My workbook for these projects exists, but only in a horribly inaccessible and scattered way. It is on scraps of paper I blutacked to the walls, on the backs of my paintings, it is all over the place and it is sometimes illegible. Now it is my responsibility to draw that all together, to document my process. I hope it does not matter that it is so retrospective and written. I think of the thinking as very like the cutting and painting and doing, and the thinking is hard to document outside of words. I can’t stand to plaster an idea onto a piece as I’m making it, I want enough control that I can make a piece that evokes my ideas. As my husband has said, in a gently mocking tone, when I have explained my paintings to friends, “Yes… it’s all very cerebral.”
What use is history?
I was very excited when I first saw that our provocation for my Art Studio paper was “What use is history to the Fine Arts”, it seemed an antidote to what I had just, that morning, faced in my first Critical Studies lecture on Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.
To briefly give context, Horkheimer and Adorno were avid Stalinists living in Germany pre-Hitler, and also members of a German pseudo-left intelligentsia hostile to the outright anti-intellectualism of the Nazi Party. When Joseph Stalin ordered the German Communist Party to take an ultra-left position, to make no theoretical distinction between the social democratic SPD and the anti-democratic Nazis, he split the majority left vote and thereby handed power to Hitler and his relatively small cadre of supporters. Horkheimer and Adorno fled Germany, and set about the vexing task of explaining Hitler’s rise to power without ever implicating Stalin’s central role in it. The resulting book, Dialectic of Enlightenment, is a horrifying distortion of politics, epistemology and history, one that openly conflates the normative, liberating ideas of human universality and scientific method that crystallised during the 18th century with the divisive, philosophically idealist, pseudo-scientific reaction of the Romantic period’s backlash against Enlightened ideas. “Enlightenment”, the pair concluded, “is totalitarian.” Their argument dolphin dives in and out of a sea of strange incoherent slurs, vaguely implying this “rational” totalitarianism, but never coherently and charitably engaging with Enlightenment thinking at all:
For the Enlightenment, only what can be encompassed by unity has the status of an existent or an event; its ideal is the system from which everything and anything follows. Its rationalist and empiricist versions do not differ on that point. Although the various schools may have interpreted its axioms differently, the structure of unitary science has always been the same. Despite the pluralism of the different fields of research, Bacon’s postulate of una scientia universalis is as hostile to anything which cannot be connected as Leibniz’s mathesis universalis is to discontinuity.
(p.4, Horkheimwer & Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment, Stanford).
Lurid, isn’t it? Worse still, if Horkheimer and Adorno are to be taken seriously, there was no large opposition to Hitler. Discussing these issues with one of my lecturers she asked me why everyone just went along with Nazism. It was as if she thought there had never been a destruction of democratic institutions, and a slaughter of dissidents, in Nazi Germany. The degree to which the Frankfurt School of cultural theory, launched partly by Horkheimer and Adorno, has diverted certain academics and artists from examining history as it actually happened is shocking. The Frankfurt School’s purple prose, ahistorical foundations, and idealism apparently still have a lot of currency in some academic circles, and the department that runs the theory courses at my school seems to be in quite an advanced state of academic decay, enthralled by these unscholarly tendencies, but still conducting itself in the form of scholarship. I am frightened that this might be a blight across art scholarship generally, worldwide, and not just in my school. I was annoyed to encounter such roundly discredited anti-Marxist, anti-intellectual ideology in my course, taught uncritically, just as a matter of course, especially when my lecturers kept calling Horkheimer and Adorno “Marxists.” These are ideological envoys of a man who killed – ended the actually real, flesh and bone lives of – more people than anyone in history, and amidst all that he specifically targeted all orthodox Marxists who spoke out, including all his old Bolshevik comrades. He did this not arbitrarily, not just as part of a power grab, as the liberal interpretation would have us accept, but because core features of Marxist Socialism – democracy, internationalism – posed his regime a threat. Stalinism was profoundly and importantly anti-Marxist, to the point of mass-murdering Marxists. But this has turned into a polemic. Sorry.
