The Fondation Beyeler

By Rob Packer

I was in Switzerland for work earlier this month. After a few days in Lugano and Zürich—and a few hours on a train between the two, wishing the train would stop and I could kick off the dress shoes, change the suit for something more comfortable and run off up a mountain—I spent a couple of days at the end of the trip staying with some very good friends in Basel.

I’d barely been to Switzerland before and Basel has always seemed the most enigmatic of the country’s larger cities next to Zürich with its banks and Geneva with its international organizations. Those two even have archetypal Swiss locations perched at their lakeheads, while Basel europeanly straddles the Rhine, which no Germanist can cross without feeling a historical shudder or literary frisson—mine was Heinrich Heine’s satirical conversation with Father Rhine, where Old Man River complains of having been “politically compromised” by Nikolaus Becker’s “Rheinlied”, later infamously put to music as “Die Wacht am Rhein”. But that is in Cologne where the Rhine is more bombastic, while hardly anyone ever talks about Basel: in fact, I’ve probably only ever had a conversation about the place with five or six people—one an architect, two who live there and the rest from the art world.

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David Hockney at the Royal Academy

By Rob Packer

The cadence of summer schoolboy shorts and winter mittens and bobble hats determined my life from an early age. Fireplaces and cold at Christmas, the end of cold around Easter and my birthday, summer picnics in the park marked time. But in every new city, my European rhythm has had to be adapted to learn the subtle modulations and surprises of the heat of a Kyrgyz October, the rain of a Hong Kong May or the bitter cold of a southern Brazilian winter (by far, the worst I’ve ever experienced). It is these barely perceptible shifts that David Hockney focuses on and powerfully captures in his Royal Academy exhibition, A Bigger Picture (link to the Royal Academy here with video).

I often associate Hockney more with his role in Pop Art and his swimming pool paintings than landscape work, but the strong geographical and thematic focus on the Yorkshire countryside works in the exhibition’s favour. Around half of the galleries are hung with series of paintings of the same view at different times of year, which makes for a far more inclusive and responsive exhibition than a typical retrospective. This time, the cliché of creating a dialogue with the viewer really does ring true.

For me, most impressive was the opening gallery of a four-part series of trees in Thixendale (the exhibition is full of delicious northern place names). The same three trees, arranged around an octagonal room, appear like three ladies with spring branches dancing in the wind, in the exuberant steadiness of summer, clad in red matching the brown of a harvested field, and in the grey sadness of winter.

A fascinating difference comes in the differences in method between painting from memory and from observation. In his memory paintings, roads seem to meander through red-brick suburbia, the Salt Mills in Saltaire lord over tiny purple-roofed terraces, or the Yorkshire Wolds undulate across fields in a panoply of colours: oranges, pinks, crimsons or turquoises. When painting by observation, his colours and shapes are (understandably) more realistic, although even then geometric shapes seem to appear in hay bales and country lanes or trees appear to be trying to escape the ground.

By far the most impressive part of the exhibition, however, is Hockney’s embrace of new media. Towards the end come slow videos of the Yorkshire countryside and ‘The Arrival of Spring’, a series of 50 sketches that Hockney created with iPad and stylus during the first few months of 2011. The results are hard to believe with postimpressionistic misty greens and purples or lines of red and orange, and it feel like a combination of paint and graffiti art and you might not, quite frankly, know these were iPad sketches unless you were told.

These repeated thematic series foreground subtle changes that are often felt rather instinctively, and in one case—where a pile of logs is suddenly missing—I felt the same dull disorientation of something familiar no longer there. In January, the BBC Radio 3 broadcast a documentary on Hockney entitled ‘New Ways of Seeing’. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet, but these past few days have probably been the best possible time to visit, as bright sunshine and blue skies have caused what feels like an explosion of spring and I’ve noticed my own reawakened interest in and sensitivity for the changes in seasons. It truly is a new way of seeing.

