoing classical art. The project cost US $15m. to implement.

The Wrapped Reichstag was on display for two weeks and it attracted huge numbers of visitors. It worked as an easily comprehensible symbol of the emergence of the newly unified Germany:

The wrapped Reichstag makes lightness and softness … into characteristics of the greatest monumental power … the wrapped Reichstag can almost be seen as an ideal symbol of the new Germany” – Paul Goldberger, New York Times

The German Government asked Christo and Jeanne-Claude to extend the duration of the installation beyond two weeks. They refused, on the grounds that “non-permanent art will be missed“. Completed on 24 June 1995, it was dismantled on 7 July, and the materials were sent for recycling. I wish I’d experienced it firsthand, (though it wouldn’t have been top of my to do list back in ’95).

It is a kind of naivety and arrogance to think that this thing stays forever, for eternity. All these projects have this strong dimension of missing, of self-effacement … they will go away, like our childhood, our life. They create a tremendous intensity when they are there for a few days.” – Christo

Review no 85: The Discomfort of the Evening by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (Netherlands)

Translated by Michele Hutchison

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This debut novel, first published in Dutch in 2018, has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, and it wholly deserves the nomination. Rijneveld is also a prize-winning poet, and the writing here is phenomenal. The subject matter is more of a struggle, although the book is never boring or a chore to engage with. The novel is an exploration of the impact of loss, and a dissection of a family dealing with, or rather not dealing with, the grief that follows the accidental death, just before Christmas, of the eldest child, Matthies.

This is no ordinary family, even in happier times. The book is narrated by eldest daughter Jas, aged 10, who lives with her devoutly Christian parents and two surviving siblings, Hanna and Obbe, on a dairy farm. (Rijneveld, too, grew up on a dairy farm, raised by deeply religious parents, and lost an elder brother in an accident.) In its account of parental religious fervour it reminded me a bit of the (excellent) US memoir Educated by Tara Westover. The children in The Discomfort of the Evening do attend school, but they also work on the farm, where the labour sounds gritty and dirty, but also sometimes comforting, and life is hard to start with, and then hard and grim and devastating. The children are forbidden from talking about Matthies.

“A rope with a noose in it had recently appeared in the attic, hanging from the rafters. “It’s for a swing,” Dad said, but there was still no swing.”

While Jas’s mother, broken by grief, stops eating, Jas stops excreting. It is a sort of scatological coming of age story, with some deeply disturbing descriptions of early adolescent explorations of sexuality, violence and death, coupled with dubious child-rearing methods. Some of the less (yes, I meant to write less) unpalatable of all these include the deliberate drowning of a hamster, and the manual insertion into Jas’s anus of broken-off pieces of soap, in a bid by her father to make her finally open her chronically constipated bowels.

Mum … hurries out of the living room, pulling the vacuum cleaner along with her by its hose … she seems to have more of a relationship with it than with her own children. At the end of every week I see her cleaning its tummy with great love and putting a new hoover bag in it, while mine is about to burst.”

The book is undeniably brilliant, and the sensuous prose is often beautiful, and littered with evocative and imaginative metaphors. The tale is also horrific, though, in its unveering, microscopic examination of the unrepentant brutality of life, although it always manages to steer clear of gratuitousness. I feel Rijneveld would make a worthy winner of the International Man Booker prize, but this is not a book I would go back to – and I definitely wouldn’t buy it for a present!