Sunday, April 29, 2012

Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun

Creative ideas developing concurrently without their creators ever having known each others' work happens more frequently than one might imagine. For an example of this phenomenon, visit the Art Institute of Chicago and see the photography exhibition Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun. My friend and I took part in a docent-led talk where we learned that this collection of 80 distinctive works featuring Cahun's gender-bending, ambiguous images, put up for auction in the 80s and exhibited for the first time in the United States, had probably not been seen by Cindy Sherman at the time. Sherman, a New York-based photographer who first rose to fame in the 1970s, made her mark by posing as real or fantasy characters in her own work, much as Cahun (nee Lucy Schwob) had done. But Cahun, unlike Sherman, never intended her photos to be seen by a mass audience; instead, hers were highly personal images to be enjoyed privately by herself and her partner, Suzanne Malherbe (aka Marcel Moore).

In order to get a sense of the highly-charged intellectual and political climate Cahun lived and worked in, it's best to look closely at the rather small photographs - take your time. Cahun was a part of the Surrealist, Left-wing Paris milieu of the 1920s and 1930s. Andre Breton, Henri Michaux, and Robert Desnos were close friends and kindred spirits. Breton applauded and and encouraged Cahun's writing in particular. The photographs reveal a strong Surrealist influence as well as changes in the European social landscape of the time, particularly the fluctuating roles of individuals. One remarkable photograph, taken during the Nazi occupation of the Isle of Jersey (where Cahun and Malherbe eventually relocated to, active resistance workers and propagandists until their incarceration), depicts her as a matronly woman clutching a Nazi star in her teeth while standing on a sign that says "Private Property."

My friend remarked that Cahun appeared to be a completely different person in each of her photographs - not just in the more obvious male/female images, but in the overall look of her face. I was reminded of Shame, starring one of my favorite actors, Michael Fassbender, a film during which I had the same thought. While the story left me a little cold, I never ever tired of watching Fassbender's chameleonic visage. I also couldn't take my eyes off of him in Fish Tank, Inglorious Basterds, Hunger, and Jane Eyre.

Is it a gift or a curse to "shape-shift" in this way? How do you know who you are seeing for certain? It is profoundly fascinating, yet deeply unsettling. Which mask will you wear today? And which mask will others wear?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

This is Not a Film

Is it or isn't it? That is one of many questions raised by This is Not a Film, a 2011 "effort" by Iranian director Jafar Panahi and documentary film maker, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. The title of the film pays homage to Belgian artist Rene Magritte's Surrealist work This is Not a Pipe (Ceci n’est pas une pipe). Panahi’s film about/within a film was smuggled out of Iran to France on a USB drive tucked inside a birthday cake and was screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, where fellow Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami and Juliette Binoche vocally protested Panahi's house arrest in Tehran. Many films being made in Iran that are critical of the current regime, including Kiarostami's, could conceivably be judged in the same manner, yet it was Panahi the religious rulers targeted. 

My friend and I were fortunate to have the opportunity to enjoy a panel discussion following the screening of This is Not a Film at the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago. The panel members were moderator Steve Bynum, senior producer of Worldview on WBEZ 91.5; Professor Hamid Naficy of Northwestern University and author of A Social History of Iranian Cinema; and Milos Stehlik, founder/director of Facets Multimedia. The discussion revolved around themes and trends in Iranian cinema, which share many of the characteristics of films made under Communist and other repressive governments. What I found intriguing was the idea that once these regimes were toppled, artists lost their common cause against which to protest and create art – a very powerful raison d’etre. Despite the potential for a lull in output of creative endeavors, I hope that Iranian artists will eventually experience this phenomenon, if only because of the greater freedom it will signify for all Iranians.

While I watched this provocative film, I kept second-guessing my reactions. What was I really seeing? Basically, it is a home movie of Panahi in his apartment eating breakfast, taking calls from his lawyer and from various friends and colleagues, all the while being "directed" by Mirtahmasb. so as not to be in violation of the "no directing" fatwah. Panahi attempts to read his screenplay, describe his process, and even map out the storyboard of the film he was prevented from making. There moments are all interspersed with comic relief in the form of Igi the pet iguana and Micky, a neighbor's yappy dog. I am a fan of Panahi’s friend, Kiarostami, and have seen a number of his films, including The Traveller, Close-Up, Taste of Cherry, and the 2010 Certified Copy. What runs through these films is a kind of unreality bordering on surrealism that forces the viewer to continually question what they are observing. For me. this moment reached a high point when Pahani took out his cell phone and began to "film" his cameraman as well as a conveniently photogenic neighbor who also happens to be a student at a Tehran Arts University while moonlighting as a garbage man in the building. Based on all of this, I wondered if Panahi had set out to deceive everyone on all levels with a wink and a nudge. Whatever the motivations, the viewer is forced to contend with something much deeper that is happening. I could not always fathom it, but found it utterly compelling.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, an Amnesty International spokeswoman informed us that Panahi recently lost the appeal of his sentence to six years in prison and was prohibited from making films for 20 years. He continues to live under house arrest and can be taken away at any time.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Island Time

One of the many things I enjoy about traveling is the opportunity to discover a place through its flora and fauna. Today, my friend and I visited the St. George Village Botanical Gardens, situated on the ruins of a Danish sugar cane plantation dating back to the 1700s. We wandered through the area and saw astonishing varieties of both local and non-native flowers, trees, and plants.  I like the delicate national flower of the US Virgin Islands, the yellow Ginger Thomas, but my favorite is the frangipani (above right). There were some impressive almond, carambola, cedar, and mahogany trees, too.

Although these creatures were absent from the gardens today, they have certainly been visible during my visit to St. Croix: the odd mongoose scurrying across the road, numerous iguanas at the beach and also scurrying across the road (one unfortunate fellow did not make it), as well as countless geckos. I remember them from my time in China and India and I was trying to figure out a way to smuggle one back to the States. They are quite cute. I resisted this impulse, however, and instead brought back some shells.

Besides enjoying the flora and fauna, we visited Point Udall, the easternmost part of the United States. We saw the Whim House, a former Danish sugar cane plantation. Lots of beach time, picking up the odd sea urchin shell, drinking tamarind juice, and avoiding getting hit with coconuts falling from the trees kept us busy in a leisurely way. The Curzon Rum distillery tour was interesting, albeit brief. Most people go for the free rum cocktails at the end anyway. Ours today was a refreshing one called The Creeper. We had some great Caribbean food at a local favorite in Christiansted called Kim's. We drove through a rain forest in Frederiksted on the west end of the island and poked around in some abandoned sugar mills along the way. A pair of falcons was nesting in one of them. Speaking of birds, in addition to numerous shore birds, white egrets as well as chickens and roosters have free reign of the island.

Of the three US Virgin Islands, St. Croix is the largest and yet the least developed. Quite a bit of the land is protected area; hence, you get a feeling for the environment Christopher Columbus and later, the Danish settlers encountered when they arrived. What's missing are glimpses of the native Taino Indians, whose population was wiped out quickly due to European-borne smallpox. St. John and St. Thomas are more touristy, besieged with cruise ships as they are, and I have no desire whatsoever to visit. No, I like my islands as island-like as possible and I'm happy to have experienced the authenticity of St. Croix.