What I saw in this Art Studio provocation was a project to keep me sane in the coming months of frustration. If, in Critical Studies, I was faced with hours of historical fabrication and philosophical idealism, a boiling down of history into an intangible chatter of all-equally-valid perspectives, as well as spurious attacks on the scientific method as an especially successful epistemology, at least I was invited, then, to go into Art Studio and say: “Yes. History matters to Fine Art! We can know some things, and that some things are wrong! We can even know things about what actually happened!! History is hard, and there are somethings we’ll never know for certain, but we can gather evidence. We can understand. We can have a rough, sometimes a very good, idea of the past that approaches universality or objectivity.” Or, more realistically, “Actually, I’m a bit overwhelmed and lazy, so maybe other people can be the historical scholars and I’ll defer to their better judgment, and just check their methods don’t suck before I cite them.” Anyway, it felt good. It took me in a few hours from feeling that I’d made a dreadful mistake returning to the Massey University Fine Arts programme, to hoping that it was going to be good fun and quite rigorous, which, Critical Studies far aside, it has proven to be.
What, then, was some history that mattered? I sat down and read some books, some general ideas about what history was, but thanks to Critical Studies, as well as a sense that there is too little art about recent political events like the sinking of the Princess Ashika or the explosion at Pike River, I decided to aim at political history. With a trip to Mexico recently behind me, I decided to first explore the political degeneration of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and how I longed to somehow personally reconcile their capitulation to Stalinism with the important art that they produced from a Trotsky-Leninist perspective during some of the most vital years of the movement. Kahlo and Rivera are important figures in the history Trotskyist politics. That Rivera facilitated Trotsky’s asylum in Mexico, relatively far from Stalin (ultimately not far enough) probably gave the world a few extra years of careful Marxist analysis of world events that it would otherwise not have. I needed to understand Rivera and Kahlo’s legacy, and the conditions of their degeneration, to come to terms with them not as idols but as historical people in a material and social context, and learn not to hold a petty grudge over their personal failings late in life and in their political isolation.
I also, because of the brief, wanted to link into how Kahlo, Rivera, and Trotsky matter to a New Zealand audience today – that part of Kahlo’s political degeneration related to the growth of her nationalistic tendencies, her apparent longing for a sovereign role for indigenous Mexican culture, which today is echoed, much less intelligently, in bourgeois nationalist movements like tino rangatiratanga or the Mana Party. Groups which do nothing to advance social equality, for Maori or others, instead enriching an indigenous and union-bureaucrat elite, while ostensibly aiming to juggle social misery out of a disproportionately affected group and back into the broader populance – a mantra amounting quietly to something like, “If only all stripes of the working class were shat on in equal proportion, it would be a step in the right direction!”
I began with Rivera’s painting, La Quema de los Judas. It seemed most apt. Being about betrayal it related immediately to Stalinism, and to my rather silly sense of being betrayed by these great artists, a childishly individualistic sense that I knew I must strive to overcome, at least to minimise. The Burning of Judas ceremony is a tradition in Mexico appropriated from an old Catholic scapegoating ritual where congregations would burn effigies of Satan or Judas to symbolically purge sin. During the Mexican revolution, revolutionaries appropriated this tradition, stuffing effigies of political and ruling class figures – such as dictator Porfirio Díaz, or military generals – with fireworks. Growing up during the Mexican revolution, Rivera was a supporter of and regular participant in this tradition. I wanted to depict contemporary New Zealand archetypes, “the vanguard of New Zealand capitalism”, as Judas figures in a painting or video. One of the lecturers, Eugene, asked me who I would “vilify”. I made a note of the word. It seemed both an important criticism, and also something for me to confront, because to do this could be vilification, a word with nasty connotations.
