Everything’s Invisible

Ryan Coffey asked me to read for the closing night of his 2008 show at Adobe Books. At the bar afterward he presented me with a collage that centered on an egg made of gold leaf. Floating above it there was a small red stain like an accidental Chinese ideogram — Ryan assured me that this was blood, that it was human, and I began to feel so at home talking with him. I remember that there was a well- rendered graphite portrait of the poet Philip Whalen hanging high in that show.


A Lens on the World

still from _Possible Lives_, directed by Sandra Gugliotta, 2007

still from Possible Lives, directed by Sandra Gugliotta, 2007

In lieu of a robust travel budget, there’s no better way to experience foreign lands than through their cinema offerings. I’m repeatedly stunned by the range of cultures I’m exposed to by attending just a handful of the many films that screen over the course of a year at the multitude of local festivals and cultural institutions that include ATA, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, SFMOMA, and the Pacific Film Archive. Some countries, though, still have difficulty finding U.S. distribution for their filmmakers despite all these potential outlets.

Enter the Global Film Initiative. GFI’s mission is to promote cross-cultural understanding through the medium of cinema, and since 2004 has offered up its annual Global Lens film series that travels the world, both to fixed locales such as the MoMA in New York, and (as I pleasantly discovered on a recent flight) more fluid distribution channels such as Virgin Airlines and the LinkTV cable channel. This past Friday, Global Lens 2009 arrived in the Bay Area, kicking off a two week stay at the Rafael Theater in San Rafael. Iran, Brazil, Macedonia, Mozambique, and Kazakhstan are just some of the countries represented. When was the last time you saw a film from Mozambique?

I’ve screened two of the GL2009 films so far—Possible Lives from Argentina, and Those Three from Iran—and they both quickly challenge one’s stereotypes of these countries by setting them both not in a steamy, bustling metropolis or sweltering desert, but barren winter wastelands. Lives starts out as a simple man-gone-missing story but then evolves into a meditative, Borgesian puzzle. Those Three takes a more Kaftkaesque approach as it follows the doomed journey of three Irani soldiers gone AWOL. While the language and certain cultural details might feel alien, both films pursue narrative and themes that are familiar (if not universal) and thus bring these characters closer to us as viewers. That’s the wonder of foreign film and this series—we are reminded of the common links between disparate peoples, rather than the differences that politics and news media often purport.

The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography: Sandra Phillips and W.S. di Piero in Conversation

Eikoh Hosoe, Yukio Mishima, Ordeal by Roses #6, 1961-1962; Gift of Howard Greenberg © Eikoh Hosoe

Eikoh Hosoe, Yukio Mishima, Ordeal by Roses #6, 1961-1962. Gift of Howard Greenberg © Eikoh Hosoe

One of our current collection exhibitions, The Provoke Era: Postwar Japanese Photography presents a number of pictures from that turbulent moment in Japanese history. After the devastation of World War II, Japan entered a period of American military occupation and modernization. Photographers reacted to the drastic sociocultural changes taking place by forging a new visual language that broke with tradition while it memorialized the old culture and recorded the new. SFMOMA began collecting this work in the 1970s, under curators John Humphrey and Van Deren Coke, but the bulk of the collection has been built by senior curator of photography Sandra Phillips over the last two decades. Here, she joins in conversation with poet, essayist, and translator W.S. Di Piero, an avid fan of postwar Japanese photography.

Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled [Yokosuka], from the series Chewing Gum and Chocolate, 1966, printed 1974; Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust © Shomei Tomatsu

Shomei Tomatsu, Untitled (Yokosuka), from the series Chewing Gum and Chocolate. 1966, printed 1974. Collection of the Sack Photographic Trust © Shomei Tomatsu

Sandra Phillips: Simone, what intrigues you most about postwar Japanese photography?

