Windy Vortex

TOTAH
Nov 22, 2017 9:21PM

by Jeremy Sigler

After numerous recent exchanges with Aleksandar Duravcevic—in a cab back to Brooklyn; in front of ghostly drawings in his Gowanus studio; on the telephone after being woken from a nap one afternoon; through a chain of texts and e-mails—I have come to think of his art less as a body of autonomous works than as a conversation.

In the song ‘New York Telephone Conversation’ off the 1972 album Transformer, Lou Reed describes the type of gossip associated with long nights partying and even longer mornings recovering.

who has touched and who has dabbled

here in the city of shows

openings closing bad repartee

everybody knows

But this Page-Six-ish summation of a night out on the town, is not the kind of conversation I have in mind. My evolving conversation with Duravcevic neither “rattle(s) in my head” (another lyric from Reed’s song) nor indulges in scandals known only to those already “in the know”. On the contrary, much of this conversation remains unknown and frankly unknowable, even as we struggle to say what we think we know and struggle to know what we think we say.

Duravcevic, in this way, may be thought of as a “method conversationist,” like a method actor, training to use his emotions to unlock ours. Conversation—an art form unto itself—may thus be thought of as a practice, a skill, requiring accuracy and precision—what I would call “emotional tactics”. It is what Duravcevic in one of our chats described as a life spent deep in the forest, hiding behind trees, setting one glorious trap after the next.

Duravcevic’s remark speaks to the diptych of two Bengal tigers he was painting when I last visited his studio. In the panels we are oriented behind two nearly identical tigers as if peering over each one’s shoulder. How unusual it is, not to be face to face with the blood-thirsty beasts; on the contrary, Duravcevic has given us the upper hand. It is the tiger, who senses the predator’s gaze and breath, and it is ostensibly the viewer, who is the predator.

The mere mention of tigers in this context reminds me of Ang Lee’s 2000 landmark film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which takes its title from an ancient Chinese idiom (or poem, originally) that contemplates a place densely populated with camouflaged, imperceivable “masters”. (In this case, I suppose we would be speaking of Brooklyn, with its enormous demographic of recent art-school “Masters” also known as “M.F.A.s”.) It was the poet Yu Xin who first articulated one of these tigers—one of these masterful killers—hiding in the dark behind a rock amidst the coiling dragon-like roots of giant trees.

In Lee’s ballet of a kung fu film, famous for its choreographed aerial sword fights, there is one dialogue between two of the female protagonists, Jen Yu and Shu Lien, that seems to be speaking Duravcevic’s language. Jen Yu yanks the sword from its sheath, and admiringly says to her competitor: “It must be exciting to be a fighter, to be totally free!” Shu Lien replies, “Fighters have rules too: friendship, trust, integrity… without rules, we wouldn’t survive for long.” Perhaps Duravcevic’s title could conceivably be nicknamed “Crouching Artist Hidden Viewer”—a proper description of his martial art of emotion.

Indeed, setting a trap to capture another’s empathy may be the goal of a noble warrior. However, just as noble is the audience’s willingness to be trapped (our willful suspension of disbelief)—the pay off for our training in listening for the feeling in the story and our ability to recognize its authenticity.

I taught a class once called ‘How to be a Protagonist’. In it we concentrated on subtle moments in documentary films when speakers found themselves unable to hold back tears. A famous one was in The War Room (D.A. Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, 1993), when a sobbing James Carville delivers a kind of locker room speech expressing deep gratitude to his team of campaigners during their fight to get Bill Clinton elected in the 1992 primaries.

We also studied the innate pathos some performers seem to possess that can rupture before their audience. In the Gram Parsons documentary Fallen Angel there is a litany of testimonials to Parson’s bred-in-the-bone sadness. In it, the self-proclaimed “#1 Flying Burrito Brothers Fan,” Pamela Des Barres, says:

The most memorable show I saw was at the Whiskey, and Gram was doing ‘She Once Lived Here’, a George Jones song. And I guess it was the bridge (“I see her face in the cool of the evening, I hear her voice with each breath loud and clear”)… and tears were coming down his face singing this thing, and no one was noticing. And for me, it was my peak PEAK rock-and-roll moment. Not sitting on Jimmy Page’s amp. Not dancing in the Foxy Lady video. THAT was my peak moment.

Duravcevic’s “coming of age” is still coming, and in many ways, coming back to haunt us all. As nostalgic as he can be, he also injects his past with a compelling sense of danger, that of his upbringing in Montenegro, a tribal society that conceived of every man as a free warrior, without lords, owners, or laws—except for the tribal law of blood.

Montenegro had this mystique right up to the early 90’s, at the outbreak of the catastrophic Balkan War. — Duravcevic finally managed to escape to a less tribal and thus far less bloody Florence.

