El Anatsui (Gravity and Grace) and the Spiritual in Art


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Holland Carter is spot on about El Anatsui, the formal genius of his work, and the status of African art in the Eurocentric world of modern-contemporary art. Anatsui’s work is now on view at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. It’s a pity, though, that so little gets said about the art compared to how much gets said about the African origins of the artist.

Pieced together by myriads of scrap, the works are diaphanous and immaterial screens and skins composed of cheap metals, bottle tops and tabs, red yellow, silver, black, gold, “Pressed flat, twisted, or cut into circles, punctured, [and] wired together” to create screens and curtains that flip and fold, hang on the wall like skin, or hover in the air.

About the “spiritual” element, Anatsui explains it in relation to labor, namely in the contributions of his support staff whose labor is an essential part of the construction of each work. http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/34119/a-conversation-with-el-anatsui  He explains the spiritual in this way.

I don’t feel it yet. It’s not something out there in the air of my studio, but I think the fact that I use several hands lends something. The presence of all these hands — from the assistants, the handlers, myself — I think it adds a charge to the art. I’m beginning to think that it might be moving in a spiritual direction. In other words, the spiritual element is an emergent element of chance that comes into play in the combination of multiple sets of hands working over the materials to create.

In El Anatsui: Art an Life by Susan M. Vogel, the spiritual is explained in reference to the separation of physical objects from everyday ordinary use (p.126), objects that lose their lives and are transformed into a spiritual realm (134), the relations between transparent and opaque materialities, physical and virtual-cybernetic spaces (116), physical things that can be smashed and remade into new more durable form (34). This reminds me of the discussion of equipment and broken equipment by Heidegger in the first division of Being and Time. The being of an object is only uncovered when its function as ready-to-hand is ultimately collapsed.  The unusable disrupts utilitarian the assignability and referentiality of a being, and, in this, according to Heidegger, discloses a world; except here the material is no longer un-usable as opposed to recycled and re-purposed, which, I think, is a more felicitous idea.

Alas, too much of the art criticism about Anatsui from the press I’ve read so far online spends so much time focusing on the putatively curious fact that he is an African artists still working in Africa, as opposed to moving to New York and London. In the process too much of his work goes undertheorized. The allusion to Simone Weil’s collection of essays Gravity and Grace struck me as throwaway that does does little to either situate or interrogate the art.

I liked Gli (Wall) a lot for the soaring quality of the ringlets and the empty roughly circular spaces between the ringlets. But the gallery that, to my mind, carried the most punch was the one with Red Block and Black Block and Ozone Layer. All the mature works are massive and shimmer. But for some reason, these three visually filled up the room, perhaps because it was just these three works on the wall, and because the colors are so deep and densely saturated. Perhaps what “the spiritual in art” is and does is precisely this. It is the transformation of place filling up place, radiant. 

For another article and pictures, marvelous photographs by Jaime Rojo at BrooklynStreetArt.com, see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jaime-rojo-steven-harrington/el-anatsui-shows-both-gravity-and-grace-at-brooklyn-museum_b_2712267.html

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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