COLUMNS

  • Present Danger

    North Korea’s monumental gifts to Africa

    INTERNATIONAL FRIENDSHIP: THE GIFTS FROM AFRICA. BY CHE ONEJOON. Kehrer, 2021. 192 pages.

    ON OCTOBER 13, 2010, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade stood at Collines des Mamelles—twin hills that overlook the Atlantic Ocean and an important point of departure to the Americas from the entrepôt of the Cape Verde Peninsula during the transatlantic slave trade—and welcomed 163 Haitian university students who would be receiving free education after the catastrophic earthquake that January. The president was an impassioned rhetorical advocate for Haiti following the disaster. Days after the earthquake,

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  • Heaven Sent

    Celia Paul’s Letters to Gwen John

    LETTERS TO GWEN JOHN. BY CELIA PAUL. New York Review Books, 2022. 352 pages.

    IF TRUTH AND ARTIFICE WERE OPPOSED, we would have no painting, no poetry, no speech, no life. Yet there is tension, undoubtable, incorrigible, a catch in the flow of perception, thought, and deed, as the dreams that live in some strange interior take shape and enter the shared reality of a work. Celia Paul, in both her painting and her writing, is a formidable guardian of her own inner life, as well as a careful chronicler of what it means to traverse a boundary that is barely perceptible, hardly there at all, and yet

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  • Read Their Lips

    The feats and failures of Gran Fury

    IT WAS VULGAR AND IT WAS BEAUTIFUL: HOW AIDS ACTIVISTS USED ART TO FIGHT A PANDEMIC. BY JACK LOWERY. Bold Type Books, 2022. 432 pages.

    THE PAST DECADE has seen an outpouring of what writer and organizer Theodore Kerr calls AIDS Crisis Revisitation, a genre defined by its nostalgia for the pre-1996 years of HIV/AIDS activism, particularly ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). A major contribution to this literature, Jack Lowery’s intricately researched history of Gran Fury trains its spotlight on the artists and designers who collaboratively authored much of ACT UP’s iconic propaganda.

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  • OK Computer

    How digital graphics remade the material world

    IMAGE OBJECTS: AN ARCHAEOLOGY OF COMPUTER GRAPHICS. BY JACOB GABOURY. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2021. 312 pages. 

    JURASSIC PARK, the 1993 blockbuster sensation, contains a sly, almost Velázquezian instance of mise en abyme. In the eponymous theme park’s futuristic genomics lab and control room, scientists fabricate the ultimate prehistoric spectacle using desktop computers, software applications, and file systems manufactured by the real-life Silicon Graphics, Inc. (SGI). These prominently featured SGI workstations don’t just play an essential role in the film’s narrative structure—allowing for plot

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  • Direct Action

    Carmen Winant’s lessons in looking

    INSTRUCTIONAL PHOTOGRAPHY: LEARNING HOW TO LIVE NOW, BY CARMEN WINANT. London: SPBH Editions, 2021. 119 pages.

    “LET ME PAUSE HERE to say that ‘instructional photographs’ is a term that I have made up; there is no preexisting dedicated category for this kind of picture,” writes artist Carmen Winant in her slim, pocketable book Instructional Photography: Learning How to Live Now. On the opposite page, a woman gingerly pulls hardened plaster from her face; culled from a photographic “how-to” on mask-making, the black-and-white image has been shorn of captions and context, extricated from the words

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  • SMALL PRESS

    Domenick Ammirati on Isolarii

    IN THE FUTURE, there will be no writing; we will communicate solely like bees through TikTok dances. In the interim, during the slow/fast glide toward the desuetude of the written word, attention spans dwindle, readers seem to cathect increasingly onto texts the length of a caption, and people like myself pen mournful eulogies that may reasonably be labeled “tl;dr.”

    The new subscription-based press Isolarii is experimenting with a cunning strategy for attracting readers to medium-length reading: It makes books with pages the size of the display on a second-generation iPhone SE. The design is a

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  • Dirty Laundry

    Sophie Calle lodges in your mind

    THE HOTEL, BY SOPHIE CALLE. Catskill: Siglio Press, 2021. 243 pages. 