David Hockney RA: A Bigger Picture until 9 April at Royal Academy of Arts, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD

The Bassae Reliefs

By Rob Packer

Centaurs and Lapiths on the Bassae Friezes

It also seemed a geeky London fantasy to use the city’s free museums to fulfil those whims that ambush you at 4pm in the office or 3pm on a Saturday in Oxford Street: an uncontrollable itch to see—I don’t know—a Gandhara Buddha (British Museum) or an El Greco painting (National Gallery). In this fantasy, you then leave immediately desire satisfied, although more likely is you stick around, flitting from the Indus to Korea to Mesopotamia to the Hebrides.

I think I’ve only ever done this two or three times and, since I left London, I only have Wikipedia. My most recent trip to the British Museum, though, had purpose and schedule: to see the Bassae reliefs. Read more of this post

Yayoi Kusuma at the Tate

By Rob Packer

Apart from friends and family, the best thing about being back in London is just the range of cultural options. Each one of the seven arts is here in force: architecture, sculpture, painting, music, poetry, dance and cinema. Sunday was the turn of sculpture and painting and my first trip to the Tate Modern in more than a year to see the Yayoi Kusuma retrospective (continuing until 5 June).

I’d not heard much about Kusuma (1929—) before the exhibition probably because this is the largest exhibit of her work ever in the UK. My friend, Albert, was on hand though to give me a one-sentence rundown just before going in: “When she reached 50, she checked herself into a hospital and has been living there ever since.”

Kusuma moved to the United States in 1957, returning to Japan in 1973, and there is a complete transformation between the painting of her early years in Japan and her more expressive installations in the US. For me, her formative works were some of her most interesting: she originally apprenticed as a traditional Nihonga painter but gave it up and taught herself European and American avant-garde painting instead. In one painting, she draws you into the claustrophobia of post-war Japan: as you look at the circle of bodies transformed into ropes surrounding two leafless trees, you realize that instead of looking into the painting, you’re actually looking out at the world outside the prison walls. In another, she represents a heart as a red splodge with black lines that makes it look like she’s inside the body with a torch. And a series of similar-looking, diversely coloured round objects that represent germ cells, sunspots or flower buds, suggest universality between astronomical and biological.

Her move to the US looks a clean break with Japan, as she became involved with the New York art scene of Andy Warhol. At the same time, two symbols came to the fore that would become her trademark: the polka dot and the phallus. And they go everywhere: fabric phalli on shoes, a canoe full of phalli, phalli cooked on a baking tray, polka dots on a horse, polka dots on people at a naked 1960s happening, etc. So much so, I was half expecting to hear a five-year-old (there were plenty in the gallery) ask: “Mummy, what’s a phallus?”

After Kusuma returned to Japan in 1973 and checked herself into a hospital in 1977 (where she also set up an atelier), her style changed again with large paintings, some with spermatozoa shapes—that one prim commentator called “sprouting polka-dots” or “tadpoles”. Her recent years in Japan also produced the most spectacular and approachable installations of the show: a darkened family living room with everything covered in fluorescent polka dots and a mirror-covered room with tiny, round lights flashing in different colours.

For an artist active for over 60 years and covering a wide range of media, it’s difficult for any retrospective to be representative of the entire opus. Her early painting was fascinating and her two recent room-sized installations hypnotic. While interesting and influential, her US period with its polka dots and protuberances actually ended up feeling repetitive after a while and we did end up leaving with something approaching phallus fatigue.

Yayoi Kusuma, Tate Modern (until 5 June 2012)

Art and Microfinance

This is a repost from my blog on Kiva Stories from the Field. Check out the site for blogs from other Kiva Fellows across the world.

By Rob Packer, KF10 Colombia

When I first became a Kiva Fellow, I never imagined that one day I’d spend a cold, rainy afternoon in Bogotá discussing the merits of art-as-expression against art-for-profit with an aspiring artist and Kiva borrower.

