CENTRE OF GRAVITY
Centro di gravità permanente (A permanent centre of gravity) is the title of an Italian song composed in the eighties by Franco Battiato, which alludes to the need for assurances, for ways of escaping from the confusion and uncertainty that surround us. As well as surfacing in pop music, conflicts and a desire to attain balance are present in many other areas of the contemporary production of meaning. Psychoanalysis refers to a subject split between the conscious, the unconscious and the subconscious, at variance with instinctive drives and the cultural order. Mass sociology defines the class struggle; economics refers to the necessary inequalities in the production of capital and to the free market’s hypothetical capacity for self-regulation; biology analyses the evolution of species as a stark competition for survival. We are indeed aware that there is no balance in the economics of passion, no justice in the distribution of wealth and that art is not the realm of purity that modernism had dreamt of, and yet man is still seeking models of order and meaning to help him understand and act upon the world in which he lives.
The disenchantment caused by the decline of utopias and the increase in ecological disasters and wars leads us to believe that we live in a catastrophic world. The French philosopher Paul Virilio mentions “the progress of disaster” as a characteristic feature of our day and age, and states that the anthropological “horizon of expectation” is increasingly limited by the possibility of total annihilation. In his opinion, ‘progress’ has ended up being a significant movement towards extremism, as proven by Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Chernobyl or terrorism. The world resembles a schizophrenic magazine, the pages of which alternate between cheerful advertisements and terrible images of catastrophes, regularly presented in the form of spectacle by the mass media.
The proliferation of images numbs our sensitivity and proves the truth of the assertion made by Paul Valéry in the thirties: “The sensitivity of the moderns is in the process of wasting, since they need more intense excitement, a greater expenditure of energy, to feel anything at all”. The avant-garde trends of the early twentieth century entailed an intensive and competitive exercise in the renewal of styles, each ‘ism’ struggling to move beyond its predecessor, but today the power of symbolic destruction exerted by visual creation loses strength against the impact that real destruction has through the media. This explains why Baudrillard can declare that representation is no longer necessary; that a generalised aesthetic presence is well established in society, and that all that awaits us is numbness and total indifference.
In this context of the questioning of art’s traditional functions—serving as a mirror of reality, inventing imaginary worlds—I should like to draw attention to one in particular, that of art as a form of healing, a balm for social tensions and a critical device that facilitates micro-transformations of awareness in search of meaning and peace. In his treatise On Airs, Waters and Places, Hippocrates proposes a sort of human ecology and speaks of homeostasis, of the necessary balance between ‘humours’ and ‘passions’, between hormones and emotions. Today, the medicine of energy is the science of flows, rhythms and resonances according to which the world is a holistic entity, a series of interconnected and interdependent systems.
However, in the artistic realm it is historically obvious that neither the utopias of order and the system of Modernism (represented, for instance, in the work of Mondrian) nor the inflexible hygienic principles of totalitarian regimes (that hid disease and considered modern art a degenerate art) managed to conceal the shadows and the malaise of culture, that continue to reflect an unbalanced and sick world. This is why art cannot be satisfied with exposing the malaise or its symptoms, but must instead put forth new areas of analysis and act as a focal point of ideological and sensorial transformation.
Disease demands that organisms change their rhythm in order to recover lost balance (health), and has been the reason why many have chosen to devote their lives to art. Matisse began to paint during a long period of convalescence, and throughout his life would lend his pictures to sick friends, so that their compositional hedonism could relieve their anguish. Visual energies can lead viewers towards pleasure and positive thinking. Yet images can also produce rejection and violence when they express things that are emotionally or ideologically intolerable. The ‘madman’ who tries to slash the Mona Lisa and the political censorship that restricts freedom of expression are the most obvious examples of this.
Art, as a system for the production of meaning, incorporates symbolic questionings and linguistic strategies in order to configure the aesthetic accounts of a given period. From the harmony pursued by the Greeks to the tense abstract paintings by Rothko, the game of opposites characterising Western metaphysics has opposed reason, as a synonym for order, to madness; it has confronted theocratic and hierarchical systems to the anarchic and horizontal power of the masses; and it has separated science as a system of structured thought from art as a possibility of opening up poetic worlds. A scientist said recently that what distinguished him from a poet was that the latter could freely proclaim that “the sky is green”, or “the earth is as blue as an orange” (Eluard), but there are times when scientific formulations resemble poetry and moments when science appears as a poetic fantasy.
Today the theory of systems reveals the close connections between different fields of knowledge, and relativity and the principle of uncertainty undermine Newtonian certainties about the world. In 1665 Newton visualised the universe as a perfect machine supported by the law of gravity, according to which for every force working in one direction there is another one as large working in the opposite direction. The centre of gravity would be the invisible point where an object mass is concentrated and where equilibrium is obtained.
