By Hannah Onstad
In the New Industries Building, once used for prison labor, a Chinese dragon kite beckons with welcome, exuberant in color, affixed in stasis—and so we are transported into the exhibition space of Ai Weiwei’s museum-like installation on Alcatraz—a mix of portraiture in Lego assemblage, splashes of color, monochrome blossoms, overt and surreptitious messages among the vestiges of mythical birds grounded and confined.
The confrontation begins at the start of the exhibition as visitors come face to face with the massive dragon as it snakes through the opening room, coiled and ready to spring, this dragon wants to stream out the double doors, out of captivity. Bearing invitation to ominous acts or actions, the dragon’s message is one we don’t normally associate with welcoming the new year: words like “breaking, disobeying, damaging, plotting, waging, undermining” are subtly woven into the fabric of the panels. This new year is upon us, and timely, as a contingent of visitors to the exhibition wore paper tributes tacked to their clothing with names and images of Rashida McBride, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and others.
“Privacy is a function of liberty.”
— Edward Snowden
Simple missives, each an economy of words, like a quote from Edward Snowden, Irom Chanu Sharmila, or Nito Alves, hang from intermittent panels, belying the immense sacrifice of those who have risked their lives for freedom of expression, daring visitors to ponder what it means to take the privilege of the First Amendment for granted.
In the darkened basement, “Refraction” sits grounded and fragmented, composed of more than 60 solar cooking panels, festooned with tea kettles, a poignant symbol to the Tibetan people’s dependence on the whims of the sun for cooking. Viewed only from a distance the massive weight of the skeletal armature feels like the broken and forgotten fuselage from the wreckage of a doomed flight.
Everywhere the exhibit balances beauty with resonant messages invoking intensity and a passionate look at freedom of expression and freedom of movement as meditations for daily life, replete with references to birds, homages to national blossoms of imprisoned radicals and the desire for flight, all of which are emblematic of the times, the history of the Rock—from its brutal past to its symbolic stand for Indian justice—to its current use as a bird refuge and tourist haven. For Ai Weiwei every effort imbues economy and intent, and he does not waste the opportunity to awaken Alcatraz’s boatloads of annual visitors to the beauty and privilege of freedom.
By Hannah Onstad
This exhibit appeared in the de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park,
San Francisco, between November 8, 2014 – February 16, 2015
At the start of "The Political Line" visitors are met with a quote from the artist. Followed by an early work from 1978 when the artist was 20 titled Everybody Knows Where Meat Comes From, It Comes From the Store, a ceiling-to-floor scroll in black on white with red splattered throughout. From these initial words, we immediately understand the artist as activist. However, after that, there is no further text from the artist within the show, save a single notebook entry in a journal. Haring’s energetic body of work speaks for itself.
Keith Haring (May 4, 1958 – February 16, 1990) imbued his work with meaning tackling significant issues of the day—AIDS, greed, capitalism, war, and environmental concerns. His work isn’t subtle, and while his themes aren't always new, yet Haring’s work holds up and feels as striking, arresting, and relevant today as it was thirty years ago.
Haring’s recognizable figures are pared down to nothing more than an outline devoid of details, yet these figures, which are sustained throughout his work, are expressive, limber, provocative and versatile. Consistently throughout his dozen years of paintings, it is the figure that tells the story. The figures appear alone, in groups, actively engaged with life, sometimes reflecting the injustices Haring sees, sometimes expressing the beauty of life and love—always accessible and elemental in their humanity.
Haring himself was as equally recognizable as his art in the 1980s. His relationships with Andy Warhol, Madonna, and Jean-Michel Basquiat are explored, though not in as much detail as I would have liked to see. The show does include A Pile of Crowns for Jean-Michel Basquiat, which Haring did upon Basquiat’s death, one of two large triangular canvases, along with Silence=Death, the former pointing upward and the latter downward, both done in 1988.
One of the more nuanced canvases is one he completed the year before he died titled The Last Rainforest. In it, Haring overlays a more detailed narrative in black outline over a pale layer of abstraction in the background creating a sense of chaos, yet coherent as a whole. The canvas evokes a feeling of the animals, people, and trees in the foreground struggling for recognition amid the almost unseen forces in the background.