W.S. Di Piero : I’m interested in it for two reasons: it has the archival memorializing street photography does, and it’s archival memorializing that’s taking place in one of the most critical periods of Japanese history—that time from1945 to roughly the late 1960s, when the American presence was felt first in a terrifying way, and then later in a very different way during the occupation. And all of that was experienced and taken in by these photographers. I think Daido Moriyama was seven or eight years old when they dropped the bomb. He was young, but he was of consciousness when that happened.

SP: Shomei Tomatsu talks about being a kid of, I think, eleven, when he would not go down into the bomb shelters. Instead, he stayed upstairs in his room and looked at the bombs exploding, as though they were fireworks. He was both terrified and fascinated by them. I think that’s the whole key to his work, frankly, being terrified and fascinated by what’s happened. These photographers who experienced the war as children grew up and were—like the Japanese people as a whole—trying to deal with the fact that the Americans were still there, on all these military bases.


Introducing “Who This?”: an art ID experiment

As a guest columnist for the next four months, I am now taking submissions for a new blogging series entitled “Who This?” consisting of images of contemporary artworks posted by collectors who have forgotten who the makers are. Face it, what art lover hasn’t picked up a work from a local nonprofit auction only to realize a while later that they’ve lost the darn piece of paper that lists the artist’s name? And, heavens, the artist didn’t sign it in the first place, relegating themselves to unending obscurity. Or maybe your roommate moved out and left behind something that they had collected but neglected to fill you in on the details about. So now you sit, stumped, wondering… “Who this?”

That work sits anonymously in your possession, like a lost soul. Is it famous? Is it minor? Who knows? Come out from the shadows and let the rest of us, a savvy viewing public, help you in identifying who the heck made it. Collectively we are a smart bunch. I’m sure we can figure it out. Think of this as a very minor contemporary version of Antiques Roadshow.

Let US help YOU help YOURSELF in knowing just what you own.

To submit to “Who This?” please email me a clear image of the work in question (stephaniesyjuco at gmail.com), and any supplemental info you may have on it: what auction or situation did you get it from? around what time? any distinguishing markings? etc. This will be posted in the next installment of “Who This?” You, however, must be the owner or acquirer of the work and be in a real dilemma as to knowing who the artist is. We, the readership, will offer you the service of putting our heads to it. Please, no jokesters in the vein of submitting non-goth photos to the website “Goth or Not?” In other words, don’t try to fake us out with fake art or something. This is real and sincere and we seek to help you.

Thank you.

1001 words: 09.27.09

an ongoing series of individual images presented for speculation and scrutiny, with only tags at the bottom to give context. Because sometimes words are never enough…



The Fisher Collection + SFMOMA

This morning SFMOMA announced the development of what looks to be one heck of a partnership with Gap Inc. founders Doris and Don Fisher:  One that will tuck their renowned collection—one of the world’s leading in contemporary art—neatly at home at our museum.

The Fisher Collection includes more than 1,100 works, by artists such as Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Anselm Kiefer, Ellsworth Kelly, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Gerhard Richter, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly, and Andy Warhol.

Huge. Chron article here.

1001 words: 09.25.09

In the spirit of this being a blog connected to an art museum, this post inaugurates a new series of sorts: individual images presented for speculation and scrutiny, with only tags at the bottom to give context. Because sometimes words are never enough…


(thank you Lilledeshan Bose for sending me the image)

Two Letters (with Gifts) from David Enos


I used to crowd into the back room of Edinburgh Castle each Monday night to watch new films by David Enos. This must have been circa 2005-6. I think of Light My Fire as his first true classic. It is the story of the Doors told in perfectly painted slips of paper with a revolving soundtrack: “He put his books on…He put his boots on…He put his boots on…” It was followed by The Dennis Wilson Story, In Service of the Waxen Moon, Joke Night, Leonard Cohen in Alberta, and Ringo. These are just the favorites I’m remembering now, not to even mention his many collaborations that were first shown at Edinburgh. Those with Glenn Wait and the fabulous Sarah Enid Hagey stand out in my memory.