The Nevera (the fridge as Bogotá is known to costeños for its chilly climate) has a very feel from Colombia’s Caribbean coast where I’m based. Partly this is because you need a coat and an umbrella; but it’s mainly because of Bogotá’s urban charm, which sometimes reminds me of European cities like Madrid; and the more formal and reserved nature of the cachacos (people from the interior of Colombia). Bogotá is also a city of revolutionary urban projects, such as Ciclovía—other cities might boast at closing their streets on Sunday mornings so inhabitants can go cycling or running, but the roots of this began in Bogotá 30 years ago—and the TransMilenio, the urban transportation system of running buses in dedicated lanes—admittedly Curitiba was the pioneer, but Bogotá’s version is often cited as the model when yet another Latin American city opens a network. As the capital, it’s also a national centre of art and on a previous trip to Bogotá some Colombian friends had shown me around La Macarena, a bohemian barrio of the city admiring the street art and imaginative restaurant concepts.

On my next trip one of Bogotá’s credit officers, Luis Carlos, and I headed to the south of the city to visit Germán Gustavo Garzón, a self-taught and aspiring artist as well as Kiva borrower, who lives in a barrio called La Macarena de los Alpes: like its namesake it’s perched on the side of the escarpment overlooking Bogotá, but lies at quite a different end of the socioeconomic scale. As we arrived at the point on the hillside where Bogotá ends and the mountains begin and the rain began to fall, I was struck by how unexpected the situation was: I’ve realized I’m far more used to meeting artisans than artists (for more on the difference in perspective, check out Suzy Marinkovich’s 2009 poston the same topic in Peru).

Germán in his studio in Bogotá.

The view out over the rainy skies of Bogotá.

Germán’s parents moved from the countryside to Bogotá many years ago and began setting up businesses very similar to the microbusinesses that I see on a daily basis: his father worked as a shopkeeper, his mother as a seamstress. Germán told us that “A muchos de los papás de mis amigos era impensable que su hijo pueda ser pintor, o poeta (To a lot of my friends’ parents, it was unthinkable that their son should become a painter or a poet).” As if to express the irony of this view, all of their children developed an artistic streak of one kind of another; Germán told us that during his childhood, the house would be dominated by his two sisters dancing on the staircase—both are now contemporary dance and performance art teachers—while Germán painted and his brother wrote poems and short stories on a typewriter. For much of his childhood and adolescence, he had no formal artistic training and only started taking courses in the past few years. It was at a woodwork class at the Escuela de Artes y Oficios—an organization with links to FMSD—where he attended an information session with two Bogotá credit officers and became a borrower with FMSD.

Paints, paid for by Germán's Kiva loan.

In my experience of microfinance, it can often be difficult to support a family member in their dreams as an artist: I have come to learn that it’s an incredible luxury for a Kiva borrower’s child to attend music or ballet classes and a sign that their business is going well. Germán’s response to these needs has been to bridge the gap between microentrepreneur, artist and artisan, and to do both: he used his first loan to invest in materials, which he uses to create artisan works (art-for-profit) and it’s the proceeds from these artesanías that then support him in his true passion, art-as-expression, either as work for friends, for art shows or socially-minded projects such as murals in the local community or performance art with marginalized groups in Colombian society.

As the conversation continued to a rainstorm and background music from Beirut, Sigur Rós and Björk against a view over southern Bogotá, adding to the magic, it emerged that both Luis Carlos and I were frustrated artists—he a painter or sculptor, I a photographer or writer—beaten as we both became to realize that art wasn’t for us.

Germán as artisan, showing us a lamp that he makes to be sold in artisan shops in Colombia.

Germán as artist. This painting representing his grandmother was one of his first paintings and was what made his realize he should follow the path towards becoming an artist.

Meeting people like Germán is one of the most rewarding parts of being a Kiva Fellow. It makes you realize that in spite of the difficulties that borrowers might experience, sometimes vocation is vocation. It made me thankful to know that microfinance provides people like him with the means to pursue their dreams.

Rob Packer is a Kiva Fellow currently working with the Fundación Mario Santo Domingo in Barranquilla, Colombia. There are borrowers from Colombia with FMSD who you can help by contributing to a loan today, and many other entrepreneurs from around the world on the Kiva site.

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