All posts filed under: Reviews

A Paradise Built in Hell & Destroy This Memory

Reviewed by James Johnson, University of Rochester Rebecca Solnit. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disasters. New York: Viking, 2010. 353 Pages. Richard Misrach. Destroy This Memory. New York: Aperture, 2010. 140 Pages. In an obscure academic essay originally written in the late 1960’s, philosopher Donald Davidson observes “it is easy to appreciate why we so often identify or describe events in terms of their causes and effects. Not only are these the features that often interest us about events, but they are features guaranteed to individuate them in the sense not only of telling them apart but also of telling them together.”1 We invoke causal relations, and the place of events in some scheme of such relations, in this view, in order to give them meaning, to differentiate them, and to group them under common descriptions. InA Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disasters, Rebecca Solnit addresses the causes and consequences of a category of events—earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, and so forth—“telling them together” in Davidson’s …

The Taste of Place

Reviewed by Kerstin McGaughey, Boston University Amy Trubek. The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey Into Terroir. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008. 250 Pages.1 Amy Trubek’s latest book is an engaging and thorough introduction to the notion of terroir, or the “taste of place,” in the United States. Not only does Trubek study terroir as a concept in wine—the term’s usual context—but she looks at the effects of place on our perception and understanding of food as well. Trubek’s comparison of the French and American interpretations of terroir calls attention to the ways in which these two cultures try to give value to unique foods when so many products are being mass-produced around the globe. In addition to addressing the cultural history of the term terroir, she also raises an ethical discussion of its marketability, arguing that both countries seem to be walking a fine line between using terroir as a socially-engaged concept and as a profitable way of adding value to a product. Trubek starts with a thorough history of …

Blinky Palermo: Abstraction of an Era & Used Paint: Robert Ryman

Reviewed by Godfre Leung, University of Rochester Christine Mehring. Blinky Palermo: Abstraction of an Era. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008. 297 pages. Suzanne P. Hudson. Used Paint: Robert Ryman. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009. 315 pages. In our time, the single artist monograph is becoming an endangered species. Recent titles in art history increasingly seem to be centered around movements, historical periods, or thematic or theoretical concerns. History seems doubly set against monographs concerning a single painter, the twin specters of the death of the author and the death of painting looming large over would-be scholars of Poussin, Velázquez, Pollock, or Richter. In the shadow of these twin presumed obsolescences, we find Christine Mehring and Suzanne P. Hudson’s respective monographic studies Blinky Palermo: Abstraction of an Era and Used Paint: Robert Ryman. The names of Palermo and Ryman are relatively familiar to scholars of postwar art—Ryman probably more so than Palermo on this continent. However, while most of us at least know generalities such as the fact that Ryman only painted in white, both …

Milk and Melancholy

Reviewed by Gabrielle Moser, York University Kenneth Hayes. Milk and Melancholy. Toronto and Cambridge, MA: Prefix Press/MIT Press, 2008. 156 Pages.1 Reading Milk and Melancholy, one imagines that architectural historian, critic, and curator Kenneth Hayes must have spent a great deal of time answering the question: “Why milk?” The result of more than a decade of research, Hayes’s survey of the appearance and use of milk in contemporary, photo-based art from the 1960s through the 1980s might at first appear to be aimed at a niche market of food-obsessed art historians. As Prefix Institute of Contemporary Art Director Scott McLeod notes in his foreword to the volume, “[m]ilk is an unusual topic” to take up in a full-length publication (20). But to say that Milk and Melancholy is “about milk” is a bit misleading; Hayes’s actual object of study is what he terms the “milk-splash discourse” throughout the history of photography (23). From early scientific experiments and commercial photography, to West Coast photo-conceptualism and performance, and finally to the more recent staged photography of General Idea …

The Everyday

Reviewed by Jennifer Dyer, Memorial University of Newfoundland Stephen Johnstone, ed. The Everyday. London and Cambridge, MA: Whitechapel/MIT Press, 2008. 240 pages. Stephen Johnstone’s anthology The Everyday—the latest in the Whitechapel/MIT series “Documents of Contemporary Art”—brings together a wide-ranging collection of texts that deal with contemporary art’s encounters with the quotidian. The artists, critics, curators, and theorists presented in this anthology examine the immediate history, methodologies, and aims of the aesthetic category of the “everyday”: the phenomenological hic et nunc,1 the trivial and unseen, the passive and boring, and the repetitive non-events that characterize the mundane. According to Johnstone, while the notion of “the everyday” has been considered a subdivision within historical-materialist sociology, historiography, and philosophy, it has received significantly less attention as an aesthetic category.2 the depiction of those things which lack importance, the unassuming material base of life that ‘importance’ constantly overlooks” as a tradition of attending to everydayness that begins with still-life imagery (Bryson, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting[London: Reaktion, 2001], 61).] As such, this collection seeks to …