    THE ENGLISH EDITION, now out from Siglio, of Sophie Calle’s seminal photographic essay, The Hotel (1984), boasts a cover with a florid design and gilded lettering, which suggest preciousness and the idea of hospitality as genteel comfort. Yet the French artist ruthlessly unpacks such notions in the series—quite literally, since she made it while working as a chambermaid at a Venetian inn, raiding and photographing private articles left by guests in the rooms and by opening their luggage. The list of Calle’s playful transgressions

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  • Duchamp and Circumstance

    Taking a page from Duchamp’s master plan

    MARCEL DUCHAMP, BY ROBERT LEBEL WITH MARCEL DUCHAMP, ANDRÉ BRETON, AND H. P. ROCHÉ. New York: Hauser & Wirth Publishers, 2021. 252 pages. 

    TOWARD THE END of his life, in 1966, Marcel Duchamp was asked why he had never had a solo exhibition in his native France. “I don’t know. I never understood. I think it’s a question of money,” he replied. “The dealers have nothing to gain from me. . . The museums are run, more or less, by the dealers.”

    This candor was calculated, all part of Duchamp’s schtick. Since the mid-1920s—after a terrifyingly productive decade in which he reimagined Cubist painting,

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  • Breaking Dawn

    David Graeber and David Wengrow’s new history of humanity

    THE DAWN OF EVERYTHING, BY DAVID GRAEBER AND DAVID WENGROW. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 704 pages.

    ONE OF THE MAIN PROPOSITIONS that David Graeber and David Wengrow put forth in The Dawn of Everything, their bracing rewrite of human history, is that the ancestors of our prehistory were not simple, unthinking clods, but rather self-conscious, idiosyncratic social organizers, living through a “carnival parade of political forms.” Today we might use words like “anarchist,” “communist,” “authoritarian,” or “egalitarian” to describe their activity, but that language fails to represent

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  • Time Transfixed

    Searching for Magritte in a Magritte-filled world

    MAGRITTE: A LIFE, BY ALEX DANCHEV, WITH SARAH WHITFIELD. New York, New York: Pantheon, 2021. 480 pages.

    “RENÉ MAGRITTE is the single most significant purveyor of images to the modern world.” Such is the bold claim that launches Alex Danchev’s biography of the painter. Danchev, who died before completing the volume, goes on to name Magritte’s many collectors and admirers, a list that includes Jeff Koons, Yoko Ono, Paul McCartney, and John Berger, as well as highlighting his role in bringing “the frisson of the surreal to Madison Avenue.” It is a small irony, then, that the work of an artist who,

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  • Surface Zero

    Another view of Kikuji Kawada’s Hiroshima

    KIKUJI KAWADA, CHIZU (MAQUETTE EDITION). London and New York, New York: MACK and The New York Public Library, 2021. 272 pages.

    EARLY IN JULY 1958, the Japanese photographer Kikuji Kawada, then aged twenty-five and a staffer at the weekly magazine Shukan Shincho, visited Hiroshima for a cover story to run in the month following. He was there to photograph another photographer, Ken Domon, whose book Hiroshima had been published in the spring. Among Domon’s subjects: the scarred bodies of survivors of the atomic-bomb attack of August 6, 1945, and the skeletal dome of the city’s riverside industrial

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  • Glitter In the Air

    Jesse Dorris on Tabboo! 1982–1988

    Tabboo!, Tabboo! 1982–1988. New York: Gordon Robichaux/Karma Books, 2021. 140 pages.

    ONCE UPON A TIME in the early 1980s, New York City’s East Village was cheap and scary, a petrified forest of desiccated industry. Among the ruins, fantastic creatures built worlds of fantasy and devised strategies to survive. They made themselves at home. One of these creatures was Stephen Tashjian, who had come to New York with a gaggle of friends, each full of promise, after graduating from the Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. Some were photographers: Mark Morrisroe, the prolific punk, and Jack Pierson,

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