Thursday, 17 February 2011

Douglas Gordon's K.364

I was lucky. When I entered the labyrinthine screening halls (there are two wall-sized angled screens showing different angles of the same scene from Douglas Gordon's latest film, K.364) the piece was in the midst of the exuberant first movement of Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola (aka K.364, the codified numbering system used to catalogue Mozart's oeuvre). Two Jewish men were doing what they do best - playing their instruments with a gritty immediacy. The intimacy of the camera work with the head of the conductor slipping into view and blurred instrumentalists from the orchestra in the background while her hands danced into shot gave a strange almost slo-mo conter-point to the music's jaunty dotted rhythms.

I've heard the rest of the film dips into pretension with the prolonged train journey taking the musicians from Berlin to Warsaw for the concert I was so enjoying. Train journeys carrying Jewish passengers from West to East have obvious Holocaust-era symbolism. Our two you men talk about their forebears taking a similar route 70 years ago to their deaths, not to make music.

But there are other resonances here too. In 1943 a women-only orchestra was created at Auschwitz concentration camp. The musicians were protected from being gassed or worked to death by their luck at playing an instrument. At one point, a woman called Alma Rose was the conductor of the orchestra, Gustav Mahler's niece.

1941 was the 150 anniversary of Mozart's death. Under Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Propaganda Minister, the first music festival devoted to the Austrian composer was given, book-ended by a Nazi burial ceremony for the composer. Wreaths from Hitler, Goering and the SS were displayed outside Romanesque-Gothic St Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna at the festival's close.

Can Jews comfortably play Wagner's music because of his well-known anti-semitism as well as his appropriation by the Nazis? Wagner's music was often played at Nuremberg rallies. Mozart doesn't generate the same ambivalences no matter who is playing him. The librettist of his most important operas, Lorenzo da Ponte, was a Jew and Mozart's enthusiastic membership of the Masons was conveniently air-brushed by the Nazis.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

John Stezaker, Whitechapel Gallery until March 18th

The pleasure of looking at John Stezaker's work is the shiver of seeing something banal made strange. Studio shots of long-dead actors and hand tinted postcards of waterfalls and landscapes are hackneyed and banal. But when Stezaker lays one of these tired images on top of another, or just slices or folds into a photograph, a strange alchemy takes place. Jolted, we see both the material reality of the photo - look it's been chopped up! while still being seduced by the tidal pull of its image.

Like all collage - these pictures play games with our visual perception. While much collage, even going back to Picasso, overlays multiple images in an attempt to make weighty what is ultimately so light, ephemeral and playful - the chance encounter of images and their kaleidoscopic associations. Here is a more controlled simplicity - Stezaker uses only two images at most. His collage is minimalist.

Stezaker isn't only referencing those great collagists Braque and Picasso, but Magritte too (especially the shadow cutout figures at the beginning of the exhibtion), but mostly Dali. What other image comes to mind when looking at Mask XXXV from 2007 than Dali's Paranoiac Visage of 1935. Stazaker's collages aren't just made of layers, they also lay themselves at the feet of Surrealism's greatest master.