The Comfort of Things

Reviewed by Jessica S. McDonald, University of Rochester Daniel Miller. The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity, 2008. 302 Pages. Anthropologist Daniel Miller is recognized for his innovative studies of material culture and consumption, outlined in his 1987 publication Material Culture and Mass Consumption and developed through more recent works such as his 2005 edited anthology Materiality. Though driven by the same mode of inquiry, his new work The Comfort of Things departs from what Miller regards as his “usual academic tone” in its presentation of short narrative “portraits” of thirty individuals all living on a single London street that he calls “Stuart Street.” The portraits, presented as distinct chapters, were gathered as part of a larger study of 100 households conducted with graduate student Fiona Parrott to investigate the ways material objects help people deal with loss and change; the results of their investigation are forthcoming. “In the meantime,” Miller writes, “it seemed that the richness of our encounter could lend itself to a different genre of writing—one intended to share our experience with a much wider …

Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?

Reviewed by Lara Mazurski, University of Amsterdam (UVA) Judith Butler. Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? London: Verso, 2008. 193 pages. Contemporary war, and the “cultural modes of regulating affective and ethical dispositions through a selective and differential framing of violence” (1), is the focus of Judith Butler’s most recent work Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? Butler’s premise that “specific lives cannot be apprehended as injured or lost if they are not first apprehended as living” (1) intervenes within contemporary epistemological and ontological arguments that inform framing, power, and being. In five essays, Butler systematically and convincingly engages the “frames” of war through her combination of Hegelian philosophy, a neo-Marxist conception of ideology, and post-structuralism. Frames of War propels the strengths of her earlier works such as Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990),Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (1997), and Giving an Account of Oneself (2005). Butler’s analysis clearly builds from the 2004 publication, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence, in which she discusses forms of …

Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde

Reviewed by Bo Zheng, University of Rochester Xiaobing Tang. Origins of the Chinese Avant-Garde: The Modern Woodcut Movement. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2008. 318 pages. Tang Xiaobing’s book is like a grand history painting that portrays its main subject—the woodcut movement that emerged in Republican China in the 1920s and 30s—against a complex backdrop of political upheavals, institutional changes, and competing discourses. Tang convincingly argues that the woodcut movement was truly avant-garde because it not only challenged the prevailing aesthetics, but also established the woodcut print as “an incomparably expedient and politically relevant” medium in modern China (218). The book opens with the reform of art education in the 1910s, championed by Minister of Education Cai Yuanpei and realized by young art educators like Liu Haisu, Lin Fengmian, and Xu Beihong. Cai believed that meiyu(aesthetic education) would, as Tang claims, “foster cultural cohesion as well as social harmony in modern China” (11). His agenda was to instill the liberal-humanist vision of the European Renaissance in the Chinese urban bourgeoisie. Although young …

Migrations of Gesture

Reviewed by Jane Van Slembrouck, Fordham University Carrie Noland and Sally Ann Ness, eds. Migrations of Gesture. Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2008. 296 pages. For critics in the arts and humanities, the term “gesture” is a seductive one, suggesting a sensual affinity between aesthetic expression and the variability and subtlety of physical movement. If pressed to explain gesture, many of us would compare it to language, while perhaps qualifying the analogy by noting that gestures are more organic—and more ephemeral—than either speech or writing. Migrations of Gesture, a collection of nine essays that range in scope across the visual and performance arts, sets out to undo these assumptions. The volume offers several fresh approaches to thinking about movement as constituting individual identity as well as a social field that extends through bodies and cultures. While this transmission can happen gradually, the collection points out the more rapid ways that aesthetic forms are “co-opted” or extracted from their original bodies and locations, whether through commercial appropriation or geographical migration. The term “gesture” almost inevitably invites a …

Culinary Art and Anthropology

Reviewed by Helen Vallianatos, University of Alberta Joy Adapon. Culinary Art and Anthropology. Oxford: Berg, 2008. 160 Pages.1 Envisioning salsa made with spicy chilies makes my mouth water. So it was with some excitement to me that Joy Adapon, in her book Culinary Art and Anthropology, included recipes at the end of almost every chapter. I began with trying the tomato salsa recipe, playing with the flavors, and in the process embodying and digesting Adapon’s thesis and ideas that were based on 24 months of fieldwork in Milpa Alta, the smallest municipality of Mexico City. Adapon presents us with a unique contribution to anthropological food studies through her utilization of Alfred Gell’s ideas of art as a technical practice—a system of actions embedded in a dynamic social matrix or a network of intentionalities.2 In this framework, cooking is a creative process that requires technical expertise; such skill is not unique to trained chefs, Adapon argues, but can be found in the everyday culinary traditions of Mexican households. “Good” food, which is food with sazón (i.e. made …

Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers

Reviewed by Amy L. Powell, University of Wisconsin-Madison Kobena Mercer, ed. Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers. Cambridge, MA: Institute of International Visual Arts/MIT Press, 2008. 224 Pages.1 If we consider Kobena Mercer’s latest anthology, Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers, in relation to the title of the InIVA/MIT Press series “Annotating Art’s Histories” in which it appears, a potentially productive space opens up between annotation as a practice of adding notes to existing narratives, and annotation as a revisionist methodology that challenges the ground upon which these narratives have structured the histories of modern and contemporary art. In this volume, Mercer makes relevant the question of what happens to art history’s disciplinary frameworks when we take diaspora, exile, and movement as the basis for inquiry.2 Contributors therefore reveal the varying stakes, benefits, and limits involved in the ways we approach the art historical legacies of both modernism and diasporic art practices in light of contemporary forms of globalization. Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers is the fourth and final publication in the series, which also includes Cosmopolitan Modernisms (2005), Discrepant …

No Caption Needed

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. 419 Pages. In Susan Sontag’s final book Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), the literary critic, political activist, and controversial theorist of photography argues that, whether photographs are understood as “naïve object[s]” or “the work of an experienced artificer,” their meaning and the viewer’s response to them depends on how pictures are identified or misidentified—that is, on how textual discourses are constructed through the act of individual viewing. Sontag concludes that whatever excess of understanding is suggested in a given image, a caption will eventually “be needed” to help read the image.1 It is to this bold claim that Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites appear to respond with their collaborative work No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. This book is at once a study of iconic photographs as public art in American culture, and an unabashed rebuttal of what the authors term the “hermeneutics of suspicion” around visual …

Bill Brandt: A Life

Reviewed by Lucy Curzon, University of Rochester Delany, Paul. Bill Brandt: A Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. 336 pages. ISBN: 0804750033 In this lengthy biography of Bill Brandt, author Paul Delany presents the renowned British photographer as a shy and complex individual. Brandt was born in Hamburg, Germany as Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in 1909. His father’s family was successful in banking and international trade, while his mother’s kin were members of the Hamburg governing class, thus Brandt and his five siblings lived their early days according to the highest bourgeois standards. As Delany suggests, “it was a life of wealth, comfort and order; of lavish food and drink” (15). Yet despite (or because of) this privilege, Brandt spent the duration of his life actively trying to escape this past. Delany’s description of Brandt’s childhood has all the makings of a colorful Freudian case study. He was a sensitive and thoughtful boy who was constantly subjected to the whims of a despotic father. Unable to seek protection from his vulnerable mother, he consequently sought …

The Integrated News Spectacle

Reviewed by Ivan Castenada, University of Idaho Compton, James R. The Integrated News Spectacle: A Political Economy of Cultural Performance. New York and Berlin: Peter Lang, 2004. 275 pages. ISBN: 0820470708 Charles Lamb, in his excellent study of the work of Howard Barker, remarked that television “exhibits two convergent tendencies, the authentication of the fictional, and the fictionalizing of the authentic.” 1 One of the great emerging contributions being made within the field of visual culture encompasses a more nuanced and broader version of this observation: Mainly, that not just television but all media function to aestheticize the fictional and fictionalize the aesthetic. This important area of inquiry includes directing attention toward the issues involved in what we might call media aesthetics. More broadly, the examination of the implications and provocations of the aestheticizing of media fits into a wider critique of what has been called the political ecology of the senses. 2 Such a critical trajectory invariably needs to address the workings of media through the ever-growing effect of information-as-surface, which in turn entails the …

Dancing Machines

Reviewed by Odetta Norton McCarren, Felicia. Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 254 pages. ISBN: 0804739889 In my work, I move from creative writing to academic writing to dance practice and theory. An editor and mentor once told me that he despised dissertation titles. Wordy, stuffy, overstated, the academic title too often tries to bear more weight than it can handle. In the case of Felicia McCarren’s second book I would have to agree with this mentor. Harking back to Walter Benjamin’s famous treatise, McCarren’s Dancing Machines: Choreographies of the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is too big a buffet. The colon between Machines and Choreographies is a poor substitute for a proper digestif between courses. The actual work inside follows in this manner; a bloated text, much to this reader’s dismay. But once sifted out, the kernels of scholarship that McCarren presents still make some tasty food for thought. In McCarren’s first book, Dance Pathologies: Performance, Poetics, Medicine, the author reveals the ways in which Romantic poets such …