The world as a machine has been the dominant metaphor of the modern age in spheres ranging from science and sexuality to military strategy. In his book On War, Clausewitz explains how centres of gravity are defined as the enemy’s critically vulnerable points. Unlike machines, the performance of living organisms is never absolute but open, and depends on the environment to continue its progress. While classical vision concentrated on linear and consecutive processes, system thinking focuses on transactional processes, those involving interaction between various elements. Ilya Prigogine, for instance, speaks of dissipating structures that preserve their configuration by decomposing others and that through their metabolism create entropy that is dissipated in the form of degraded residues. Like dissipating structures, the process of cultural diversity also suggests that growth is the result of an ‘anthropophagous’ process, as defined by the Brazilian writer Oswald de Andrade in 1928, a process in which the knowledge of colonisers is metabolised by the colonized so as to produce new meanings.
The notion of centre of gravity applied to the world of art refers to the continuous play between equilibrium and uncertainty to create new and meaningful conceptual and aesthetic worlds. The multiplicity of trends in contemporary art and the emergence of new geographical centres of cultural significance have introduced relevant transformations in pictorial and sculptural languages and have also facilitated the balance between centre and periphery, creating new centres of gravity outside the classical hegemonic ones.
Interrelating many levels of meaning and multiple aesthetic perspectives, the exhibition entitled Centre of Gravity marks certain significant moments in the aesthetic production of the past few decades, presenting artists of international renown. The exhibition is held coinciding with the celebration of the 9th International Biennial of Istanbul and other cultural events that complement one another, turning the city into a genuine international centre of gravity. While the Biennial diligently pursues its consolidation as a reference for new artistic developments, Istanbul Modern, which opened on 11 December 2004, is taking its first steps with the aim of institutionalising the memory of modern art produced in Turkey and of bringing to Istanbul outstanding works by established artists who have revealed some of the aesthetical, social and political concerns of our convulsed world. The title of this first international exhibition also plays with the idea of Istanbul Modern as a new gravitational centre in relation to its geopolitical area and to the global context of new international museums. The artists are presenting works subtly united by an invisible common thread: that of reflection on equilibrium, either in the physical, the psychological, the cultural or the political sphere.
In the mid-eighties, the paradigmatic sculpture Three Balls Total Equilibrium Tank by Jeff Koons entailed a surprising artistic challenge. Koons, who takes no direct part in the manufacture of his works, presented three static basketball balls in a transparent container, thereby transforming the vulgarity of commercial mass-culture objects into something sublime, hyper-real, promotional and spectacular, emphasising the fetishism of merchandise, the wonder of the banal. In her fascinating performance La cabra (The Goat), Pilar Albarracín dances with a wineskin to the rhythm of the music that is played by gypsies in street shows in which a goat is a key feature. The artist’s visceral implication in this orgiastic and chaotic dance forms a sharp contrast with Koon’s cool detachment and reveals how popular art can be the repository of an ancestral wisdom that connects us to the fundamental sources of life. The wine that is spilt on the dancer’s dress alludes to blood, to the most primitive instincts and to liberation from the dominant order symbolised by lost verticality.
Two works by Monica Bonvicini are featured in the show, the video Hammering Out and the sculpture Stairway to Hell first produced for the 8th Istanbul Biennial at Entrepot n. 4 and recovered as a landmark for Istanbul Modern when the building was renovated to house the museum. Both works refer to the need to deconstruct dominant systems and are examples of the artist’s sarcastic analyses of architecture conceived as an exercise of power, a sexual metaphor or a repetitive and ultimately melancholy process. Hyperbuilding, by Rem Koolhaas, is the inflatable model of the massive though unrealised project for a compact city of 120,000 inhabitants. In this pyramidal complex measuring a thousand metres in height, interconnected skyscrapers will attain their composite stability “through an orchestration of mutual dependence” in which “each component is conceived as essential, and any element can de rebuilt independently”, to quote Koolhaas. The attempt to combine simplicity and visionary ambition turns the complex into a giant sculpture, in which the masses of interior darkness lead viewers to envisage paranoid prefigurations of the future. The changing virtual constructions by Haluk Akakçe, on the contrary, invite beholders to sail through placid spaces and evocative atmospheres, and embody the idea of constant fluctuations as the basis of a possible order. Viewers experience a strange uncertainty that does not, however, culminate in distress despite there being no linear narrative marking a beginning and an end, and even though it is not clear whether the constant transformations of the visual compositions are fortuitous or whether they follow a secret logic.
Over the past few years Kemal Önsoy has produced a large corpus of pictorial compositions that clearly reveal his awareness of permanent instability. This continual obsession is wonderfully conveyed and broadened in the helicoid styrofoam sculpture that condenses numerous references to the ephemeral and unsteady nature of the construction of such worlds, alongside the need for support that all systems have. In Anish Kapoor’s work, the quest for poetic beauty, the analysis of the void as a space full of content and the invitation to travel through the depths of light and darkness become existential metaphors. The works When I Am Pregnant (a pregnant wall), its reverse, Untitled, and Red Mirror are fascinating exercises that broaden our phenomenological perception and knowledge of the real. Santiago Sierra’s work is completely different in scope, for it focuses on the analysis of social inequalities. Sierra organises critical performances with hired workers who often represent themselves. His oeuvre reveals how the disease of contemporary man stems from the alienation that makes him a mere productive force for capital, condemning him to carry out monotonous repetitive jobs for a negligible wage. In 111 Constructions with 10 Modules and 10 Workers the artist’s instructions give rise to a choreography in which the connections between Minimalism and capital are thrown into relief. The lack of communication in love relationships, the submission of women to the tyranny of domestic life and the celebration of sexual desire and female pleasure constitute the territory that forms the background against which Ghada Amer re-appropriates the tradition of Abstract Expressionist painting. Ghada Amer uses embroidery to mark with pornographic figures the surface of the canvas. She reflects on power and submission to the dominant linguistic and ideological strategies while she consciously creates beautiful and decorative compositions.