“To vilify”, however, is a verb. It implies that I am making my subject into a villain. What if my subject is actually villainous without my input? Can one vilify a villain? Porfirio Díaz, for example, did not need Mexican peasants to burn his effigy so that he might become a villain, he was one just by nature of his callous and self-regarding and unethical conduct. It was good of Eugene to provoke these thoughts, it left me aware I must be careful which archetypes or individuals I depicted. These needed to be villains by conduct, acting unethically. I had to have a clear motivation for each choice, at least in my head, and not simply choose people I didn’t like. In the end I chose:
- A Mana Party leader, due to their political opportunism masquerading as “unity on the left”, a happy alignment with iwi corporates and class collaborationist declarations of the “radical” role of Maori capitalist accumulation.
- A suited fat man who could be a CEO or politician, I thought in particular of Peter Whittall, the CEO of Pike River Mine, and of Labour Party MP Andrew Little, formerly of the EPMU, who rushed to defend the Pike River management team within days of the deadly mine explosion despite independent walkouts by miners over unsafe conditions that the EPMU did not take up.
- An NZEI bureaucrat, based on the school union’s then-recent decision to skuttle a proposed strike over Christchurch school closures without actually consulting their members in a democratic fashion (they merely polled their branches, and most members did not even apparently know they had done so).
I ended up, on the back of my first prototype, above, with the following notes, alongside others:
Consider this a prototype. Who are these paper mache figures here? Obama? John Key? UNITE union officials? CEOs akin to Peter Whittal? Labour/Green/National MPs?
What creeds of the working class should populate the street? Bus drivers? Teachers? Mothers? The unemployed?
How does this move from imitation to something novel?
Perspective! FFS Matty! This looks like a sidescroller computer game. 😡
It is a very nice coincidence that, as the backdrop for this first prototype, I chose my little orange house, based on the coincidental characteristics it shared with Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul – the bright colours, and the fact that I owed it, in similar a sense to Kahlo, not to my own hard work and determination, but to my parents – a middle class rescue package. The front of this house depicted here, which I for a short time took to jokingly calling La Casa “Orange”, eventually became the site of Windy Studio.
As I worked up a more direct, small scale imitation of Rivera’s La Quema in a cartoon format, in bright, Mexican colours, my notes started to catalogue more and more problems or troubling complexities in the conceptual side of my work.
political satire not incitement to violence – but in the end, is that how it functioned, during civil war, or did it indeed incite violence? being absolved?
Sin. the devil. blood money. the religious history of this practice clouds its meaning.
The textual Judas, of course, hangs himself. The problem is Judas is repetent. Stalinists usually don’t even recognise that they are Stalinists these days… Two-step revolutionary programmes, latching oneself to populist reactionaries (like Harawira, Sykes), socialism in one country, the kind of economic utopianism that leads to horrors like forced collectivisation. All just par for the course among high profile “socialists”.
Other notes seem less immediately relevant, reflecting merely on how the global situation might relate to ideas on the periphery of the project.
Chavez just died. Sordid history of bourgeois nationalism. Dependence on oil reserves. Worship of Chavez by pseudo-lefts. Dictatorial Stalinism.
Batshit illusions about the ability of primitive socialist accumulation to overcome the programmatic short-comings of Maoist nationalism in, for example, Nepal – also other impoverished states.
Frida’s cot had portraits of Stalin & Mao over it.
This, a vague memory from my trip to Kahlo’s house in December 2011, left me searching library books and Google Image for photos of Frida’s cot. I found photos where you could see there were portraits above her bed, but none where you could make out figures.
I could not verify this memory was reliable, but I began to work it up into an image, a picture of Stalin framed by Kahlo’s ornate little four-poster bed, her sewing box in the foreground, and a little plastic skeleton pinned to the wall.
Coyoacan I grew out of a messy, untitled anti-Stalinist triptych, which grew in turn out of Frida’s Bed. This untitled work featured an overly busy central blue panel with a portrait of Stalin glued to it and two bright red side panels. It was opaque, too hard to read, so I removed the red panels and the central one became the work. Unfortunately I painted over the red canvases before remembering to document them, so only the central panel remains.
