Werner Herzog, art-world insult-comic

Werner Herzog. (via Toronto International Film Festival)
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As the Whitney's latest biennial winds down to a finish, the show's curators invited a spy into the house of art.

Suspicion and critique of the art market and a focus on art of the past are two crucial elements in this year's iteration of the exhibition (set to close May 27), and both could be found in profusion in the comments of filmmaker Werner Herzog, on hand yesterday to speak about his own contribution to the show, Hearsay of the Soul, a piece that has become to some degree, oddly and not uncontroversially, the 2012 Biennial's centerpiece.

"In a way I'm like a sore thumb in your museum," Herzog said to a crowd of art students, elderly women, and people of indeterminate age wearing interesting glasses and shoes, his voice (that signature voice of continental art-film) playing with a bit of a scratch. "But I also am proud of what I did and feel like I belong here."

The voice seemed to strengthen over the course of the hour-and-a-half discussion, as though bolstered by Herzog's twin enthusiasms of the day: outrage at contemporary art and rapturous acclaim for art of the distant past. It might have been bolstered, too, by his bizarre introduction as "the ideal artist… an ethical artist."

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"Craft has completely shifted to the world of ideas," he said. "You take some cardboard boxes and throw them in a corner, and a rolled-up, greasy sleeping bag, and some squished beer cans… and all of a sudden you're making a commentary of homelessness." He spoke of a world of artists "trying to manufacture excitement."

When co-curator Jay Sanders, in an army jacket and with a thin smile on his lips throughout, attempted to give some nuance to Herzog's lamentations, calling his work in the show an "intervention" with the art world, Herzog replied that the work (and the sixteenth-century artist it pays tribute to, Hercules Segers) was "more modern than almost anything you're showing here."

"When I look at this art market element [it] makes me more suspicious than anything else… it almost seems like a conspiracy… a bubble of complete fiction… reminds me of the craze of the middle ages of relics of saints… today nobody cares about them."

All of these comments drew applause and, occasionally cheers. Flanked by Biennial co-curators Jay Sanders and Elisabeth Sussman (who smiled significantly less than Sanders, and was attired in a severe gray cardigan and skirt, broken by a color-blocked waist wrap and her chunky gold jewelry), Herzog repeatedly questioned the validity of the art on display in the museum, and the art being produced in the world generally. It was a grand conspiracy. By the end, Sanders and Sussman had grown rather quiet, letting the director drone on.

So what is this work? Located on the first floor of the exhibition, behind a curtain of black plastic flaps (whoever's idea it was that this was a better option than, say, plain dark curtains, should be found, then fired), Hearsay of the Soul is a five-channel piece that loops close-ups of paintings by little-known seventeenth-century Dutch painter and printmaker Hercules Segers, a contemporary of Rembrandt, and images of Dutch musician and composer Ernst Reijseger and an organist playing a piece Reijseger composed for Herzog's 2010 film Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

Segers' canvases, looking brittle with age but heavy with impasto, use mostly monochromatic palettes in their depictions of monumental landscapes, and tracery figuration of mountain and valley vistas. There are a few tiny human figures in these strange scenes, but mainly they look like some alien landscape hewn from melted wax. They are okay.

Reijseger plays passionately and beautifully, making the sort of faces that many musicians make when they play (evidently watching musicians is a new experience for many art critics, who thought his "ecstatic" playing remarkable, or even notable), while the camera sloppily pans from him to the organist, then back. It looks like it's inside a musty church. There are cords on the floor. It's a nice piece of music. So nice Herzog used it for two films.

Herzog is arguably the most famous name on the roster of the exhibition (others, including Richard Maxwell, Frederick Wiseman, Robert Gober, and Andy Warhol, likewise represent a decidedly not young, and in some cases not living, fame-by-association), and his piece yielded a burst of enthusiasm, and in turn a backlash.

On the art website Art Fag City, Paddy Johnson responded to what she felt was a mass critical delusion about the work, calling Herzog's piece "a stinker," and writing, "Art doesn’t need all these bells and whistles. The whole score reads like a device to support the footage, a crutch that wouldn’t be necessary if the original work were simply hung."

This led to a slight spat between Johnson and another burgeoning art site, Hyperallergic, where Peter Dobey called her opinions "conspicuously reactionary," and commented that Herzog's piece really tied the proverbial room together, saying Hearsay of the Soul "acts as cotter pin, holding the axles of the Biennial together. And for this we can forgive it its shortcomings."

In the Biennial, Dobey asserted, "[e]verything is precarious, teetering and half built. It is the aftermath of the art world’s hurricane years … no one in particular is in charge. The life of this Biennial is like the life of a dream, where rules don’t apply, but everything has meaning…. [T]here is an inherent ephemerality to this year’s Biennial. It has an air of free association to it."

Johnson replied, at length, with a post titled "Additional Person Overrates Werner Herzog."

Herzog, ventriloquizing himself repeatedly in press interviews and public talks, again gave his version of how the piece came together.

