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Umbrella Online - Current Issue

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ISSN 0160-0699

Volume 29, No. 1, Mar 2006

Book Reviews

Reference

Dada: Zurich, Berlin, Hanover, Cologna, New York, Paris, edited by Leah Dickerman with essays y Brigid Doherty, Sabine T. Kriebel, Dorothea Dietrich, Michael R. Taylor, Janine Mileaf and Matthew S. Witkovsky (New York, D.A.P./National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2006, $65.00) probably is a bargain by weight. It is a “heavy” book in more ways than one. Heavy physically to lift and “heavy” because this is an exhibition catalog perhaps more than the exhibition itself–one which includes documentation, bibliography and critical theory that extends the understanding of this massive exhibition, which first saw the light of day at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

Covering painting, sculpture, photography, collage, photomontage, prints, sound recordings, and film in a dynamic multimedia display, spanning the period from ca. 1916 to 1924, it includes key figures such as Hans Arp, Kurt Schwitters, Hannah Höch, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, Many Ray, and Marcel Duchamp, as well as many others less well known, covering 40 artists.. This is an exhibition and catalog created with the collaboration of three institutions: Centre Pompidou, National Gallery of Art and Musée national d’art moderne.

The design of the book allows each venue to have its own color, which one can see on the fore-edge not only for the critical essay, but also for the documentation in the back of the book. The documentation is stunning, taking us through the six cities with an illustrated chronology of the movement (most important and remarkable) as well as witty chronicles of events in each center; a selected bibliography; and biographies of each artist, accompanied by a Dada-era photograph for each. If you have one reference book on Dada, this could be the one!

Art Book News Annual (Vol. 2, Portland, OR, Book News, 2006)) offers information about a year’s worth of art-related books from 355 publishers. Presenting 1,333 titles published during 2005, this annual describes each title and groups it with others according to subject defined according to the Library of Congress subject classifications. The titles are selected in art, design and architecture from two Book News bibliographies: Reference & Research Book News and SciTech Book News, both published quarterly during 2005.

General

Imagine No Possessions by Christina Kiaer (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2005, $39.95 hardcover) is an investigation of the Russian Constructivist conception of objects as being more than commodities. The concept comes from Aleksandr Rodchenko’s comment: “Our things in our hands must be equals, comrades,” much unlike capitalism’s commodity fetish by examining objects produced by Constructivist artists between 1923 and 1925.

Highlighted are Tatlin’s prototype designs for pots and pans and everyday objects; Popova’s and Stepanova’s fashion designs and textiles, Rodchenko’s packaginag and advertisements for state–owned businesses (in cooperation with revolutionary poet Vladimi Mayakovsky), and Rodchenko’s famous design for the interior of a workers’ club. These artists listened to the call of Constructivist manifestos and aimed to work as “artist-engineers” to produce useful objects for everyday life in the new socialist collective.

Thus, these artists broke with the traditional model of the autonomous avant-garde, in order to participate more fully, according to the author, in the political project of the Soviet State. Kiaer analyzes Constructivism’s attempt to develop modernist forms to forge a new comradely relationship between human subjects and the mass-produced objects of modernity; Constructivists could “imagine no possessions” (as John Lennon’s song puts it) not by eliminating material objects but by eliminating the possessive relation to them. From flapper dresses to cookie advertisements, Kiaer creates a dialogue between the more famous avant-garde works of these artists and their quirkier, less appreciated utilitarian objects. The author has added vitality and flamboyance into the movement, even a kind of sexy interest in the main artists who can never be taken for granted again. Notes, bibliography, index.

Laibach and NSK by Alexei Monroe (Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 2005, $30.00 paper) documents what some feel is the last true avant-garde of the twentieth century and the most consistently challenging artistic force in Eastern Europe today. NSK refers to Neue Slowenische Kunst, a Slovene collective that emerged in the sake of Tito’s death and was shaped by the breakup of Yugoslavia. Its complex and disturbing work–in fields of experimental music and theater, painting, philosophy, writing, performance, and design–has an international following but a powerful and specific cultural context. A division, one of many, is Laibach, an alternative music group known for its blending of popular culture with subversive politics, high art with underground provocation–reflecting the political and cultural chaos of its time.

As a witness to Laibach’s influence, I saw them perform and create an installation at the Sydney Biennale in the 80s–with inspiration from Hitler, Stalin, Tito. Monroe creates the first critical appraisal of the entire NSK phenomenon, from its elaborate organizational structure with its internal logic to its controversial public actions. This is an historically detailed, theoretically insightful study of a most significant Eastern European phenomenon–a total system based on detailed theory, raising questions about culture, power, war, politics, globalization, the marketplace, and life itself. Acronyms and glossary, notes, index. Includes 50 illustrations, of which 20 are in color.

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