BIP2012, short for the 8th International Biennial of Photography and Visual Arts in Liège, Belgium, has on offer an enjoyably eclectic exploration of the theme 'Images of love, love of the image' - all the way from Ed van der Elsken, around whose long shadow the Dutch country in focus exhibition is centered, to young and raw Liègeois Lara Gasparotto.
BIP2012 runs till May 6th. In-depth information in this press release.
In a (by Dutch standards) remote part of the Veluwe stands the monumental radio tower of Radio Kootwijk. Built in 1923 as a long-distance telegraphic station for the then Dutch colonies, particularly in Indonesia, today this concrete cathedral has lost its function but survives as a mysterious piece of modernist architecture.
One of the first structures in the Netherlands to be made of reinforced concrete, its architect, Julius Luthmann, designed the building to resemble a sphinx. Its elegant proportions and especially its decorative details are fascinating, offering a rare example of art nouveau in concrete.
As a bonus, the Veluwe then offered a stunning sunset with sundogs...
Much of M.C. Escher's graphic work explores the boundaries between the concrete and the abstract, between representation and pattern, depth and surface, form and ground. His three 'Metamorphoses' form perhaps the most impressive examples of this fascination, with their cyclical designs that morph back and forth between abstract tesselations and 'individualized' birds, fish and even entire cities escaping from the straightjacket of their origin, only to change again into something else.
Unlike Mondrian, whose work shows a clear journey from the concrete into the abstract, Escher remained in this middle territory and always kept the link to the representational world intact, even if his worlds got progressively more impossible. It gave his work an accessibility that was long frowned upon in the art world.
But like Mondrian's trees, there are a few of Escher's works that are poised exactly - and magically - between the concrete and the abstract. Interestingly, they all involve reflections of trees.
One example is 'Puddle' ('Modderplas', 1952), a woodcut depicting in perfect balance two realities: a puddle on a muddy road, along with tracks from a car, a bicycle and a pedestrian; and the reflection of trees and the sky. The full moon adds a subtle element of Japanese tranquility.
For one of the two realities in this work Escher reused an older woodcut: the reflected trees are from 'Calvi Corsica' (1933), a more conventional landscape piece whose elaborate silhouetted trees are contrasted with a sunny vista of a waterside town in the background. By extracting these trees and inserting them in the reflection of 'Puddle', they become two-dimensional patterns, still recognizable as upside-down trees but 'cut out' of reality in the strange mirroring shape of the puddle.
A step further is the lithograph 'Three Worlds' ('Drie werelden', 1955), which shows the mirror surface of a pond where three realities coincide: the water's surface with floating leaves, the pond itself with a large fish beneath its surface, and the reflection of trees and the sky.
Here, too, the balance between the three worlds is such that the eye is free to focus on any one at a time, or 'unfocus' and take it all in at once as an abstract composition. The fish, in particular, serves as a visual anchor to the representational world. However, it is a subtle, slightly blurry and mysterious shape beneath the water’s surface and easily glanced over.
The third example is also the earliest, the linocut 'Rippled Surface' ('Rimpeling', 1950), showing again the reflection of trees and a full moon in water, with two concentric ripples disturbing the reflection to create strange zigzag patterns.
Like 'Puddle', it shows two realities: the water surface and the reflected trees. But here the water is not framed by the road, as in 'Puddle', nor is there anything visible on or below the surface, as in 'Three Worlds'. The water is only visible in the ephemeral ripples on its surface. In other words, the one reality only exists in its disturbance of the other.
In its simplicity, 'Rippled Surface' accomplishes most intensely the aim of extracting an abstract image out of a still recognizable reality. Its effect is both of contemplative stillness - again with an Oriental atmosphere - and of strangeness and wonder.
In his essay 'Approaches to Infinity' ('Oneindigheidsbenaderingen', 1959), Escher talks of his sense of wonder at the natural laws that shape our world. Specifically he talks of crystals "growing in the earth's crust", but it equally applies to such a simple thing as the complex patterns created by ripples on a surface of water reflecting trees...
There is something in such laws that takes the breath away. They are not discoveries or inventions of the human mind, but exist independently of us. In a moment of clarity, one can at most discover that they are there and take them into account.
For more exploration, WikiPaintings has an impressively complete Escher gallery.
George Steiner's 'In Bluebeard's Castle', subtitled 'Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture' (1971) is a dense, searching and oldfashionedly erudite investigation of the remaining moral foundations of Western culture after the holocaust.
In other ways, too, this is a quintessentially 20th century text. Still firmly rooted in an old world intellectual tradition - if only in the way the book is intended "in memoration" of T.S. Eliot's 'Notes Towards the Definition of Culture' (1948) - but at the same time marking perhaps the last time Culture could be discussed in such a monolythic way.
It's no coincidence that Steiner talks of "current Western culture, or post-culture". More commonly known as postmodernism, for Steiner it has the specific meaning of culture-after-the-holocaust, when the old ideal of Culture (or Bildung) had failed as a safeguard against barbarism, and the new ideal of everyone piecing together their own private piece of culture started to take root.
Here's a key passage, also illustrating Steiner's penchant for intellectual namedropping.
The wide-scale reversion to torture and mass murder, the ubiquitous use of hunger and imprisonment as political means, mark not only a crisis of culture but, quite conceivably, an abandonment of the rational order of man. It may well be that it is a mere fatuity, an indecency to debate of the definition of culture in the age of the gas oven, of the arctic camps, of napalm. The topic may belong solely to the past history of hope. But we should not take this contingency to be a natural fact of life, a platitude. We must keep in sharp focus its hideous novelty or renovation. We must keep vital in ourselves a sense of scandal so overwhelming that it affects every significant aspect of our position in history and society. We have, as Emily Dickinson would have said, to keep the soul terribly surprised.
I haven't been able to locate this in Dickinson, but what a sharp phrase, "to keep the soul terribly surprised".
I cannot stress this enough. To Voltaire and Diderot the bestial climate of our national and social conflicts would have seemed a lunatic return to barbarism. To most intelligent men and women of the nineteenth century a prediction that torture and massacre were soon to be endemic again in "civilized" Europe would have seemed a nightmarish joke. There is nothing natural about our present condition. There is no self-evident logic or dignity in our current knowledge that "anything is possible." In fact, such knowledge corrupts and lowers the threshold of outrage (only Kierkegaard foresaw both the inchoate possibility and the corruption). The numb prodigality of our acquaintance with horror is a radical human defeat.