Friday, 23 September 2011

Jean Genet: Gallery 3

Simon Withers
by Simon Withers, Artist and Nottingham Contemporary Gallery Assistant

Having invested quite some time invigilating the current exhibition, my attention has been drawn towards two works, the bell from the Galleries of Justice (1858) and Walking man 1 (1960) by Giacometti. On a formal level I am forging connections between these two works – bonds which may or may not be essentially prevalent in the work. The empty triangular space between the legs of Walking Man echoes the pyramidal form of the bell – do I use the word pyramidal here imprecisely to describe a form that has feminine qualities? The bell is curvaceous in shape so perhaps it is more akin to an eroded ‘stepped’ pyramid rather than, say, a great pyramid in Giza.

There is something about the cast object that interests me, as both of these forms have a degree of ‘fallible permanence’ – a hard-softness. These two constructs look as if they could be everlasting; yet they could be cast down to zero, whereby even the histories attributed to them shall perish and they could then undergo a metamorphosis and be cast anew. It is not surprising therefore that my thoughts turn towards death and rebirth. Whilst I am alive I have ample time to turn my thoughts to morbid things as William James did, saying the morbid ‘was an all too valid way of seeing the underlying realities of existence.’

As for the bell on the floor of Gallery 3, which once tolled in the execution of condemned criminals, it was made by Whitechapel Bell Foundries – Britain’s oldest company, founded by Charles and George Mears in 1570, according to the Guinness Book of World Records. This illustrious bell foundry also created the Liberty Bell, Big Ben and ‘Great Tom’ (the large bell in Lincoln Cathedral). The foundry additionally crafted the tenor bell of St Sepulcher in London, this bell long ago used to announce the imminent death of some unhappy wretch in the Gulag like Newgate prison. Incidentally, the tenor bell was at some subsequent date substituted by a large executioners hand bell.

As I stand observing the public in the course of visiting Gallery 3, some appear (consciously or otherwise) to adopt numerous qualities of the Walking man, they strike up similar gaits and stances. The emaciated figure, in stark contrast to the nourished individuals scattering the gallery space, is by comparison wearing an endurable sum of flesh and (perhaps stoically?) he strides out with resolution, as though on a death march towards that void – the white wall of the gallery.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Chasing the Visitor Voice

Maggie Hester
By Maggie Hester, recent Marketing intern, art museum and gallery studies post-grad (Leicester), and temporary source of American influence in the office

During my brief 8-week stint as intern for the Marketing team, I have had the pleasure of talking with visitors about the current exhibition Jean Genet. In fact, you may have been one of the hundred whom I recently spoke with. If so, thanks a lot! Your feedback is invaluable. How fascinating it was to hear from so many different people – each bringing to the gallery a unique set of knowledge, skills, interests and life experience that colors their interpretations and impressions. Such inner workings of visitors are incredibly important to museums and galleries today.

You see, museum professionals have recently begun to sense a massive shift in practice – one that is affecting everything from methods of exhibiting and writing about objects to the way we harness the ever-changing nature of digital innovation. Perhaps the most significant change happening in the field is the acknowledgement and affirmation of the “visitor voice”. Whether an art gallery or science museum, a country house or castle, or even a museum about quilt making – we're all chasing after what it is exactly that makes visitors tick. What makes you want to go to a museum or gallery in the first place? What causes you to enjoy your visit? What prompts you to come again?

Frankly, the act of looking doesn’t seem to be enough for people any longer. With the prevalence of the Internet, and its endless array of tantalizing information at our constant disposal, we require more complex and engaging content, don’t we? That and good cakes in the café. When in a gallery space, we want to be taught, entertained, uplifted, challenged, and inspired – depending on our mood and time available. We want to learn something new, feel connected to other people and places (both online and offline), experience good design, good food and, at times, just have a moment to “get away from it all”.

Like other cultural institutions around the world, Nottingham Contemporary has begun to take visitor suggestions to heart. When not spotting the Zebra around town, I have been analyzing comments and statistics in an effort to decode the various needs and wants of an increasingly diverse audience base. For Jean Genet, we received such great feedback that staff are thinking about what to do moving forward that will boost what works well and alter what doesn't, enabling visitors to enjoy their experiences in this place all the more.

It is an exciting (albeit daunting) time for museums and galleries in the 21st century – just as it is for libraries, charities and commercial businesses. Everyone is trying to remain relevant as the world becomes smaller, smarter and faster. With this in mind, as I shortly leave the UK in pursuit of my American roots, I can safely say that there shall never be a dull moment inside the walls of Nottingham Contemporary.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

3 Symposia on the Late Genet

By Siobhan Carroll, The Space Programmer

We in the public programme team have been putting together a very lively series of events that coincide with the current Jean Genet exhibition. Artists, scholars, writers and others who knew Genet personally will descend on Nottingham for three daytime symposia that will reflect on his life and work – not simply looking back, but also investigating his legacy as it still holds relevance today. The symposia will concentrate on elements of Genet’s later life and plays as well as his experience with the Palestinian people and the Black Panther Party.