A Theory of /Cloud/

Reviewed by Brian Curtin, Raffles Design Institute Bangkok Damisch, Hubert. A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting. Translated by Janet Lloyd. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002. 313 pages. ISBN: 0804734402 The “destruction”of linear perspective by modern art did in fact everything but — given the extent to whichlinear perspective preoccupied twentieth-century thought on European art and its histories. Amidst a plethora of texts including Erwin Panofsky’s Perspective as Symbolic Form, there is John White’s The Birth and Rebirth of Pictorial Space and James Elkins’s more recent and comprehensive account of the historical shift from geometry to metaphor in The Poetics of Perspective. Though concerned with how linear perspective can be linked to its “opposite,” the affective indeterminacy of the image of clouds, Hubert Damisch’s book is more than an adjunct to these writings. Damischis also concerned with establishing the necessity of semiotics to challenge his recognition of limits in how art and art history are written. /Cloud/ appears between forward slashes in order to render a signifier rather than representation and cloud appears …

Derrida

Reviewed by Mark Denaci, SUNY Geneseo Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, Derrida (documentary, 2002) Amy Ziering Kofman and Kirby Dick, the makers of Derrida, seem to have willfully set themselves up for failure. How, after all, could anyone not end up disappointed by a film whose title’s singularity suggests that it will get to the “essence” of one of contemporary philosophy’s most resolutely anti-essentialist thinkers? To their credit, however, the filmmakers turn the documentary into a paradoxically entertaining meditation on the very (im)possibility of making a film with a title like Derrida. Ostensibly, the documentary offers itself up as a sort of “day-in-the-life” portrait of the controversial French philosopher: we get to see the proverbial “father of deconstruction” buttering his morning muffin, getting a haircut, looking for his keys, talking to earnest American graduate students, visiting his own archive at UC Irvine, visiting Nelson Mandela’s former prison cell, etc., all of this interspersed with a number of brief interview segments. Those who might be expecting a PBS-style documentary outlining Derrida’s career and putting it …

Writing Machines

Hayles, N. Katherine. Writing Machines. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002. 144 pages. ISBN: 0262582155 In Writing Machines N. Katherine Hayles offers both a discussion of her budding theory of Media-Specific Analysis (MSA) and a practice devised to outline its applicability. More precisely, Hayles’s book as realized in Anne Burdick’s design — and the publisher’s execution of it — emphasizes the importance of a text’s materiality. Hayles argues that a text’s instantiation in a particular medium shapes it in ways that cannot be divorced from the meaning of its “words (and other semiotic components)” (25) and calls for the need to develop a theory that takes into consideration medium as a crucial aspect of the content of a work. The implementation of Burdick’s design consistently draws attention to the book as a physical artifact. The cover, with its tactile ridges running lengthwise down front, back, and spine, forms a contrast to the sleek pages of the interior — both invite the reader to stroke the book, reveling in its materiality. The page layout, changing fonts, and bubbled …

Sure Seaters

Reviewed by Daniel I. Humphrey, University of Rochester Barbara Wilinsky. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001. 288 pages. ISBN: 0816635633 In a remarkable turn-around from the discipline’s formative years, recent American film scholarship has largely ignored the art cinema movement of the post-war era. Academic engagement with the texts of Bergman, Bresson, Fellini, and Buñuel has seemingly been left to scholars in other disciplines, such as Modern Language departments or Religious Studies programs. And much of this critical work, sadly, is either underdeveloped (such as Thomas Elaseser’s compelling by frustratingly brief Sight and Sound essay) or simply ignored (Marilyn Johns Blackwell’s valuable work on Ingmar Bergman, for example, is almost completely overlooked). Recently, however, a number of emerging film studies scholars, many still in graduate school, have sought to renew discourse on this neglected subject. Barbara Wilinsky’s short but fecund new volume, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema (2001) marks an encouraging, praiseworthy start. Sure Seaters focuses on the sites of exhibition rather than the films …

Animal Spaces, Beastly Places

Reviewed by Lisa Uddin, University of Rochester Philo, Chris and Chris Wilbert, eds. Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations. London: Routledge, 2000. 310 pages. ISBN: 041519847X In his important 1980 essay “Why Look at Animals?” critic John Berger lamented the marginalization of animals in modernity. Animals, he argued, have been rendered invisible within modern capitalist society. We can no longer see, neither conceptually nor perceptually, the authentic animality of animals, for it has slipped out of our view. A reductive human relation to the animal world has transformed them into commodities, degraded them as members of the bourgeois family unit, contained them in national parks, game reserves and – most tragically – zoos. How to get these invisible animals into view? How to put animals into the center of modern social life? Though not a direct response to these questions, Chris Philo and Chris Wilbert’s edited volume Animal Spaces, Beastly Places addresses the legitimate, though somewhat nostalgic, problem of the marginal animal with theoretical sophistication and a lively set of case studies. Animals …