Kjartansson’s lesson in bonding from Iceland

The vistors

© Ragnar Kjartansson; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and i8 Gallery, Reykjavik.

The most astonishing fact about the European Cup drama  was not that England lost but that a tenth of Iceland’s 330,000 population had been at the game.  “It’s a small place ” said a couple from Reykjavik who managed to get tickets to the sell-out match at the last minute. They knew one of the players. The ability to relax the grip on their egos  for the sake of a bigger enterprise is a key lesson to be learnt from the cool, yet warm, Icelanders.(see my previous post on the Vasulkas)

Next month MI art lovers will have a chance to experience the kind of selfless bonding that secured Iceland’s win by spending time in the multi screen film installation The Visitors  at the Barbican Art Gallery. Devised by the Icelandic artist, Ragnar Kjartansson, this is an hour long music video (of sorts) with a compelling message about gender identity. You are drawn into that strange empathy that musical ensembles must embody, harder to achieve in this set up as the musicians are all in different rooms. In the subtlest possible of ways Kjartansson  physically manipulates his audience into a position of community solidarity, something we could all do with at the moment. I do not wish to spoil the surprise of how he achieves this, so my full review will wait until after the opening on July 14.  Go see.

Multi-lingualism challenges Brexit xenophobia at the Wellcome Collection

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This is a Voice at the Wellcome Collection

The Wellcome Collection always takes a a novel approach to educating us by including moving image artworks in their exhibitions often located at differing points on the artistic/documentary spectrum. This is a Voice covers both scientific and aesthetic understandings of vocalisation in all its forms. It could easily take 3-4 hours to absorb all its subtleties but if you just want to focus on the MI artworks these are my highlights.  The importance of a diversity of voices and languages was reinforced by these works, a feature of Britain decried by Farage and the Brexiteers who have shamefully exploited this issue.

Asta Groeting, The Inner Voice, 16 years, 1999-2015

The standout work in this exhibition, it explores the role of the internal and external voice in reassurance at times of crisis. An intense, poignant and thought provoking film scripted by Groeting that records performances in 1999 and 2015 by her collaborator, the native American ventriloquist, Buddy Big Mountain, being counselled by his dummy. Groeting has sculpted a latex babushka-style dummy with a headscarf and a bold, frank face. She is given the role of a calm and wise mentor responding warmly to the ventriloquist’s angst. We know that this is illusory but we do not entirely suspend our disbelief and are compelled to perceive the process as self analysis. There is a deep level of irony (but also profundity) in watching a ventriloquist voice the comforting tones of his dummy while his face expresses his troubled emotions. I’m left pondering the value of a comforting voice in our heads when  self doubt descends on us. Self talk of this type is one of the key CBT techniques for treating depression but I’m not sure that the tone of voice you “hear” has been given much attention. The artist’s website, gives access to many of her videos including this one.

Marcus Coates, Dawn Chorus , 2007

I came out of this multi screen video installation  intrigued by Marcus Coates’  belief in humans’ affinity with birds. We are initially surrounded by individuals many of whom appear resting in contemplation.  One by one they burst into sporadic birdsong and then sink back into repose. We are in the midst of a diverse group of people role-playing the bird’s dawn chorus.

I first encountered him in  a video as a  lone West Ham supporter in the wilds of  Epping Forest chanting at full throttle.  His performance videos have seen him inhabiting a bird persona cloaked in a mass of feathers. It sounds strange but ultimately he is celebrating our common ancestry  with these indefatigable yet vulnerable creatures.

Chris Chapman, Voice and Identity, 2016 

This was fascinating. A trans-man and a trans-woman alternately describe straight to camera the changes in voice required to make a convincing transition from one gender to the other. They are full of humour about the stereotypical conventions that they are impelled to observe. Makes you think about  where our voices come from; are they learnt or inherited?

Meredith Monk, Dolmen Music, 1981.

The vocal sounds produced here are like no other I’d heard before. It is an excerpt from a video available on Youtube which records a complete performance of this remarkable work. She orchestrates the five voices and a cello like a string ensemble and the performers’ interactions are complemented by the visual cues they give each other. It was a revelation to hear what can happen when the voice becomes released from the conventions of classical choral technique. You realise how Bjork got her inspiration.

Erik Bunger, The Allens, 2004

With the Brexit vote this work has added significance. We see Woody Allen delivering a typical monologue to camera but his own voice is interleaved with dubbed versions in a range of European languages sometimes simultaneously. Through this multi-linguistic cacophony, Woody Allen’s idiosyncratic personality can still be acutely perceived…

VR art: return to Disneyland or breaking the fourth wall?

Still from VR artwork, The Styx, courtesy of Gazelli Art House and the artists, Antoon Verbeeck and Filip Sterckx

Enter Through the Headset

Gazelli Art House, Dover Street  until 25 June

On my first visit to Disneyland LA in 1978, the animatronics and holography were eye-scorchingly advanced. The Phantom Manor and Pirates of the Caribbean “experiences” cut through my 22 year old cynicism and I revelled like a kid in the  visual playground. But I also felt a certain smugness at the expensive technology Disney had marshalled just for our pleasure. Now that access to high tech computer technology is no longer the preserve of the media corporations, artists have begun to explore its potential. Judging by the inventiveness of the three VR works in this exhibition this genre of MI art is managing to avoiding the lure of Disneyfication and map out a revolutionary new direction in the use of technology.