I wanted to create an inverted shrine, something to be sacriledge to the cult of Stalin that Kahlo had signed onto with her tacky little portraits. I had photos of Catholic shrines in Mexico, and I bought a box of candles and began dripping, pouring, and jabbing them against the little portrait of Stalin. I tried, ultimately, to build a layer of wax that was thick enough to jam the candles into so that they held, wedged there like knives.
However, a lot of things bothered me about the piece. It seemed clumsy. Obliged to make a time-based art piece, I had cut a hole in the back to fit an ipod with a playlist on repeat. It came together messily, and I really wished I could just make a painting. At this point I was tired of painting and drawing Stalin, and it seemed like what I was doing was silly and morose. Rivera’s paintings were bright, and bold, and held a tense but positive message. Mine were becoming little more than anti-Stalinist iconography. I resolved to move towards celebrating the positive aspects of Kahlo and Rivera’s politics, alongside denouncing the bad. I drew in Helen Lundeberg and Remedios Varo as influences, printing out their paintings and sticking them up in my space. Varos may have been influential all along. I had looked at her work in Mexico and I had thought, being a much better cartoonist than a painter as yet, hers was another style that validated cartoons.
Coyoacan I began when I grabbed three canvases, decided to revive the triptych motif despite its religious connotations in terms of the holy trinity, and just paint some nice pictures of Kahlo, Trotsky, and Rivera. I stayed up all night, painting while chatting to newly-made friends L, and S. It was funny to experience painting with people I was only just meeting. It only occurs to me in retrospect how often I had done just that, painted with new people or strangers around, prior to my final work for the semester in Windy Studio.
I prefer to switch the places of Kahlo and Rivera in the composition when displaying this work. The image is deliberately disjointed when Kahlo and Rivera face away from Trotsky, but also when they immediately face each other. There are two other coherent arrangements and readings: Kahlo faces Trotsky with her back to Rivera, evoking Rivera and Kahlo’s difficult relationship and her alleged brief affair with Trotsky, and a much more important reading where Rivera faces Trotsky with his back to Kahlo, indicating the very public denunciation Kahlo made of Trotskyism later in her life which suggested her capitulation to Stalinism, perhaps unlike Rivera’s, was sincere.
The work is also culturally blasphemous. Kahlo holds a mere, and behind her are kowhaiwhai patterns. I had considered adding moko to each of the portraits, but decided – not that to do so would be wrong – but that it would not be worth the trouble it could raise in such a minor and early project. The aim was not, at any rate, to attack Māori, but for myself as a person of Māori descent to invite Māori culture into a left-wing, progressive, anti-spiritualist tendency, rather than to calcify Te Ao Māori as inflexible, conversative, anti-intellectual, and inherently spiritualised like so many iwi leaders, kaumātua, and Māori academics would like. The skulls in Kahlo’s smoke represent indigenous Mexican cultures, Mayan and Aztec, an act of more outright and defiant cultural appropriation. Where Māori leaders might deny me my dual status as both Māori and Pākehā because I reject Māori spirituality and much tikanga as mythology and superstition (oft-times beautiful and historically important), Māori are just Māori, and also Polynesian, and probably originally East Asian and Melanesian, and in the end, still human and animal, and so here I am all of these, and also Ngāpuhi. I have no such “claim” to Aztec or Mayan imagery, but I maintain I have every right to use and reinterpret it, as everyone should in a secular society. These are highly confrontational choices, influenced heavily by texts such as Kenan Malik’s Strange Fruit.
This is all framed rather too personally, though. Socialism and secular humanism have a good deal more to offer working class Māori people than the corporate iwi and right-wing Māori academia do. That is why Kahlo will carry her mere in my paintings, just as her paintings carried symbols of internationalism, and she may even gain tā moko along with her companions in Coyoacan II, or III, or at some stage. In the same breath, I really need to find a way to tone down this frank and unsavoury preachiness that is coming through in my work and commentary. I think Windy Studio helped me do that, and that’s what I’ll discuss in the part two. (Apologies for the length!)