"Our conversation was odd. I said 'No,' and I let the 'No' linger. I'm not into museums and I'm not into this world of contemporary art either. I want to be a good soldier of cinema."

But, he explained, "my wife Lena coaxed me…"

He was sought out, reportedly, since so many of the young artists in the show cite him as an influence, though none have said what sort of influence. Yet Herzog's fame has bought him a degree of insurance from whatever nasty things he might say about the art market. After all, as he said, he was proud of his work and happy to be in the show. And there he was yesterday, all smiles before the talk (Herzog seems so relaxed at these things, totally at odds with that implacable, flat-faced, deadpan despair he evinced in and through pretty much everything he made before 1990), and clearly giddy at the chance to take the museum, the art market, and even the young artists showing alongside him, down a peg or 50. While commenting on a series of images, those of Segers, Da Vinci, Grünewald, and others, as well as clips from some of his films, Herzog deployed his barbs.

"For me [Segers is] the father of all modernity," Herzog said. "I find it an outrage that I've not met a single student of art who'd heard of Segers!"

Of his own encounter with the artist's work, he said he felt "a deep sensation that there was someone out there like my brother." His own films and Segers' painting, he said, don't speak to each other, but "I hope they will dance." "I have not seen any of the originals," Herzog claimed casually at one point. "I hardly ever go to museums." He got a laugh for that.

For "artspeak," he saved his most venomous language.

"It's an abomination; it makes me cringe and it makes me sick," he said. Hoots and hollers from the crowd, and no response at all from the distinguished curators. 

So what is this museum-hating, art-world loathing "warrior" doing in the middle of what's supposed to be one of the most important statements this city has to make on contemporary art practice? His piece, which appears to say "No" to everything since 1630 in the world of image-making (asked his favorite contemporary artist, Herzog named Francis Bacon (1909-1992)) and whose relation to the works around it seems to be only that they are creative reactions to the world (which, sure, good understanding of what art means?), is a poor excuse for museum-worthy art and, worse, a sad display of laziness from a fine filmmaker; it might make a good introductory film for the Hercules Segers Birthplace Visitor Center. One gets the idea that, having made some very good but also very safe selections for the show, and having felt, as the art world has been of late, marginalized from the proletarianized Occupiers downtown, the Biennial's creators wanted some fiery up-with-people showpiece. Evidently the show's introductory piece—doubling as its catalog intro—an essay by Andrea Fraser on the crippling, nebulous influence of corporate funding in the art world, wasn't self-lacerating enough. So they reached for Herzog, just Hollywood enough without seeming too uncool.

Those other famous names in the show appear as part of a tradition in Biennial selections, reflecting what artists are thinking about these days. Robert Gober’s curated gallery of Forrest Bess paintings, while shedding light on an under-recognized artist, is only relative to "what people are thinking about," or to Gober's own practice, since Bess had a lifelong obsession with changing his own gender, even resorting to self-surgery to achieve this (this is interesting, though the extent to which this troubled man was left to his own—surgical!—devices by his New York art-world benefactors is worrisome in retrospect). Meanwhile Nick Mauss' terrific installation utilizes Marsden Hartley, Ellsworth Kelly, and Andy Warhol, among his own work, to evoke interest in gay artistic identity and image-making. All well and good, and Richard Hawkins’ work even offers a rethinking of of the butoh-fu notebooks of Tatsumi Hijikata (1928-1986), while there's a painting by none other than Leonard Peltier. And yet there, in the center of the main floor of the Biennial, is a work devoted to praising a Dutch Master. A forgotten one, perhaps, but still. A Dutch Master! As though the world needed another one of those!

There's one aspect in which Herzog's work and his words have a lot to do with what's in this Biennial.

"I can invent a story any time in two minutes flat," Herzog said at one point when asked to explain the greater narrative of his piece. It's "a strange ecstasy of vision that can hardly be described," he said at another point. Reisinger's music and the images, Herzog went on, "morph and form a unity," and a "narration of ecstatic visions." "You can't describe it!" he said later. "How does music dance and morph with things?"

"All of you have to invent yourself into these images," he said, near the end of his talk. "Most of the people who come here are capable of doing that."

Wrapping up finally, the co-curators effectively mute, Herzog explained that it was all a matter of history. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Holland, painting reached its apex, just like today architecture and film are the most vibrant forms of expression. Yet there is hope. One artist—a Dutchman, blessedly!—has been getting Herzog supremely excited. His name is Theo Jansen. He makes those wooden gizmos called "Strandbeests" that walk across beaches, powered by wind. They are fun to watch. My friend got a miniature one for his kid.

And children are the future. Herzog described his own artworks thus: "they are like your children, they are imperfect, they have a squint, or a limp, or a stutter."

Immediately he noted that his son had just graduated from Columbia with honors, and without squints or limps or stutters. There was more applause.

Photos courtesy Whitney Museum of American Art, unless otherwise credited.