The first symposium (which happens tomorrow!) will consider Genet’s literary and theatrical assaults on colonialism and conceptions of sexual identity. Speakers, artists and academics such as Clare Finburgh, Carl Lavery, Adrian Rifkin, Agnès Vannouvong, and Lili Reynaud-Dewar will offer insights into the writer’s complex confrontations with French society in the backdrop of May ‘68.

On 29 September, we’ll explore Genet’s involvement with the Palestinian people with guests Leila Shahid, Anjalika Sagar from The Otolith Group, Hadrien Laroche and Doreen Mende. Each will discuss Genet’s exchange with, and representation of, the Palestinian struggle. Leila Shahid, for example, was a close friend during the writer's final years and was with him when he visited the Chatila Refugee Camp. Now General Delegate of Palestine at the European Union, she will discuss Genet's passion for this displaced people and what she sees as his lasting contribution to the understanding of the Palestinian cause.

Finally, on 30 September, we will welcome Emory Douglas, Kodwo Eshun and Lili Reynaud-Dewar, with John Akomfrah OBE and Kobena Mercer who will join the day’s discussion via Skype video chat. The first half is a rare lecture by Emory Douglas (have you seen his murals at the gallery yet?) – the Panthers' former Minister of Culture – who is travelling over from California for the event.

After the last symposium we’re delighted to welcome back Derby based DJ Devon Daley to help us wind down and reflect on the day’s events in the Cafe.Bar with Panther-inspired soul, funk and hip hop records.

Whether you’re looking for discussion with artists, debate about politics, or just some stimulating history and good music – all of which is free of charge – we hope to see you around the gallery this month! (Dates, times and booking links are below.)

Genet: Sex, Power and DramaturgyBook
Tomorrow, Wednesday 14 September 2pm – 6pm

Genet and the PalestiniansBook
Thursday 29 September, 3pm – 6.30pm

The Panthers and GenetBook
Friday 30 September, 11am – 4pm

Friday, 9 September 2011

Jean Genet and the UK Riots

By Ed Dodson, installation intern for the Jean Genet exhibition, and English student at the University of Leeds

Genet was born nearly a century ago, and we live in very different times. Nevertheless, it is an apt time to write about Jean Genet – and for Nottingham Contemporary to host an exhibit in dialogue with his life and works. Genet was a radical writer – these are riotous times. We have witnessed destruction and violence that in some instances tragically proved fatal, and so did Genet.  If Genet can teach us something here, it is that such actions are never causeless, although those causes may be difficult to understand.

Many commentators have stated that the recent UK rioters did not seem to have a specific aim in mind. They did not have a manifesto, an ideology, or even a particular policy they wished to attack. However, as the conflicted psyches of Genet’s texts reveal, this does not mean we should not try to understand the causes behind these acts, or to understand the conditions they are borne out of. Only then can we help prevent them ever occurring again. This does not condone the actions investigated. A historian or political scientist might study the causes of World War II and Nazism for instance, but that is not done to condone Hitler’s actions.

Genet was scarred by his own family circumstances, and from the consequent social exclusion, almost from the moment of his birth. He was abandoned by his parents and this quickly led to his imprisonment at the premature age of ten. He continued to commit crimes, most of them petty. His five novels were written while in prison. It was onlyIs H later in life that Genet found acceptance by a certain section of society. He was adored by an influential circle of French philosophers, headed by the towering figure of the existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. Such adoration could evidentially be uncomfortable. The publication of Sartre’s eight-hundred page biography called Saint Genet led to an eight-year writer’s block.

Genet later joined the Black Panthers (and later the Palestinian movement) in order to satisfy his urgent need to be an outsider. His espousal of the Black Panther movement came from a desire to help their cause. Yet it also satisfied his own radical impulses in that he had joined a movement ostensibly counter-productive to his own ends as a white man. He was a rebel for the sake of rebellion itself. He sympathised with outsiders, whatever the reasons for their alienation, marginalization or exclusion. “Obviously I am drawn to peoples in revolt because I myself have the need to call the whole of society into question,” he stated. In this vein, Genet continued to steal even when he was rich. Theft may have been more of a necessity when he was young, but now he no longer needed to steal for survival, or even for material purposes. Theft had become an ideological act – an act against capitalism, an act against the society that had so excluded him and humiliated him. Perhaps there are parallels with today’s rioters in that the causes of Genet’s criminality were far from simple – but this did not mean his actions were apolitical or anti-political.

Genet’s play The Maids (1947) exemplifies the swirling contamination of impulses that can lead to radical or violent acts. Two maids – Solange and Claire – plot to assassinate Madame, their employer and idol. Their act is emblematic of class rebellion- the underclass rising up against their oppressive master or mistress. But the maids are also reliant upon Madame for their livelihood. As much as they hate her, they desperately love her too. They dress up and perform her. Their attempted murder of their glamorous employer is in many ways an attempted suicide. Indeed the play ends in self-destruction, as Claire drinks, quite literally, her own poison – the poison she has prepared for Madame.

The maids’ actions, like Genet’s, do not fit into a particular political programme. They are contradictory, and ultimately self-defeating and self-destructive. Genet had the medium of art – literature, novels, plays, and speeches – to express the confused state of mind of an alienated rebel. Some are not so fortunate. We must look to him and artists inspired by him, as exhibited at Nottingham Contemporary, in a time of need – a time which needs analysis and understanding, as well as condemnation.