Within four years, Duravcevic was established in New York, where—hard as it was for any young artist to break in, due, in part, to the recession—he found himself in the highly creative ethos of multiculturalism, with artistic license and all the time in the world to “tell” his story. The detours, delays and displacements, you might say, enhanced the flavor of his slow-cooked art. “I was a late bloomer,” says the artist, speaking from the perspective of a man in his mid-forties.

Duravcevic’s conversation is not only a function of autobiography; it is also a function of quotation. His e-mail attachments often deliver mind-tingling aphorisms. Take for example this fragment from Mark Rothko that above and beyond all else, art must have “a clear preoccupation with death.” And Euripides’ reflection on how the god of wine “gently, gradually, wraps us in shadows of ivy-cool sleep.” Or from Dostoyevsky, the observation that “time isn’t a thing it’s an idea. It’ll die out in the mind.” While Calvino conceives of a “poetry of the invisible, of infinite unexpected possibilities—even the poetry of nothingness.” And Tarkovsky once proposed that “The present slips and vanishes like sand between the fingers, acquiring material weight only in its recollection.”

Any one of these quotes, on its own, is apt to provoke thought and insight, but together they have the power to thrust a conversation—any conversation—way out into the cosmos, into a metaphysical quagmire, fueling a dialogue not between two contemporaries but between the present and past, and ultimately, between the living and the dead. Indeed, Duravcevic has an ample supply of Rothko’s main required ingredient.

Consider his graphite drawings of white fire on black paper, which exhibit far more than a skillful rendering, far more than the anatomy of fire. They conflate the human source of warmth with the haunting chill of the morgue. In fact, when I first saw the drawings, it didn’t even occur to me that they were depictions of fire. I didn’t see flames so much as windy vortexes—ghosts. I’m reminded of Edvard Munch’s Self Portrait with Cigarette (1895), where—caught up in the pathos of Munch’s gloomy persona—one might begin to hallucinate, and see the smoke rising from the tip of his cigarette as the angel of death.

Existential and “out there,” as it may be, this dialogue is also comforting and close-to-home, a casual sport played between two men wrapped in the drunken shadows of Brooklyn, volleying historic voices of invisible poetry as grains of time slip by. Quotation, in this enigmatic climate, functions as nourishment. Or as a vessel to traverse a dark sea. (Here I refer obliquely to a new sculpture by Duravcevic, a large cast sheet of black crumpled paper that, to my eye at least, symbolizes a transcontinental oceanic voyage, an odyssey.)

Compelling as such artworks are, one need not consume artworks to absorb the souls of their makers. Resolved artworks are set down in galleries or museums to bask in the glory of their own presence, proud as they are to be made. But the work’s emotion may in fact stream in and flood the poetic context from other sources (and just as quickly evaporate).

The visual artist, the sculptor, is compelled to make objects and expose the world to these objects, but emotion is a free-form conversation that actually accumulates and morphs in the interstices between exposal, disposal and proposal.

The art that we see and collect is a matter of exposal; how then are we to think about proposal? A few summers ago, Duravcevic proposed tossing thousands of paper airplanes from the roof of the pavilion for the Venice Biennale. But this proposal was shot down. And he spoke to me the other day of a proposal for his upcoming show at TOTAH—a pipe organ made from a room full of empty artillery shells, before nervously changing the topic to other more tangible works in the studio that had already been green lighted. I sensed that this work was still in the dream stage, too delicate to be sacrificed to the ravenous appetite of talk.

When I asked Duravcevic about the details of this proposed artillery shell pipe organ, he said: “There will be compressed air blowing over the top on an angle like blowing into a beer bottle, producing vibrations…the air will bounce back making the shell ring. It will probably be just a single artillery shell, and the sound will ricochet for only 30 seconds.” This description was accompanied by a sketch, showing not one but three shells (in his earlier proposal this had been expressed as an entire room of shells, a la Walter De Maria), and in my idealizing mind the tone was just as serial and eternal as La Monte Young’s Dream House.

In this conversation, the disposed proposal (or the proposed disposal) begins to loop in my mind and buzz with life. I can feel myself blowing a breath of air across the smooth elliptical glass rim of an empty beer bottle. I can imagine a large hollow shell standing upright at about knee height, an empty metal container potentially filled with enough ammo to blast a car into midair, turning three human bodies into a spattered fillet of shredded flesh and bones in a pool of crimson gravy. Then I hear the pipe organ.  

Proposals are off to the races. Such is the nature of the imagination. It is one more way that the artist’s work comes to be realized, and that the artist’s fascinations come to be contoured. Duravcevic is a maker of actual things in a studio full of materials, but his solitude is embraced by the chorus of voices in his head joined by the chorus in my head. By conversing with the artist, one may—if you listen closely—hear the entire choir.