Richard Wentworth, one of the most significant figures in British sculpture of the eighties, has created a site-specific installation hanging hundreds of books from the ceiling in the hall of the Istanbul Modern, while others cover part of the museum library. In sculptural terms, this false ceiling subverts traditional notions of stability and grants new meaning to the idea of the ready-made. The association and rearrangement of books from Eastern and Western traditions disclose the connections and the distances between cultures and convert the museum space into an area of aesthetic and conceptual debate. Maaria Wirkkala also uses books in her work Found a Mental Connection II, albeit only two—a copy of the Koran and a copy of the Bible—that have been left open at the two ends of a floating iron bridge. In her sculpture, different groups of animals walk from each end of the bridge, crossing over without really meeting. This work, inspired by the artist’s desire to symbolically link the two banks of the Bosphorus, appears as a metaphor for exodus and passage, although the allegorical reference to an encounter is left disturbingly in suspension.
The use of the ready-made as a formal and conceptual strategy did not discourage other artists from working with sculpted figures in the mid-eighties. Muñoz created fascinating and terrifying set designs, generating narratives and psychological spaces endowed with a strange underlying violence. Muñoz clarified the difference between a statue and a figurative sculpture marking the artistic autonomy of the latter and its ability to freeze and dislocate time. His work Broken Noses Carrying A Bottle furthers the legacy of Goya and shows the violence on which our world stands. The rich tradition of performance art has been updated by artists like Janine Antoni, renowned for her reinterpretation and transformation into sculpture of daily physical rituals such as sleeping, washing, chewing, etc. In Touch, Antoni keeps her balance as she walks a tightrope that is aligned with the horizon of the sea. This work is about effort, ambition and control; physical and psychological balance, taking risks, the possibility of failure and the eventuality of falling; above all, it is about the power of our will to make our dreams come true and the possibility of keeping our balance in uncertain circumstances.
Memory is a fundamental centre of gravity in the work of Louise Bourgeois, Gülsün Karamustafa and Christian Boltanski. Two aluminium bodies and two series of drawings by Louise Bourgeois, all of them made in 2004, present the artist’s vitality and talent for continuing to translate emotional tensions, relations of identification and dependence and the energy of the unconscious in a constant search for sublimation. The similarities and differences between the two gleaming organic masses allude to the distance and the proximity that unite two bodies (mother and daughter perhaps) in a dialogue that is tense and silent, magnetic and inescapable, for each constitutes for the other a centre they are bound to flee from and return to.
Memory of a Square (Perceived from An Interior) made in 2005 is the most recent work by Gülsün Karamustafa, presented here for the first time. Using two projection screens the artist offsets public and private memories. Taking Taksim Square as the symbolic heart of Istanbul, Gülsün Karamustafa confronts memories of a public space with intimate situations in the domestic sphere. Reality and fiction, documentary footage and staged representation are used to update echoes of the past. Her film is not only a tribute to a square in Istanbul but to well known squares in cities all over the world, squares with their own historical and political backgrounds.
Christian Boltanski’s entire oeuvre is deeply linked to memory. He uses personal and cultural recollections in relation to history to create sculptures and installations in which light and darkness coexist. His proposal for Centre of Gravity is an interactive exercise that turns the museum into a place that welcomes the memory of its visitors. The artist requires the complicity of viewers, who are invited to bring photos from their family album to the museum, where they will be photocopied before shaping a huge collective mural. The resulting collage is a form of shared dramatisation in which the fragile quality of the photocopies alludes to the volatile and ephemeral nature of memory.
All the works displayed are propounded as centres for condensing meaning in order to transform the exhibition into a place for symbolic exchange between artists and the community. Helping to form critical and sensitive citizens and to promote new aesthetic and political dialogues are undoubtedly fundamental tasks for museums. Aesthetic experience implies a breach in the automatic reading of signs, for it reflects and subverts representational space proposing new gazes, new reflections. Paul Valéry wrote that poetic creation is the creation of expectation, and political hope for social change can also be included in this will. Today, it is necessary to encourage new relations based on desire, to establish transferences with people, objects or symbolic systems to favour the creation of that ‘transferential plasticity’ that will help us recover and heal the world in which we live. Expectation, pleasure and reflection are what we hope this exhibition, within its bounds, will help to generate.
Chief Curator, Istanbul Modern