I think of David as I do Jack Smith and George and Mike Kuchar, anything he makes is of interest to me, it has never been drab or without humor. This past year Margaret Tedesco showed David’s films as well as works on paper at [2nd Floor Projects]. These paintings and drawings were part of a series he was doing on different Jims, namely Jim Jones, Jim Henson, and Jim Morrison. Below I have reproduced two letters and some of the gifts David sent with them, lots of comics and cards and a cut away film. The first letter must date from early 2008. The second was sent a month or two ago. (more…)

On the road with ORIGINAL PLUMBING

There’s nothing worse than being sick on tour and that’s where I’m at right now. Blowing snot into a ragged gas station napkin while my tourmates discreetly look the other way. Being on tour, on the road in a van with other performers, is like living in the tiniest studio apartment eve, for one month, with six roommates. The tour is Sister Spit, I started it in the 90s with the poet Sini Anderson, first as a weekly open mic for girls only, an alternative to the boy-heavy open mics that raged through San Francisco at the start of the last decade. The free event ran for two years until slowly the poets stopped coming, replaced by girls with acoustic guitars doing Ani DiFranco covers. We called it a day. Two years is a long time to run a free, weekly poetry open mic. After that we got jealous of all our friends whose shitty punk bands managed to embark on cross-country tours. They didn’t make much money but they had adventures. None of the writers I knew had any money anyway and we all craved adventure, so Sini and I took Sister Spit on the road in 1997. Twelve years later I’m zooming through Europe, bringing the show with its ever-changing lineup of novelists, performance artists, zinesters and poets into a new foreign land each night. It’s our first time outside North America and our first time reading to an audience of non-native English speakers. We’re a spoken word show, we talk. Some people suggested this might be a bad idea but so far it’s been excellent. Last night in Munich the crowd called us back for three encores. This has never happened to us anywhere. I think we could have even kept going, but like I said I’m sick and was anxious to crawl into my sleeping bag on a mattress the nice German event promoters had arranged for us in one of the venue’s spare rooms.

Today our highway is flanked by forest that Kat Marie Yoas, the performer sitting beside me, observes is like completely fairy tale forestland. And it really is. Isn’t this where fairy tales were born? Nightmares, too.. Yesterday I read an article about the holocaust in Harper’s while crossing from Austria into Germany, and as sickening as it always is to read about the holocaust, reading about it in Germany is more disturbing. What happened in these woods? How old are the trees?


Drawing Down Spirits: Sacred Ground Markings of Vodou in San Francisco

Haitian Voudou Mambo Florencia Pierre drawing Veves

Haitian Vodou Mambo Florencia Pierre drawing Veves

A Haitian visual artist named Florencia Pierre visited San Francisco this weekend and blessed the ground of a public park with her drawings. She is a priestess of the sacred practice of vodou. What may look at first glance like an outdoor scene from some rural part of Haiti actually happened in San Francisco’s Mission District Sunday, September 19th at about one O’clock in the Afternoon. That day I had the pleasure of experiencing a casually ingenious, seamlessly organic blend of dance, visual art, narrative and ritual theater in the form of sacred worship. The ritual veve installation was the highlight of the Haitian Dance and Drum Conference, which began Friday, September 18th in Oakland and ended in San Francisco on Sunday with this ceremony. A veve is a ritual ground drawing done in Haitian vodou ceremonies to invite the presence of divine spirits. It is a deeply African ceremony comprised of Yoruba and Kongo practices. The ritual engaged all of my senses at once. I smelled the Florida water and Rum sprayed into the air and tasted fresh fruits from an altar that was virtually glowing with primary colors in mid-day summer light. As I watched Mambo Florencia sprinkle corn meal on the ground to deftly create ideograms that represent the presence of African spirits, I swayed to the sound of drums and felt the presence of the Loas (spirits) that represent Love, War and the Ocean. She was drawing down spirits.