And yet, pumped full of lyricism as this conversation may be, it may serve to lead us further from clarity and deeper into ambiguity. When I asked Duravcevic about his new series of Youth pieces—fishing, as I was, for exact specification in order to explain the work in this essay—he guided me to indeed a murky place. What appeared as a suicide-proof, prison mirror in stainless steel (with an inexplicable rainbow effect like gasoline on pavement), was described as: “somewhat a mirror well to look back through a cloud of color… like dreaming with your eyes open.” Duravcevic could have just said: “it is only a dream,” like the American song writer Stephen Foster wrote in his famous parlor song from 1862 ‘Beautiful Dreamer’. The final stanza goes like this:

Beautiful dreamer, beam on my heart,

Even as the morn on the streamlet and sea;

Then will all clouds of sorrow depart,

Beautiful dreamer, awake unto me!

Two summers ago in 2015, Aleksandar Duravcevic had an exhibition in the 56th Biennale di Venezia in the Montenegro Pavilion. It was a big occasion. As I mentioned before, his initial paper airplane proposal was not accepted, but he persevered with an installation of numerous sculptures, drawings, paintings, and video works, all commanding the pavilion and demanding energy from the viewer. The show provided a public with numerous engaging artworks, though I was not among the jet-lagged cultural gypsies who witnessed it.

But I have nevertheless post-facto found an interest in projecting myself into/onto one of the works in the show, itself a projection, entitled Waiting (2015). The video, which was viewed hovering on the exterior wall of the pavilion, high up and easy to miss, showed an old lady in black doing nothing more than leaning on the windowsill passing the time away (a “Fresh Widow,” to recall Rose Sélavy’s 1920 pun on “French Window”).

What was this fresh widow doing, other than smoking a cigarette (like Munch’s self portrait)? She was neither there to watch, nor to be watched. She was neither there to see, nor to be seen. She was a default artwork. She was merely coexisting with her companion: the window frame. This window was, in a sense, all that she had. It was like an extension of her anatomy. Like passing out in bed with your shoes on.

Indeed the widow is waiting at the window, but unlike the two chatterboxes in Beckett’s comedy, Vladimir and Estragon, she is silent. If she is an example of minimalist theater, then I’d propose that Duravcevic has cleverly assigned her a non-speaking part in a zero-act play with no lines.

But I’m more reminded of the existential comedy, by Jerzy Kosinsky, Being There. Not of the characters and lines, per se, but of the book’s (and film’s) title. The old woman is where? She is not down with the art-work and art-world, but up where the works and viewers are not. The title allows us to gaze down “there” upon the world and to fixate on the ordinary machinations of life.

The woman is thus an allegory for death, she is one of the three fates, similar to the two fates that appear in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Marlow encounters these two women-in-black before heading out on his mission to retrieve the rogue:

She seemed to know all about them and about me too. An eerie feeling came over me. She seemed uncanny and fateful. Often far away there I thought of these two, guarding the door of Darkness, knitting black wool as for a warm pall, one introducing, introducing continuously to the unknown, the other scrutinizing the cheery and foolish faces with unconcerned old eyes.

Duravcevic’s widow, just like Conrad’s (not to mention his two flames and three angelic artillery shells) feels like a cryptic, perhaps even unconscious reference to the Moirae—the three fates of ancient Greek lore who spin  our life threads and, unfortunately for us, cut them at the moment of their choosing.

At TOTAH is another work obsessed with Rothkoesque mortality. It is a brooding new sculpture called Touch me not (2016). It is a representation in stone of a very big and very heavy book. But it is not a book—there are no pages, nor a single word, hieroglyph, inscription, illustration, caption, contents or colophon. There is no front cover, back cover, nor spine. It is in the shape of a big open book, but it comes off more like an ancient tablet, albeit a tablet with nothing on it.

Nevertheless we read it. We read its saga, its geology. We read its white lines, the veins that splinter though its mass like abstract expressionist lightning bolts.

Touch me not (big book) is impersonal (closed), yet deeply emotional (an open book if there ever was one). Perhaps it is an externalization, a palpable marker of a fleeting emotion.

Consider Moses’ bestseller The Ten Commandments (see Rembrandt’s 1659 painting Moses Breaking the Tablets of the Law). This read, essential to the reading list of any moralist, is still being digested by some and understood by others. In Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov grapples with “the basic 10” when he decides to test out his “extraordinary man” theory on the old pawn broker (just the other day, Dylann Roof defeated the big black book (he is apparently neither insane nor stricken with guilt). Since the Enlightenment, writers have asked: is “thou shalt not kill” inside us at birth? Or does morality seep in over time, like mineral deposits in stone?

Duravcevic’s gravestone book—like the woman in black at her window, like the flaming ghost, like the crumpled sea, like the moaning shells—seems to mark and remark on emotions that cannot be held back. At least that’s what I gather from the conversation. But how do you see it?

TOTAH