Veil – Iain Nicholls and Tom Szirtes

The fourth wall* seems to disappear when we don a VR headset. But this work modestly reminds us that Velasquez got there first. We enter a virtual gallery and are faced with grandmaster signature works, including Las Meninas, often cited as the world’s best ever painting. Among other things, it is a self-portrait of Velasquez standing at a canvas too huge to set on an easel. With his palette and brush ready, his penetrating gaze transfixes the viewer. We are  the subject of his painting. Seeing it at the Prado in Madrid I felt absorbed into the paintings space. It was like falling into Alice’s rabbit hole where your perceptions seem strangely skewed, a feat achieved four centuries ago without the aid of VR.  With your headset on you have entered a high tech, virtual world looking at a real painting that creates its own virtual world using old school techniques.

There is a second phase of this work where we experience a replay of the notorious scene of the train advancing headlong on the audience of the early Lumiere Brother’s film but this time the train does actually smash through the screen and hurtles past you. This sophisticated yet elegantly simple work is a terrific arty in-joke and a telling commentary on the history of the fourth wall that only VR could achieve. The homage to these two seminal artworks was a masterstroke.

The Styx – SkullMapping  (Antoon Verbeeck and Filip Sterckx).

I can hear the call of the fairground roister man.

“Roll up, roll up. Experience the final journey from your death to the afterlife. Meet the ferryman, Charon, with his bottomless eyes who will take your coin that guarantees you the ride. Recoil in horror at the lost souls languishing in the water as your boat carries you across the River Styx.  Feel the chill of the cavern deep below the earth and the icy water dripping on you from its roof. Feel the heat of the breath of the three headed monster, Cerberus, as your ferryman defeats him to carry you to your repose in Hades. Roll up, roll up”.

Who could resist? Terrific experience. Hard work for the assistant who provided the real-time tactile effects, though. This VR experience should be given as therapy to all those suffering from a phobia of death. The ferryman is a quite a comforting figure, much less judgemental than St Peter with his tally of good and bad deeds. You just need that coin.

 Nature Abstraction –Matteo Zamagni

The abstract coral like formations and wave like swirls were sensibly leavened with some figurative emblems, human and animal figures briefly glimpsed and disembodied eyes enmeshed in a gloriously coloured tapestry. This type of VR art could be the way to kick start the abstract art movement which sometimes feels a bit moribund at the current time

This was my first visit to this gallery which originated in Baku, Azeberjan and their focus on encouraging young artists to exploit new technology is very heartening to see.

*Thanks to David Blandy who has raised this important question in his latest short film- A Tutorial on Ideas  http://davidblandy.co.uk/films/

John Smith: the tunnel at the end of the light

DARK-LIGHT- J.SmithJ.Smith

The four films in this show at Kate McGarry Gallery in Shoreditch were among the best I have seen in the last year. Funny and moving, executed with a fierce intelligence and exquisite visual style, it set me scurrying to find what else he had produced. The Black Tower and The Girl Chewing Gum were equally riveting and are available as part of a comprehensive 3 DVD overview of his works released in 2011.

The one that had a most personal impact was White Hole (2014). This looped monochrome animation is a journey from the darkness of a tunnel to the light at its exit. The blinding whiteness as we emerge fills the screen but we spot a pinprick in the distance that enlarges as we move forwards eventually forming the tunnel entrance  and so on ad infinitum.  This visual trick on its own  might be a metaphor for the “big bang” and its theoretical reversal the “big squeeze” where the universe become compressed  again to a point of its original singularity before the cycle begins again. But his commentary takes us in a very different direction.

We hear Smith’s reflections on the lack of consumer visual culture in pre-glasnost Communist bloc countries following a  visit to Poland in 1980. He notices how shopping becomes humanised as without a window display you have to enter the shop to find out what they sell. I had similar reflections following a trip to Moscow in the same year. The monolithic state imposed an austere uniformity on consumption. The smudgy green neon signs in identical style above the shopfronts indicated the type of foodstuffs sold there –  “Meat” or “Bread”. The absence of the technicolour diversity of western consumerism was uncanny but somehow relaxing. Yet the people Smith met were yearning for Thatcher-style consumerist freedom.

Smith’s film captures this dichotomy perfectly.  When the political and the visual converge as tellingly as this, something bigger than both is generated. It is no longer a question of East vs West, capitalism vs communism or consumerist choice vs monopoly conformity. We enter the realms of a deeper wisdom touching on the impossibility of resolution or equilibrium. “There is no light at the end of the tunnel- only another tunnel” as Smith’s Polish friends remark.  I was reminded of this type of circularity in political evolution when I walked round the Olympic Park in 2012. Corporate sponsors  had a monopoly within the Park ensuring that only their brand was on offer. Beer meant Heineken, burgers meant McDonald’s. The ultimate success of capitalism mimics communism. Corporate monopoly had replaced state monopoly.