The symbolism in Haring’s ecocide and capitalism works are part of a broader language of iconography used by other artists at the time, and evocative of some of the work of Philip Guston and Manuel Ocampo—picking up on themes of colonialism, the Catholic Church, and the new widespread global capitalism with its wake of environmental destruction. Driving home on Mission Street after the show, I couldn't help but feel the influence of Haring on a newer generation of contemporary graffiti artists like Zio Ziegler whose work shows some affinity to Haring’s almost tribal patterning.
Despite the heavy themes, The Political Line exhibit feels uplifting. The vivid color, bold lines, dashes that convey movement and dance, all manage to impart a sense that mankind is in this together, as Haring reminds us, to reflect on what we do, make change happen, and celebrate the good times.
The Last Rainforest, Keith Haring, left.
Detail from Ecocide, Keith Haring, right.
The Political Line, de Young Museum, through February 16, 2015
Three years after its release, a dear friend purchased this book for me after spying it on the £1 table in a basement bookshop in Edinburgh presumably because he knew how much I worship Joan Didion. (I had recently posted a b&w photo of her looking forlorn and smoking in front of her Corvette in the 1970s.) I started the book on the plane home to California—she’s so iconically American, I couldn’t bear to read it in the UK for fear that she might seem how I felt…out of place.
Didion opens this follow-up to her previous memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, which chronicled the year following her husband’s death, by describing a particular color of sky. It’s that magical time at dusk when the blue begins to deepen before turning to black—a slow fade from azure to indigo—that has always brought a sense of the night’s possibility along with a hint of reckoning. Apropos perhaps given that Blue Nights is laced with Didion’s recollections about raising her daughter, and treads lightly around the subject of her daughter’s untimely death at 39.
As a writer who usually deals with difficult subject matter cleanly, Didion seems to have written this in a fugue. In this subject, she may have met her match, as the book never satisfactorily resolves the obvious questions about the circumstances of her daughter’s death—how a seemingly healthy, recently married woman becomes ill and dies, just like that, without explanation? And how does a consummate journalist like Didion ignore this fact?
As other reviewers have pointed out, namely Jennifer Matesa in The Fix, Didion seems unable or unwilling to root out what may have been the cause of her daughter’s death, gently skirting a substance abuse problem, while Meghan O’Rourke in Slate, suggests it is a lack of grieving but regret that clouds her frame. These reviewers may be too harsh, as the book needs to be viewed in context of the author's whole body of work.
Given that Blue Nights has been out for years, it’s hardly worth commenting on now. Yet somehow it is. This book will be read and remembered as Didion’s most vulnerable work. It meanders through a sacred subject, motherhood, and specifically, the unmapped path of a mother’s love and a daughter’s death. Within the pages of Blue Nights, you can see that this nearly undoes her as a writer. She reveals that the rhythm of her writing is off. She calls it a “directness” that characterizes her writing now. Writing is, as it always has been for Didion, a matter of style. But here she is off her game, unable to pull off what has always worked—her craft. Grief will do this, as will shame or regret. She gives us access to her rawness, and at the same time carefully guards her daughter’s privacy.
Mothers share an impulse to protect our children even when we can’t, even when we can no longer do so, in death. Maternal love is a lot like unrequited love. We love and we know not what will become of them. And if the unthinkable happens, yes, it is an event from which we do not return the same. Through first The Year of Magical Thinking and then Blue Nights, we’ve watched as this writer took two fatal blows to the chest, though the first one just slowed her down.
In this way, Blue Nights reads more like a love poem to her daughter, and to the life they once shared, which, at 77, seems to be the author's prerogative. She is Gibbons' Silver Swan—and brave to let us see her slowly coming undone. In this final farewell, to her family, her fans, the life she knew and her long and accomplished career, she’s earned the right to play it as it lays.
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About this Blog
Written by Hannah Onstad, unless specified otherwise. Occasionally, posts here have been previously published elsewhere, and if so, that is noted at the top.