I Ain’t Afraid of No Change

May 06, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Afraid of change?  Of course I am.  Perhaps ‘afraid’ is the wrong word, but I am definitely a creature of habit who is apprehensive of change.  Some people are excited by it, citing that old idiom “a change is as good as a rest”.  They relish the adventure, which I understand but don’t really relate to.  I’m happy if an activity or situation that I enjoy, remains the same because it gives me a sense of comfort and familiarity.  There is one area of my life, however, where I welcome change of all kinds, and that is in the art world.   What started me on this train of thought was an exhibition that I visited in New York last week.  The Gustav Klimt: Gold In Motion exhibition at Hall des Lumières was a different look at the work of the great Austrian painter in an immersive show with several other artists.   The gallery, which is in an former bank, opened last year and this was its first and rather unusual exhibition.  The show was a complex curation of animations of the artists’ works that dynamically projected on all of the walls and floors of the huge gallery space.  Visitors sat on small benches placed around the space, which meant that they were part of this digital canvas throughout the presentation.  The accompanying soundtrack further reinforced the idea of it being immersive, and I can honestly say that it was the most remarkable exhibition I’ve ever been to.  What interested me was the way that images of Klimt’s work, which are themselves captivating in their combining of traditional portraiture and the symbolism of still life, were presented as a moving picture.  What this does is effectively transpose Klimt into something new.  In one sequence, the famous Pallas Athena (1898), which depicts the Greek goddess Athena in golden battle armour, is introduced one element at a time.  First came her helmet, then just the eyes, which hold a very expressive gaze, followed by the rest of her face, and then figure.  Seeing the painting this way is not necessarily as the artist intended it to be viewed.  Instead, we are looking at the animator’s vision for the painting, which is then curated by the exhibition directors to appear within a wider sequence with accompanying drama added by the soundtrack.  The impact on me was to elevate the drama of the original painting (which you can find here) and to draw particular attention to how Klimt had represented Athena’s gaze, which is one of defiant strength.  When we left the exhibition, we resolved to visit the Neue Gallerie in the Upper East Side, which was founded to showcase Austrian artworks that had been recovered after the Nazi looting during the Second World War.  This gallery contains several of Klimt’s work, including perhaps his most famous painting Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) which you can see here.  I was surprised at how I viewed these works, i.e., everything presented at the same time, with the animation and the details that I overlooked previously.  This got me thinking about how enriching it was to see art presented in more than one way, but also how there is a great deal of reluctance toward and almost protest against it.   I was reminded of the furore the blew up around the BBC’s reinterpretation of the story of Queen Anne Boleyn last year, in which the principal characters were played by black actors, and the ongoing debate about the race and gender of the next James Bond actor.  While I understand that the internet gives everyone an opinion on everything, and that these views will undoubtedly cause friction and anger in others, I think it goes beyond the simple refusal to accept change.  When we see a powerful piece of art that provokes a memorable response in us, whether intellectually or emotionally, that memory lasts a very long time.  For lovers of history, the story of Anne Boleyn is a factual event, even though there is a great deal of artistic licence in the seemingly factual telling of her story.  Since her short life is subject to documentary evidence and eyewitness accounts, we automatically assume that it must be told ‘truthfully’.  However, her story has been told and retold for nearly 500 years. Each telling of that story is an interpretation of the events by teachers, historians and, of course, writers.  Similar to Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (1929), "This is not Anne Boleyn, but a representation of her",  So with this in mind, why not reimagine the story with a cast of black actors?  Can we not re-interpret a story without being accused of ‘wokeism’ or being a ‘snowflake’ (two expressions that I loathe intensely, incidentally).   The same goes for James Bond which is, at its heart, a piece of literary fiction.  Similar protests about the choice of actor for that role happened when Daniel Craig took the role back in 2006.  Cries of “you can’t have a blond, blue-eyed man play this character” echoed around the internet, but now, 17 years later Craig is almost universally accepted as a great characterisation of the famous super spy. In short, we might not like a reinterpretation, we might reject it on the basis of perceived inaccuracy or just not like a specific detail about the work, but art is supposed to provoke some form of reaction.  It is the very definition of art’s place in the human experience.  Job done then, I reckon. 

After we left the Hall des Lumières, we walked around the corner to another reminder of the power of art and memory, the famous Hook and Ladder 8 building in Tribeca.   This was the exterior location for the Ghostbusters headquarters, first seen in the 1984 film. 

Who ya gonna call?  The FDNY, naturally. This fire station is actually called Ghostbusters HQ on Google Maps

I was 11 when the film was released and I vividly remember the hype and excitement among my peers about going to see it.  We were excited by the visuals, the logo, the special effects etc and the apparently endless merchandising aimed at our age-group was mindboggling (it was the 80s after all)  Now, aged 50, I was standing outside their HQ, which bears the large sign and some painted artworks on the pavement outside, despite being a working fire station.  Having thought about the Klimt exhibition, I wasn’t at all surprised to see a steady throng of Ghostbusters fans of all ages, taking selfies outside this building that they had a strong connection to.  The release of 3 films since that original in 1984 has cemented the iconic references in many people who on this day, like me, were really happy to see the place.  Ironically, the franchise also included a non-canon film with an all-female cast, a reimagining that I personally thought was pretty lazy, to be honest.  Nevertheless, I was able to choose not to go and see it and am similarly able to decide not to condemn it either.  The negative reaction in me was valid and I guess that’s what I’m getting at.  We should all take in art in whatever form it takes, whether classical or original, reimagined or a homage to, and extract from it whatever we can. Whatever our reaction, we should respect it for what it is and if possible, learn something from it as I did with the Klimt exhibition.  For me, it’s an aspect of change that I ain’t afraid of.



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