Sunday, 5 October 2008


The Rothko Room, Tate Modern. Copyright Tate. Copyright Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko/ DACS 2006.

Traveling to different planets, I have realized some basic things about planet identity, applicable no matter where in the galaxy I find myself. Get out of the space craft, walk around for ten minutes, and you can always tell if you're on a one or a two rock planet. Very occasionally I've been to three rock planets and I may have been to a four rock planet, but I'm not sure. That day was very confused.

The two rock planets are the ones with all the music, dancing, painting and artists' film. I always assumed the earth was a two rock planet but if I've learnt anything by all this traveling it is that actually the earth is a one rock planet. The other planets just do a much better job of enjoying themselves, even though they generally have less resources than we do, and have barely functioning market economies.


Introducing a program of films in the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion the other week, the film maker and writer Peter Gidal shared his nervousness about programming Night and Fog, Alain Resnais 1955 documentary on the holocaust, in such a situation. Gidal said it was important for him that people never feel constrained to stay and watch an image. He was concerned that, given its subject matter - and the architecture of Frank Gehry's pavilion -  people would feel a social pressure to sit through something it wasn't the right time for them to see.

Gidal outlined a number of possible options, from going walkabout until the film had finished, to watching with hands over your face. Through the slits between your fingers, he said, you could tell if the images was color (and likely to be shots of fields and landscape at the former sites of concentration camps) or black and white archive footage of the actual camps. During the subsequent film, incidentally, I noticed no one selecting either option. 


In a small side gallery, in  Tate Modern's new Rothko show, people lined up three deep to reverently read their Tate show guides whilst being loomed over by an enormous color field painting. This behavior struck me as appropriate. The show is convincing proof that art is religion and the gallery is the temple, and those free Tate booklets you get when you go in are its prayer and hymn books. 

All of which is a bit unfair because the curators have attempted to counter the oppressive spirituality that can attach to Rothko's paintings. You can walk behind a painting to see its canvas and wooden supports, and look at an analysis of his use of paint. The show has a large central area, whose number of paintings and large, crowded bustle forces a way of engagement beyond an individual act of contemplation between viewer and object. 

But, in all that dim lighting, the paintings themselves insisted on a certain solemnity and metaphysical significance over and above their skillful engagement with paint, weight and shape.  It all gave me a contradictory feeling that I was getting unholier by the minute. I went to the bookshop to look at fashion magazines.

Mark Rothko, Black on Maroon (1959). Copyright 1998 Kate Rothko Prizel and Christopher Rothko, New York and DACS, London. Oil on canvas 266.7cmx 228.6cm.

One more curious thing about the Rothko show: the wonderful, shifting relations between different colours and shapes - as in Black on Maroon, above - also became acted out in the no-go zone between the paintings and where the  audience are allowed to stand.  Wooden grills, lines and blocks of various kinds sought to occupy and/or define this space, but it remained as mysterious as the paintings themselves. If we have to make a religion of this show, then I'll position mine here. 


This weekend I finally got a copy of CinĂ©-Ethnography, Steven Feld's translation and collection of Jean Rouch's essays and interviews. Theorizing out of his experience of filming trance, possession, dance, magic and sorcery of the Songhay-Zarma people, Rouch observes: 

the film-maker observer, while recording these phenomena, both unconsciously modifies them and is himself changed by them... when he returns and plays back the images, a strange dialogue takes place in which the film's "truth" rejoins its mythic representation. (87-88) 

And Rouch concludes his essay:

In the field, the observer modifies himself; in doing his work, he is no longer simply someone who greets the elders at the edge of the village, but - to go back to Vertovian teminology -  he ethno-looks, ethno-observes, ethno-thinks. And those with whom he deals are similarly modified; in giving their confidence to this habitual foreign visitor, they ethno-show, ethno-speak, ethno-think. (100)